An Interview with Pamela Z

Photo credit: Goran Vejvoda

Pamela Z is a composer/performer and media artist making works for voice, electronic processing, samples, gesture-activated MIDI controllers, and video. She has toured throughout the US, Europe, and Japan. Her work has been presented at venues and exhibitions including Bang on a Can (NY), the Japan Interlink Festival, Other Minds (SF), the Venice Biennale, and the Dakar Biennale. She has composed scores for dance, film, and chamber ensembles (including Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird). Her awards include the Rome Prize, United States Artists, the Guggenheim, Doris Duke Artist Impact Award, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and the Herb Alpert Award.


You’re working on a number of projects right now. Can you share any of what you’ve got coming up with us?

Lots. So, as you probably know, one of the things that I’ve just completed recently is a piece for the Prototype Festival in New York called Times³ (Times x Times x Times) and it’s a 30-minute fixed media sound work that is designed to be experienced on headphones either taking a walk in Times Square or just sitting in the comfort of your home and listening. It’s part of the Prototype Festival and it was supposed to end on January 16, but they extended it. It’s now extended through the end of this month (to February 28), which means that you now have another chance to listen.

Right now I’m working on trying to finish the tracks for a CD I’m going to release very soon.

Other live things that I have coming up include a couple of concerts. In addition to Times3, which is still available to be listened to, I have a couple of different performances coming up. This month, a chamber ensemble called fivebyfive is performing my piece 20 Answers. I’m going to give a live-streaming concert via Princeton University. I’m giving another livestreaming lecture next month presented by the University of Maryland, and I’m doing a livestream performance also presented by the University of Maryland on April 1st. Then I have a ton of other things that are just accessible ongoing online.

Another sound piece that I recently made that’s also still available online is called Simultaneous. It was a fixed media version of my Rome Prize Project, Simultaneous, which is ultimately also going to be a performance work. For now it’s available to be listened to on Deutschlandradio’s website. The first three or four minutes of the broadcast are the host commenting (in German) about my work, and inserting a few quotes from an interview he did with me. Then it launches into the work.

How did you end up in San Francisco?

It’s kind of a lifetime ago, but I moved to San Francisco after having visited a couple of different times. I first visited San Francisco when I was still at the University of Colorado at Boulder in my last year of music school there. I visited San Fransicco then, and then I visited a few more times in the years following that and at some point I made the decision. It just felt like it was calling me in terms of there being a really great contemporary music, experimental music, and performance scene, and it seemed to me like the place I was supposed to be. So I just made the choice to move to San Francisco, and I moved here in the mid-1980s.

Photo cedit: Valerie Oliveiro

Talking about the experimental music scene, you’ve worked with fellow sound artists like Donald Swearingen, you hosted intermedia Z Programs, and now you’re doing work with ensembles like Kronos Quartet. Has your approach to collaboration changed over time?

I guess it just differs depending on who I’m working with and the nature of the collaboration. Sometimes it’s more collaborative in the sense of being equal collaborators on making a piece. Like I’ve done a couple pieces where I was working with a video artist and I was composing the music and they were creating the projected installation that the performance would occur within. Other times it’s been not so much as a collaboration but more of a “work-for-hire” kind of thing or a commission where I’ve been asked by an ensemble or a choreographer, or a filmmaker or someone to compose music for a piece that’s essentially their work, and I’m making the music score for it. And then there have been times when I was making something that I felt needed the work of other people involved so I would hire — for example — a chamber ensemble to play a work if I was making a new work for my voice, electronics, and chamber ensemble that I had conceived of having various parts. And I would write the parts for those people and they would play the music that I wrote. So, there are different levels or layers of how much or how little collaboration is involved and I think it’s not so much that my way of collaboration changes over time, as that my way of collaboration changes from piece to piece depending on the nature of that work.

What’s feeding you as a creative person these days?

In a way it’s the same as always. I always make it a point to see other people’s work, and in these sort of lockdown times it’s been odd because I have not been going to see any art in person. Just as I have been giving a lot of online appearances, performances, talks different things like that, I’ve also been attending loads of them and I’m finding inspiration in a lot of people’s works including other composer/performers or composers who just write music for ensembles or other people to play, and also dance and dance theatre companies. So I’m seeing a lot of things that are inspiring to me. But it is a little bit of a strange time because we’re all sort of more reflecting inwardly, in a way because we’re just isolated from each other. So I’ve been just doing my best to kind of get caught up on the things I want to make and the things I want to start doing and just trying to get the wheels turning on that because I’ve been very, very busy with commissioned works. I’ve been really enjoying making sound works that take advantage of the sort of aural spectrum of spacialized sound and juxtaposition of interesting sounds, and working, as I often do, with speech sounds. I continue to be inspired by that kind of work.

Photo credit: Kimberly Young

Talking about speech sounds, what drew you to voice and kept you in that medium?

I think people just gravitate towards what’s meaningful to them, what works for them, and what they have a facility with. It was never like a choice. I didn’t wake up one day and say “I think voice is the way to go.” That’s just the world that I was born into, that’s kind of been my nature. I’ve always used my voice, I’ve always been interested in voice, and I’ll always be fascinated by the variety of sounds that the voice produces and the breadth of ways in which voice can be used. Also exploring this kind of interesting intersection between the ability to express literal things with voice, versus making sound that is simply sound with voice, and finding the intersections and the balance between those things. It’s not like a choice I made, it’s just what I am.

