The Omnivorous Mind of Pamela Z

Mark MacNamara on August 29, 2017
Pamela Z | Credit: Donald Swearingen

Pamela Z, the sound artist, lives in a studio down the street from Project Artaud, in San Francisco’s Mission District. The space, rented for a relative pittance, is a 1000-square-foot tinkerer’s grotto, a Jobsian garage and personal history museum, with living quarters up a painter’s ladder to a mezzanine. There’s also a recording booth that Z built herself. Think of it all as a 21st-century sound composer’s Theater of Cruelty, although the ideas and works created in this place are even more open-ended than Artaud’s and not rooted in any particular consciousness or unconsciousness.

Which suggests a truth about Pamela Z: as an artist, and, perhaps you could add, as a person, she will not be shackled to category, circumstance or expectation. She will not be “tethered” as she put it in a recent interview. “I’ve always felt that if there are boundaries in the arts, they’re easy to cross. I like them blurred. Think of Rauschenberg. He was supposed to be a painter but was also into dance and sound performance. In my mind, I keep opening myself up. I choose everything. I’m always expanding.”

But then how do you describe her creative identity — which lies on a continuum going back to the ultra modernists of the 1920s, including the likes of Ruth Crawford Seeger and Johanna Magdalena Beyer, the great percussion composer?  Z is a singer, composer and performance artist, a DJ, and by her own account, an experimental theater person. She’s been the narrator or composer for a handful of documentary films. She wrote an opera, a collaboration, called Wunderkabinet, which starred herself. She’s also into video artistry and text-sound poetry.

Though often her work is referred to as electronica, she rejects the limited connotation. She would prefer something broader — experimental music will do, or possibly electroacoustic music. Nor does she like the word multimedia, since it’s become nearly synonymous with the computer. “Intermedia,” with its arts context, might be more accurate.

Charles Amirkhanian, an American composer best known for his electroacoustic and text-sound music, and for the Other Minds Festival that he founded in 1995, is one of Pamela’s great fans. “She doesn’t confine herself to one medium or subject,” he said the other day. “She’s always exploring. Her work also has a lot of satire and humor, which is one thing I really appreciate.” 

He added, “she exemplifies the kind of musician who doesn’t get a lot of national notice because she doesn’t live in New York. Nevertheless, despite its obscure content, her music is very accessible. We think of her as a known quantity here, but as hard as she’s worked, she’s not yet well known in Europe or the East Coast” — despite various exhibitions including at the Diözesanmuseum in Cologne and, in New York, the Whitney Museum and Lincoln Center.

Pamela Z performing at Ars Electronica 2008 in Linz, Austria. | Credit: rubra (courtesy of Ars Electronica)

From Analog to Digital

Pamela Z, now 61, came of musical age in Boulder, Colorado where she grew up, one of four girls, with a single mother. She became drawn to music in grammar school and majored in voice studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She followed the pop music of the day, including British Invasion groups such as the Dave Clark 5 and the Circle, but also became interested in classical music, particularly Baroque. During college, she got club gigs as a singer-songwriter in the style of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro.

Z made several forays to San Francisco in the early 1980s and then finally moved to the city in 1984. She arrived in a VW bus, with $30. And she changed her last name to Z. It doesn’t stand for anything; it has no hidden meaning. It’s not an initial. “I chose it for aesthetic reasons,” she once told an interviewer. “I liked the sound of it and the look of it. I liked the idea of having a single-letter name. And I liked the fact that it is a voiced consonant, so there is tone within the sound of it, even if you just pronounce the single letter.” 

In the early 1980s, she became interested in punk and new-wave artists, minimalist composers, and experimental electronic composers such as John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, and Brian Eno. But she began to think that her inability to strike out in a new direction was because she lacked the proper electronic tools.

“For the work I was performing live,” she wrote in a book chapter in a 1998 anthology about women, art and technology,” I was mainly using my voice and a hollow-body electric guitar. I was working in a kind of standard singer-songwriter way and trying to integrate my classically trained voice into the picture somehow. Interestingly enough, my recorded work started evolving much more quickly than my live work. I was working with layers of sustained vocal sounds combined with sounds from another new tool– a cheesy little Casio synthesizer.”

Pamela Z in her San Francisco Studio wearing a SensorPlay controller. | Credit: Goran Vejvoda

“But I was unable to translate any of that growth to my live performances until I brought home the Ibanez Delay [an effects unit for creating echoes and loops]. For me, this was a perfect performance instrument! It allowed me to make layers of sound in real time so that I could create fairly complex and dense pieces using just that processor and my voice. Literally, the moment I began working with it, my whole compositional style began to transform. I began to listen to sound differently.”

