wait a moment

Speaking Memory: Pamela Z

by Lakshmi Ramgopal

Photo by Goran Vejvoda

Delay, speech, song, and technology: these are the hallmarks of Pamela Z’s work. A pioneer inthe realm of vocal processing, the San Francisco artist behind A Delay Is Better (Starkland) has been shaping experimental music for decades. So it was surprising to learn, as we Skyped on a hot August afternoon, that she had spent her first years out of music school working as a singer-songwriter in Boulder. “I was singing songs that I wrote and doing cover tunes in clubs and cafes and bars and…” She starts laughing. “And fern restaurants.”

In the end, it wasn’t enough for Pamela Z to sing with her guitar. Like so many artists before her and since, what she really wanted was to make music that resembled what she was listening to at home. In her case, that was experimental music and vocal processing. Once she realized this, she packed up and moved to San Francisco, where she’s been ever since. It was a good call. At the time, the city boasted a strong, receptive art scene, and it quickly made room for her artistic rebirth.

Warm and chatty, Pamela Z laughs as she reflects on the abruptness of her move, even though it happened decades ago. “I was naïve enough to think that a person could just move to a new city and start playing experimental, avant-garde music and doing performance art, and be able to make a living. And because I was so naïve to think that that was possible, it kind of made it possible.” Challenges exist only if you believe they do.

Delay is a defining feature of Pamela Z’s work, so the development of her practice has hinged on technology and technological change. Memory was expensive in the 80s, so the first digital delay she could afford to purchase had a short 1-second delay. Despite its brevity, the delay time wasn’t an obstacle. She found that if she turned up the feedback on the pedal, she could cause its recorded loops to sound longer. As the cost of memory decreased, she bought increasingly powerful delays. The most crucial purchase was a delay by Lexicon, which she upgraded by paying extra money to increase its memory and give her nearly thirty seconds of delay time. “My work started to get more interesting when I got that delay, because I learned that if you have really long loops, they’re not so clichéd sounding. It’s not so obvious to the ear that it’s a loop.”

Delay didn’t just offer Pamela Z a novel avenue for exploring repetition – it opened the door to an array of timbres, textures, and speech sounds that became fundamental to her live performances. “As I deepened my relationship to the electronics I was using, it became less and less of an accompaniment, and more and more of an integrated whole. I consider my instrument to be the combination of my voice and the electronics.”

Through that combination, and often in the company of found text, multichannel video, and other media, Pamela Z’s work often explores specific concepts that relate closely to the technology she regularly uses to make it. One of those explorations is MEMORY TRACE, which examines how memories are stored through organic tools like the brain or manmade technologies like flash drives. A project like this necessarily refers back to digital delay, a form of processing that ultimately relies on memory recall to function.

“Delay is a kind of recall,” she muses. She considers what she’s observed over the decades. As machines become increasingly anthropomorphized and humans more willing to assume machinelike features, the human capacity for memory has become complicated. “It’s really common now to use metaphors like ‘Oh, I don’t have enough bandwidth for that.’ But in the early days of using computers, it wasn’t so common, because not everybody was so deeply involved with computers as they are now. It was only people who were technicians and computer geeks who would have these little inside jokes about mixing up the idea of the human mind and computer memory.” Now, everyone’s a computer geek.

And Pamela Z participates in these jokes gleefully. She loves, for example, to claim that she needs to “defrag” whenever she has too much going on in her schedule. She also names her hard drives after artists. “I have one named Cage and one named Duchamp.” She chuckles. “I even have one named Oliveros that I named for Pauline.” Her proudest achievement in this vein is probably the drive she uses for Apple Time Machine backups: H.G. Wells.

Given the role of delay in Pamela Z’s technical practice, it’s reasonable that memory forms its conceptual heart. At the same time, one has to ask: how does a listener find her work? Although she’s been composing and performing since the 80s, her only solo full-length is 2004’s A Delay is Better. That means there are few ways to recall her expanse of her work. She laughs when I bring this up. “Sadly, I am so, so remiss about getting recordings out,” she admits. “I have a whole bunch in the oven and I just have got to get them out.” One is a chamber piece called Carbon Song Cycle, which she developed for a collaboration with visual artist Christina McPhee. She hopes to record it after an autumn that includes touring, a project with the Del Sol String Quartet, and a residency at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As she lists her upcoming projects, it’s clear why recording has taken a back seat: there are only so many hours, so sometimes there’s a delay.

Pamela Z performs at Constellation on September 24.

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