The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.
Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.
At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”
And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”
Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.
Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.
(Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu)
FJO: I love those earrings. They look like things that turn 33 players into 45 players.
PZ: That’s exactly what they are.
PZ: They are 45 adapters, and I simply drilled a hole and put an ear wire in them.
FJO: Love it.
PZ: They are from back in the day.
FJO: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I know you’re super, super busy, but I think this is a great time for us to talk. Even though things have been so horrible all over the world for so many people; aside from the sickness and the deaths, the music community has just really suffered from this. But, in this strange, weird new world we’re in, you seem to be thriving which is great.
PZ: Well, I’ve got a lot going on, but it’s been stressful because I’m kind of bizarrely over committed during this period, so I’m just kind of working non-stop, trying to complete commissioned works and so on. It’s been a very strange time.
FJO: There’s certainly something about certain recent works of yours that definitely speak to this moment, but there’s also something about your process that works in an era where you can’t create sound with a ton of people gathered together to make that sound. You’ve developed this body of work over the course of decades that really can work in this environment as well. It’s adaptable somehow.
PZ: For the most part, I’ve been a solo artist for a long time. So, the idea of making things on my own is not so foreign. But I have been receiving numerous commissions over the years and so the current situation has certainly put a different twist on how to do those things. For example, the big deadline—I have many going on right now, but the one that’s like the most imminently looming—is I’m making a piece for Volti, the chamber chorus. The whole piece is being designed around the fact that it has to all be done over Zoom. I feel like the time we’re living through right now is turning us all into filmmakers. I’m making a piece, and I’m designing the whole piece around visual phenomena. Every movement of the piece is a little bit different, but each one is being composed, and sort of designed because it’s intended to be presented visually. People will be experiencing this on a screen, and so there’s a lot of influence from that going into the actual structure of the composition.
FJO: Well it’s interesting because one of the things that’s made your music so exciting is that even though it’s sound, there’s always a visual element to it. I think you have always been aware that if you’re dealing with an audience that’s there, you want to give them something great to hear, but you also want to give them something great to see.
PZ: I think that that is really based in just the way that I work, or say I guess my strengths as an artist, because I’m very much in favor of work that’s purely sonic. I hear a lot of people say, “Ooo, I don’t like going to those electronic music concerts ‘cause there’s just a bunch of guys sitting behind gear turning knobs. And I want to see something.” I don’t need to see something for every work, because I’m a very strong supporter of work that is purely aural. But my strengths as an artist lie partially in the performative aspects of the work. And so for me, it’s natural to want to make things that have a strong visual component because sometimes that visual component is simply me. It’s just my presence on the stage and my manipulation of things that are happening. Other times, it also includes visual imagery that I have created that’s projected and that surrounds me or that I’m sort of immersed in. There’s a wide range of ways that the visual can work, but just in terms of my own work, that is kind of an important component, I think, although I find it refreshing at times to work on something that I know is going to be purely sonic. I do enjoy that as well.
FJO: You talk about people not wanting to see guys turn a bunch of knobs or press a key on their laptop. That’s a lot less interesting to look at than you moving your hands around and it triggering all these amazing sounds. That’s actually visually compelling.
PZ: Right, but what I guess I would say about that is we need to remember that there are different kinds of work, and I think it has a lot to do with expectations. If you’re going to see something that is billed as a concert or a performance, these days, people’s expectations get raised for expecting to see things as well as hear things. San Francisco Tape Music Center has an annual tape music concert. And everyone who buys a ticket for that knows that they are not going to look at stuff. They’re going to sit in a room full of people listening to things. As long as those are your expectations, then that shouldn’t be disappointing. Sometimes sonic information can be augmented by the fact that there isn’t a visual distraction.
