Search
  • Thom Holmes

A Conversation with Pamela Z

My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music



This week we’re having a conversation with Pamela Z, the composer/performer and media artist who hails from San Francisco. Listeners to this podcast are always interested in getting an inside look at a composer’s process and technology. We’ll speak with Pamela Z about her studio practices for making music and also her performance practices using her unique MIDI interfaces.


Following the playlist is a full transcript of the conversation.


Playlist

1. TIMES3 (TIMES X TIMES X TIMES), commissioned by The Prototype Project (2021). Composer Pamela Z and theatre artist Geoff Sobelle collaborate on a site-specific sonic journey through Times Square – past, present and imagined… What was this place? Composed by Pamela Z; written by Geoff Sobelle; instrumentalists, Tom Dambly, Crystal Pascucci, Todd Reynolds; vocals, Pamela Z; voices sampled from Eric Sanderson, Alan Weisman, Robyn Orlin, Lisa McGinn, Stefanie Sobelle, Craig Dykers, Erick Gregory, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, Jack Tchen, Adrienne Brown, Pamela Z, and Geoff Sobelle.


Background music used during this episode (excerpts):

  • Pamela Z, "Quatre Couches" in a solo concert as part of VoxLab Vårfest at Vega Scene in Oslo, Norway, on April 11, 2019. Pamela Z, electronics and voice processing using MAX MSP gesture-controlled MIDI instruments.

  • Pamela Z, “Three Vertical Kilns (Carbon Song Cycle)” Live at BAM/PFA (April 12, 2013). Excerpt from the complete performance of Carbon Song Cycle, a work for chamber ensemble and expanded cinema by composer Pamela Z and video artist Christina McPhee.

  • Ink: commissioned and presented by VOLTI (2021); artistic director Robert Geary; executive producer Barbara Heroux; performed by VOLTI. Music and video by Pamela Z.

  • TIMES3 (TIMES X TIMES X TIMES), commissioned by The Prototype Project (2021). Composer Pamela Z and theatre artist Geoff Sobelle collaborate on a site-specific sonic journey through Times Square – past, present and imagined.

  • Pamela Z, “Badagada”from A Delay Is Better (2004 Starkland). Composed by, recorded by, performer, producer, liner notes, Pamela Z


Additional works and links for Pamela Z:


  • Website for Pamela Z

  • TIMES3 (TIMES X TIMES X TIMES), commissioned by The Prototype Project (2021). Composer Pamela Z and theatre artist Geoff Sobelle collaborate on a site-specific sonic journey through Times Square – past, present and imagined… What was this place?

  • Ink: commissioned and presented by VOLTI (2021); artistic director Robert Geary; executive producer Barbara Heroux; performed by VOLTI. Music and video by Pamela Z.

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST



Thom Holmes

This episode, a conversation with Pamela Z music in the time of pandemic.


Welcome to the archive. This week we're having a conversation with Pamela Z. The composer, performer and media artist who hails from San Francisco. listeners to this podcast are always interested in new music but also in getting an inside look at a composers process and technology. We'll speak with Pamela Z, about her studio practices for making music and also her performance practices using her unique MIDI interfaces. Normally, Pamela Z is a globe trotting artist working on compositions, residences, performances and installations across Europe, the United States and Japan. But the pandemic changed all of that. Let's begin. Pamela Z. Welcome to the archive. How are you?


Pamela Z

Oh, good. I'm a little overwhelmed. It's been a crazy time for me. And just with projects, like too many projects that I'm juggling and trying to meet deadlines for composing and bubble blah, blah, blah.


Thom Holmes

So, where do we begin? Maybe we go back to last year? How did you suddenly find a way to continue working? During the pandemic? Were the works still coming in the commission still happening?