Much of the technology used to make contemporary music, including that used in sensors and switches, is taken from medical equipment and gaming technology. Z’s tools were largely developed and refined by Donald Swearingen, an Oakland-based composer and multimedia artist. Recently, he told us that one aspect of contemporary music is that the instruments have no longevity, and are actually obsolete as they come on the market. “We need to redefine what it means to be virtuosic,” he said.

As for the content of her work, Z has never sought to make a political statement, and has a long reputation for promoting artists regardless of their convictions.  “I can’t think of anyone who has done more for this community,” Swearingen said.

From the beginning, her interest has tended to be about personal experiences, not ideas. “As I got further into new music I became less interested in writing about something in a concrete way. I began to prefer the abstract. When I made Baggage Allowance (2010), for example, I chose an open-ended subject that allowed for exploration, as opposed to putting ideas across. I’m more interested in getting people to think for themselves, and I love it when people come to me after a concert and say, ‘I really liked what you said about this and that’ and I’m like, ‘oh, did I say those things? Well, that’s interesting. I had no idea.’”

Pamela Z performing at Ars Electronica 2008 in Linz, Austria. | Credit: rubra (courtesy of Ars Electronica)

The Sum of Found Things

Pamela Z is a collector of “found” sounds, memories, objects, and sensations. She can imagine a sound in nearly anything, a cabinet for example. It’s not unlike Philip Glass’s notion that music is innate in all things. Her studio is filled with found things, including old typewriters, rotary telephones, bits of technologica; plastic water jugs — a staple for sound artists; three gas masks from World War I, picked up for one of her gigs with a trio called The Qube Chix; a floor-to-ceiling collection of LPs that could fill a record store. In the 1980s, she worked for five years at Tower Records in North Beach.  

And then, in the middle of the studio floor, there’s an open suitcase, half-filled, as though she must be just leaving or just returning. In Z world, the suitcase is prop and metaphor, and a reminder of the road, where she’s the headliner and her own roadie in one; always the adventurer, not a little relieved to be on her way.

Onstage, she’s the sum of her found things, and a liquid persona, at moments indivisible from the sound and light she creates. Her performances, using real-time digital processing techniques, feature signatures of the genre, such as repetition and muttering, and comes out of what you might think of as highly polished improvisation. Roles vary. She’s a conjurer in Acqua (2014); a pagan diva in Bone Music (1992); a street performer in “Breathing” (from Carbon Song Cycle, 2013). When wired up with all her custom-made, gesture-controllers and foot switches, she becomes androidal —captured and captivated by its own bionicness, yet jet-powered with an odd humanity. 

Her depiction of the frustrated traveler in Baggage Allowance (2010) is hilarious. She’s the airline passenger told she can’t take her suitcase on board and so puts on all the clothes she’s packed. And all the while she has the straight face of a classic American comedian — Mabel Norman, or Buster Keaton, with his distinctive melancholy. There’s much in play in Baggage Allowance and when she sings the custom officer’s classic mantra, “What is the purpose of your travel?” it’s aria-like and so exquisitely offered that the metaphysical suggestion is stilling.

Pamela Z in Wunderkabinet | Credit: Donald Swearingen

Fears and Whispers

She believes that she’s been uncommonly lucky in her career. “There are so many weird, separate little categories that I fit into, which has provided me with all kinds of opportunities. I feel almost guilty to have benefitted from all the possibilities.” She paused for a moment. “I feel confident that the work I do is good but I also know that sometimes I’m being invited because somebody wants to showcase people of color doing experimental music, and they can’t find many who do that.”

Still, it’s been a relentless struggle for recognition. “It’s like saying there’s no more racism,” she said, and told this anecdote: “In the early 1990s, a reviewer, who will not be named, wrote an article about a new compilation CD, which included two pieces of mine. In those days, if you ended up on a compilation of electronic music, and you were a woman, you were the only woman. So it was me and Paul Dresher and some others. For each person, the reviewer wrote a very detailed description of what the music was about; how so-and-so fit historically into the canon, and a description of technique and instrumentation. But when the reviewer got to me there was just one sentence: “Pamela Z contributed two tracks in the Laurie Anderson mold.” Period. On to the next guy. I was livid. If I’d been a guy, I would never have been compared to someone else — particularly in the ‘mold’ of someone else — and then have that be the entire review ...”

“But that’s the plight of all women doing this work; you’re always compared to one of three famous women doing this: Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galas, and Meredith Monk. But actually you could not find three more different artists; they don’t sound anything like each other, or me.”