I love going to the San Francisco Tape Music Center’s annual festival and sitting in a darkened room. It’s a cinema for the ear, as they say. You walk in, everybody sits down in their seats, and then lights go down. And they stay down. And no lights come up. The only light you see is if you happen to look behind you or beside you, or in front of you and at the console. And in the middle of the room is usually the mixing desk, and sometimes the composer is seated there and is manipulating the way the sound is projected into the room. Other than that, there’s nothing to see.
I think that there’s value in that, but I think there’s room in the world for a wide spectrum of ways of working. And one of my least favorite things is to see somebody’s whose real strength is sonic and who is not a performer making the awkward effort to make their performance visual just because they think that’s expected. You know what I mean?
FJO: Well, getting back to this current moment where everybody’s doing concerts on Zoom, you have to create a visual. In a way, it’s sort of weird. You would think this would be a time for us to return to maybe a new golden age of radio. Being trapped in front of our screens, in a way, is kind of awful.
PZ: As a matter of fact, to that point, I have made a couple of pieces recently that are sound works. And they were intended to be listened to on headphones. And they’re intended to not be sitting in front of your screen when you’re experiencing those. One of them is a piece called Times3 [Times Cubed], which I made for the Prototype Festival in New York, and it’s about Times Square. It gives you the option to actually take your headphones and a device to Times Square, if you’re in New York, and walk around in Times Square, while listening to the piece. Or to be sitting in the comfort of your home in a very comfortable chair, hopefully away from your computer screen, and just listen on very good stereo headphones. I’ve actually been telling people that if they do have the chance to go and listen to the piece in Times Square that I also encourage them to have another listen to it, not in Times Square. Because I do think there are some subtleties in the sound piece itself that they will probably miss if they’re listening to it in midtown Manhattan.
FJO: Well I have to say I loved listening to it as audio only. I’m afraid to go to Times Square now.
PZ: I don’t blame you.
FJO: I thought maybe I could rig Google Earth to be in the background and I could do a simulacrum that way, but then I’m front of the screen, so it defeats the purpose.
PZ: When we first started working on it, the idea was that it was going to be a sound walk. But as I got deeper into making the piece, and also I think at the time that they commissioned me to do this, I don’t think it was 100 percent clear yet that things wouldn’t be opened up again. And so as I was working on the piece, I very quickly became attached to a lot of the subtleties in the piece, and I started actually secretly wishing that people would actually listen to it not walking around Times Square, at least for one of the hearings.
But I do think that there is a layer that, if you are listening to it in that environment, I sort of like to think that there might be some confusion around which of the sounds are coming from the piece, and which of the sounds are coming from actually around me. And also just the fact of seeing what’s being talked about while it’s being talked about, being amidst it. So that’s the layer I think is compelling. But I don’t think it’s at all necessary and, as a matter of fact, my preference is that people, at least in one of their listenings, that it happens without that added distraction of being somewhere. I actually tested it myself. I couldn’t be in New York, so I just took a walk in San Francisco, and listened to it while I was out in the street. There was traffic and moments where I had to cross the street because unmasked people were gathered on a corner. And there were sirens of emergency vehicles going by. So what I found was I definitely felt like I missed a lot of what was in the piece by the distractions of having to actually be alert to my surroundings for one thing. And then having those sounds on top of it. The decibel level of things outdoors—traffic and such—is much greater than what I think it is. I thought I had it turned up pretty loud in my earphones, and as soon as a car would go by, it would cover the sound I was hearing.
FJO: It’s probably good, so you don’t get run over while you’re listening.
PZ: Exactly. You need those auditory signals when you’re out there in the wild.
FJO: Yeah. It definitely has gotten kind of wild out there. You sort of predicted where I wanted to go with Times3. Theoretically, this piece could be taken on a walk in any city, anywhere. Right?
PZ: Yeah. Sure. Because it’s giving you a way to expand your imagination. And I like to think that it cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.
FJO: Well, talking about the present, present, and future, I want to go all the way into the past. I chanced upon these wonderful tracks of the Qube Chix.
PZ: Did you listen to “Bald Boyfriend”?
