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A few facets of Pamela Z

An interview by Kathy Kennedy

The San Francisco composer-performer shares thoughts about her art, art in general, and women in the field of electroacoustic music.

Cover Photo:
Lori Eanes


The singer has always held a special position in the ranks of musicians. He or she bears the most expressive instrument, possessing the ability to emit words and communicate directly; but at the same time the singer is the most vulnerable performer on stage. Any error is easily identified, auditory and visual cues immediately informing the audience. At the end of the twentieth century technology holds a consecrated position of importance equal to that of the singer. And so, we see the emergence of the female singer embracing the artifice of technology in an ultimately seductive stance. The stage was set by Laurie Anderson and followed by so many others, the Cassandras of our time, merging the body with intuitive knowing and electronic tools.

San Francisco electrodiva Pamela Z has been consistently performing and composing since 1984. She has created a body of work that has earned her the coveted CalArts Alpert Award, a commission for the Bang On A Can Allstars, and frequent appearances in international new music festivals. In performance, she creates layered works combining operatic and extended vocal techniques with a battery of digital delays, found percussion objects, and sampled sounds triggered with a MIDI controller called The BodySynth™ which allows her to manipulate sound with physical gestures. Upon her recent return from a residency in Japan we shared a conversation on the nature of song, and of singing with technology.

KATHY KENNEDY: Pamela ZĐ Composer, performer, singer, sound engineer ...

PAMELA Z: …and grantwriter!

KK: Yes, they're all merged, aren't they? I wonder if you can dissect it a bit. Do you see yourself fundamentally as singer or composer?

PZ: As singer and as a composer. The essence of what I do straddles so many different things. It sounds pretentious to have such a long title, but I want to develop ideas that can't be expressed by just singing. Meredith Monk solves it by having her own ensemble, for which she creates all kinds of wild textures. I accomplish it by having a rack of processors. As a singer I'm able to perform the works I compose, but as a composer I require more than just a single voice.

KK: Do you ever start recording with a completely blank slate?

PZ: I have on occasion, and usually those are the best. But there are always so many backlogged projects to doĐ I'm always touring and performing so I never set aside enough time to just record new material. IÕd like to take off maybe three months to do that, but you just canÕt make a living sitting at home and recording.

KK: Should we call your pieces songs? Tell me bout your relationship to song.

PZ: That opens up the confusing question of what is song. I remember when I first started doing more experimental work with voice and electronics, I would refer to each little work as a "piece". And before that, when I was playing guitar, I was calling each little work a "song" and a friend called me on it and said "why don't you just call it a song? Because that's what it is." It seemed like a different world to me than when I was just doing guitar and vocals. I felt like my work was in a different realm when I started doing electroacoustic vocal works. I realized that even within the confines of classical music there are songs and there are other forms. What exactly is the song-ness of a song. Is an operatic aria a song? I feel that the word song indicates this little package that is a vocal thing with some accompaniment or not, but that is mainly melodic. When something is structured like that I tend to see it as a song. And when something is structured more like a text-sound piece or a little noise piece or somehow very minimal in its melodic content it doesn't seem so much like a song to me. My work lies in this weird area that is somewhere between those two things. Sometimes it seems more songlike, and sometimes I don't think that's the right word.

KK: Considering you have a classical background, how do you feel about singers without training?

PZ: When I hear an artist, whether or not they're classically trained doesn't seem important. Whatever their background, it has led them to do what they're doing and that's what I focus on. I think that having classical training adds certain colors to the palette, as does having studied Indian singing or any other specific vocal method or style. The term "extended vocal techniques" seems almost Eurocentric in that it assumes that using the voice in the western way is normal and going outside of that is extending it. A Tuvan singer does not think of themselves as using extended technique. They are just singing. It kind of reminds me of how our society sees being white and male as the normal thing and everybody else as the exceptionĐ so that women are just "extended" men!

Being classically trained is just one of the millions of things that you could do if you are interested in exploring the human voice. I feel lucky to have had that training, but a lot of great singers have had no special training and only know the voice that came out of them because of the culture they grew up in and the music they listened to. The more interesting people have listened more. They've heard a lot of things and somehow considered them in the choices they make about voice. I don't see any difference between the violinist from Juilliard and the Appalachian fiddler. They are both artists who have drawn on some kind of musical tradition.

I like formal training because it strengthens me in many ways. I saw what studying at CalArts did for my brother and sister in terms of really focusing their skills, and focusing within a given time period to get things done. But, even before they went to school, both of them were stronger than I am with transcribing because they've been so steeped in pop music since childhood. They've been listening and learning chord progressions and analyzing the bass lines of tunes. When we're in the car listening to the radio, they talk about chord changes and EQ treatments that I didn't pay attention to like they do. Although I did do some of that at certain periods in my life, they could actually write a paper on it. Having focused on an American and British pop music is a kind of schooling that can influence deeply the way a person knows how to organize sound and think about the integrity of a piece from beginning to end in a compositional way.

Formal training means listening to music in a very careful way. Western classical music is just one field among many others, and many people seem to be able to ride on that one alone. But I think most of the interesting music is being done by people who've been trained in varied of schools or traditionsĐ who did more than one thing.

