Pamela Z: ...material, just being something to hang the work on

On the work of the composer and performer Pamela Z

By Tim Rutherford-Johnson

When Covid-19 struck, the American composer and performer Pamela Z was in Rome. She was halfway through a one-year Rome Prize Fellowship at the American Academy, but as the world shut down in March, she left Italy, with her projects unfinished,to return home to San Francisco. It is from there that she spoke with me over Zoom in August this year. Although we’ve never met in person, the view of her studio was already familiar to me: shelves of archive boxes and scores, a collection of theatrical props, bits of audio technology, a gray artwork on the wall. Like many artists, Z has switched to online performances during the pandemic – giving concerts through series such as the Gray Sound Sessions, Experimental Sound Studios’ Quarantine Concerts, and Principles of Non-Isolation in Audio. There was, therefore, the strange feeling that our conversation was taking place in a space that was both a home and a stage; a space that was both more and less ‘real’. This Brechtian effect of lockdown – in which the artistic production or event disappears almost entirely in the face of the webcam and the living room live stream – has echoes in Z’s work, which is constructed of real and found sounds but defamiliarizes them through processes of sampling, looping and recontextualization.

Before she left Rome, Z had been working on a multimedia song cycle called Simultaneous for her voice, electronics, and projected images. This work remains unfinished, but some idea of how it will turn out can be guessed from a sound installation called Sonora Spolia, exhibited in the cryptoportico (semi-underground passageway in Ancient Roman architecture) of the American Academy as part of the Cinque Mostre exhibition in February and March 2020. This installation serves as a study for the larger work. It features twenty-one speakers suspended from the ceiling just below waist height, in three rows along the corridor. From these we hear fragments of speech, from single phonemes up to complete anecdotes, edited into a twenty-minute collage, with additional sung vocals and other concrete sounds. The speech fragments come from a number of different voices, and appear to have been arranged into common themes. Many of the samples are just single words or sounds, but among them can be heard descriptions of daily routines, stories of strange coincidences, and translations of Latin inscriptions found on spolia (building stones that have been repurposed from earlier, demolished structures).

Sonora Spolia, Installation by Pamela Z, Exhibition Cinque Mostre, American Academy, Rome, 2020. Photo: Giorgio Benni, courtesy of American Academy in Rome

Z began composing Simultaneous and Sonora Spolia by conducting interviews. She spoke to around thirty people, all of them artists working at or connected to the American Academy.This is a method that she has used many times, including for the evening-length multimedia performance work Voci (2003), her piece for Kronos Quartet And the Movement of the Tongue (2012), and a recently finished work for cello and tape And And And (2020), which uses one of the Rome interviews as a central structural element. She uses the interviews first of all as a way of generating ideas, but more importantly as away of collecting the materials from which she will build the piece itself.

Interviews as material

Z’s interview process usually begins with her compiling a list of questions that she will ask everyone. Among the questions for Simultaneous were whether the interviewee could recount an example of a bizarre coincidence in their lives, if they were able to do simultaneous translation from English into another language, or whether they were able to multitask. Other questions might emerge spontaneously during the interviews themselves, but everyone is asked the questions on this core list. This means that Z is able to gather a number of responses that are all related in some way – often using the same or similar expressions – even though everyone is interviewed individually and independently. For Sonora Spolia she also took photographs of spolia in the courtyard at the American Academy and asked people to read and translate the ancient Greek or Latin inscriptions on them. Her main goal in how she conducts her interviews is, she says, "just to  get people talking in a very natural, conversational way. I don’t want recordings of people reading a prepared statement, I want recordings of people just talking the way they normally talk."

After she has recorded these interviews, which make up many hours of raw footage, she subjects them to a process of segmentation and organisation. She listens to each interview in turn, and whenever she hears a phrase or a word or even just a sound that she finds interesting she captures it as a clip and gives it a name, indicating what has been said and who has said it. The result is a library of hundreds of clips, categorised according to semantic content (what has been said) and sonic character (who said it). This list of names is then searchable, so she can extract, for example, all the ‘yeses’ or all the ‘ums’. Once the sounds have been captured and catalogued in this way, Z begins to play with them in Pro Tools. "In some ofthem I’ll hear really interesting melodic materials, so I’ll start to build something based on that. Sometimes it’s about layering all the different people saying something similar, so I’ll work with that."

