2018 Springfield Lecture: Composer Pamela Z

For the 2018 Springfield Lecture, the Rhodes College Music Department invited Pamela Z to speak as a continuation of the annual tradition of bringing acclaimed music theorists, music historians, musicologists, or composers to Rhodes to foster appreciation of music as an academic discipline. The Springfield Lecturer each year not only gives a formal lecture but also interacts informally with students in different classes, depending on their discipline. This year Pamela Z visited the Music History and Music Technology classes and had lunch with students for three days as part of her residency.

Pamela Z is a composer, performer, and media artist whose solo work uses voice, live electronic processing, sampled sound, and video. She holds a vocal music degree from University of Colorado at Boulder. She processes her voice using live digital looping techniques to create a complicated, layered sound. Her works combine experimental extended vocal techniques, gesture-controlled MIDI controllers, found objects, text, and sampled concrete sounds that expertly blend her classical training with new, experimental techniques in electronics. Her performances range in size from small concerts in galleries to large-scale multimedia works in theaters and concert halls. She has also been commissioned to create scores for galleries, chamber music ensembles, film, and dance. Pamela Z tours extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan, as well as recording and performing original scores for choreographers and film/video artists. She wrote a one-act opera called Wunderkabinet which was inspired by the Museum of Jurassic Technology and co-composed with Matthew Brubeck. She has also received several honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Doris Duke Artist Impact Award, a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation residency, the Herb Alpert Award, and the NEA/Japan-US Fellowship.

Most of Pamela Z’s Springfield Lecture was a performance of her work using her usual setup of MAX MSP and Isadora software on a Macbook Pro, custom gesture-controlled MIDI controllers, and video imagery. It was fascinating to watch her perform live because there is an ease and a chance-like quality to her performance that looks improvised to the audience, but she actually plays the music from memory with specific breaks for improvisation throughout a composition. However, her compositional process is entirely improvised, and she said in the question segment of the lecture that all composition is improvising to a certain extent. She also described her transition from playing conventional music in clubs to her current style of music as a way to combine her love for classical art music and popular music. She developed a love for contemporary avant-garde music after college while hosting a radio show, but the music she was creating for clubs was more mainstream. She then found herself in a crisis of creative identity, but attending a Weather Report concert and seeing the bass player use a stomp looping pedal inspired her to buy her own digital delay and experiment with looping her own voice. Several weeks of practicing and experimenting brought forth the style and compositional practice she has today! Witnessing her creativity before my eyes was a unique experience, and her music is truly inspirational to artists who don’t want to create conventional, popular music.

Text by Sarah Johnson