Delish Sound Artist Pamela Z

Maria Goodavage on March 8, 2011
Pamela Z

San Francisco–based musician Pamela Z has been getting rave reviews for her musical wizardry for decades. The Washington Post calls her a “relentlessly inventive singer and sound artist.” And The San Diego Union-Tribune notes that she is “equally comfortable creating a brave new aural world, singing Puccini or reinventing ‘Wild Thing’ in ways The Troggs never dreamed of. ... Z creates provocative music that invites active listening.” The latest installment in her Room Chambre Series will feature her in concert with Carl Stone at the Royce Gallery on March 16.

I’m having a hard time coming up with a succinct description of what you do, Pamela. Your CV describes you as a “Composer/performer and media artist who works with voice, live electronic processing, sampling technology, and video. A pioneer of live digital looping techniques, she creates solo works integrating experimental extended voice, operatic bel canto, found objects, text, digital processing, and MIDI controllers that allow her to manipulate sound with physical gestures.” What do you tell people when they ask what you do?

How I answer that question depends on how tired I am, and how much time I have. I’ve always been a very hyphenated artist, and I’ve become more and more so over time because I have a broad, growing body of work that reaches into a lot of different areas.

I’ve sort of given up on trying to use a one- or two-word description, because it doesn’t tell people very much. I do experimental music, I do electronic music, I do vocal music; some people call me a performance artist. I also make soundworks that are fixed media soundworks. It’s not getting any narrower as time goes by.

Have you always been this creative?

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Carl Stone and Pamela Z

Venue: Royce Gallery
City: San Francisco
Date: March 16, 2011 8:00pm
Price Range: $10


Yes, I have. Even as a little kid, I used to play with sound objects, things I didn’t have names for even then. My sisters and I used to sing, and we used to find these pods that would fall off the trees and when we’d shake them they’d become little maracas. I used to like to make musical instruments out of all sorts of objects.

When I was pretty young, my father bought us a couple of cassette decks — it was new technology at the time — to play with. ... I used to try to make radio shows; I’d record all the parts, do all the parts on all the music. I actually used to try to multitrack by bouncing back and forth between the two recorders so you’d get a really “dirty” recording by the time you were done.

Your fascination with music and electronic music has been going on for a long time. Did you get formal training in electronic music at the University of Colorado, where you majored in music?

At the time I was going to school, most music schools were pretty conservative and did not even have an electronic music department. The closest thing my school had to that was, in the basement there were a bunch of electric pianos in case there was an overflow of the practice room and people needed a place to play. I really learned the bulk of my electronic music information after I got out of school and was self-taught and community taught.

What was the technology like back then?

Here’s a good example. I used to tour with this big huge stack of delays and multieffects processors and a mixing board and so on, and I was sometimes being charged $400 for overweight luggage because I had so much stuff. Then in 1999 during a six-month artist’s residency in Japan, I had a gig in New Zealand. I paid the big luggage fees in Japan, and then the plane stopped over in Korea, and they made us uncheck everything and recheck everything. When they rechecked it, they charged me again for the weight of my stuff, and I was, like, This is it. I don’t want to pay this anymore or be carrying all this anymore.

With the help of friends, I started working on building my digital delays in Max, and a sampler in Max. So over the next couple of years I started porting over everything I’d been doing on hardware into software. It was a long struggle to try to replace all these hardware devices into software, but it was definitely worth it.

So what’s your luggage situation like these days?

If I want to go and do a gig in L.A. where it’s a short flight and I come back the same night, I can carry everything on the plane with me. I don’t even have to check a bag. But usually I have one carry-on and one checked bag, and I’m not charged any more than normal people.

You just flew back from a gig in Australia, apparently with a normal amount of luggage. What did you do for fun there?

I’m kind of an art nun. It’s weird. My favorite activities are pretty much art related. When I do go and visit a city, the first thing I want to do is know where their contemporary art museum is, and I try to see other performances. I also love food, which can be a dangerous hobby.

Did you have any unusual food in Australia?

Oh! I had one day off while I was there, and I went to a nature preserve and we got to pet koalas and we got to feed kangaroos and pet them. They were so cute! Then we got to the restaurant at the hotel that night and someone in our party had ordered kangaroo and I was, like, “Wait! I was just petting one of those!” And then they offered for me to try it, so I thought, Okay, I can do this.

And how was it?

I have to admit it was kind of tasty. But I only had one bite of someone else’s, because I really didn’t think I could sit there and eat a whole plate of kangaroo after befriending them that very same day.

Speaking of delicious, your Web site describes your next Room series concert, Glass Noodle, as “a shared concert of tasty translucent delights” and says you and Carl Stone “will serve up a plate of tangled, spicy, sonic flavors.” Sounds good enough to eat. What can people expect that night?

Carl is an amazing electronic-music guy. He basically plays laptop. He does a lot of sample-based works. Like me, Carl loves food, and he’s actually known for his interest in food. He has always named albums after things like Thai restaurants. He travels a lot, and he lives in Japan. He’s an Asian cuisine aficionado. Wherever you go with Carl Stone he’ll always know where the best Asian restaurants are. So I thought it would be fun to play with that theme for this concert.

The one piece we do together is going to, in some way, be related to a recipe for glass noodle salad. We’re not going to have hours of rehearsals. It will be structured improvisation based around this recipe. If I can get it together there will also be visuals. We’ll have a lot of fun with this. I’m sure it will be yummy.

So now can you add “food performer” to your description?

I think I have enough hyphenations for now, but you never know.