Interview with Pamela Z
Hello? Hello? Hello?
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #526, 2 July 2005. Kalvos & Damian in the WGDR studio, with Pamela Z in Studio Z (San Francisco). Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:17:30–2:00:26].
Pamela Z is a San Francisco-based composer/performer and audio artist who makes solo works combining a wide range of vocal techniques with electronic processing, sampled sounds, and The BodySynth™ gesture controller. She has also composed scores for dance, film, and new music chamber ensembles. Her audio works have been presented in exhibitions at the Whitney in NY and the Diözesanmueum in Cologne. She has toured throughout the US, Europe, and Japan in concerts and festivals including Bang on a Can, the Japan Interlink Festival, Other Minds, and the Venice Biennale. Her numerous awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Creative Capital Fund, the CalArts Alpert Award, the ASCAP Award, and the NEA/JUSFC Fellowship. She holds a music degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
[Kalvos] Pamela Z, welcome to Kalvos & Damian!
[Pamela Z] It’s so nice to be here. Well, so nice to virtually be here.
[K] We’re going to start the usual way. Tell us about yourself, the encapsulated biography of Pamela Z. Where from, where to, and why?
[PZ] I was born in Buffalo, New York. No, that’s not what you really wanted to know, is it?
[K] Well, that’s a good start, but then we can go from there.
[PZ] You probably want me to leap, maybe, over a few years. Let’s leap to when I was in elementary school, and my first found sound piece that I can remember. My sisters and I, on our way home from school, used to find these little pods from a tree that would fall and sort of dry, and when you’d pick them up and shake them, they were very maraca-like.
[K] Oh, those long pods!
[PZ] And we used to play them as little percussion instruments, and my very first public performance was when I was five years old, my sister was seven, and we were in our elementary school’s talent show. We sang La Cucaracha, and we choreographed a little dance to go with it, and shook our little tree pods as maracas.
[Damian] Did you get in trouble from the arborist?
[PZ] We did not. And then, if you zoom forward from there, you come to when I was still in elementary school… or maybe it was when I was in junior high school. You know, I’m afraid that there’s going to be some geek on the radio who’s actually going to try to figure out how accurate my timing is, like if they figure out my date of birth, when certain things were invented, and so on. So I might get myself in trouble if I give wrong dates, but I believe it was when I was in junior high school, that the cassette recorder was invented.
[K] That would be about 1960.
[PZ] My father sent my sisters and I two of these new-fangled devices, because there were four of us. So they sort of made us share, and each pair of us got one. But I made the most use of them, because I was writing songs, playing the guitar and singing, and I started making fake radio shows. Again, the word “sound art,” or “radio art,” none of those phrases were in my vocabulary yet, but now I look back and realize, “Okay, I guess I was already starting to do that sort of thing.” I would take one of these little cassette recorders, and it was the kind that was little and flat, with a handle that pulls out of one end, and had four mechanical buttons along the front edge of it. You press them down, they go *ku-chunk!*, and you have to hold down the record and the play at the same time, go *ku-chunk!* and then it starts recording. I would sing or speak one part, and then I would turn on the other one, and play back the one I had just recorded while recording myself, and sort of did my own invention of how to do multi-tracking, something that probably every musician who ever got their hand on two tape recorders eventually figured out at some point. I would make entire radio programs, where I would do all of the voices. I’d sing all the songs, I would do all of the announcing, and I’d make fake commercials that went in between, and so on and so forth.
We listen to Badagada by Pamela Z [0:23:30–0:27:13].
[K] So this was your first sort of “sound art” piece. You are, in a sense, a child of technology that way.
[PZ] Yeah, and it’s funny, I never thought about it that way, but people always note that I’m sort of into the technology with what I do. But I hadn’t really thought about the fact that it goes back a lot further than one might think. I had that technology, the tape recorders, and I also happen to be the first person I know who ever had an answering machine. Now, of course, everybody’s got voice mail, but…
[K] Ah, with the tape you had to thread through it? That kind? The little loop of tape?