Z, mentioning the early struggles of Suzanne Ciani, the avant-garde sound designer, who broke through a glass ceiling with Coca Cola ads in the 1960s, notes that the situation for women nearly 30 years later is much better. Nevertheless, the field remains male-dominated and some festival funders are still reluctant to back women. Z is one of the founders of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival and described what it’s like to be on the other side of the decision-making process.  

The 18-year-old festival, which will be held September 8–10, 2017, is in the hands, this year, of a programming committee with 10 men and three women, a slight aberration from previous years when there were slightly more women. “We’re interested in having a diverse program,” explained Z, “not just in terms of gender and race but also in approach, style, and genre. But let’s say we have 20 artists for 12 slots, and we have to narrow it down, then we might consider how to refine the program. Our goal is always to make a more interesting festival. It’s not like winning a popularity contest; we don’t ‘fish’ for an extra woman or African-American; it’s programming; it’s curatorial. And it’s not hard for us to do that.”

Charles Amirkhanian was music director of KPFA-FM in Berkeley from 1969 to 1992. After resigning his post, he was asked to help find a successor and promptly nominated Pamela Z. “She was easily the most qualified,” he told us, “but two others on the hiring committee disagreed and that was the end of new music at KPFA. The new director was a singer songwriter from a station back east, and one of her first acts was to push people off the playlist of avant-garde musicians.”

Pamela Z | Credit: Marion Gray

Shadow and Light

“There are levels of fame and success,” she was saying, “but I haven’t reached the level that guarantees security.” We sat at her kitchen table in the flickering electric light of an Ingo Mauer candle lamp. Pamela: wearing 45-rpm plastic adapters as earrings, and large, white frame glasses, and that warm expression, fleetingly reminiscent of James Baldwin.

“I’m a lone person in the world (no partner),” she went on. “I support myself, and things are going reasonably well. I have a space in a building that’s not too expensive and I can do my work. But there’s always the fear: What if I lose that? What if something happens and all these artists get kicked out of this building, where would I go? What if I apply for things but don’t get them anymore? What if I get sick or lose my voice? Actually, I’m not so afraid of that. I’m more afraid of what happens if Trump pulls all the arts funding and all that’s left are private foundations, and what if they don’t feel generous next year? What if I need to find a ‘real’ job, at an age when nobody can get a job.”

That’s one fear, she said. The other is “imposter syndrome.” “What if I discover I’m not as good as they think I am? At some point, you look at your life and say, ‘hey, I created all this work and it’s good,’ but there’s a part of everybody that make you think, ‘maybe I’ve just been lucky and all this is going to disappear.’”

It’s not a “looming fear,” she continued, but part of a growing awareness that the world is more and more uncertain. “We live in a time when this city has changed, where what’s valued is people who have a lot of money.” And she added, in a different vein, “Nothing is rare anymore; everything is viewable and accessible, then it’s retweeted, and then it goes viral. Which is good in many ways, but I think I have viral fatigue.”

And if she could have anything? — beyond doing what she loves most — she’d buy the top floor of an older building in lower Manhattan, maybe in Chelsea, and build a studio where she could record, and she’d have a performance space. It’s an artist’s pipe dream, she’s the first to say, and even wealthy people couldn’t afford that. And if a little more luck stopped by in this fantasy she’d get more movie gigs, the way Philip Glass and others seem to do so regularly, because, after all, film and experimental music go hand in hand.

And if she could have more than all that, she’d follow Robert Rauschenberg’s example and be a great benefactor. “A white man and dominant. But very generous. He always wanted to include other people, and when he was dying (2008) he made it clear that the property he had acquired (on Captiva Island) in Florida was always to be a place for artists to use.’’

Pamela Z (Voci) | Credit: Lori Eanes

A “Weird Cultish Thing”

Pamela’s mother died in 2015.  For years she had suffered from dementia, and also perhaps from schizophrenia. She began to hear voices, which led to one of the segments of Z’s 2003 piece, Voci.

“It was about the different kinds of voices we hear, and was directly lifted from her experience. In the performance, I became the person hearing these voices.” She also made a little documentary about her mother for Memory Trace (2016).

Pamela’s mother never saw her daughter’s work, and for a long time thought it was some “cultish thing.” Z remembers that “she wanted me to be an opera singer so she could hear me sing “Adele’s Laughing Song” from Die Fledermaus. When I started doing new music, she thought it was a weirdo thing. But then in 1989, Ear Magazine, which had a new music focus, did a little feature on me. When I got the article, I sent her the whole magazine. I thought she would treat it like everything else I sent and just discard it, but she read the magazine, from cover to cover. There were stories about contemporary music composers and handcrafted instruments. For the first time, she saw me in a larger context. Then she called me. “Very interesting,” she said. And I realized that, after all these years, she was finally getting it. She finally understood what I was trying to do.”