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Sound decisions
Pulse performer Pamela Z is an innovator in experimental music
Pamela Z: "I learned through experimental music that that's a world where people aren't scared of combining things."

There’s a new breed of artist today, making music that doesn’t easily fit into one tired old category or another.

Boundaries are crossed, lines blurred and erased, and in the end those who are open to such things are rewarded with a fresh appreciation of what sonics and imagination can accomplish together.

Pamela Z, performing during the opening days of the Telfair Museums’ Pulse: Art & Technology Festival, embodies all that’s innovative and utterly fascinating about a loose–limbed genre that’s called —depending on who you’re talking to — new music or experimental music.

A native of upstate New York, Z (nee Pamela Brooks) grew up in Colorado and studied classical voice at UC Boulder. She spent several years as a singer/songwriter type who sang a bit of opera on the side; her first attempts at combining the human voice (hers) with digital effects came in 1984, when she relocated to freewheeling San Francisco.

Today she’s considered one of the pioneers in the field of audio, video and electronic processing in live performance.

In addition to composing commissioned works for Ethel the California E.A.R. Unit, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, the Empyrean Ensemble and others, she’s appeared at prestigious new music festivals including Bang on a Can at Lincoln Center, La Biennale di Venezia (Italy), the Interlink Festival (Japan), Other Minds (San Francisco) and Pina Bausch Tanztheaters 25 Jahre Fest (Germany).

A Pamela Z. performance combines bel canto opera, spoken word, electronic sounds, video and multiple electronic effects.

And a few things we can’t even explain here.

Back in Boulder you sang folk, rock and ... opera. It seems like something of a broad jump to experimental music.

Pamela Z: I like the wide concept of a lot of different things that are out there in the world. As a kid, I loved classical music and I also loved ‘60s British Invasion rock and stuff like that. So I think my entire life I was always trying to square all those different things together. A lot of people thought those things were all separate, and should be kept in separate boxes. And I was always trying to reconcile them. I considered myself sort of a fence–sitter, because I refused to choose sides.

Experimental music, in a way, is what helped me in the end. I learned through experimental music that that’s a world where people aren’t scared of combining things. In the music school I went to, their idea of  teaching 20th century music was to drop the needle on Stockhausen a few times, and if you got it right for the test, that was good enough.

How did you get from there to here?

Pamela Z: I got hold of a digital delay and started processing my voice in performance. And when I started doing that, and started trying to find people who were more interested in performance art, and experimental music, that’s where I began to learn that in this kind of open–ended genre of experimentation, you can sing with an operatic voice, turn around and do spoken word, or scream, or mutter, or sing with a folk voice. And combine all of those things, because the rules are just not the same.

Do you remember that initial moment of discovery?

Pamela Z: I heard Jaco Pastorius in a Weather Report concert, and he did this delay with his bass. This was maybe 1979, 1980. And I was like “Wow! If I could do this with my voice,  that could be really interesting.” He was just using one of those little guitar stomp–box ones. I went into a music store and described it, and they sold me a rack–mountable one that had a high–end sampling rate.

I was thinking I would just do what I saw Jaco Pastorius do, I’ll just make a loop and sing over the top of it. Well, I got home and started playing with it, and I was blown away by the possibilities. Because it’s beyond just “Oh, you make a loop and sing over it.” Because of the fact that if you set the decay at a certain rate, you can create all this contrapuntal stuff and make all these layers. You can play with changing the delay time in the middle of things and getting weird artifacts that no normal person would be looking for.

It literally was a life–changing moment for me when I got that piece of equipment. My poor neighbors – I never went to bed that night! And I do believe that was the beginning of finding my voice as an artist, when I first started playing with that first toy.

I realize that the pieces are compositions, but how much do they change or vary in performance?

Pamela Z: The devices, for me, are instruments. So it’s just like anyone else when they’re playing an instrument in live performance – you tweak things and change things a little bit for the situation. But in terms of the work itself, some of the pieces are very through–composed and if you hear me do it five times it’s going to sound exactly like the same piece.
But there’s the natural amount of variation that happens in any different performance of a piece. And then there are other pieces where improvisational elements are built into the composition. So certain parts are going to change a lot each time I do it.

And usually there are one or two things on a program that are very improvised, and I just make it up on the spot in front of the audience.

So do you think the public–at–large is scared or intimidated by this music, because they just don’t understand what it is?

Pamela Z: Well, it depends on the people. People in the art world, or the art music world, are used to it. And it used to be that people who aren’t in that world had just never heard of it. There was nothing to be afraid of because it would never enter their sphere.

But now, because of the way that the media has changed, there’s really nothing that’s a secret any more. It’s seeping into the popular world in certain ways, and sometimes it’s irritating when that happens, other times it’s preparing people to open their ears more. The world is full of all types of people, some of whom are more open–minded than others. CS

Pamela Z performance

Pulse: Art & Technology Festival

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

When: At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28

Admission: Free