[PZ] Oh, the loop of tape. Yeah, my first answering machine didn’t use cassettes, it actually had little reels in it. It didn’t have cartridges. It was an old one that I found at some weird thrift store, or something: you record your outgoing [message], and then people record their other messages on the other tape. All of my friends yelled at me, they said, “How impersonal, to call somebody’s house and get a recorded message. That’s just terrible.” I said, “You mean, you’d prefer that the phone would just ring and ring and ring, and no one picks it up? You could leave a message this way.” But they just didn’t get it, and then several years later, it got to the point where if you don’t have one, people yell at you. [Laughter] “I called your number, and there was no answering machine, no voice mail. It just rang and rang. What’s up with that?” So, it’s kind of interesting.
[K] So, you chose the new technology and the oldest technology, in a sense, with the voice, and brought them together.
[PZ] That’s very true. In fact, I enjoy the fact that both are very complex technologies, and they both kind of equally contribute to my work. I mean, the way they work with one another is what results in what I’d say the signature of my work, or that my voice manifests itself as the combination of the machines and the human voice.
[K] When did you become conscious of the fact that you were actually using the technology as technology? When did you make the leap from the kid having fun with a couple of machines to deciding that you were going to do that as your artform?
[PZ] There was a huge, huge chasm between those two points, because between my making fake radio shows and layered sound pieces with my voice and two tape recorders, there was a whole period of me just singing classical music and being a singer / songwriter, doing un-non-pop. [General laughter] So, I went all through junior high school, high school and college doing what would be considered pretty conventional music compared to what I do now.
I studied music when I was in college, and I went to school at the College of Music at the University of Colorado at Boulder, [studying] as a voice major. I don’t know if it’s still this way, but when I was in music school, you had to take so many credit hours just to get through in four years, that you didn’t really have to time to think straight.
[K] Yeah, when I was in school in ’66–70 it was the same way. There were just an enormous number of credit hours of various applied music, and so forth.
[PZ] And as a voice major — and I suppose this would be the same for an instrumentalist — you had to take choir. So I suppose if you’re an instrumentalist you had to be in band or orchestra or something, but you had to take choir; you got one credit hour for it, but it had four rehearsals a week. So there were things like that, and not to mention voice-leading and conducting class, music history, and all these different things that you had to take. So I had this incredibly full [schedule], something like 21 credit hours each semester that I was taking. I was just sort of going through music school in this undirected way — studying bel canto style singing techniques with my private teacher in school, singing in the chorus, taking my history courses — and it wasn’t until my last year of school that I began to meet these really strange and interesting people. And I found out that all the interesting people were composition majors, and that their instructors were the only instructors at my school that were even aware that there were still any living composers.
We listen to Geekspeak by Pamela Z [0:37:05–0:41:20].
[PZ] So I sort of missed the boat by not being a composition major, because I didn’t really get much in the way of a new music education. Except for this one really amazing professor that I found out is still on the faculty there. [Ed.: now retired] His name was Dr. [Alan] Luehring, and everyone thought that he was nuts, and I think he kind of was, but he was deeply, deeply interested in and dedicated to new music. He taught the 20th century music class, and he was a terrible teacher. One of the ways he would teach would be that we would read this one 20th-century music textbook. I can’t remember whether we were reading the Michael Nyman text or the Eric Salzman text.
We listen to Voice Activated by Pamela Z [0:43:00–0:45:18].
[D] This professor of music, was he interested in new vocal techniques? Is that when you first got interested?
[PZ] No, he was interested in Stockhausen and John Cage. So in that sense he was, but he wasn’t specifically interested in vocal techniques, and as a matter of fact, I don’t remember him specifically exposing us to a lot of new vocal music. It was more just the actual exposure to new music by somebody who took it seriously and believed that it was something to be studied, as opposed to the rest of the teachers at the school, who either ignored it completely, or would brush over it as the last few minutes of history, you know? And drop the needle on a couple Stockhausen pieces, you identify them, and then you’ve learned your 20th century music.
But Dr. Luehring was very interested in John Cage and all these different things, and he taught about it in his class. He was terrible with his lectures and well, his lectures were crazy and kind of interesting, but his teaching method was to Xerox pages out of the textbook, and then remove words from them, and to prove that you’d read the chapter, you would fill in the blank that he had left open. [Laughter]
One day when I was sitting in class, he was going over the answers on one of those quizzes with us, and because he was going over the answers, I assumed, “Oh, well then this one isn’t going to count, we’re not going to have to turn it in, he’s telling us the answers.” So I sat there, going over the answers, looking at it, and I got bored, so I started doodling on my sheet. At the time, I was reading one of John Lennon’s two odd novels that he wrote — either Spaniard in the Works or in his Own Write — that were written in sort of a strange nonsense language that he had invented, called Lennonish. I was very fascinated with those books at the time, so I was reading one of them, and in it was a poem about a guy named Eric Hearble, who has a growth on his head, and I was trying to memorize that poem, so I was writing the poem in the margins of my paper. Then the end of the class came, and Dr. Luehring said, “Alright everyone, pass your papers up,” and I was like [gasp] “Oh no, I didn’t know we had to turn them in.”
