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Theater Magazine

A publication of Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre

Volume 30 Number 2 • "New Music Theatre" • Winter 2000

Parts of Speech

Pamela Z, Interviewed by Tom Sellar

By Tom Sellar

Pamela Z has composed and performed her densely layered works in the United States, Europe, and Japan since 1984. Using her voice, live electronic processing, and sampling technology, she combines operatic bel canto and extended-vocal techniques with digital delays, found percussion objects, and sampled sounds. One of her preferred instruments is the BodySynth, which uses computer-linked electrode sensors to respond to the performer's muscle movements, allowing her to manipulate sound through physical gestures on stage.

Pamela Z Montréal 1999. Photo: Tshi

 

 

 

In her most recent piece, Gaijin, she blends live and sampled vocals, texts, and sounds into a lush polyphonic weave. Voices on multiple tracks reflect on the mysteries and disorientation of being an outsider, while, center stage, Pamela Z stands with quiet assurance at a microphone console, building and inhabiting a lonely character (who generates and absorbs the sounds around her). Waving her wrists, she triggers humorously chirpy samples from elementary Japanese-language lesson tapes, while an endless loop of basic phonetics underscores her painfu1 estrangement. Although the piece relies on digital delay technology, the human voice resonates in and above the soundscape with grace and haunting clarity. I spoke with Pamela Z after her performance in Montreal in November 1999.

TOM SELLAR: What does "Gaijin" mean and what is the impulse behind the piece?

PAMELA Z: I came up with the idea when I was in Japan recently on a six-month visit. The word gaijin is a Japanese slang word, which is shortened from gaikokujin, which means "other-country person" or "foreigner." Gaijin is slang and is often, but not always, used in a derogatory way. One of the things I learned in Japan is that if you're not Japanese– if you don't look Japanese, if you don't speak Japanese— then you will always be a gaijin. It was a real lesson to me because I began to be aware of what people who live in my own country must feel like when they're never allowed to feel that they belong, because other people don't allow them to or because they just don't feel like they do. I think a person can feel like a gaijin, on many levels. The language lessons I use in the piece reflect the fact that I was struggling to learn Japanese the entire time I was there. The other text segment is a poetic fantasy I wrote at the time.

It's still a work in progress, which I plan to perform in November 2000 as an evening length multimedia performance piece with projected images, three Butoh movement artists, and a set with various levels and a lot of scrims. It will be made of various modules or sections that are all in some way about the idea of foreignness—whether that means visiting a country you're not used to, or feeling like a foreigner in the place where you live, or all kinds of other ways that a person could feel foreign.

Surprisingly, although you work almost entirely through electronic technology, we nearly forget that the machines are there in the course of your performance. What can you say about the way you use technology? Do you consider these machines musical instruments?

Anything you use to make music is an instrument, and I don't differentiate between instruments that are made out of wood or flesh and instruments made out of memory chips. Trying to use new tools always inspires me. When you first start using them you make mistakes, and half the time the mistakes are more interesting than what you were trying to do in the first place. I've been using voice in digital delay for about sixteen years. When I started, I just wanted to make a repeating loop of my voice and use it as an accompaniment, which I would sing over, like a canon. When I got a second digital delay machine, I wanted both of the delays to sing together, but I couldn't get them in sync with each other. Suddenly I discovered a wonderful sound: two out-of-phase loops. I didn't know that Steve Reich had figured this out twenty years before that with tape recorders. Since then I have created works based on three loops all slightly out of phase with each other, so that the rhythm constantly changes. To me it is the most beautiful, almost organic sound.

In the studio, I was also using samples I made of noises in my apartment, machines in my neighborhood, and so on. I loved those sounds, and I wanted them in my performances, but I didn't want to be stuck behind the keyboard playing them. I wanted to be free to gesture. Through a project I did with Zakros New Music Theatre in San Francisco, I met Ed Severinghaus and Chris Van Raalte, who built the BodySynth, and I've been using it for the past five years or so. Basically it uses the same technology they use at the hospital when they’re checking your EKG; electrode sensors measure the effort from my muscles and translate it into numbers. I program it to control pitch bend, or to trigger a note, or whatever I want. I can use up to eight channels: one on each arm, one on my shoulder, and one on each leg. I can put them anywhere I have a muscle.

What led to this kind of work ? Do you have a background in classical music?

When I was a kid I used to build instruments and play with them. My father bought us these tape recorders, and I used to make these absurd radio shows in which I would perform all the parts, layer voices, and manipulate the sound. Later I played the guitar and sang folk songs in clubs at night while studying classical music at the University of Colorado. I didn't know how to reconcile these interests until the early 80s, when lots of art school dropouts were forming interesting bands doing ambient music—back when it was really ambient and didn't have a beat. People like Brian Eno and David Byrne were collaborating with Philip Glass. That's when I realized that these worlds can come together, and there was no reason that I couldn't combine bel canto with raspy vocals and noise from acoustic objects like hammer handles and pieces of Plexiglas.