Pamela Z

Okay, well, there's several things. So, the pandemic hit while I was in Rome, I had done the first half of my Rome prize fellowship here. And I already was a little bit backlogged with Commission's that I was supposed to complete and I was sort of struggling to get through those in time, then suddenly, everything shifted, I had to come back to the States. And I assumed at first that all the things that were going to premiere that I was supposed to be finished with, I thought they'd all just be canceled. And so I thought, Okay, well, we'll give me a little reprieve. But no, they all like turned around, said no, now we're going to do it as a virtual screening or whatever. And so I then had to jump right back onto the horse, and, you know, try to like, get the works made, usually. So, this is one way that my workflow change with the pandemic, that when I'm commissioned to write pieces for other people, and you know, that I do a lot of composing for my own voice and electronics, but I also get a lot of commissions to write for chamber ensembles, and other soloists and so on. And so ordinarily, when I get one of those commissions, I compose the work. I eventually hand over a score and parts, and then my work is done. I mean, maybe I will have to show up for one or two rehearsals to give a few pointers about interpretation or something like that towards the end. But essentially, once I hand them the score, it's in the hands of the director of the organization, and they they work on it. But what happened COVID was all of a sudden, instead of having them handing people a score and being done, I was needing to like hand them complete, finished product, like airable product.


Thom Holmes

Volti, the choral group commissioned us to do a work during the pandemic, it was called Inc. It was for chorus. How did you go about directing them and creating this work remotely?


Pamela Z

Instead of composing a score for the chorus and handing it to the chorus director and having them rehearse it? And then I compensate, yes, this is good. Are you actually thinking more whispering like actual whispering, you know, whatever. Instead, I had all these rehearsals with them, where we, the rehearsals were sort of recording sessions, where I was, I had them recording themselves on separate devices, so that they could get really clean recordings of themselves. And then I was recording their faces on zoom. So, I had to instruct them how to frame themselves. And everyone who's on the call that wasn't in the chorus, including me had to like hide their image so that I would get, you know, the as big as possible matrix of all the singers. And then I lead them with slides of fragments of music through all the little sections. and had them record them. And then they sent me the audio recordings. And then I had to sync sound with the image, and cut and edit and do all the animation and everything in Premiere Pro, to create the video of the piece


Thom Holmes

That is intrinsically more complicated than your normal way of working. I think when you watch the performance online, it begins as what looks like an ordinary zoom session, but quickly morphs into a video piece with these separate performances working in synchronization, you not only coached each of them around their vocal parts, but edited the sound and composed a video to present the piece.


Pamela Z

It was exhausting in a way to have to build a piece in that way. But it was an interesting project. And I really was very happy with the results. And I'm really looking forward to being able to work with humans in a room together again, instead of having to work separately like I did with all of these things. But I do think that some of the things that I learned doing this are going to carry over into future work. And I feel like for all of us that the future is going to be kind of a hybrid of what the way we used to function, but informed by all these things that we picked up in figuring out how to work remotely. Another thing I will say is that, for a lot of people this working remotely is brand new. And so I'm really amazed and impressed at humanity at large for how, how quickly and how well we adapt. I mean, it's sort of amazing to me that like the entire world was like, Okay, well, we'll do a zoom, okay, you know, it's like, if they just like, did it.


Thom Holmes

What lessons of the pandemic will affect your work going forward?


