May 26, 2006 8:20 AM
Plugged in, sounding off
Josef Woodard, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
It's difficult to neatly sum up the multidisciplinary work of San Francisco-based composer-performer Pamela Z, but it's fair to say she has a fiendish way with words, for starters.
Mate that with a sense of adventure and post-modern humor, a stage persona mixing aspects of vocalist (in multiple styles), performance artist and techno wizard (she triggers samples and sounds with her "BodySynth"), and you get a general picture of the unique world of Z.
Ultimately, she is an artist who must be seen and heard live to be believed and/or understood, and local audiences will get their chance next week.
Although she has been expanding an international reputation for many years, Z will be making her Santa Barbara debut Thursday and Friday at Center Stage Theater, which says something about the paucity of attention on new and experimental music in town.
For her debut, part of the Iridian Arts series of concert and dance events, we can thank musician and concert series promoter Robin Cox. Cox's own ensemble will also be performing on the program.
A hallmark of Z's work has been her resourceful means of creating a full and flexible sound in solo settings, with a rare degree of self-reliance.
She has, however, found herself composing for and collaborating with a variety of well-known contemporary chamber ensembles, including the California EAR Unit (which recently played at UCSB), Bang On a Can All-Stars and the all-women ensemble Ethel, with whom she recently appeared at a festival in Fullerton.
Working solo is a comfortable state for her, going back to the '70s when she was a guitar-wielding singer-songwriter, while also studying operatic singing at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"When my work swung more in the direction of experimental music, electro-acoustic music, and performance art in the early 1980s, I still did the bulk of my performances as a solo artist, using voice and digital processing," she says.
Z moved from Boulder to San Francisco in 1984, where, she notes, "there was a much more fertile arts community to support and nurture what I was doing. It was really right around that time when I believe I really found my voice." Part of the distinctive nature of Z's "voice" is her bridging of various worlds, not only in terms of genre but through her deft mixture of natural and electronic components.
"I do feel that a lot of the character of my work is shaped by the combination of the elements I use," Z says. "I definitely think the combination of organic sound sources -- particularly the human voice with electronic processing usually done in such a way as to keep the sound sources recognizable -- makes up the key ingredients of my sonic work."
Asked about any defining moments in finding her artistic sense of self, Z points to her discovery of the digital delay unit. The effect opened her up to expressive possibilities with gadgetry, and with time and space manipulation.
"I was listening to a lot of new music composers like Phil Glass, Bob Ashley and Alvin Lucier as well as artists like Brian Eno and David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and John Zorn," she says, "but I was feeling stunted in my own musical growth and unable to break past a certain point where I was stuck.
"Then one evening, I heard the late Jaco Pastorius using a digital delay to play a looped solo on bass. I immediately thought, 'I really need to get one of those!' The next day, I went out and bought my first digital delay and it literally changed my life. It was really his choice of tools, not so much his actual music, that influenced me."
Beyond tinkering with digital technology for its own sake, Z found that by experimenting with delays, loops and altering musical time, her own sense of vocalizing evolved.
"Through digital delays," she says, "I learned about repetition and how it changes the way we hear sounds and how we can hear the pitch in fragments of spoken text. My vocal palette became much broader and richer as a result of the influence of being able to create dense layers of my solo voice and the experimentation this encouraged."
Laurie Anderson's model, blending voice and gadgetry and keeping her ironic cool, may be a strong point of comparison with Z's work, which has also been related to the work of Meredith Monk (who recently performed at Campbell Hall).
To date, Z has worked extensively in performance settings, solo and for dance, theater and film, and has developed her live aesthetic but has released surprisingly few recordings.
A good primer in Z's music is the retrospective compilation album, titled "A Delay is Better," released on the Starkland label in 2004.
Of that album, Z comments that "it doesn't reflect so much . . . more recent developments in my work including my larger-scale, theatrical performance works, my sound installations works, and my chamber music compositions."
One of those as-yet undocumented projects is her recently premiered "Wunderkabinet," which she describes as a "theatrical performance work," in collaboration with cellist Matthew Brubeck and video artist Christina McPhee. The piece, inspired by Los Angeles' "Museum of Jurassic Technology," will get its Los Angeles premiere next fall, in the REDCAT performance space downstairs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Having been on the scene for 20-plus years, Z has a long-view perspective of radical changes on the electronic musical landscape.
"I remember almost the exact moment when the term 'electronic music' went from being an obscure category only known about by people involved in academic music and experimental music circles to suddenly being a catch-all term for everything from Xenakis and Stockhausen to dance music, club music, and even just straight-ahead, amplified pop music with programmed drum tracks and synthesized or sampled rhythm tracks.
"My initial reaction to this shift was to be upset and indignant in a kind of elitist way about it. Now I just sit back and watch it happen. In some ways it's good, in some ways it's bad, but it's just cultural evolution in action."
Far be it for Z to indulge in elitism for long, though. Inclusiveness is part of her overall agenda. "I'm happy that my work has always kind of straddled the line between what some people call 'serious' music and what some people call 'popular' music," she says. "I like the fact that my community can be so large and varied."