Lists as material

While a lot of this pre-compositional work relies on the creation of lists of sounds, lists themselves are a recurring foreground feature of Z’s music too. When she is conducting interviews she almost always includes one or two questions that ask people to list things. For Simultaneous, for example, she asked all the artists she interviewed to list the tools of their work. "I find lists to be somehow very engaging, artistically", she explains. In particular she loves alphabetised lists. One of her iconic early pieces, Pop Titles ‘You’ (1986), is constructed around the recitation of an alphabetised list of pop song titles (found in a record store catalogue), all beginning with the word ‘You’, from ‘You Stand Out’ to ‘You Touched My Life’ (‘You Started Laughing / You Started Me Dreaming / You Started Something / You Stayed Away Too Long / You Stayed On My Mind’).

The attraction of lists like these, Z says, is their formal properties rather than their content: "I love that sound of a list, so it’s more interesting to me that it’s a list than whatever the items in the list are". And certainly there is a balance between inevitability and surprise within such a formalised structure, similar to the experience of a Tom Johnson piece like The Chord Catalogue (1985). As a comparison, she offers two examples from the visual arts: Chris Cobb’s There Is Nothing Wrong in This Whole Wide World (2004), in which the artist (and a team of sixteen assistants) rearranged all the books in a San Francisco bookstore according to the colour of their spines; and Nina Katchadourian, Steve Matheson and Mark Tribe’s CARPARK (1994), in which cars parking at Southwestern College, Chula Vista, California, were sorted by colour into fourteen different parking lots. With her recordings, Z says, she might sometime cut them up into individual words and then sort them so that she can have all her voices saying versions of one word, which can melt into another word and then another word, playing with them sonically, as she puts it.

Unlike these examples, which deal only in purely abstract qualities (such as chord structure or colour), Z’s lists emerge from concrete reality. (As she notes of There Is Nothing Wrong in This Whole Wide World, the store looked amazing – but for the duration of the installation it was impossible to find anything you were looking for; it did not work as a bookshop.) Her interviews are concrete recordings with real people, rather than actors, working to a script, and they deal with real-life, everyday topics. She acknowledges that no matter how much you cut up the recordings you are still working with language, and so there will always be a layer of meaning. When listening to Pop Titles ‘You’, despite recognising the obvious formal procedure the mind inevitably starts to interpret the list as the story of a (very turbulent) romance: ‘You Still Got It / You Still Want Me / You Stole My Heart / You Stopped Loving Me’.

Voice as material

Nevertheless, Z says that she is more interested in speaking voice’s musical qualities of pitch and rhythm than the meaning of the words themselves. By working with short samples of speech, often phonemes or even non-speech sounds like ‘ums’ or ‘ahs’, she claims to have reduced her recordings down to a non-syntactical level. When longer fragments of recorded speech, such as complete sentences, are used, Z describes these as no more than ‘glimpses’ of meaning that ‘flavour’ the music.

If she is writing for a chamber ensemble, these musical qualities come to the fore, as she will often transcribe her speech samples into pitch materials. On other occasions she will write instrumental lines that work contrapuntally with the sampled speech. Unlike, for example, Peter Ablinger in the work Voice and Piano, Z does not use software to derive pitch materials from her spoken word recordings. Her methods are closer to those used by Steve Reich in Different Trains or the Australian composer Robert Davidson’s work for the Brisbane-based ensemble Topology, for example Big Decisions, relying on her ear to manage the process: "When you analyze it with the computer you get these really crazy, erratic results as it is trying to find the fundamental pitch of each syllable. But if you use your ear, your brain will organise it in a particular way", nudging pitches into a diatonic shape and rhythms into a metered structure. Personal taste and style play a large part in this process, therefore: there is no attempt to make an ‘objective’ transcription of the speech (whatever that might be anyway). Instead the idea is to find something that is musically comprehensible for both listeners and players.

