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Santa Barbara News-Press

June 5, 2006 12:00 AM


The lighter side of serious

Santa Barbara News-Press


For some reason, contemporary art music -- what many still refer to as "new music" -- still gets a bad rep, and keeps wider audiences at bay. In fact, much of this music specifically aims at taking the sting of seriousness out of "serious music," an attitude espoused by groups including the California EAR Unit, NYC's Bang on a Can (which had its legendary marathon this past weekend) and eighth blackbird (appearing at this weekend's Ojai Music Festival).

It was that more easy-to-love, accessible and sometimes humorous corner of new music which took over Center Stage Theater on Friday and Saturday, when San Francisco-based performer-composer-electronics artist Pamela Z made her local debut. Her appearance was connected to the ongoing Iridian Arts Series of music and dance events, organized by violinist Robin Cox, whose own Ensemble also performed on the bill.

This double bill was made doubly coherent by a thematic undercurrent, intentionally or otherwise, in that both acts are essentially are working from cultural energies created in the 1970s, updated and evolved. Z's turning point was the discovery of the digital delay and the idea of repeating, looping and layering sounds, which grew out of experiments with tape loops from the '60s and '70s, and which she has now elevated to a sophisticated art form, with the help of her laptop, mixer, foot pedals and the motion-oriented "BodySynth" which triggers incidents based on her dance-like gestures.

In Cox's case, his Ensemble is unapologetically grounded in the minimalism which first exploded into wide public view -- and helped to make the "new music" boom possible -- with the work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich in the '70s. The one Cox original on the program, "Faster Than That, Movement 1," is brisk bustling, and clearly with a Reich-ian quality, in the harmonic movement and the intricate clockwork score.

One of the evening's moments of comic relief came courtesy of Phillip Bimstein's "Garland Hirschi's Cows," which -- again like Reich -- mixes bouncy ensemble writing and carefully fragmented snippets of recorded speech. In this case, the speaker is farmer Hirschi and the subject is bovine in nature, from the cattleman's and the cow's perspectives.

The Ensemble also gave the world premiere of young composer Ryan Brown's "Big Dig," asserting African-minimalist verve through shifting patterns and meters, while percussionist Erik Mellencamp's partly-improvised parts on the West African djembe pushes the ensemble sound beyond the western classical realm. The tonal palette is limited, as rhythm rules here, and Marty Walker issued a few teasing free jazz-like bursts of clarinet mayhem, suggesting a refreshing coloring-outside-lines moment in music where lines are important.

Several of the pieces from Z's generous set were from her 2004 compilation album "A Delay is Better" (Starkland), including the alluring semi-techno, quasi-native "Bone Music" and the hypnotic joke piece "Pop Titles You," in which she reads a long list of pop song title beginning with the word "You" (i.e. "You Tell It Like It Is, George Jones" and "You Tell Me Your Dream, I'll Tell You Mine") over layers of the word "you."

Building upon layers is the central idea in Z's work, as she creates and edits digital loops on the spot and then sings, speaks or grunts over the top of her phantom ensemble.

In a piece from a larger work about the experience of being a foreigner -- inspired by a residency in Japan -- Z constructed a dizzy tapestry of layers based on the word "other," including visual projections of official forms asking for racial information. "Which box should I mark on the form?," she sings, in what amounts to the leitmotif of the piece, "should I mark other?" From her large work "Voci," Z performed a brief section in which technical manipulations drew correlations between her own human voice and birdsong.

Z roped the Robin Cox Ensemble into the sonic action on a new piece called "Six Degrees of Non-Sequitorization." The instrumentalists supplied scattered, asynchronous chatter, resembling the bubbling nature of her looping sounds.

On top of that, Z recited a rambling text in which her seemingly free associated comments slyly looped around (the looping reference keeps popping up in her work). She spoke of the American Robin, composer Carter Burwell, bassist Erik Friedlander, the film "Marty" and around again to the "eric" tucked into the phrase "American Robin." In other words, it's a compositional "six degrees of . . . " game, the sort she could turn into a series, if she weren't so busy pursuing multiple directions and ideas.

While Z's work can be intriguing on record, the dimension of live performance is the real deal, a much deeper and truer forum for what makes her work special. Z transcends the kind of dry, hermetic nature of much electronic music, by adding elements of dancer, performance artists, digital shaman, and generally charismatic stage presence.

She duly reminds us of the importance of the live real time event, an element as rooted in ancient culture as it is in any kind of new music enterprise.

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