While Pamela Z is often described as a vocalist or performance artist, the terms hardly capture the nature of her art.
Using her lush, classically trained voice, live electronic processing, the occasional found object and samples triggered with a MIDI controller called the BodySynth, she is a sound sculptor, a sonic explorer, an aural architect. Creating loops so that she can accompany herself with own voice, she seems to pull sounds out of thin air with her graceful, tai chi-like vocabulary of hand and arm movements, building musical collages that play with language, or that simply explore the shape of sound.
Based in San Francisco, Z has created a number of large scale multi-media works, such as "Parts of Speech" and "Gaijin," and has collaborated across various disciplines, recording and performing original scores for film and video artists and choreographers. She has toured internationally and performed in numerous festivals, including ones in Japan and Germany and Bang On A Can at Lincoln Center. Her audio installations have been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Erzbischfliches Dizesanmuseum in Cologne. But it's as a solo performer that her strangely beautiful sonic creations are best experienced.
Z performs Thursday at the San Jose Museum of Art as part of the members-only opening of "Parallels and Intersections: Art/Women/California 1950 -- 2000," an ambitious exhibit that includes her work among 90 other female artists. She is also featured Saturday and June 28 at the Electric Words festival at Venue 9 in San Francisco.
Part of what makes Z's work so compelling is that, even at their most abstract, her pieces have a song-form sensibility. The words may set a scene, suggest an idea or transform a list, such as song titles that start with "you," into an evocative text. Or Z may forgo words altogether and build soundscapes out of long sustained notes, loops and sampled noises. Either way, the pieces feel like self-contained tales.
"When I first started working with digital delays, there was almost a verse/chorus structure that a lot of my pieces tended to take," Z says. "I would start by creating some kind of loop and sing something over the top of that or pronounce some text and then alternate between that and adding something to the loop. In my mind, there's still a connection to song format."
Z, who changed her name from Pam Brooks when she moved to San Francisco in 1984, grew up in the Denver area and was the kind of kid who created her own "radio" shows on a cassette recorder. She played guitar and viola and sang in various choirs in high school. While working toward a music degree at the University of Colorado, she began performing as a singer/songwriter, accompanying herself on guitar (she cites Joni Mitchell as an influence).
She supported herself working in clubs for a number of years and also hosted a public radio show focusing on avant garde and experimental music. When she found herself in a creative rut, unable to break out of standard chord patterns, she discovered a new path from an unexpected source. One night in the early '80s she went to a Weather Report concert at a time when the jazz-fusion band featured the electric bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. During a solo, he used a digital delay to play a bass duet with himself, and Z had a musical epiphany.
"Something hit me, like if I had that device I could probably do really interesting things with my voice," Z says. "So I went out and bought a digital delay unit and started playing with it, and that was an incredibly pivotal moment in my life as a composer, because I began thinking very differently about sound.
"At first I tried to do what he did, but I didn't know what I was doing, so other things came out instead.
"I realized that with just this one digital delay there was this vast potential. It didn't just have the vocabulary that most people associate with digital delay of echo-echo. In fact you could build all these layers and do counterpoint and so much other stuff."
While digital delays are still one of Z's key tools, she has continued to adopt new technologies since moving to the Bay Area. While many electronic musicians haven't cultivated a performance aesthetic, Z is a riveting visual presence.
At a recent solo performance at Dominican College in San Rafael, she stood at the front of the stage dressed in black, her dreadlocks piled high at the back of her head, held in place by two lacquered chop sticks. Using the phrase "all aboard" as a mantra, she captured the experience of riding on a bus or train. With her arms moving rhythmically in a chugging motion, she triggered snippets of conversation, traffic noise and various indecipherable sounds, conjuring an urban fugue in the darkened auditorium.
Where: San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St.
Also: 8 p.m. Saturday and June 28; Venue 9, 252 Ninth St., San Francisco;