FJO: Of course. Yes. Fabulous—
PZ: Do you know about our “Bald Boyfriend” rock video?
FJO: I saw it.
PZ: You saw it?
FJO: Talk about a time portal, it’s like totally going back into the early ‘90s. The bit with Bill Clinton, shaving his head. It was really fun. That’s the earliest music of yours I know. So I’m very curious. Very early on, before you even got to San Francisco, you were a song writer.
PZ: I’m not likely to share anything with you from that period. But I will share with you this. In the mid ‘80s, my first voice and electronics release was a cassette only release called Echolocation. And an exciting little bit of news is that there’s a label that wants to reissue it. It’ll probably come out late this year or early next year. So Echolocation is coming back. And I have a release called A Secret Code of more recent works that’s coming out on Neuma, probably in June. So there’ll be this nice thing of fairly new stuff and then shortly after that very old stuff being released.
FJO: So Philip Blackburn isn’t putting Echolocation out on cassette, is he?
PZ: Philip is not putting Echolocation out. It’s two different labels. Another label called Freedom to Spend. Strange name. I don’t know the history of why their label’s called that. But they like to reissue things from that period. And so that’s how that came about. And they’re not putting it out on cassette, but they are putting it out on vinyl. Which is really fun. Then Philip is putting out my new record on CD and all of the other platforms.
FJO: Any chance that the Qube Chix material will ever surface on an album?
PZ: Oh, who knows. We’ve talked off and on about getting together and doing something. That never seems to fully happen. Two years ago, we had a scheduled event and that ended up being cancelled because of some crazy thing. It wasn’t COVID, because it was before that. But the three of us are still often together, these days on Zoom, just hanging and sharing what’s going on with each other. And we always make noises about we should do something. I don’t know if there’s enough existing Qube Chix material for an entire record. But maybe there is for like an EP or something. We’ll see. There are some Qube Chix releases; one was on Elise Kermani’s Ishtar label, but I don’t remember which one. I think it might have been “If You Want To,” and we have some other things. So yeah, that would be fun. We’ll see.
FJO: You just sold one. Actually everybody’s going to want one. So, the secret stuff from before that that you will never share—maybe tell us a little bit about it.
PZ: I learned to play guitar when I was in elementary school. And by the time I was in junior high, I was writing songs. And recording them on my little cassette deck. My father had bought us these Craig cassette decks. This was the new-fangled technology. So I was singing songs and writing songs from the time that I was a pretty young kid. By the time I was in high school, I was a full-blown singer-songwriter. I learned massive numbers of Joni Mitchell songs; she was probably my biggest influence at that period in my life. And all these other people that are sort of folk rock world. Then, by the time I got to college, I was actually a professional musician. I was starting to play in clubs and coffee houses and things like that. And so by night, I was playing in these coffee houses for really low artist fees or tips. And by day, I was singing opera arias and art song in music school. When I got out of music school, when I graduated, after a brief—let’s say one-year—stint of trying to teach music in the public schools out of a feeling of obligation that that’s what I’m supposed to do, I realized very quickly that this is not what I’m supposed to do. And I just dropped that. I don’t know what teachers make now, but they were paid so poorly in those days that I was making more money busking than I was making as a salary for being a teacher. So I stopped teaching after a year and I just began to play music for a living.
For that period of time, it’s a handful of years, I was just gigging and driving all around the Colorado, Denver-metro area, and also to further flung ski resorts and all of this stuff. The gigs would consist of me playing cover tunes. Originally they were mostly by Joni Mitchell, Beatles, a lot of folk rock and folk artists, Dylan, and even leftover things from Malvina Reynolds—all sort of hippie music. So it was half that and half songs I was writing. But something happened in me come the early ‘80s. I had been doing radio. I had a radio program on the local public station in Boulder, KGNU; I had a show called The Tuesday Afternoon Sound Alternative. It was a free form radio show. I would play just anything I wanted to. I usually chose short pieces so that I could segue from one to another and play. I liked really strange segues, like I liked to move from Varèse to the Ramones, to the Roches, to Pauline Oliveros. It was all over the map.