So I went ahead and passed mine up, and as I walked towards the door, I walked past his podium just as my paper was landing on top of the one he had in his hand. He looked down at my paper, and without skipping a beat, he began reciting this Eric Hearble poem that I had written half of on the page, starting from where I left off. He knew it… all… by heart. That’s when I realized, “Okay, this guy has something going on.” Then he started expounding about, “Oh, yes, John Lennon, did you know that he was very influenced by the writings of John Cage.” And he started making comparisons between John Lennon and John Cage, started talking about Yoko and her relationship to the art world, and I thought, “Okay, this guy’s pretty interesting.” So, that’s my Dr. Luehring story, and apparently he’s still nuts, and he still lectures. If he thinks people are getting bored and not paying attention, he’ll stop in the middle… this was years ago, before… I seem to remember the “Helllllooooooo?” thing happening in the 80s, but it was in the 70s when I was in music school, and Dr. Luehring used to do that when people weren’t paying attention, he would stop and look at the class, and say, “Helllllooooo? Helloooooooo? I’m talking up here!” [Laughter] He was quite the odd bird.
[K] And is this the inspiration for your piece, Questions? Years later?
[PZ] You know, it could have been subliminally a part of inspiration for that song. But that song was not to be made for many years after that.
We listen to Questions by Pamela Z [0:50:00–0:55:09].
[PZ] So I get out of school with my music degree, I can sing opera and I’m a singer/songwriter writing my own songs, and there’s no connection for me between the songs I write and the classical music I do. I just know that I like both of them, but I am always wishing that there was some way I could connect them together.
[K] And the word “unemployed” comes to mind.
[PZ] Right. But it’s funny, almost straight out of college, for the first year and a half out of music school, I actually taught music in schools. But I quit my teaching job when I realized that I made more money busking on the street than I was being paid as a teacher.
[D] Were you busking by doing the songs you were writing?
[PZ] Playing the songs I was writing, playing the guitar, and having people throw coins and dollar bills into my guitar case, I made more money doing that.
[K] What street, what town?
[PZ] In Boulder, Colorado, on the Pearl Street Mall. Also, I traveled to San Francisco. The first time I ever went to San Francisco I busked in Berkeley on Telegraph Street, and in San Francisco at the cablecar turnaround in Fisherman’s Wharf. And I found that I was making more money doing that than I was being paid to teach children in the public schools, so I stopped teaching after a year and a half, and just starting playing music full time. I lived in Boulder for ten years, and for that entire ten years I pretty much made my living as a musician. But, I was always falling under the criticism of the pop music people — pop music, folk music, and rock music, that whole side of the world — [who were] always complaining that my voice sounded too trained. And the classical people were always complaining, “Oh, you shouldn’t do that other music, it’ll hurt your voice, it’s bad for your voice.”
Then, towards the last year and a half or two years that I was in Boulder, I started running into these new music people. Also, there was something happening with the bleed-through from punk and new wave into the art music world, and the connection between people like Talking Heads and those kinds of people, with people like Phil Glass. And all of this stuff culminated in a world where suddenly, singing with a classically-trained voice and doing something other than the common practice, period classical music, suddenly became an option. The rules got broken down, and I started doing more experimental things, and that is where I found the connection between the things I had been doing. I think the real breaking point — really the solid edge of the cliff on the other edge of the chasm — was the day that I bought a digital delay unit; my life changed overnight. I came home with this digital delay unit, I started singing into it, and didn’t know how to use it, so I just plugged a microphone into it, took an output from it and plugged it into a guitar amp or something. Or I think I had a little mono PA system that I used to go and play songs in clubs, because I played in clubs a lot. So, I plugged it into my PA and started singing through this thing and making loops. My poor neighbours probably never got any sleep that night, because I wouldn’t go to bed, I was just like, “I could do this all night.”