Aus Baggage Allowance. Photo: Valerie Oliveiro

In other cases, Z prefers to group sounds and words together, creating choruses of people all saying the same thing even though they weren’t in the same room at the same time, and even though they weren’t directly asked to speak in this way. In this way, we might say that she gives a sort of harmonic character to her samples, arranging similar sounds either vertically to create chords, or horizontally to create harmonic or contrapuntal fields. Samples might be considered ‘similar’ according to their sound (a cough, a laugh, the same word) or their meaning (words related semantically to one another, such as coffee and breakfast; or the simultaneous translations in Sonora Spolia): the former tend to be used more harmonically, the latter more contrapuntally, although as in the common application of these terms there is no clear boundary between one and the other.

Art > Reality

By these compositional processes, Z turns her ‘real’ materials into musical ones. But is there more ‘reality’ in Z’s work than she is prepared to concede? Meaning is, after all,not only situated in language. What interests her in particular is not just the sound of a word, in a general sense, but the unique sound of that word spoken by a particular person, with their own body, their own life and their own character. That is, what Barthes called the grain of the speaker’s voice. Her interviewees are often chosen because of their knowledge about a particular subject: in the case of the intermedia work Span (created with the visual artist Carole Kim), for example, she interviewed five bridge engineers at the international architectural firm Arup around the subject of bridges. For Simultaneous, she asked the artists she interviewed to list the tools they used to make their work. But more than the knowledge that people can bring to their interviews, the particular sound of voices is significant to Z’s aesthetic: the ‘harmonic’ application of having different voices speak the same word simultaneously that I mention above would make little sense without this. Although she says that she is not interested in the relationship between the sound of a voice and the character of the person speaking – "essentially once I have gathered all the material I just go through it and find what draws me in" – the sonic interest of her work nevertheless emerges from the ways in which different bodies say the same word. (She does acknowledge that it is not possible to completely divorce the two.) What that body has experienced is as important as what its owner knows: the way an expert talks about bridge engineering will also sound different to a non-expert, even if they are saying the same words. Expertise in technical language can contribute to grain. As George Lewis has put it, in an essay on Z’s music, "the voice itself announces the centrality of the body".[1]


In Voci, the political role that the body, manifest as vocal sound, plays in the creation of personal identity is brought to the fore. In one episode in that piece, ‘Voice Studies’, Z thematises the issue of ‘linguistic profiling’ studied by the Stanford John Baugh of Stanford University.[2] Baugh’s research found, and Z’s skit dramatises, how vocal signifiers of race affect applications for housing: "Studies reveal that people can often infer the race of an individual based on the sound of their voice", Z intones. "This is the sound of Professor Baugh", she adds, before playing three samples of Baugh’s speaking, with different inflections that suggest Black, white or Latino identity. As the audience laughs nervously, Z offers a  wry shrug of her shoulders. As Lewis suggests, Z’s own voice challenges such inherent biases: "At first blush, Z’s classically trained vocal identity seems to defy easy identification with the set of vocal timbres most routinely identified as 'Afro-American'".[3]

Political reality

I asked Z whether her own persona, as a Black, female artist, is an important feature in her work. As she is so often the performer of her own works, and her own (highly distinctive) voice and stage presence are central to her aesthetic, I had assumed that this must be the case – at least to some extent. This would relate her work to that of more explicitly political composer-performers such as Matana Roberts, Moor Mother and Elaine Mitchener. Yet she insisted that it is not. "People are the product of what they live", she conceded, "There are people who set out to make work that tells a story or tells their story, or illuminates certain ideas for the world. I am not so interested in that. I am more interested in that material just being something to hang the work on. I tend to select things that are interesting to explore, rather than something that I want to make the world aware of. I’m not trying to effect change by putting ideas out, I’m trying to effect change by making good art!"