Pamela Z

I, I feel like one of the things that I've really thought a lot about is that a while we have been in this lockdown mode, it seemed ridiculous to me to try to reproduce the exact kind of performance you would do if you were on a stage. Because then your performance would just be kind of a sad shadow of what it wishes it was, because it's actually being presented on this screen. And so I felt like it was important to try to address that and make the work more site specific. And like play with the actual attributes of this platform. in ways that would not be possible. If you were on the live stage on a, you know, in a in a room with somebody things like really using, you know, the intimacy of playing to this little camera and manipulating objects or doing things you know, being right up in in people's faces and being really close and letting them see details that would be hard to see, even if they had a front row seat in a concert hall, you know what I mean? I was playing with that kind of stuff. And I mean, I was performing some of the same repertoire that I normally perform, but I was adding some segments that really worked with being close up camera, and you know, thinking about going off screen and coming back on screen, you know, and doing things like that. So, those are sort of some of the some of the things that were born of this this odd time. And so I've had some days where I was like, Oh, I was in Canada. And then five minutes later, I was doing a thing for the people in University of Leeds. And then you know, I'm then I was doing something for UCLA. And it was like I've had, you know, gigs back to back that would not be physically possible to do back to back if I was traveling to those places. The other part of this or one of the other parts of this is that this time has felt very strange. And it's been difficult, like people kept talking about having so much time on your hands. I don't know what their world is. But in my world, I almost feel like I had less time because for some reason, the nature of time has just changed. And it's like, just to accomplish the same things that I normally accomplish. Somehow it just takes longer. I don't know why. But it's like, trudging through jello or sludge or something. It's like I I've been working on one one commissioned work after another. And it seems to me to take weeks and weeks and weeks to finish these things. Even though that's all I'm doing. And everything is taken longer than I then I used to take another composition you recently completed is called times cubed that you were commissioned to do by the prototype festival.


Thom Holmes

Could you tell us something about this piece and how it was made.


Pamela Z

It's about 30 minutes long. It's It's It's a little ride that you can take. It was really an interesting assignment because the prototype festival and Beth Morrison projects contacted me and said they wanted to commissioned me to make a sound piece that would be kind of a sound walk or a work that that was sort of around about or related to Times Square. And I was actually like, ooh, you know, I love New York. But Time Square is not my favorite thing in New York. Um, so I was just like, okay, so let me think about this. And so then they said, but and we also want you to collaborate with this theater artist, Geoff Sobelle. And maybe he can act as a narrator in the piece or collaborate with you in some way. And I'm making it, I was just like, well, this is more and more intriguing, because I don't know how to collaborate with somebody on a piece like this. Normally, composing this kind of work for me is extremely solitary. I am in my studio and just working on my own. It's not something I know how to collaborate with somebody else on with the exception of the fact that usually when I make this kind of work, I do interview a bunch of people. And then I use the sound files from that to build the material. But it's not so much a collaboration as me interviewing them. And them just talking to me casually, I record them. And then I go into my studio, I'm on my own, I'm just making a piece. So, I was like, I'm not sure how to do that with another person. And especially some artists who I don't know. So, Geoff and I both researches other's work. And we were both like, Oh, I really like what you do. This is really interesting. And so we had some conversations, and we worked out a way to work together on it. And what we came up with is that I would have Geoff do the interviews that I normally do, and then give me the sound files, and then I would create the work using fragments from that. So, Geoff did the interviews, he actually wrote the questions. But the other thing he did that was quite good was he found and suggested people that we should talk to, and they are a really interesting range of people that made the project way more interesting to me than it was before we thought about this, they he was an architect, who was one of the people involved in the sort of renovation of Time Square, a theater director who had made work around that area, a historian who knew about the monopoly people and the what how that what that land was like before Europeans came and took over, and a guy who has written this book about the future of the planet, and what things will look like when we're gone. And, and then several other people, some architects, some historians, a labor historian, and it was it became really a the layers Scott and I, my work is about layers. And so I loved how it started to be all these layers. And I started thinking, I'd like to make a piece that is sort of like takes place in that spot spot, but is layered with past, present, and future, and sometimes interlocking them and confusing them. So, I mean, I did all the heavy lifting as far as actually composing the piece. But Geoff did all the heavy lifting as far as gathering the source material for me to work with. And he also gave me some suggestions about his thoughts about we went through the interviews together. And he said, I really like it when this person says that, is there any way we can use that? And can we use this? Can we use that, then for me, after I had all the fragments of sound, and I had the Geoff's list of suggestions of things he liked, then I felt like I just had to go on my own and like compose like I always do. And so I did this process that almost all of my pieces that involve the use of speech sounds, the next step after gathering all those interviews is listening to them one by one, and going through them and listening for sounds that I like listening for phrases and fragments of, of speech, that to me have music in them. So, I create hundreds, I mean, literally hundreds of little clips, we used to call them regions in Pro Tools. And they're named, and so I usually name them, you know, with the initials of the person who said it, and then some indicator to me of what it is. So, it might say like T h. m, peasy, Yes, I think so. Or you know, like that. And so then I take all of those things, and I build is almost like Lego in IT Pro Tools, lots of tracks of Pro Tools, this little sort of structure, which is to me like it's composing music, essentially. And I actually kind of like, in a way I tricked Geoff into you know,