PZ: It was during that period where I had this awakening to new music and experimental music. I also was starting to play with tape recorders and little Casio synthesizers, just playing with new things. I had this dilemma where I suddenly woke up one day and realized that the music I was playing for a living did not resemble what was on my turntable. Because I was listening to Ned Rothenberg. I was listening to Alvin Lucier. And then I was going and playing these Joni Mitchell songs, and I was sort of like: “Hmm.” So I had this real turn around.
Then I heard someone use a digital delay in concert. That person was Jaco Pastorius. And he did this duet with himself where all the other members of Weather Report left the stage and he sat there alone with a stomp box and his bass. And he did this whole piece where he improvised. He played some riffs and made loops, and improvised over the top of it. Nowadays you can’t throw a rock without hitting a looper musician. But in those days, that was not done. I’d never seen it done. And when it was done, no one understood how it was being done. So I got really excited and I went to a music store the next day. And I said, “This guy had a thing, and he would play, and it would come back, and what was that?” And the guy said, “Oh that’s a digital delay.” I said, “I’ll take one.” And that literally was the day that I feel like I found my voice as an artist. But the guy advised me, “You don’t want what Jaco had. It was like a stomp box. They have like really low frequency; the sampling rate is really low. And it’s not going to sound good on your voice.” So he sold me a rack mountable digital delay. And I took that home, and I never went to bed that night. I just was like: “Oh my God!” So within a year of that happening, my entire world changed musically. I ended up picking up and moving to San Francisco, because I needed to start over. And I needed to be in a community that was gonna be supportive of me doing experimentation. I had all these gigs booked with people who were like: “What are you doing? You have such a pretty voice. Why do you want to do weird things?”
That was the Readers’ Digest version of the history of how it moved. But when I got to the Bay Area, I just literally jettisoned everything I used to do. I wrote completely new works, a set of works, and had a repertoire of pieces for voice and digital delay. I think for a little while, I had a couple of pieces that still had the guitar involved, but they were sort of these weird hybrid kind of looping parts, but I was also playing the guitar. That maybe lasted for a couple of years. And after that, I woke up one day and realized I haven’t touched the guitar in a long time.
FJO: I guess the one piece that sort of lets us in on your earlier life is Arie Miste where you’re combining all of these opera arias.
PZ: Oh, yes. I used to have this avant chamber series called the ROOM Series, which used to happen in this performance gallery that was on the first floor of the building I live in. That is not happening anymore. The last ROOM Series concert I did was before I left for Rome in summer of 2019. But it was at one of those ROOM Series concerts that I think I made that little, granulated opera aria piece.
FJO: Now I’m curious about when things transitioned in terms of your sound world to go beyond just the musical components and to enter the realms of sound installation and performance art and when those elements became key to the work.
PZ: It was a gradual progression I would say. The thing I always tell people is that when I see something that excites me, it makes me want to delve into that world somewhat. I spend just as much time going to visual art museums and galleries as I do going to concerts, because I just love the whole spectrum of the arts. I find it difficult to put fences up between them. For me, they all bleed together in terms of my appreciation of them. So then that leads to my practice, but I would say that my first forays where I had one toe in the visual arts world were when I was asked by a gallery or two to submit sound works for exhibitions.
I think maybe even what pre-dates that is that Helen Thorington and Regine Beyer used to do this series called New American Radio. And they would commission artists to make half-hour sound works and then they would air those on their program which was then picked up by various public radio entities. So I think the earliest sound work of that variety that I did were sound pieces intended to be listened to on radio. I wish I could remember what the years of those were, but I would say that it was probably late ‘80s, early ‘90s or something when Helen was doing that series and when I had some pieces in it.