[K] Did you buy this on a whim, or on intuition?
[PZ] I actually bought it because my sister dragged me to a Weather Report concert and somewhere in the middle of the Weather Report concert, all the other members of the band left the stage and Jaco Pastorius sat down on a chair. He had one of those little eight-second footswitch digital delays, and he did a duet with himself, playing the bass. He just improvised a duet, and he just made a couple of riffs, a loop, and started playing over top of it. I said, “I don’t know what that machine is, but I need that.”
So the next day I went out to all these music stores and I said, “I saw this guy play his bass, and he could step on something and then he had recorded it, and then he could play over it. What is that?” They said, “Oh, that’s a digital delay.” I said, “Well, show me where those are in the store.” So, the guy showed me where they were, and there were these little cheesy guitar pedal ones that you could buy, but then there were these nice rack-mountable ones that had a much higher sampling rate. He said, “If you’re going to do it with your voice, you’re probably going to want the one with the better sampling rate.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.” I took it home, and that was the beginning.
That little digital delay, which I think was an Ibanez D1000, I still own that device. I’m afraid to say that it’s in a closet gathering dust right now, but I still own it. As a matter of fact, I own two of them, because it became such a staple of my work at one point that I bought another one, in case anything happened to it.
[D] So how long were you using it?
[PZ] I think I might have bought it sometime around ’82 or ’83, and overnight, my repertoire changed. In the first night that I had it, I wrote my first digital delay piece, City, which had this repeating loop of me doing this vocal stuff, and over top of it, I sang “I wish I was in the city.” That’s 20-some years ago. I made that piece, and the next weekend I had a gig, and I brought the digital delay, and people were a little weirded out, because I put my guitar down and I started making these vocal loops in the digital delay and singing this song. Within the next several weeks, my whole repertoire started being taken over by all these digital delay looping songs.
[D] And you’re in Boulder still, right?
[PZ] I was in Boulder, and the Joni Mitchell fans were saying, “But you have such a pretty voice, why do you want to use a gimmick like that?” They just didn’t understand where I was going with it, and then I realized that I could not go back to what I had been doing before. It was really that quick, like, I would say within six months of buying the digital delay, everything I was doing was being radically changed, and I was sort of going to a place where I couldn’t go backwards from.
We listen to In Tymes of Olde by Pamela Z [1:02:55–1:08:41].
[D] At the time, were you aware of anyone else doing this sort of music?
[PZ] I wasn’t aware of anyone doing exactly what I was doing, but I was becoming aware of new music, because I had a show on the local public radio station KGNU, in Boulder. My show was called The Tuesday Afternoon Sound Alternative. So I was experiencing this tremendous disconnect between the music I was listening to and playing on my radio program, and the music that I was going out at night and playing to make a living: [for a lot of] the music I was listening to and playing on the radio station… I had just unearthed all kinds of records from 1750 Arch. For those who are in the know, that is now the address of a place called CNMAT in Berkeley, which is the Center for New Music and Audio Technology.
[K] Right, and at the time, one of the other vocal people of the world, Thomas Buckner, was involved with that record label.
[PZ] Thomas Buckner and Charles Amirkhanian. [See interview in this issue of eContact!] Charles had made all these compilation LPs. So, I had this huge vinyl record collection that was beginning to be taken over by these weird 1750 Arch recordings that I found, and I think I heard my first Laurie Anderson [see interview in this issue of eContact!] — it was pre-O Superman —, a thing called Time to Go. It’s a piece about the museum, and the guard is telling everyone “It’s time to go.” Charles had a very early recording of her doing that, and he made this compilation of that, and something by Ned Rothenberg playing experimental clarinet techniques, and there was Pauline Oliveros playing the accordion, there was an Alvin Lucier piece, I think. This compilation was like my first real new music education, beyond Dr. Luehring at the school.
[K] Now, you don’t mention Cathy Berberian in this.
