It’s easy, watching Pamela Z perform, to get distracted by her gadgets: the MIDI controllers strapped to her hands like bionic appendages, the ultrasound-activated box that sings when her fingers flutter past, the laptop with its glowing screen. But if you close your eyes, you’ll find yourself enveloped in Z’s voice, bell-like and unearthly.
“People always assume that, as soon as the voice is involved … there’s some very concrete narrative or meaning or message,” says Z. “And I like the fact that that doesn’t have to be true.”
In her work, Z–who will perform at Le Laboratoire on March 11, 2016 as part of MIT’s Sounding Series–toes the line between abstraction and literalness. She plucks words from their comfortable contexts, and toys with the natural timbre and melody of speech. She wrests beauty from unexpected places, like sheet metal and the sounds of breathing. In place of resolution is only a trembling, uneasy harmony between the familiar and alien.
“I just think that what art does is beyond being able to be distilled down into a summary, a verbal summary,” she says. “So I find it really interesting to be able to create a whole world that is beyond being able to be explained in words.”
That’s not to say technology isn’t crucial to Z’s process. For the San Francisco composer/performer, an eccentric collection of electronic tools enables her to fuse the seemingly disparate elements of her artistic vision. Sampling technology expands the parameters of her classically-trained voice; with the help of gesture-activated controllers, she can distort it, chop it, loop it, and layer it, a fleet-fingered alchemist spinning music out of the ether. In the process, movement becomes integral to her music-making.
“I’m a very, very visual performer,” says Z. “Everything from my facial expressions and my physical gestures and just my physical attitude on the stage, and the visual look of what’s happening on the stage—all of that, to me, is part of the work.”
Z has been working with MIDI gesture controllers since the early ‘90s, when she first began to experiment with the BodySynth, a futuristic contraption designed to react to the fine muscular twitches in the arm through a network of electrodes. Now Z employs several MIDI controllers to activate pre-set samples—the clatter of a typewriter, the splatter of a dripping faucet—and to manipulate her own voice. One device straps directly onto her hand and reacts to the speed and angle of its movement; another reads infrared light. Z plays them all with the fluid precision of a conductor, presiding confidently over an inanimate electronic orchestra.
The learning curve for a gesture controller, says Z, is like that of any ordinary instrument. Well, almost. She remembers her first public outing with the BodySynth as a disaster—the device was so sensitive to her biology that her elevated adrenaline levels caused it to go haywire. Samples triggered higgledy-piggledy, and the performance was a bust. After that, says Z, “I had to learn how to be very still in my body.”
Though they correspond precisely to specific sonic inputs, Z’s gestures are nevertheless abstract to the untrained eye; it’s less like watching someone pull a bow across the strings of a violin or plunk on a piano than watching a magician conjure a dove from thin air.
In this way, Z’s physicality, at once functional and enigmatic, mirrors the ideas explored in her work. A recent collaboration with the visual artist Carole Kim, titled “SPAN,” pushes Z’s preoccupations—with language, metaphor, and meaning—to their furthest limits (thus far). Using interviews with architects and engineers as a jumping-off point for her compositions, she investigates the function of bridges in our world. An exploration of architecture and aesthetics evokes the concept of “crossing” in all its symbolic potency.
“There are sculptors who spend their whole lives being able to pull a perfectly accurate portrait of the human form out of a piece of stone, or cast it in bronze or whatever,” says Z. “And then there are sculptors who just make these really powerful forms that may evoke, for people, various things—but they are not analogous to something specific that already exists. And I like the idea of being able to use sound in that same way.”