I mean, I originally remember I didn't trick him, but essentially, you know, it's like, they told me Oh, you know, when they suggested that I work with him. They said he could maybe be the narrator, but we didn't write a script for him to like, read. Instead, I just stole fragments of him from his side of the interviews. And then we have one last I interviewed him. He we interviewed each other as as two of the interviewees. And so, I interviewed him. And in my interview with him, I also asked him to say a few things. And one of them was I asked him to do that little intro, Hello, dear listener, and you know, a few things like that. But most of the phrases that he says in there, I just stole them from the side of the conversation that he didn't think was going to go into the piece, which was him asking questions and interviewing the people.


Thom Holmes

So, that work is a bit of a text sound composition about what the people say, but also how they say it and the sounds of their voices,


Pamela Z

which is what I often do. And for me, I mean, it's almost it, it leans a little heavily on to the side of the sound of things for me, because it to me, I'm really like making music out of finding music in their speech sounds, content of what they're saying is definitely an important layer and sort of the unifying layer of the music.


Thom Holmes

We have permission by the way from the prototype festival, and Pamela Z to play the work times cubed in entirety, which we will do at the end of this conversation. This is Thom Holmes, and I'm speaking with composer Pamela Z. Coming out of the pandemic, do you have any live performances scheduled yet?


It's kind of crazy, but I'm going to New York this summer. It's at RPI in Troy, New York, I had a residency there, they have a something like 250 speaker, wave field synthesis array, where you can create these 3d sound pieces and project the sound anywhere you want to in the space. So, one of the parts of my residency was to compose a work for that and put it on their array, I was supposed to go back and forth there for the next year and a half or so start get started working on this piece, even though I couldn't go there. So, now the latest thing is, they're going to take the array to Manhattan, and put it in a venue in midtown Manhattan, and have a festival called the timespans Festival, which I and three other composers who were also had residencies are supposed to go and present sound works on the on the array. So, I now have to compose this, this, this multi-channel, you know, sort of 3d piece. And then I need to go to New York in August, install the piece on the array and then be there for the opening and so on. And then I'm supposed to go to Europe in fall, who knows what's going to happen with that, but I'm supposed to go to Germany for a festival to perform some solo works and have some of my chamber works performed, that max rish tur is putting together.


Thom Holmes

I wanted to ask a little about your MIDI controllers and software that you use in live performance. These devices appear to be custom made, they are also really unobtrusive and blend seamlessly with your performance practices. Would you describe how these work? Maybe you could take us on a, an audio tour of your MIDI devices?


Pamela Z

This is one that you've probably seen. There's also this one. Yeah. And then you've probably seen me wearing these ones. So, these are the main controllers that I use these days. The ones that I wear on my hands, I have one on each hand. Those have accelerometer, gyro, and electro magnetometer. So, these are kind of the same sensors that you find in like your iPhone. Yeah. And they're looking for the x, y, and z. You know, the positions of my hands. And then they're the all of these instruments are sensor based. So, this one is, it uses ultrasound. And it's very much it's not very much it is the same technology that is used in medical functions. So, it's looking for mass. And so it knows how big or how close my hand is.