I began work on a piece in the mid ‘90s called Parts of Speech. And that was sort of my first large scale, multi-media performance work that was not just a concert of me with voice and electronics. As a sort of artifact of that piece, I ended up also making these little sound installations. One of the pieces was these little cloth-bound grammars. There was a French one, a Spanish one, and I think an English one, and—I can’t remember. There were four. And I mounted speakers on them. The person would stand in the middle and they would be like all sides. It was like a little multi-channel piece. And then it just had these parts of speech being spoken, and they were coming out on different lengths of loops so that they would reorganize themselves, and you would never hear the same thing at the same time more than once. That may have been the first actual physical sound installation thing that I made. Then I made a couple of other installation pieces that were related to parts of speech. Then, as I sort of went along, I think that started to happen a little bit with different works that I made where I would create a sound installation or a fixed media component of something that was sort of related to a larger work that was a performance work.
FJO: That brings us to the piece of yours that I’m just totally floored by, Baggage Allowance.
PZ: Ah yes. That was a crazy, crazy, over ambitious thing that I did.
FJO: It’s amazing. It’s so fascinating on so many levels. Visually, sonically, conceptually, and what’s wonderful about it is it’s so other worldly, but it’s something that most of us can relate to because we all have this anxiety, or at least we did before March of 2020, where we traveled—
PZ: Now we miss the TSA. Our old friends.
FJO: I still remember having to open up this suitcase coming back from Germany, and it was filled with CDs, and they were so perplexed. Why would somebody have so many recordings? “Are you selling these?” And I said, “Look at them! Everyone’s different.” They’re like: “You have that many.”
PZ: What’s wrong with you? I have a really good TSA story about the Qube Chix. We did this piece called Circle of Bone, and it was a big performance work. At one point, we were hired by the University of Omaha to come and have a residency with their dance department. Because Leigh is the Qube Chick that’s more the mover of the three of us, she was the one who generally choreographed the pieces. So it was basically built around her working with their dancers at this university. We expanded the piece to include all these dancers from their dance department. I think maybe we even had some chorus members. But we did like a little residency, and we put on a version of Circle of Bone in Omaha, at this University.
So when we were going through the airport, one of the props was a big trunk, kind of like one of the Baggage Allowance trunks, but this pre-dates Baggage Allowance by quite a few years. And this trunk was completely filled with bones, because there’s this scene in the piece where Leigh, Butoh-style, drags this trunk out onto the stage and then dumps it, and it’s this big mountain of bones. I think they were cow bones. I don’t know where we got the bones, but they were mostly cow bones. But we tried to choose femurs and things like that that would look like they could be her ancestor’s bones. So, we put this trunk on the X-ray thing. Meanwhile, this person had been giving us a really hard time because one of us had a shaved head, one of us had a mohawk and was Black, and one of us had blond spiky, punky hair, and we just were dressed like we dress and they were just giving us a hard time from the beginning. Like they were doing things like telling us we had too many carry-ons. They were counting our purses as bags. They were doing all these things to make it as hard for us as possible. And then we put this trunk on the belt, and it went through and when they saw the X-ray of the trunk, all of a sudden they just wanted us out of there. They were just like, “Okay, you can go. Take your things. Move along.” You know, they were so frightened. They did not want to mess with us.
FJO: Oh, I love it. I didn’t think that was where that was going to go. Wow!
PZ: Their eyes just got so big and then they were like: “Just move right along. We don’t want to stand in your way.”
FJO: Wow. So was that in the back of your head when you were creating this piece?
PZ: When I was creating Baggage Allowance? Actually I think that in the whole Baggage Allowance piece there is a section where I actually think I tell a little bit of the story. I think there’s a piece in there where I have multiple little stories that are layered. I can’t even remember how it worked in the piece, but a lot of times, I use text. And so it may have been just triggered as a text file or something, but that story did make its way in some form into that piece.