[PZ] Cathy Berberian came up later for me. This is what’s interesting. I was starting my own experimental vocal music practice sort of in a vacuum, with no peers, because there was no one in Boulder doing that. I was learning about new music, but the people who were inspiring me weren’t necessarily vocal people. I was being inspired by Steve Reich. I heard these recordings which were dealing with other sounds looping, what I was doing with my voice. So minimalism had a huge influence on me, because basically minimalism told me that it was okay to become so fascinated with this repetitious stuff that was suddenly so interesting to me. So my first new music influences were sort of, you know, Steve Reich, Phil Glass, Brian Eno. The stuff that Brian Eno was doing with David Byrne, that was the other non-Talking Heads projects that David Byrne was doing. I got all these recordings from the library at KGNU, and then I started trolling the used record stores for these weird labels that had come to know would have this stuff on them.
[K] The trolling of the cut-out bin.
[PZ] The cut-out bin. I was paying a dollar for CRI recordings and 1750 Arch recordings, of really pretty priceless stuff that’s now not in print. And that was my new music education, and after about a year and a half of that, I had to leave Boulder, because I didn’t have much in the way of a new music community there, and I was really excited about all this stuff, and I needed to go somewhere where people were doing it, and would appreciate it. My other fans, my old fans, were mad at me because I was doing electronics, and they didn’t want that. They wanted me to play pretty songs with chords. On a 12-string guitar.
So I moved to San Francisco — I think it was in 1984 — I packed everything into my hippie bus, drove to San Francisco, and I’ve been here ever since. But when I got here, I was met by an amazing time. I think it really was an amazing time, that nothing else will ever be quite like it. At that time, Rinde Eckert was doing these theatre pieces with the Paul Drescher Ensemble, where Paul would loop Rinde’s voice, and Rinde was doing all these bizarre characters, running around the stage. Diamanda Galás was in San Francisco a lot at that time, and performing at clubs. About Joan LaBarbara and Cathy Berberian, Diamanda Galás, Meredith Monk… I didn’t know who any of those people were. People would come up to me after a show, and say, “You must be very influenced by Meredith Monk,” and I would go, “By who?” And they thought I was lying. So then, I would go out the next day and go to a record store, and would say, “I’m looking for something by Meredith Monk.” And the guy would say, “Thelonius Monk?” and I’d say “No, Meredith Monk.” [General laughter] And then I’d get my hands on a Meredith Monk and go home and listen to her, and say, “You know, I see what they’re saying.” And other people would say, “Oh, you’re trying to sound like Laurie Anderson, aren’t you?” Now, I did know who she was, because by that time I think that O Superman, at some point, was in the top ten or something.
[K] Yeah, actually in the UK, I’m not sure if it was here, but, yeah.
[PZ] It was getting some pretty heavy rotation, at least on the more progressive radio stations. So I knew who she was, but no, I wasn’t trying to sound like her, and I wasn’t influenced by Meredith Monk. I was just doing what came naturally to somebody who’s playing with voice and text, and making loops of their voice with digital delays. There’s a natural progression that happens there, and I think it’s a lot like when you go around the world and you go to all these different cultures, and they all have certain things in them, they all sort of independently develop those. I think there’s a natural thing that comes from working in that way.
And certainly, Meredith Monk did not work with digital delays, but she did it by working with repetition and having an ensembles, who would sing these little hockets that she would compose. I was sort of doing something very similar, but I was singing them myself, and then looping them, and creating layers and harmonies and things over them. At the time, my work was still very tonal in a way, and I think my work has always been pretty tonal. Some cases are less tonal than others, but at that time, everything I was doing was quite tonal. But what was radical about it was that it was taking on this very minimalist æsthetic with lots of repetition, and very slow, gradual change of textures, through adding more sound. So, through people who had come to hear me play, I began to learn, in this sort of backwards way, who all the people were who were supposedly my influences. [Laughter]
And I learned from Charles Amirkhanian, who used to do this series called Speaking of Music. Then he later did this thing in Telluride every year, the Composer-to-Composer Festival; I think that the modern day version of that is the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco. I would go to these events that Charles would put on, and I would learn about Morton Subotnick and this amazing singer that he was married to, who would do this piece called Jacob’s Ladder, and walk ever-widening circles on stage while intoning these sounds. Then I started getting old recordings of Cathy Berberian and all these people, and I learned about this legacy of people working with voice in experimental ways.
We listen to Bone Music by Pamela Z [1:18:21–1:25:33].
[K] It sounds to me like you were breaking away, and as some of the other composers have told us, the taking ownership of your vocal instrument from the male-dominated compositional world.