The influences I was clearly aware of were European avantegarde, and European and American pop music (which is now a meaningless term). British invasion rock as a kid, and in the 70's I was a Joni Mitchell head. I started listening to classical music in high school. As a music major in college I was singing opera and art song, but I wasn't totally absorbed in that culture. I was always making my own music, and I was lucky to have one of the only teachers on faculty that permitted me to sing in clubs at night. I went through some confusion when I left school because I couldnÕt figure out how to combine all these vocal styles. I eventually became interested in punk and new wave, and through that discovered some avant garde artists and electronic music people who were combining styles and collaborating across genre lines. Once I started finding my voice as a composer/performer, I was glad that I had that classical training because it allowed me to take my voice places that I probably wouldn't have otherwise.

KK: Do you use technology for any other reason than the obvious practicality of being able to have all those vocal sounds and still be alone on stage? How would a choral arrangement of the same compare with the digital delay version?

PZ: Yes, I have often thought about using a group of voices to make new work inspired by my delay work. I have done a little bit of that with The Qube Chix, and I have some plans to do more. As far as my "reason" for using delays, it's definitely not in an effort to do something I would have otherwise done with a group of voices. Using the delays actually brought about results I wouldn't have thought of without them. I didn't have all these ideas about doing layered vocal pieces and then suddenly think Wow, I could accomplish that really easily if I used digital delays! It was really more like this: I bought a delay, started experimenting with it, and discovered all of these wonderful sounds. When I added more delays to the mix, I discovered even more amazing things. The use of three delays set at different lengths to get polyrhythmic loops is something I discovered quite by accident and now do quite frequently. I don't think I would have ever "stumbled" upon that sound if I had been working with three vocalists, because it's very difficult for musicians to sing at three different tempi. I did try it once with a piece I was doing with Charming Hostess. I never quite got the sound I wanted, but we discovered some other interesting things. I actually enjoy working with voices or other acoustic instruments, but I see them as different instruments than the delays. There is a big difference between the identical repetitions that happen with delay loops and the changing repetitions that humans make. There is also a difference between one person's voice heavily layered and several different voices combining their timbres to make one sound. Both are good. Just different. I actually feel inspired to compose more work for other instruments after having done the commissioned work I did for the Bang on a Can Allstars ("The Schmetterling" 1998).

KK: How much does your voice affect your composition...

PZ: A lot. Because I have composed so many pieces for voice and live processing, my compositional style is informed by the characteristics and capabilities of my own particular vocal instrument, as well as the effects that go along with use of digital delays and samples. When I compose for ensembles with more standard instrumentation, these influences are still evident. I think that the vocal influence has caused me to make works that deal with lyrical lines, timbral exploration, use of breath, articulation, and text.

KK: Would you be interested in writing in the same style for other instruments?

PZ: Yes, I do find it very interesting to do that. When I wrote a piece for the California E.A.R. Unit last year, I took a vocal sample and carried it through all the instruments in the ensemble. I sang the line myself, and I had Amy Knowles triggering a sample of it on her MIDI DrumKat. When I composed the piece for the Bang on a Can folks, I had them speaking some text in hushed tones in one section. I also allowed some of the instrument sounds to carry back into my vocal part. There was a section where I had all the instruments squeal like whiney kittens, and then I later came in with my voice and tried to sound like the strings.

In age we live in, there's a feeling that if you get the right software, then you don't even have to be an artist because the computer will just make the art for you. The fact of the matter is that throughout history, there has never been an instrument or paintbrush that will make art for you. The making of the painting is more than just applying the paint, its knowing once you've got the paint on whether or not its right. Its the combination of the ability to manipulate materials and to discern whether its worthy of someone else's ear. No amount of technology can make someone an artist.

That reminds me of a piece I made with Randall Packer once. He procured a space at MacExpo in the convention centre in San Francisco. There were rows and rows of people selling software and hardware. We took a booth and made a performance piece. We made it look like a real booth, I was wearing a power suit and pumps with a wireless mike and I was demo-ing a product called "Art-o-matic." I was holding a SCSI cable in my hand and waving it as if all you had to do was plug one of these in to make art! Some people actually came up afterwards and asked for more literature!

KK: Could any singer perform of your pieces?

PZ: Anybody who is good at that sort of taking a piece of material that they like and making it their own. There is some material that I've written that has no score, and they would have to learn it the same way you would learn a pop song. They would have to listen to it and decide what is essential and then cover it. I suppose itÕs different from learning a piece by Berio, for which there is a score, and some people will obviously find it easier to do than others. Then there are people like Brian Eno who made Music for Airports, never dreaming that anyone else would ever want to play it. Along came the Bang On a Can All-stars saying "wouldn't it be interesting to cover this material?" and they transcribed all those loops for a chamber ensemble.