FJO: Well I’m thinking, the whole idea of the installation piece—that’s you inside the luggage! Is this sort of the fear of what were those bones were?
PZ: Or, more specifically, who?
FJO: Right. The last TSA agent who gave us a hard time.
PZ: Yeah, exactly, the agent who gave us a hard time is now in the trunk. So just as little warning to you—be nice to us.
FJO: There’s some gorgeous music in there which I think would really even work independently of that. I wish it was on a CD, or a DVD, or a CD-ROM. At some point, you had a website where it was all done for the web, but it was done in Flash, and of course, the great powers that be of the internet killed Flash, so now we can’t see that website.
PZ: I’m actually kind of in conversation with somebody who might know how to work with the current language that works on the web to sort of translate some of those parts of that piece, but it’s sad because it was an interactive piece. There was a little weeping steamer trunk page, and you could take your mouse, and you could open the drawers of the steamer trunk and hear the sonic things that would happen and see images in the lid of the trunk. And there were other sections where you could mouse over these different suitcases, and each one of them would pop something out. And so all of that has to get somehow rebuilt in some language that works in like HTML5 or whatever, I don’t know what it is now that they have, but I’ve been talking to somebody who has a little bit of knowledge about that and might be able to help me rebuild it at some point. But I don’t know when I’m going to find the time.
FJO: Two different things this leads me to ponder—one is you’re imagining new possibilities of sound and new ways of making the sound, but you’re not an engineer yourself. So how do you translate that to somebody to get them to do the instrument you want? You’re like: “I want an instrument where I could make the sound of a typewriter by doing this. And it’s a typewriter.” How did you explain that to somebody to get them to create something that allowed you do something like that in performance?
PZ: Well I think what you’re referring to is people who’ve built these gesture controllers that I use. So these gesture controllers are generating information that essentially ends up as MIDI. And so you could do that with this [hits keyboard key]. I could press this key and it sends a MIDI note and I could get a typewriter sample. So it’s not like I need somebody to specifically make me something that will allow me to make a typewriter sound. I just need them to make me something that will allow me to make notes by doing gestures and control whatever parameters I’m controlling. I’ve been very lucky because I’m surrounded by really smart, inventive people, but specifically the person who’s done the most work for me like that is a composer named Donald Swearingen. He works with me on figuring out what I want my gesture controllers to do. But he also uses these things himself, so he has an understanding. It’s not like I’m bringing in some sort of a software or hardware engineer who’s not even in the arts and has to understand that it’s gonna have to get translated to MIDI. This is somebody who has a really full understanding of all of that from the beginning. And so it’s not so difficult to translate what my needs and wants in that regard would be. If that makes any sense.
FJO: It totally makes sense. It works and it’s exciting. But the other part of it, which is the scary part, is the archival part. I’m thinking about with Flash gone, this incredible thing that was built is gone. Any time you’re dealing with technology, it’s always changing. So a piece that you did with a certain technology 15 years ago you know, will it work 10 years in the future?
PZ: That’s the thing that’s really tricky. I think we’ve all come to realize that the best we can do is just to document the work as it happens knowing that maybe in the future it can’t be performed in the same way. Also, my computer that has Max/MSP, which is the software that I use for most of my live sound needs, I’ve been shielding it from updates and it’s running a pretty old operating system, and it’s running a pretty old version of MAX because every time you update the software, things break that you then have to fix and figure out how to get them to work again. So that’s a problem that’s just gonna persist. I don’t see that problem going away because there are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: “Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, ‘Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space’?”
FJO: That’s a perfect segue, because of course the one way to avoid all of that is to write for string quartet, which you’ve also done.
PZ: Yeah, and the tricky thing about that is I tend to write these pieces for chamber ensembles that also include some kind of electronics element, even if it’s just a fixed media or a “tape” part, as we still like to call it. I made a piece for the Bang on a Can All-Stars and I composed it in ’98. It was for their ensemble which has been stable all these years in terms of the instrumentation, even though the members have come in and out. It was for their ensemble plus my voice and electronics, plus some sampled sounds that were to be triggered by the pianist, so that person also needs to have a MIDI keyboard. And some sampled sounds that are to be triggered by me using my gesture control instruments.
