HAPPY ACCIDENTS: Pamela Z and Hauschka

Posted on April 10, 2013 by zipo

Today’s guest post is by Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music at MIT and Inaugural Director of the Center for Art, Science & Technology.

Pamela Z and Hauschka met only moments before their back-to-back lecture/demonstrations last Wednesday; two days later they performed together, improvising a duo midway through the Friday night CAST Marathon in Kresge Auditorium, and sounding as if they’d been playing together for years. This was perhaps one form of the ‘happy accident’ that Pamela had spoken of in her talk, but the level of simpatico was too palpable to be just that. The shared sensibilities between two such distinct artists says something about where we are musically and culturally, and perhaps where we’re going as well.

Pamela Z is a new music warrior, and has been as long as I can remember. Originally aspiring to be a singer/songwriter à la Joni Mitchell, she studied classical voice in college, discovered experimental music, and realized that she could ‘combine bel canto with screeching – I didn’t have to pick!’ By the early 90s she had established herself in the loft scenes of San Francisco and New York, her work combining the poetics of American song and a truly off-the-charts vocal virtuosity with a knack for and fluency with gadgetry – motion sensors, real-time looping and effects processing – that was a good ten years ahead of its time, and which still creates an aura both uncanny and magical.

There was always something else with Pamela, beyond the technology and the technique, something hinted at by the post-punk hair and jewelry, by the mesmeric aspects of movement, and by the menacing repurposing of, say, a water bottle. Something that reached back beyond technology to early art, to ritual, to objects as fetish and totem, to the artist as conjuror and shaman.

In her Wednesday Music & Technology talk, Pamela took us through her process and showed examples of her work, which range from evening-length performance pieces to gallery installations – sometimes both, as in 2010 Baggage Allowance, which also exists in a fully functional form as a website. Her work often germinates from relationships with the everyday objects of her life, particularly those with half-lives: suitcases, phones and typewriters, a ripped page from a Phonolog catalog.

The ‘happy accidents’ mentioned above arise from an uninflected examination of this relationship: how we tote luggage through an airport, or return the carriage of a typewriter, for example. Real song titles beginning with the word ‘you,’ recited in alphabetical order, slowly take shape as ‘the great American love story.’  In her music it’s as if the self is refracted through technology, first metaphorically through what objects mean to us, how we see ourselves in them; then literally through digital delay, gesture control and signal processing. Everyday utterances and objects are ripped from their original contexts and stitched back together, hovering on the edge of the familiar, to create new sonic and visual textures, out of which emerge rhythm and song.

It seems like magic – one voice becoming many, bird calls emerging and dispersing with the wave of a palm – but it’s really a multilayered virtuosity, imbuing every aspect of Pamela’s work, smoothly masked by her grace as a performer. She writes her own code and designs her own hardware, then learns how to use both as second nature. In a typical piece she might build four-part harmonies layer by layer, put some vocal effects on top of that, meanwhile triggering loops and samplers through an ultrasound (yes, ultrasound) controller, all the while changing patches and altering effects on the fly on her laptop. All this is going on while staying in character and working the crowd. Overtly it feels simple and natural – there is no tension, no high wire act, and it yet seems impossible. And covertly it’s the opposite – intricate in design and execution, and all being made to happen before our eyes.

Volker Bertelmann – Hauschka – by contrast was trained classically but turned to pop music at 18, spending his twenties in German rap and techno. Becoming enamored of electronic sounds themselves, he sought out ways to replicate them acoustically, turned to the acoustic piano, and unknowingly retraced John Cage’s steps by ‘preparing’ it with everyday objects like chopsticks, tape, and chains. Placing these on the strings unleashed hidden harmonics and percussive attacks, which Hauschka uses deftly to evoke snare drums, electric bass, synthesizer drones – the essential components of a rhythm track.

On the surface, Hauschka’s visual aspect as a performer is as straightforward as Pamela’s is exotic: it’s a guy sitting at a piano. Complex sounds emerge out of beautiful patterns, and again it hardly seems possible – but for opposite reasons – what’s behind the curtain? Almost every attendee to Wednesday’s lecture crowded around the piano afterwards, trying to see the high-tech equipment – instead they found a collection of the quotidian, almost like one of the drawers in Pamela’s gallery cabinet – duct tape, ping-pong balls, vibrator motors. His hypnotic textures turn out to be astonishingly simple to produce; his artistry that of distillation and selection: the right object, on the right string, playing just the right pattern.

Overt simplicity hiding the covert on the one hand; complexity generated from simplicity on the other.  Art in a sense is always about altering reality – changing the way a moment is experienced, in real time or on reflection.  The alterations both Pamela Z and Hauschka offer are based on mechanical processes all of us intuitively understand. Subjects and objects de- and re-contextualized – the essence of objectification – through magnification and miniaturization. In their work the unfamiliar sounds and techniques of the avant garde are presented to us in the familiar form of pop songs – this is experimental music you dance to, with melodies you walk away humming. It seems impossible, and yet there it is, right before our eyes, and present in our ears.