In addition to your voice, you use a setup that has evolved and changed. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re currently using on stage?

The interesting thing is that the setup I use really has a thread that goes all the way back to what I’ve been using since the early 1980s with the big difference being that in the late 90s I ported everything over from being done in hardware to being done in software.

If you see me perform, you’ll see me with a MacBook Pro on a computer stand. If I’m performing in a situation where I’m able to use projected image, I will often have two MacBook Pros: one that is running a software called Max/MSP, and the other one running a software called Isadora. The Isadora machine is running all the video, and the Max machine is what I’m using for the majority of the audio. On that MacBook Pro, the Max one, it has sort of a system of Max patches that I have been using for a very long time, but that have slowly been developing over time. I add things to them as needed, but it’s a system that I consider to be my instrument basically — the combination of those electronics and my voice. It’s a set of patches that includes a stack of digital delay lines which are very much mimicking the hardware digital delays that I used to have in an actual rack before I was using Max, and some plug-ins for different things like pitch-shifting, granular synthesis, and reverb.

Then I also have built into that patch various interfaces to set up the parameters for the gesture controllers that I use, which are these MIDI instruments that are either wearable or I can relate to them physically with gestures. They involve sensors and I can adjust in my software what those sensors are looking for, and what the MIDI messages that come from them are controlling. You’ll usually see me with a Neumann microphone on a mic stand, and also I’m often wearing a DPA headset microphone. The mics are entering via this audio interface that’s called the MOTU, or Mark of the Unicorn, UltraLite. The sound goes in through that and then communicates with the computer via a FireWire cable (if you can remember that protocol) and of course now it has to have an adapter to get to the ports that are available on the computer now.

Then I have a set of controllers. If you count the camera, I have four different gesture controllers that I use in performances. Those are these hand-worn ones that are called Mimn, and they have gyro, accelerometer, and magnetometer that look for the X,Y, and Z axises of my hand movements. Then I have one called Ute which is an ultrasound controller that uses actual ultrasound to look for mass, so it’s looking for the size and distance of my hands. I’m using another one that is an infrared controller called Mira. It has four sensors on it that are looking for the proximity of my hands and it uses infrared light for that. In addition to that, I have some pieces where I’m just using the built-in camera on my other MacBook Pro as a sensor to control video.

In some performances I use video and if so there’s generally at least one projector, if not more than one projector, involved and these are receiving signal from my second MacBook Pro that’s running the software called Isadora.

Photo credit: Thomas Steenland

In your work you encourage audience interaction. How has COVID changed that aspect of people interacting with your works?

I can give you an example of how I’ve been able to continue with that. The most recently completed piece, Times³ (Times x Times x Times), was part of the Prototype Festival and it was a collaboration with a theatre artist called Geoff SobelIe. I made a 30-minute sound work which is designed to be listened to through headphones. This is delivered to people via streaming online. They can then put their headphones on and, if they’re in New York, they can go for a walk in Times Square because the piece is sort of about Times Square and they can listen to it there. Or, almost better I think, they can just sit in the comfort of their homes, wear a really good pair of headphones, relax, close their eyes and just listen to the piece. But there’s one section of the piece that actually requests of the listener that they listen to the sound around them and then try to reproduce some of that sound vocally.

I’ve checked with people — whenever somebody says “Oh I enjoyed your piece,” I always say “Ooh! Did you make sound?” and several of them say that they did. One person said that she listened to it twice. The first time she listened to it she was out on her bicycle and she didn't make sound, but then she listened again when she was somewhere stationary and she did make sound. It’s sort of fun. I wish that I could be a fly on the wall or on the side of a building when someone is listening to it and see how people are engaging with that part of the piece. That’s one section of a recent piece that — in spite of our situation — has involved some active participation on the part of the audience.

Where’s the craziest place your art has taken you (or something wild that has happened because of your art)?

One kind of weird gig of pops into mind. It was in London and I was asked to be in a festival called, I believe, the Colorfield Music Festival and I had no idea what this was. It took place in a park somewhere in London and I had to make my way there with all my gear and get to this gig. It turns out that this festival took place in this — I don't know a better way to describe it except that it was like a bright, primary color, inflatable, almost like a bounce castle. It had all these corridors and people would walk through. It was made out of this nylon fabric with all of these corridors or chutes — it was like a maze but it was inflatable in a park. And you would walk in and you would go down different corridors and they had different colors of nylon and the sun was shining through so you were sort of bathed in orange, and then in blue, and then in lavender. I don’t know — like an adult carnival ride. I don’t know what to call it. An “experience.” But they inexplicably thought that a good addition to that would be to have contemporary music people playing music in there. So they stationed us at various junctures of this strange environment. I had to set up all my gear and plug in and perform inside of this weird, inflatable nylon thing and then people just sort of wandered through. That was a very strange gig and unexpected.

How can we keep up with you?

I have a little quarterly publication called PZ Gazzetta where I list upcoming things, and also I publish a story chronicling what I’ve been up to, and art that I’ve been seeing that I’ve found interesting. In the times when I could travel it would always talk about where I’d been traveling. Now I’ve been doing all my traveling from this seat right here. There are also details about the events and links to how to get to them.


See the links below for more examples of Pamela Z’s work!





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