In ’98, I was still using a rack full of hardware digital delays instead of a MacBook Pro, or at that time it would have been a PowerBook. I think they were just starting to have laptops, but I was using a six-space rack full of digital delays and multi-effects units and sampler and stuff. I was doing processing of my voice with hardware digital delays, so there was no Max/MSP involved in the picture yet. I was using a Roland sampler for this playback of the samples that I was triggering, and the controller I was using was an instrument called the Body Synth, which was my first gesture control instrument that used electrode sensors on my arms and shoulder and my leg. I had these sensors that then I could just use the effort from my muscles to send MIDI messages. The pianist of Bang on a Can, which was Lisa Moore at that time, was triggering the samples using a MIDI keyboard and probably some sampler that Jody Elff had loaned them for that purpose or something. I played that piece with them for a couple of years. We went to Germany and played it. We did it at a benefit in Manhattan, and then I think we even came to San Francisco and performed it on the Other Minds Festival one year.
Many years went by, like I would say at least a decade or more, and then Evan Ziporyn, who was now on the faculty at MIT asked me to come and play it with a student ensemble there. By this time, all the delay part was in Max/MSP. I was doing it in Max. I was using a Max sampler for the sounds, and I think probably I was still using the Body Synth maybe at that point for triggering my samples. But I gave just sound files to the keyboard player, and the keyboard player probably loaded them onto a computer and was triggering them that way. Then Bang on a Can asked me a few years ago to play the piece with them again at Merkin Hall or something, for an anniversary of the People’s Commissioning Fund, which was the original commissioner for that piece. I was using completely different gesture controllers and the keyboard player again was just receiving a set of sound files and I think their sound engineer just put them into a bank of samples on a computer or something like that.
But it was really interesting how that piece sort of walked its way through all these different changes in software and hardware, but it was essentially the same piece each time. Fortunately, it wasn’t using anything the concept of which doesn’t work anymore, even though the way in which it’s done now has changed.
FJO: This piece you did for the Del Sol String Quartet—what’s so interesting is that is you talk about technology changing. Telephones have changed. Right?
PZ: Oh yes.
FJO: You have the cell phone go off and the cellist has to take the cell phone call, and but then there’s this thing old rotary dial phone that’s hanging out there as well.
PZ: As you can see by my earrings, I sort of enjoy the old school technology and I kind of collect them. I have three rotary phones in this room. And one of ‘em still rings when my phone rings. I have it hooked up to the phone line, even though the phone line is now a voice over internet protocol phone. I can still take a modular jack out of the back of that and go to this rotary phone, and it will ring the phone and you can answer it. And I have these other two rotary phones over here, I have typewriters around here. I love these devices and so for me, it was really fun and also because the piece is really about the ways in which our attention is really challenged these days with these little devices that we carry around in our pockets and with the computer itself, your laptop or desktop, making little beeps and bloops and you’re not sure if it’s Facebook Messenger or is that an email coming in, or somebody texting me, or like what is that little ding I just heard, you know. And so there’s all of that, and I just thought it was fun to drag it back to the days when the only distraction of that nature was this actual bell ringing. When somebody would call you, this little physical clapper would actually go drrr-drrr-drrr-drrr and ring that bell.
So towards the beginning of the piece, the first distraction that comes in is a ringing phone, but the ringing phone is being given to us by this ghost of a phone of our past. There’s something to me very poetic about that. And also just very poetic about the fact that there’s literally two metal bells, and an electrical signal is being sent to cause a little clapper to physically move and ring those two bells. That’s how your phone rang. Now, your phone rings, and it plays a sound file that’s part of a pop tune that’s been squashed to MP3 compression. There’s something really interesting to me about that.
