Pz Ars Electronica01

In Conversation with Pamela Z

By Sofía Benitez

Feb 25, 2019

Pamela Z, legendary electronic musician and performer, is one of the commissioned composers for the upcoming performance: Claire Chase: Density 2036, part vi premiering at The Kitchen March 1-2, 2019. I spoke with her to learn more about her process of coming up with a piece, her experience working with Claire Chase for the first time, and what she is up to next.

How did you first learn about The Kitchen?

The Kitchen has such a long history that although I was not in New York, I heard about it long before I started playing here. I first played at The Kitchen in 2004 with a performance work called Voci and it was a great experience. I came back for Baggage Allowance in 2010. Both works premiered in San Francisco and then I brought them here.

Can you tell us about your upcoming performance with Claire Chase?

Claire is performing and she commissioned me to compose this piece. This project is part of a series in honor of Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5. I made Claire’s piece for flute and tape. We still like to call it tape although it’s a sound track and live electronics, and there will be processing on her flute as well. To get started, we arranged for Claire to do a studio visit in San Francisco. She brought her flutes. I had never written a piece for flute before—I had written for chamber ensembles that included one, but never for a solo. I asked her if she could go through some interesting techniques and let me know what things are possible. I asked a lot of questions and recorded her playing different techniques, naming them, and explaining to me how I would notate or ask for each. When we were done, I asked her to go into my sound booth, and I interviewed her because it would help me make the piece. I recorded her, and then I did something I love to do; I took her recorded voice and created sound fragments out of it to create a sort of text collage. The piece is really based on the sound of her speaking voice. Pretty much everything she plays in the piece is taken from the transcription of the rhythms and melodic material in her own voice. That’s the premise that I use to build the piece.

Is this your first time working with Claire?

It is. We were together in a festival in the past but played separate pieces.

Did you prepare questions for Claire’s interview?

I knew I was going to interview her but I didn’t tell her I would. I do that a lot. I interview people and use scraps of their voices to build a piece with questions I usually prepare in advance. You will hear Claire’s voice because the text collage is part of the piece. It’s all chopped up and there is no continuity to what she is saying. I suspect people who know her may recognize stories she has told about her life, but I created something new out of what she said by reorganizing and reordering fragments. There is a whole section of her just laughing. It is about finding the musicality in her voice.

When did you start working with the interview format?

I use interviews for many of the pieces I make. For Baggage Allowance (2010), I interviewed around twenty-five people using a set of questions about baggage and attachment, asking for a list of things they pack when they go on a trip. By the end, I had all these samples of people speaking and built the piece based on text collages of those voices, which you can hear throughout. Earlier in the '90s, I made Parts of Speech, one section of which dealt with the language of asking. I interviewed homeless people and panhandlers and use their voices in the actual piece. That may have been the first time that I built a piece that way. I started out using my own speech sounds and became interested in sampling other people’s voices, but those early experiments were not about the pitch and rhythm of the voices. I was using them for the sound of the text collage itself but not replicating them in other instruments or my voice. Later, I became interested in doing that. In 2011-12, I made a piece for Kronos Quartet about speaking accents. It’s for string quartet and tape. The tape is made up of text collages from around thirty people I interviewed. People who spoke English as a second language, who had regional accents, or English-speakers from other countries. I composed the string quartet really tightly around these text collages. I think that is the first time I made a piece that was composed using mainly the pitch and rhythm material from those speaking voices. I liked doing that so much that I have made a lot of pieces since then using the same method.

Have you used the same technologies across the years?

I have used digital recording and sound editing for a long time, but I remember the early days of fixed media when work was recorded and played back on tape. All the editing was done on tape too. I used to work on radio, and at that time I was using tape on reel to reel machines. You would have a white grease pencil and use the flanges to go back and forth until you found the exact spot on the playback head that you wanted to edit. Then you would mark it with the grease pencil, take the tape, and lay it down in an editing block. You would splice the tape using a razor blade with a diagonal splice, take the two ends, and put them back together with special splicing tape. That’s how you would do those edits, the same way Steve Reich would make all those tape pieces with actual tape loops he hand-edited. By the time I was making really complex text collages, I was working in digital media with Pro Tools and before then, Sound Designer.

How did you approach this piece as a composer?

