In the mid-1980s, artist Pamela Z was working at Tower Records on Columbus Street in San Francisco, where one of her jobs was replacing pages in the store’s Phonolog, an enormous alphabetized directory of all the music available at the time, which formed a kind of bible of pop. When she ripped one loose-leafed sheet from the book, she noticed that all the titles on that sheet began with “you.” You stayed on my mind. You stole my heart. You stepped out of a dream. When spoken, the repetition of the words had an undulating, musical quality. It soon found its way into one of her electronic compositions, the found poetry processed with four-track cassette recorder, the simple list of phrases made incantatory through the looped rhythms of the human voice.
Pamela Z, the recipient of this year’s Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, has become renowned for her pioneering work in live digital looping and interactive audio/video performance. Her voice is the centerpiece of these performances, manipulating and layering recordings in real time to produce complex sonic textures. Through the use of experimental extended vocal techniques, operatic bel canto, multimedia and sampled sounds, digital processing, and wireless MIDI controllers that use physical gestures to manipulate sound, Z creates immersive and magical aural collages.
While her first tool was a hollow-body guitar, which Z would use to accompany herself in clubs at night as she sang opera arias by day, her art changed once she discovered a digital delay in the '80s. “I came home from the music store, hooked everything up and started singing through it,” she remembers. “I never went to sleep that night because I was just looping my voice over and over again, and discovering beautiful properties of repetition, of layering, of being able to harmonize with myself, of being able to make complicated things by feeding back into the delay as I added more and more layers. I really think that I was never the same after that.” Having new technological tools, she said, allowed her to listen in new ways, discovering all the polyphonic dimensions within a single sound.
In the decades since, Z has sought possibility in the objects of everyday life — Slinkies, plastic water jugs, hair clippers, and power tools — working these found materials into densely layered compositions, woven through with her classically trained soprano. The sound of the freight elevator in her loft, a glass falling on the floor, or a fragment of conversation can all become defamiliarized and creatively repurposed in the work. What begins as a simple act of noticing, then, in the process of composition, evolves into much larger meditations on the human condition.
In the 2010 work “Baggage Allowance,” for example, the experience of hauling suitcases through airport security expanded into a philosophical investigation of memory, belonging, and what it means to carry things with you. “Her process is ‘Let's explore a subject area, or take these objects and put them together. Let's take this language and cut it up, letting its meaning evolve through examining it in what seems to be an objective way,'” says Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music and faculty director of the Center for Art, Science and Technology, “and then ending up with something very subjective, personal, and moving.”