[PZ] Well, when I first started doing experimental music, I was so naïve of the field that I didn’t even know that it was male-dominated. It wasn’t until I got to the Bay Area, where there was a real new music community and found myself amidst… there were women, I mean, I think there are some amazing women, especially in the Bay Area, [like] Maggi Payne [see interview in this issue of eContact!], who was at Mills (and still is). There were a lot of women doing interesting things, but just like the rest of society, the electronic music world… and especially because the electronic music world is sort of a branch of the geek world, and the geek world is definitely dominated by white men. But even when that wasn’t completely the case — there have always been people like Pauline Oliveros [see interview in this issue of eContact!] and Laurie Spiegel [see interview in this issue of eContact!] around — if you would go out and buy a new music compilation, there would often be no women on it. When I started to get a little bit better known and started being included on some of these new music compilations, usually I was on the only woman on them. I was also the only person of colour on them.
But I have to tell you, I was so distracted by the world, and my excitement with what I was doing, that I didn’t really pay that much attention, or care that much; it had to be pointed out to me by other people. I also developed my own system of working with digital delays, and I had this six-space rack that was full of delays, a sampler and a bunch of other processors. I had them all patched through a mixer, and I learned by teaching myself, because I didn’t go to Mills, where all these other people were. I was so jealous when I got to the Bay Area and learned that all my friends (who were colleagues) had gone to Mills College when I was at Boulder, studying with people who barely believed that there’s any living composers. My colleagues were at Mills studying with Bob Ashley, and Steve Reich, people like that.
[K] Is that why you brought a different and unique colour and structure to your stuff? You know, it has a lot of the looping and layering, but I would say that it has a distinctness that is absolutely not characteristic of a lot of “music of the era.”
[PZ] Yeah, I think maybe because I kind of created it in a vacuum. So it was really influenced by a combination of very odd influences: rock music and folk music, and then classical music, but also common practice period music, like Italian aria and opera, and Bach. That was really a strong influence. Then, a person who’s a singer/songwriter, and the idiosyncrasies of my own voice, and what it would do and what it wouldn’t do, and what playing with my own instrument revealed. And a desire to do performance art, because I was really interested in this intersection of the arts — I don’t even know if the word “interdisciplinary” was quite in fashion yet when I came to the Bay Area, but people were doing [these things]. I think people were still using the word “multimedia.”
[K] Before it was sort of hijacked by computers.
[PZ] Yeah, which got hijacked by the computer industry, but it was still being used to mean art in those days. I would talk about doing multimedia performances, and wanted to combine text with vocal sounds and found object noises, and visually interesting things. So, [I was] just picking up all the little pieces of stuff that I liked from popular culture and unpopular culture, and from my own past, and putting them all together in what I was doing. People were always saying to me, “Oh, you should listen to Meredith Monk,” and then I really got into Meredith Monk. “Oh, you should listen to Diamanda Galás,” or “You should listen to Joan LaBarbara,” or Cathy Berberian. People would suggest all these vocal people to me, that they thought my stuff reminded them of. One day, somebody said, “Do you know this woman, Amy X. Neuburg?” And I said, “Um, I don’t,” and they said, “Well, I’m curating a show, and I’d like to have you and her on it, because I think you guys have a lot in common.” I don’t remember who was the curator, but Amy and I played our first gig together. She was the only person I knew who was doing something that was very much like what I was doing. And yet, Amy’s work is really different from mine; Amy really is like a rock artist.
[K] Well, it’s really hard-edged, too, in a lot of places.
[PZ] Her music is like rock music. She has some music that is more kind of like classical music, but what I love about Amy’s work is that it’s unabashedly and unashamedly pop songs, but they’re just really coming from another planet, from this really intelligent place. But her way of constructing them and playing them is very related to my way of constructing and playing my pieces. We both were using loopers really heavily, but she was triggering hers with a MIDI KAT, or a DrumKAT. I think that was pre-KAT days, it was like the OCTAPAD or something like that. And I was using digital delays and footswitches to do mine, and then I was using actual physical found objects. I think she does that too, but I don’t think I ever saw her do that in the earlier days. I know she has a couple of pieces, like one piece where she uses a toothbrush, and loops the sound of it brushing against her teeth.