The typical thing for me to do is to compose works for my own voice and electronics and that’s what I’ve done in my solo career for many years and am best known for, but I did start receiving commissions from chamber ensembles, and, over the years, dance companies and choreographers as well. I have made a lot of pieces intended to be used as fixed media work. I create them in my studio and am usually the original performer of the fragments. These are often pieces I wouldn’t know how to perform live because I edit them in the studio even though I use my voice, my electronics, and other sound sources. In recent years, I have received more chamber commissions. I really am enjoying that because it broadens my palette of sounds. When I compose for myself now, I start to think, “strings would sound good here,” because I think of all the textures you can get with [chamber] instruments. When I compose for myself, I arrive at the piece by actually doing it, singing, and processing my voice. This is how ideas come to me. If I am composing and it is for somebody else, I still have to approach it like I would if I were making it for myself. I might sing or play something for the digital piano. Using MIDI, I play it back in the computer with the instrument I am writing for. It is a different way of working, less instantaneous than working with my own voice or thinking of somebody else’s voice. 

No matter who I am composing for, I am generally alone in my studio, and it is pretty hard for me to do it any other way. I have had a lot of collaborative projects but I haven’t actually learned how to make new work while I’m in the room with somebody else. Usually we do it in pieces. If I’m working with a choreographer, they’ll send me videoclips, and I’ll send back sound. The closest I’ve come to it is when the work is very improvisatory, then I can work with somebody else and we are both working with what comes to us. When I’m composing works for a chamber ensemble or a soloist like Claire, I tend to make the whole piece and deliver it to them. The piece is essentially finished by the time I hand it to them. There’s a choreographer in San Francisco I work with a lot. Her name is Jo Kreiter and her dance company is called Flyaway Productions. The company does aerial dance or, as she calls it, apparatus-based dance. Jo is the only choreographer I know who makes entire dance sections without music. Over the years, she has commissioned me to make music for a large number of dances. Jo is very political in her work and all of her pieces are really themed around her ideas: labor, for example, or abuse, or the prison system. Now that I think about it, a lot of the work I make for her is probably the genesis of my work with interview material. Often for her pieces, I’ll do the interviews or she’ll have interviews from an archival journalist. She will write a long list of the language used and pick things people said. I make choices but start out with her skeleton, and then take those fragments build the music for the different sections of her dance.

Is there movement in Claire’s piece?

I hadn’t thought there would be, but that’s because I didn’t know Claire as well as I do now. Apparently she has choreographed a lot of movement. She has different stations on stage that she will move across during my piece to play her three flutes in.

What are you currently working on, thinking, or writing about?

I have been deluged with major commissions and deadlines, but something I’ve been reading is a Philip Glass memoir because I’ve been flying. I also just finished a chamber orchestra piece using a text from Beethoven. He wrote the "Heiligenstadt Testament" when he was very depressed and was losing his hearing early in his life. In this testament, he bequeaths all of his belongings to his brother because he was going to take his own life. As he is writing it, he starts saying that it is only his art that holds him back because he doesn't feel he has produced everything he had in him, which basically saves his life. I thought this was a really interesting text and I extracted a condensed version of it and made it the libretto. I wrote for the same orchestration that Beethoven used for his first symphony, around the time he was writing that text.

Because I’m so fond of taking samples and stretching them and layering them, I did that with Beethoven but notated it for the actual orchestra to play. So I took the first movement of his first symphony and chopped it up and stretched it and layered and looped parts of it and transcribed all of that for orchestra, so it is being played as though it was this granulated, chopped up sample piece except by an actual orchestra. I wrote it for them and my own voice in electronics, and I am singing and speaking in it. We had a rehearsal right before I came here, and it was amazing to hear actual humans playing it!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One thing I’ll say about Claire is that it’s so amazing to work with someone who is a virtuoso, and she really is one. It was intimidating to make something to challenge her at all. I don’t think she fully expected the text part but she was pleasantly surprised. We worked to develop and add processing because she likes the work I do with my voice and live processing, and there are places in the pieces that lend themselves well to that. Claire also watched my videos when she got my piece and wanted to physically echo something that had the feeling of my performance’s gestures. I’m wondering what she’s going to wear for the performance because she’s very theatrical about the way she presents this work.

To learn more about Pamela Z, visit pamelaz.com.

With thanks to Lena Redford for advising on resources about women in electronic music.

Photo: Pamela Z performing at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Photo by rubra, courtesy of Ars Electronica.

About The Kitchen