Of course artists should be listened to when they talk about their own work, but there is more at stake in Z’s work than this statement allows. Her choice of topics, particularly for her larger works, is inherently political: foreignness and cultural codes in Gaijin (2001), identity in Voci, climate change in Carbon Song Cycle (2012). Perhaps the most pertinent to today’s political environment is Baggage Allowance of 2010, an intermedia work presented in three parts, as a live performance, a gallery installation and a web portal.[4]

The American sociologist Simone Browne considers airport security theatre – that is, the performative aspects of airport security that emerged after 9/11 and have since become commonplace – as a mode of Black oppression.[5] Examples of security theatre include the removal of shoes and belts at checkpoints, full body scans of elderly people, restrictions on liquids, and soon. Such measures are designed to reassure passengers that security is being taken seriously, but in practice they do little to prevent acts of terrorism.They are also discriminatory: Browne quotes a report of the US Government Accountability Office from 2000 (that is, before 9/11; things are presumably worse now) that found that Black women were nine times more likely than White women to be x-rayed after being frisked or patted down, despite being less than half as likely to be carrying contraband. Another report from 1997 found that women made up 74 percent of those who were strip searched, and Black women were nearly two-thirds of that number.

It is in this context that Browne considers Baggage Allowance, as an example of a post-9/11 "form of social inquiry that can explore the various ways that people can navigate, comply with, refuse, and resist surveillance practices at airports".[6] (The other artworks Browne discusses are Evan Roth’s TSA Communication interventions, and the digital installation Terminal Zero One, exhibited at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson airport in 2007.) In one scene of her piece, Z recites the list of security questions asked at an airport check-in desk. In another, she becomes the baggage itself, curling herself into a suitcase while her recorded voice whispers all the anxieties one has while packing a bag for travel (almost a list about making lists!).

For another scene, Z invited her interviewees to list the items they themselves would pack in a suitcase. Somewhat like the daily routines listed in Simultaneous, a list like this can tell you a lot (in quite intimate detail) about the person who is describing it: their priorities for travel, why they are travelling, how they view (and maintain) their appearance, what medical needs they might have, how they entertain themselves, and so on.The contents of a suitcase may also assist border security agents in selecting passengers for deeper interrogation. Items of clothing, types of hair productor religious objects may all be used to justify inspection and possible detention. Even within the highly formalised structures of list making, suitcase packing and airport security, the ‘grain’ of individual identities still persists.

Z offers an image of reality in which individual voices are strengthened in the face of bureaucratic structures, in which words, voices and bodies can interact to make identity fluid across multiple semantic, sonic and musical parameters. She is proud of her own de-centred musical background. As a young musician she trained as a bel canto singer, while performing at night as a folk/punksinger-songwriter: two highly formalised performance styles with their own rules. (The punks told her her voice was too well trained; her classical teachers worried she was going to damage her voice.) It wasn’t until she discovered new music and was able to think a little more independently of genre conventions that she found a way to connect these two sides of her musical personality: "I loved both, and I would be scorned by either camp for trying to include the other... Then I became interested in experimental music and contemporary classical music, and it was through that that I discovered that you could draw on all these things not just in the same programme but in the same piece." This plurality feeds into the way in which she represents the world and its stories. Those stories are themselves de-centred: the processes of looping, listing and sorting that Z applies to her materials, as well as the multiple leaps in style that she accomplishes in her own singing, creates a kind of Brechtian Verfremdung in which Z herself takes up the role of a world-weary, bureaucratic observer,allowing differences to bubble up even as she tries to shape them to her owntaste and aesthetic. Rather than offering a critique, she raises an ironic eyebrow to a reality that is more interestingly fluid and polyphonic than it can admit.


[1] George Lewis, ‘The Virtual Discourses of Pamela Z’, in Diaspora, Memory, Place, edited by SalahM. Hassan and Cheryl Finley (Prestel Verlag, Munich: 2008), 268–281, at 268

[2] See, eg, Thomas Purnell, William Idsardi and John Baugh, ‘Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification’, Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18, no. 1 (1999): 10–30

[3] Lewis, p. 271

[4] http://www.pamelaz.com/BaggageAllowance/index.html

[5] Simone Browne, Dark Matters:On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press: 2015), esp. Chapter 4

[6] Ibid.: 134.

Head photo: Pamela Z performs a study for Baggage Allowance, Roulette, New York. Photo: Kimberly Young

This text was translated into german by Patrick Becker-Naydenov and published in issue #125, november 2020.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a writer on new music. He is author of Music after the Fall (University of California Press), as well as numerous articles, programme notes and reviews. Photo: Anton Lukoszevieze