Thom Holmes

You play these controllers by gesturing with your hands. It has a theramin like appearance. No,


Pamela Z

I can understand that comparison. Because both are things that use sensors that are aware of the proximity of your hand, but it's a different it's a completely different sensor. And also, the sermon is a synthesizer so it has its own voice and it only has one voice which is you know, that sort of like musical saw kind of sound. Whereas this is a MIDI controller. So, it has whatever voice I give it, or it might not even be making sound it might be, I might be setting numbers to parameters that are changing, like the processing on my voice or something like that. And then this one uses infrared light. So, it's working kind of in the same way that this one does in that this one, you can actually see there's two little nodes on each side. And one of those is like, acts as a speaker and the other one as a as a as a microphone. So, one of them is actually shooting out ultrasound. And then the other one is listening for ultrasound. And then the echolocation happens because my hand is there. And this one is doing the same thing with sensors that are looking for infrared. So, there's two little nodes on each one of these four sensors, one that shoots out infrared and the other one that receives it back because of where my hand is,


Thom Holmes

Did you engineer these MIDI controllers?


Pamela Z

I actually have a very dear friend and collaborator named Donald swearengin, who built these instruments for me. And he is the one who did all of the programming. Like he wrote the firmware for these instruments. And actually even like he created and had these boards printed, so to extent one of them, actually has my name on it. And there's several iterations of them as we've worked over the years to sort of develop and change them. This one, I'm, this is the most recent one. And I really worked with him on developing like how this would work. But he he's the one who does all the soldering and all of the, this is the one on your hand. Yeah, these ones, you know, I would just did a lot of work about like, how they'd be worn what how they would receive the information. And you know, how that would be processed. And, you know, we talk together about like, this is what I want it to be do and how I want it to do it. And then I we did all these sessions, where I went to his studio, and we work together on it.


Thom Holmes

So, in live performance, what type of audio processing tools are you using?


Pamela Z

Basically, there's kind of four programs that I regularly use in making music and making my work. And so in live performance for the sound part. I'm using Max, Max MSP and for video, which I use a lot of video in my work as well. I'm using a program called isidora in the studio. For sound, I'm using Pro Tools. And for video editing. I'm using Premiere Pro. And for sound notation for music notation. I'm using Sibelius your question was though, in the live performance, what's happening Well, what I I have a sound an audio interface called a Motu Martin unicorn. ultralight. I plug a microphone into that. And then it connects by FireWire. Remember FireWire I, you know, I have to have a adapter that goes to USB C now from there, but they now the newer motors now actually have the USB C port, but I still have an old motor so as a FireWire port, and I connect that to the computer that I run Mac's on and then so my voice goes into the computer into Macs, and there I am using in Mac's I have written like digital delays, I pull in plugins for like granular synthesis and reverb and all those things, pitch bending and whatever else I do. And then I also have interfaces for each of my controllers that can talk to my maps patch, then with my controllers, I am sometimes changing the parameters on the processors that I have in Max, so that I can use the gestures to either play sounds or change the parameters on the processing of my voice or whatever I want. And it does different things in each piece, depending on what my presets are set up for and sometimes multiple things within the same piece.


Thom Holmes

Any plans to get more of your music recorded and released on CD


Pamela Z

For years I've I mean I have so much material that and I really have wanted to put out like I put out that CD in 2004 A Delay is Better than then I'm on a bunch of compilations that are all solo pieces but on are most of them solo pieces but on compilations but I just have been so overwhelmed timewise I just haven't found the time to mix and master things and get an I've been trying for years to get another CD out. So, finally this year I got to it and I got this one. And I'll also have another record coming out in fall, which is a reissue of an album I made in the 80s called echolocation and it was a cassette only release at that time it's going to come out on vinyl.


Thom Holmes

Yeah, that's fantastic. I've been speaking with composer, performer and media artist, Pamela Z. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. Thank you very much. All right, ciao. Let's listen now Times Cubed by Pamela Z and Geoff Sobelle, commissioned by the prototype festival, and thank you to them for giving us permission to play this in entirety on this podcast.

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
IMG_0519.jpg

NOISE AND NOTATIONS

Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.