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Ze Cat’s Meow: Pamela Z: “ New Strategies with DJ Spooky” at Symphony Space, the Cutting Room, and the Stone

Sporting spiky, orange-tipped dreads, and gesticulating like a rainmaker; conjuring invisible forces with her impeccable bel canto voice, feedback loops, and a MIDI-controlled device called the BodySynth, Pamela Z recently parachuted into town from San Francisco. Z is an experimental musician making future sounds for right now, a musician who doesn’t shrink from the knowledge that since the work of John Cage and the development of the synthesizer, sonic forays have evolved to a whole other ball game. The biggest new thing to hit modern experimental music since Meredith Monk, this woman is not to be missed in concert.

Pamela Z. Photo credit: Marion Gray
Pamela Z. Photo credit: Marion Gray

Standing on stage dressed head to toe in black, Z wrestles with knobs, invisible gods, and laptops. Small electrodes are pasted onto her arms, thighs, shoulders, legs, and other spots of choice, responding to her slightest neuromuscular movements. With a single note dubbed and redubbed through her PowerBook, she makes scales ripple up or down simply by raising or lowering her arm—a gesture of immense power. She rump-a-thumps the air and then turns into an echo chamber by simply shaking her leg, as her staccato gestures are fed into her laptop to amp up the reverb. She chatters in tongues, yelps, and squawks, occasionally taking time out from her contortions and permutations to adjust controls that are strapped onto her belt, or on her computer.

In a recent performance of “Bone Music” at the Cutting Room, Z slammed her fist against an ordinary, empty five-gallon water bottle, capturing its hollow boingy tone. She fed the sound back into the controller, and as she moved about the stage she became an ancient shamaness calling down forces through sheer incantation, her movements redolent of the purpose music must have served for conjuring unknown forces in paleolithic times. In “You,” from Pop Titles, she chanted a list of song titles that begin with the word “you,” which she sampled and repeated again and again:

You took my life away
You took my love

You took the words right out of my life

You touched my life

In “Muni Section,” she sampled the simple phrase a conductor shouts out at a busy train station—“All Aboard!”—looped the words, and fed them through her BodySynth. The sheer force of her physical movements shot her voice directly through the MAX MSP software into her PowerBook. Clicks, exhales, sighs, and other people’s digitally delayed phrases like “Do you know which is my stop?” were sprinkled throughout the piece, which also incorporated found sounds from the streets and public transportation system of the Northeast Mission Industrial Zone, captured by Pamela on a DAT recorder. “All Aboard!” repeated often enough sounds like “allaboar,” a new word in an exotic, made-up language that Z commingled with street sounds.

The most astonishing thing about watching and listening to Pamela Z during her concerts is the sheer physicality of her sonic range. The BodySynth is similar to the electrode-equipped medical machinery used in hospitals for EKGs. It sends impulses to a computer, triggering samples that can be changed according to different processing algorithms. John Cage believed that, in the future, sounds will be able to move or appear to emanate from any point in space; thanks to transistors, it will be possible to broadcast from the center of any location as if by magic, thus giving sound the appearance of ephemeral mobility, unhinged from an originating source or location. Z has fulfilled this vision.

What I would love to see Pamela produce, and I hope someone lavishly funds her for, is a grand-scale opera of at least ten different vocalists all using their own BodySynth gestures to create a controlled visual and audio ruckus sprung fully from her incomparable mind (though it may be necessary to bring in a choreographer to coordinate all of that). It would be an opera unlike any that has existed on earth, and the logical next step in carrying the baton of Meredith Monk’s masterpieces “Atlas” and “Mercy.” I almost suspect that such an idea is already secretly in the works.

Z’s new album, A Delay Is Better (Starkland), is a survey of various phases of her impressive career, which has garnered her a 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship, the CalArts Alpert Award in the Arts, the ASCAP Music Award, and an NEA and Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission Fellowship. She has performed at the Bang on a Can Festival, with Pina Bausch Tanztheater’s 25 Jaar festival in Germany, as well as at the Venice Biennale. Till now, Z has been a phenomenon primarily on the West Coast and internationally, but, fortunately for New York audiences, she will be appearing in early December as part of Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd’s production Still Life with Commentator at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Be there and see musical history being made.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2006

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