So we were both doing very similar and very odd things, and we both have very different styles, yet we both have classically-trained voices and [thought], “We have to play together!” So we started occasionally setting up gigs together, and we’ve been friends ever since. I think Amy was at Mills after I got out of school, so she’s a little bit younger than I am, but we’re both kind of from the same generation, and [working] kind of simultaneously but separately. Everyone who knows us thinks that one of us heard the other one doing it and got the idea from her, but we both — completely unrelated to each other — got the idea of working the way we do. It surprises me, and I was always shocked that there weren’t more people working that way. To me it just seemed like such a natural thing to do. I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t do it.
[K] Which part of it was a natural thing to do?
[PZ] To get digital delays — or some other kind of realtime looping device — and build very structured pieces based on loops that you make in realtime, and then sing over them, play over them. There were some people who had one or two pieces where they did that, but Amy and I are the only people I know really significantly in the world who just regularly work that way. When I met her, [I thought], “Well, I was just wondering when this would happen, when I’d meet the other people who do this.” And there are a lot of other people who do it, but I don’t know many of them. Most of them aren’t very well known. I think as I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve figured out that maybe the reason why more people don’t do it is that it’s difficult to do it and not have it very quickly become clichéd and self-conscious, and boring. It’s hard to do what Amy and I do, and have it not get old quickly.
We listen to My God by Amy X. Neuburg [1:36:00–1:42:25].
[D] But you’re doing other things now, you’ve gone beyond looping vocal things, because we see that you’re writing a string quartet for ETHEL, is that correct?
[PZ] That’s true, that’s true.
[D] So what process are you using for that?
[PZ] Well, I’ve written some chamber pieces before. I did a commission for Bang on a Can All-Stars in ’98, it was a piece called The Schmetterling. I think I was their first round of the People’s Commissioning Fund. I was one of three composers that they commissioned to do pieces for them, so that was one of my first ones. I also did something the same year with the California EAR Unit, and I’ve done a piece for the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. A couple of years ago, I did a piece for the St. Lukes Chamber Ensemble, I wrote a piece for solo cello and electronics.
[D] Had you done any other instrumental music before, then? What gave them the confidence in you to write something other than a looping vocal piece?
[PZ] I don’t know, I just think they’re nuts. [Laughter] They just threw caution to the wind, apparently, and they said, “Maybe she could do this.” I’m not convinced that I’m great at doing it, but it always comes out interesting. I really love the piece I made for Bang on a Can All-Stars, and I really hope someday that they’ll record it. I also wrote myself into the piece, so there was a part for voice and electronics amidst the other instrumentation. I believe the instrumentation was electric guitar, piano, cello, contrabass, percussion and reeds. I think I wrote a clarinet part for Evan Ziporyn. I wanted a saxophone part, but he said he didn’t want to play the saxophone. So I think I wrote a clarinet part for him, and sampler. And then voice, with delays.
The way that I went about doing that piece, and the way that I did the cello piece for the St. Lukes Chamber Orchestra, is I actually made something vocally and transcribed it. I’m not much for sequencing; I’ve never been a big MIDI sequencer type. The only way I tend to use MIDI on a regular basis is for triggering my samples in realtime when I perform. But when I’m composing in the studio, I sometimes use MIDI so that I can actually play a melody or some kind of phrase on a MIDI instrument and record what that is.
[D] Is that how you’re writing the piece for ETHEL?
[PZ] Yeah, the first sketches I’ve had have not even been notated or put down in any way to perform yet, except for me recording myself trying little things. But I will probably play the parts with a sampler using a MIDI keyboard, and then I will use that so that I can actually hear what it sounds like on the instruments to see if I like it, and then also I’ll use that to pull the score out of it, because I so rarely write notated music that I’m terrible at it. I can write music, and if I sang a melody for you right now, I could write down what it was, but I couldn’t do it the way somebody who fluently notates does. I wouldn’t be able to just go, “Ah, here’s the melody, and now let me just pick up a pencil and just sketch this down.” I have to sing it a bit and go, “Okay, what’s that, okay now I have to count here, what is that rhythm,” and it takes me a really long time to transcribe, because I’m slow at it because I never do it.