FJO: The other thing that struck me about it was you made me really hear how musical that old phone ringing is. It’s a really beautiful musical sound.
PZ: Yeah, it is. It’s very specific pitches. Somehow they manage to have it be pretty universal. Every phone from a certain period has those same two bells, and they’re tuned to the same pitches. So that ring is instantly recognizable to anybody who’s our age and who can remember those phones, whereas nowadays anything can sound like anything. It used to be that a phone had a very particular sound. And that was the sound. But it was fun to compose. Essentially I wrote those bell tones into the string parts. They’re playing them.
And I’ll tell you something funny. This is me like not being experienced enough on some of the instruments that I’m writing for. It goes do-doo do-doo do-doo doo; it goes even faster than that in reality, but if you slow it down, it’s like do-doo do-doo do-doo doo. That’s the phone ringing, but it just goes really fast and sounds like brrrrrrr you know. So I was writing that in the strings. And I had them going do-doo do-doo do-doo doo, and I wrote it as pizzicato. When I delivered the score to them, after their first rehearsal, they were like: “Ummm, these are a little fast for pizzicato. Is there any way we can bow them?” And I was like: “Oh, well I guess you’ll have to.” So I had to re-write it for bow; I had to put arco in there when it used to say pizz. I used to play the viola when I was a kid, but I haven’t played in so long. I don’t really have my viola in good condition and tuned and at the ready, so that when I make a decision like that I can pick it up and see is that even playable.
FJO: So, a final area: one would hope we’re somehow going to get out of this weird now more than a year-long purgatory of Zoom. You’re writing all of these pieces for Zoom. What kind of lives do those pieces have afterwards? Like the Volti piece, is that gonna be something that can be done live in the future?
PZ: When I first was given this assignment by them, my idea was I’m going to write a piece that can be done, that is good on Zoom, but that later, when they’re playing in public, they can still perform it. At some point, I had to just abandon that because, you know, you’re under pressure and you’ve got to get something made. So right now, I’m just doing all I can to get the piece made. And then in the end, I’ll have to come back and pick up the pieces and say: “Okay, how much of this actually would work if it wasn’t a matrix of 16 voices in squares, and if I couldn’t present these very clear visual things in the video?” I think there will be a good part of it that will work. For example, I’m letting you in on a secret.
One of the movements of the piece involves a fugue, which is an almost conventionally composed SATB arrangement, except the score looks like it was printed on an ink jet printer that accidentally got water spilled on it. There’s places in the score where it’s very clear what they’re supposed to be singing and then suddenly their notes are obscured by these blobs of ink bleeding on the page. And they are expected to interpret those bleeding things as sounds. And so all through the piece, it starts out sparsely doing it, and then by the end of the movement, it’s just like half the time they’re waaarh out going away from the notes and trying to sing these ink blots. At this point, I’m considering it as the final movement of the piece. In the Zoom, you’ll have the little matrix of all of their singing, of their faces, but I will also display the score with that somehow. I want the people who are listening to it to see why they’re going off the rails. But this is a really normal piece; they could stand there as a choir and they could perform this piece—no problem. But it might be nice to assume that when it’s done in a live concert that you get a projection of the score.
There are other parts of the piece where I’m really giving them fragments to do. I’m constructing those, and then they have to learn. There’s a lot of funny different twists and turns to how different movements of this are being done. And how much of that is going to be normal and doable in a live setting or will even make sense in a live setting is unclear. But I like to hope that it’ll have a life in the live performance realm. But whether it does or not, as you know, nothing dies on the internet. Well, except Flash. Everything is still there to haunt you, so even after we’re back in venues and playing live again, people will probably still be able to go to YouTube or Vimeo or somewhere and pull up this virtual performance.
FJO: I can’t wait to be able to be pull it up. When is going to be out there?
PZ: The 24th of April is the premiere. I’ll make sure you get an invitation.