Who are your musical influences?

I don't think I've ever wanted to emulate anyone consciously, though I've listened to certain artists a great deal at various points in my life. My father was a folk dancer, so I listened to Israeli folk music as a child. In the 1970S, when I was singing and writing songs, I liked Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro and learned how to place the voice in different registers partly from listening to the different things they did. In Boulder I hosted a radio show called The Afternoon Sound Alternative, where I played a lot of minimalist music, which I was enamored of at the time: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Alvin Lucier, who had just done an entire double record containing a single tone. In the early to mid-1980s, when I became interested in experimental music, I listened to electronic music by Laurie Anderson, before she had her Warner Brothers career.

In 1982 I went to a Weather Report concert and heard Jaco Pastorius do a solo on his fretless bass, during which he made a loop on a digital delay and played over it. I was so impressed that the next day I went out and got a digital delay. When I started making sound loops I began to listen to text as music. When spoken text is repeated by a machine, you can hear the fundamental tone of something that you thought was unpitched. So I began composing based on the melodies in natural speech, which I never would have done if I hadn't discovered the digital delay.

Was this technology what inspired you to look at language as a subject and theme?

Initially I became interested in language for its sound. When I started using samplers, I started detuning sounds, spreading a sound out over the whole pitch spectrum, sculpting found sounds as if they were notes, and playing samples of sounds and language in a pianistic way. The delay allowed me to create elaborate sound beds; it allowed me to become an ensemble, not just a singer. That's what held my interest. It also gave me a context in which to use spoken words in musical compositions which in my definition could include the sound of my printer, or anything else.

Is there a theatrical equivalent to using the entire sound spectrum? How and why do you create performance pieces?

I started trying to make performance pieces because I realized that the short compositions I was performing were already like miniature theater works. Even though I'm pretty stationary at the microphone stand, I tend to have certain gestures that I consider part of the actual composition. In Bone Music, for example, I use a five-gallon plastic water bottle in very prescribed ritual movements, making slow circles in the air. The gestures would take over and shape the piece—at some point I realized these are not only part of the music, they also have a theatrical life.

Do you see yourself as creating a character? In Gaijin, for example, you seemed to have the focus of an actor in character.

I don't talk about it very often, but this idea of a character is really important. I assume some character in each of the pieces I perform. So I guess that's theater. I'm not happy just being a musician, although of course the possibilities are infinite; I want to dip into visual art and theater as well.

What kind of theater interests you?

Butoh dance theater has always fascinated me because of its incredible power. When I was in Japan recently I studied with the Butoh artist Kazuo Ohno and went to Yokohama many times to attend his workshops. Contact-improv dance also interests me. I also love Pina Bausch's work and I like Beckett, who of course used language in very musical ways. I like experimental theater that combines layers and elements in interesting ways --Mabou Mines, for example.

How do you develop a piece with your theatrical collaborators?

Most theater artists create work the way a classical composer does: thinking of the overall arc of a piece and then trying to fulfill that arc, complete with a climax. I tend to make little pieces and then find additional material that will hold them together. Sometimes they're just snapshots. This new project is on a larger scale, so I'll probably start by through-composing the sections I'll perform and figuring out the texts. I'm also going to go out with my DAT "digital audio tape machine and ask people to talk about feeling like a gaijin wherever they are, whatever their situation is. I'll get visual images from that, and I'll also get audio text samples to use in the piece.

In the past I've worked with set, projection, and lighting designers who have helped me come up with images. For example, Lauren Elder, a set designer, once helped me come up with the idea of using lots of monolithic slabs, big plywood blocks, which were projection surfaces as well as platforms to move on. I usually have one or two specific images or ideas which I bring to them, and they respond.

Are you interested in doing large-scale work in, say, an opera house?

Last year I did my first large-scale piece at Theater Artaud in San Francisco. It was called Parts of Speech, and it consisted of a suite of five to eight-minute pieces dealing with language. With a visual artist named Larry Ackerman who used to work for George Coates and does multi-image projections, I created a visual environment which was continually transforming. It was a challenge to use such a cavernous space as a solo performer, but I've always been interested in doing so. I would like to do a big opera with a large group of singers, although it wouldn't have to be in a big opera house.

How do you see new music-theater developing in the future? Do you see any patterns?

Everybody is really different in their approach and feelings about it. I think there's room for everything. I don't think you have to get rid of conventional work in order to do new things. As a matter of fact, new work is more interesting when there's something conventional to compare it with. Recently I was thinking, If you were from another planet, how would you be able to tell what's "avant-garde" music-theater and what's "conventional"? It's a continuum and I don't see a lot of heavy lines drawn between things, as others seem to. The more people can stop setting their work up against other things and just say, "This is what I'm making," the more interesting things will happen.

Theater is published three times a year (winter, summer, and fall) by Duke University Press, 905 W. Main St., Suite 18-B, Durham, NC 27701, on behalf of the Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre.

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