I very rarely read, so I’m very slow at sight-reading. So I transcribe it between writing it down by hand, little parts as they come to me, or playing them into a MIDI thing, and then taking the MIDI file and turning it into music and then fixing it, because it’s wrong. Then, I have the whole thing done, I hire a friend of mine who’s really good at doing scores to help me make it look pretty. I get somebody who’s really good in Finale or Sibelius, and they help me to generate the parts, … that’s how I work when I do stuff for chamber musicians.
[K] So it sounds like kind of an arch of transition is going on here. Do you have a view of where you’re headed?
[PZ] Well, you know, I always have these slow dovetailing kinds of activities going on in my life. When I first started doing stuff with voice and electronics, I was still throwing in a few singer/songwriter-type songs, and by the time those had faded away, I was not only doing performances for voice and electronics, but I was also inserting sampled sounds other than my own voice and projecting images in my work, and making more interdisciplinary kind of performance things. Then, at some point, as I was crossing over into that territory, I also became interested in making radio pieces, which was harkening way back to my childhood when I used to make fake radio pieces. I call them “fake radio pieces,” I don’t know why they’re fake, I mean they were never played on the radio, and they weren’t commissioned by Helen Thorington, or…
[K] Or Kalvos & Damian!
[PZ] … or Kalvos & Damian, or This American Life, or the Third Coast Sound Art Festival or something. But in more recent years, I started making sound pieces that were not for me to perform, but that would get played, either in an installation or just on the radio, and doing film scores and sound design for things. Now in the last couple of years, I’ve become really interested in working with multichannel things. The first piece I did like that was because Tom Steenland at Starkland Records commissioned 12 or 13 composers to do pieces that were specifically for DVD-Audio 5.1 surround. And I did that and I was like, “Ooh, that’s fun, I want to make installations that are meant to be coming out of multiple speakers.” It seems that when you get interested in things, somehow something hooks into the ether and things start coming to you that are related to that. I started, just out of the blue, getting commissions to make sound pieces, and I’ve made several sound pieces that have been commissioned by and exhibited in galleries, since the time that I did that thing for Tom.
And also in recent years these chamber music commissions have come up for me, and I really like that. So I try to not be really rigid. I’m really interested in going in whatever direction interests me at the time, I don’t want to just stagnate into doing one thing. But on the other hand, too, I’m getting a little worn out because my pace has always been too frenetic, I always have way too many projects going on. So one of these days I’m going to have to learn to try to pick and choose a little more. [Laughter]
[K] Well, we asked you some of the things about yourself, and we’re sort of diverting the topic here, but I’d really like to know why you love people being forced to listen to bad music, and hate tiny dogs in sweaters.
[PZ] Oh, but I don’t love people being forced to listen to… oh, I see, you turned it around just to be subversive, didn’t you? [Laughter]
[K] Well, maybe a reverse of those. Oh, I’m sorry.
[PZ] Tiny dogs in sweaters make me laugh. That was the answer to your question of what makes me laugh?
[PZ] And tiny dogs in sweaters is one of the things that makes me laugh. Yeah, being forced to listen to music, I hate being forced to listen to — particularly — bad pop music.
[K] You mean like elevators, or bad pop music on the radio nearby?
[PZ] I used to think that the world’s worst music was Muzak, elevator music, but now I think I’ve changed my mind about that. Elevator music, at its best, can have a certain level of kitsch chic to it, but what I really hate is that really bad power anthem rock music, or really bad jazz fusion pop music. Or the other pet peeve I have — and this is going to turn a lot of people against me, I know — is reggae. I’m sorry, just too much reggae, and I have been plagued with neighbours that like to play these things at high volume.
I don’t mind noise, I totally don’t mind construction noises outdoors, or people working with machines in the street, or the sounds of people actually working, I like that. But I hate being forced to listen to somebody else’s choice of music, and I think the reason why is that even though I’m sort of in the un-pop camp in terms of the music that I do, I am not against popular music, I actually like popular music, but I am way more picky about pop music than I am about other kinds of music. I’m much more picky: if I don’t like pop music, I tend to kind of hate it, and I only like the ones I like. [Laughter] So I tend to really hate it when other people force me to listen to theirs, because it wouldn’t have been my choice. That’s just a little pet peeve of mine.
We listen to Pop Titles: "You" by Pamela Z [1:55:13–1:58:23].
[K] Thanks for joining us on Kalvos & Damian.
[D] Thanks, it’s been a real treat.
[PZ] The pleasure has all been mine. Thanks so much, it’s been fun.