The elemental Pamela Z: Sculpting sounds in Berkeley

Pamela Z

Pamela Z: making a rare East Bay appearance on Friday April 12 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

In the world of sound sculptor Pamela Z, words are elusive and elastic, wriggly agglomerations of sound always threatening to devolve into their constituent syllables. In a rare East Bay performance she presents the premiere of her new work Carbon Song Cycle, an immersive collaboration with video artist Christina McPhee, at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive as part of the L@TE Friday Nights series programmed by Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill.

Featuring a talent-stocked chamber ensemble, with Theresa Wong on cello and vocals, bassoonist Dana Jessen, violist Cherith Premawardhana, and percussionist Suki O’Kane, the piece is inspired by carbon’s impact on global warming, though the song cycle is anything but an environmental polemic.

“The last thing I want to do is ‘An Inconvenient Truth: the musical,’” Z said from Cambridge, where she was performing a solo work for voice and electronics as part of the MIT/Center for Arts Science and Technology Marathon.

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Three Vertical Kilns: part of the video work by Christina McPhee in Carbon Song Cycle

“I’m interested in the language and imagery around carbon,” Z continued. “Christina’s video is really abstract. She layers the images, so rather than depicting something as a really clear image it’s like an abstract painting. In one segment I’m just reciting formulas for everything from photosynthesis to combustion. In another section, I’m listing the names and populations of species, from micro-organisms up through primates.”

It might sound dry, by using her lush, classically trained soprano, live electronic processing, the occasional found object and samples triggered with a MIDI controller called The BodySynth, Z is an enthralling sonic explorer who is not averse to composing sumptuous melodies. Creating loops so that she can accompany herself with own voice, she seems to pull sounds out of thin air with her graceful, Tai Chi like vocabulary of hand and arm movements, building musical collages that play with language, or that simply explore the shape of sound.

Carbon Song Cycle reunites her with McPhee about a decade after their first collaboration, 2005’s acclaimed multimedia opera Wunderkabinet. They connected while taking a class at CNMAT, and when Z found herself in need of a video artist for her project inspired by Los Angeles’s singular Museum of Jurassic Technology she found a visual muse in McPhee.

Many of Z’s works incorporate text collages built from interviews she’s conducted, like last February’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts premiere of two pieces commissioned by Kronos Quartet that employed snippets of 25 people with different accents. For Carbon Song Cycle she scaled back, only interviewing two people.

“There’s a Stanford climate scientist, a jovial professor who loves what he does and I wanted the sound of his voice,” Z said. “The other person I interviewed was Christina, the video artist. I asked her questions about what drew her to this subject matter (she was obsessed with plate tectonics as a child) but I just used fragments of some of her answers.”

PZ&CM Together

Video artist Christina McPhee and Pamela Z: reunited a decade after their first collaboration, 2005’s acclaimed multimedia opera Wunderkabinet

Based in San Francisco, Z has created a number of large scale multi-media works, such as Baggage Allowance, Parts of Speech, and Gaijin, and has collaborated widely with across various disciplines, recording and performing original scores for installations, one-woman shows, film and video artists and choreographers. She has toured internationally and performed in numerous festivals, including Bang On A Can at Lincoln Center, the Interlink Festival in Japan, and Pina Bausch Tanztheater’s 25 Jahre Fest in Wuppertal, Germany.

Part of what makes Z’s work so compelling is that even at their most abstract her pieces have a song-form sensibility. The words may set a scene, suggest an idea or transform a list into a highly evocative text. Or she may forgo words altogether and build soundscapes out of long sustained notes, loops and sampled noises. Either way, the pieces feel like self-contained tales.

“When I first started working with digital delays there was almost a verse/chorus structure that a lot of my pieces tended to take,” Z said. “I would start by creating some kind of loop and sing something over the top of that or pronounce some text and then alternate between that and adding something to the loop. In my mind, there’s still  a connection to song format.”

Z, who legally changed her name from Pam Brooks when she moved to San Francisco in 1984, grew up in the Denver area and was the kind of kid who created her own “radio” shows on a cassette recorder. She played guitar and viola and sang in various choirs in high school. While working toward a music degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she began performing as a singer/songwriter, accompanying herself on guitar (she cites Joni Mitchell as an influence).

She supported herself working in clubs for a number of years, and also hosted a public radio show focusing on avant garde and experimental music. When she found herself in a creative rut, unable to break out of standard chord patterns, she discovered a new path from an unexpected source. One night in the early 80s she went to a Weather Report concert at a time when the seminal jazz fusion band featured the electric bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. During a solo, he used a digital delay to play a bass duet with himself, and Z experienced a musical epiphany.

“Something hit me, like if I had that device I could probably do really interesting things with my voice,” Z said. “So I went out and bought a digital delay unit and started playing with it and that was an incredibly pivotal moment in my life as a composer, because I began thinking very differently about sound.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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