A lot of people define a composer as someone who writes music for other people to perform. I think that composing is the creating of a piece of work, not communicating instructions on how to perform it. That's notating. Some composers perform their own works and never need the notated score to communicate it to others. In the classical tradition composing and notating went hand in hand, but that doesn't mean that notating was actually the composing process. Today most writers use wordprocessers which have very little to do with the actual creative part of writing. The tool is not the essence of the work, although it does effect the nature of the work. Its the same with digital sound editing. If I had to get out a razor blade to edit I probably would be less likely to make a change. The kind of tool you use is going to effect some of the choices you make. It affects the work, but it isn't the work. The work is the work. Composition is not about making it easy for someone else to perform the work. That's connected to it, but its not it. For a composer who is not a performer, notation is essential because otherwise the piece couldn't be realized. For a composer who is a performer, notating is not always essential. It never bothered pop music people. When Jose Feliciano did "Light my Fire" he didn't phone Jim Morrison and ask for the score!

KK: In your online keynote address for the Gender and Identity in New Media panel in Brazil in August, 1999 (available on line at, you wrote about women and technology, claiming that women are praised for using their voices in technology, but discouraged from doing anything further.

PZ: It's not so much that we are actively praised for or discouraged from doing anything in particular. It's more that recognition seems to come to those of us who work in specific ways. People seem more enamoured of female voices, or more attached to the idea of the woman as singer, so that when we use our voices as a primary means of expression, we are rewarded and noticed for it. Fewer women seem to get notice for using electronics without voice or for doing work with non-vocal instruments. The point I was making in that article is that people seem to get rewarded for continuing to use the tools they are expected to use, and for women, the "expected" tool is the voice. Therefore you wind up with most of the well-known women in the field being vocalists, even though there are quite a few women doing very compelling non-vocal experimental music.

KK: What about changing around the structure of performance? In other cultures people have different relationships with song. Have you tried that to some extent in your work?

PZ: I managed to use the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco as an instrument. There was a full second of delay from one end to the other. Even though it was a natural phenomenon I had to use electronics in order to illustrate it. I had to have the audience at one end of the Exploratorium, and me at the other end. But if I just stood there and sang, they'd hear my voice but wouldn't know that it was actually a second after I had sung. So I had a mike at my end and a speaker at their end so that the audience could hear the initial voice through the speaker and then the acoustic voice almost a second later.

In Japan I did a keitai (portable) phone piece, because I was alarmed by how many people have mobile phones in Tokyo. People there are more likely to have a phone than not, so I decided to use them in a piece. The score consisted of little pieces of green or pink paper on which each audience member was instructed to write their cell phone number. Someone collected and redistributed them. The pink papers were for first movement, and the green were for the second. When I gave them the cue, they dialed the number on their piece of paper and that resulted in an orchestra of cell phones ringing all at once!

KK: Can you comment on some of the other artists in your field and how they are using technology and why?

PZ: ItÕs interesting how absorbed people are with new technology right now. I think IÕm most interested in artists who are just making good work with whatever tools they choose to use, and not focusing so much on being seduced by the tools themselves. The artists I like range from high to low tech, electronic to acoustic, organic to synthetic etc. There are some artist I am very fond of who use only electronic instruments to play their workĐ Carl Stone and Donald SwearingenĐ and there are others who prefer organic and mechanical instruments. A few years ago, I became enamoured of a composer called Manos Tsangaris from Cologne who creates beautiful, poetic work using a stage full of gadgets and toys that are manipulated with strings and pulleys. He created a strange otherworldly kind of theatre with all of these peculiar objects, a table, and two speaking voices. Even though I work consistently with a lot of modern, digital gear, and I get a lot of inspiration from the strange things that happen when I get new "toys", IÕm really mainly interested in the magicĐ the thing that happens when the strange, lyrical, poetic, or frightening ideas from some artistÕs head come out and make themselves manifest regardless of whether the work is electronic, acoustic, or electro-acoustic.

Kathy Kennedy is a Canadian sound artist currently living in San Francisco. Formally trained in classical singing, her work generally involves voice and issues of interface with technology. Her large-scale sonic installation-performances for up to 100 singers and radio are called "sonic choreographies." She is committed to community and public art, and was the founding director of the digital media resource centre for women, Studio XX, and of the innovative choral groups for women Choeur Maha and Esther. Her article "Guerilla Performance / Radical Radio" appeared in MUSICWORKS 59.


Le travail compositionnel de la diva Žlectro Pamela Z de San Francisco est profondŽment liŽ ˆ ses performances. Ses oeuvres, dans lesquelles de nombreuses couches se superposent, combinent des techniques vocales opŽratiques et non conventionnelles, des dŽlais numŽriques, des objets de percussion trouvŽs et des Žchantillons sonores dŽclenchŽs par un contr™leur MIDI qui lui permet de manipuler le son au moyen des mouvements du corps. Ayant composŽ de nombreuses pices pour voix et traitement de signal en temps rŽel, son approche compositionnelle est fortement marquŽe par sa technique et son style vocal. Ces influences vocales lÕincitent ˆ rŽaliser des oeuvres ou se mlent dŽveloppement lyrique, exploration du timbre et de la respiration, articulation et texte. Ces influences sont Žgalement Žvidentes dans ses oeuvres pour ensemble instrumental plus conventionnel.

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