Since the early 1980s, Pamela Z (“Z” is her legal last name, no period, no point, just “Z”) has been manipulating voices, both hers and others, into patchwork plications.
She strives to conflate the theoretical discourse of her classical vocal training with experimental recording techniques, creating short modular segments that are unified and held together by “sonic or thematic glue.”
“I don’t know if I can give a reason,” she said of her affinity for short and segmented compositions, “but maybe it’s because I just really like combining various things. ... I wouldn’t call it fragmented — it’s more like having a song cycle. Layers and textures are almost comfortable to me.”
Hers is a unique style of composition: while she expresses adulation for the David Byrne-Brian Eno collaboration “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1981), an album that influenced her, she explained how her music is not a product of studio tinkering, as was the Byrne-Eno work.
Pamela Z records vocals live and layers them, over and over. For a piece she composed for the Kronos Quartet that debuted in February, Pamela Z recorded sound clips of other people speaking, gathering various accents and dialects and grapholects and imbricating them into a voice collage.
There is no discernible separation between elements — between sound and image, between classical and experimental — in her compositions.
“If you were to visit my studio here in San Francisco, you would see I have a lot of visual art on the walls,” she said. “I kind of don’t draw a line between the sonic practice and the visual practice. I am inspired by the visual arts as much as I am by music and compositions.”
Pamela Z’s comely cuts of language channel Fluxus (a movement derived from Neo-Dada and characterized by a flowing, fluid, “anti-art” aesthetic), according to Philip Blackburn, director of artist services for the American Composers Forum. “She’s a disarmingly intimate presence and a natural virtuoso, and somehow all the disparate elements make sense together,” Blackburn said.
Pamela Z is best-known for her live performances, which she considers the essential way of experiencing her art. “The lighting, makeup, costumes are all meticulous in my live performances. Sometimes they’re more theatrical, sometimes more musical, but there is always an important visual element.”
Her shows are replete with oracular flourishes — facial gestures, hand motions, an affable assimilation of sight and sound. Her histrionic Baggage Allowance, an amalgamation of sculptural elements and processed vocals assiduously layered, employs several staples of Pamela Z’s arsenal — what she calls her “little station of gear”: her BodySynth, a MIDI control pad that translates body movements into sounds; two Mac Book Pros; and one microphone.
For her debut performance at the Spoleto Festival, Pamela Z will make use of single-channel video projections, but the performance will be mostly musical, fitting in with the festival’s Music in Time series — 75-minute performances that “explore the vibrancy and power of contemporary music.”
“And when the laptop crashes and she has to vamp, she’s just fine waiting for it to reboot and chat in the meantime,” Blackburn said. “She’s the undiva.”
Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts journalist from Syracuse University.