Electronic Solo Artist Pamela Z: One Woman's Voice, One Vast Sound System

Electronic Solo Artist Pamela Z: One Woman's Voice, One Vast Sound System
Photo courtesy of Ars Electronica

Pamela Z has been performing solo voice concerts for over three decades, but she rarely sounds alone on stage. Instead, she creates a rich multimedia experience using electronics to multiply her voice and trigger sampled sounds and video. Although the term "processed voice" applies -- much as it does for artists like Laurie Anderson or Reggie Watts -- her approach tends to favor layering instead of distortion, so that the comforting, natural sound of her classically trained voice stands in front.

She'll be in town for concerts at two venues this week, on Wednesday in Miami Gardens and Friday in Wynwood.

We spoke to the San Francisco-based artist by phone, while she was in New York as part of a tour of the East Coast and Germany.

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She started using a digital delay effect on her voice in the early 1980s, a sound similar to the sort of echo you imagine in canyons, where a mountaineer shouts "Hello!" and the canyon answers back.

"I was trying to come up with material that was more experimental in nature, and really working with my voice in a different way. I was very inspired by minimalist composers, like Phil Glass and Steve Reich, and a lot of other contemporary classical music people who were doing interesting things with layering and manipulation: manipulation of sound either in real time, or the processes of sound changing radically over time. I was really interested in that, but I was having a hard time figuring out how I could do that and how to introduce that into my own music."

A revelation arrived at a concert by bass guitarist (and South Floridian) Jaco Pastorius: "He did a solo with himself playing bass with a loop pedal, and he was using one of those little stomp box digital delays. So I went to a music store the next day, and I described what I saw. I said, what was that? And the guy at the store said, 'oh that's a digital delay,' and I said, well, I'll take one!"

More delay units were added, "and I would use all of those together with a mixer to create these layers and loops that I do with my voice."

Today, the rack of hardware has been replaced with a laptop and custom software. Z designed the software "to mimic the hardware rack of delays and processors that I had when I was using hardware, because that had sort of become an instrument to me. And so I consider my instrument to be the combination of my voice and all of those electronics."

After more than 30 years, Z has become a virtuoso at her unique instrument, evolving an individual aesthetic that uses custom-built devices to detect her movements and control the sound. "Having some kind of gesture control makes a big difference in the way that I perform works, because it allows me to be very physical about the creation and manipulation of the sound. Also it has a pretty profound effect on the quality of my movements, because when your movements control what is happening in the sound, or what is happening in the video, then you have to develop a lot more subtlety and care to the type of gestures and movement that you do."

Z also engages with contemporary issues: for example, her piece "Baggage Allowance" references post-9/11 airport security measures. But she doesn't think of herself as an overtly political artist: "I know people who make work that's very political and that their intention in the work is to get across very particular messages or ideas, and I don't see my work that way at all. I feel like I live in a world, and things happen, and everything that happens in your world influences your work, informs the work."

Catch Pamela Z on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Miami Gardens at Florida Memorial University's Lou Rawls Center for the Performing Arts, 15800 NW 42nd Ave., Miami Gardens; and Friday at 8 p.m., in Wynwood at the Center for Visual Communication Project Space, 541 NW 27th St., Miami, presented by the FETA Foundation and part of its 12 Nights of Electronic Music series; 12nights.org. Suggested donation of $10.

-- Dan Dickinson, artburstmiami.com

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