Pamela Z’s “Echolocation” Presents the Early Years of a New Musical Innovator


CHARACTERISTICS

Pamela Z’s “Echolocation” Presents the Early Years of a New Musical Innovator

By Andy Beta November 15, 2021

Photo by Gretchen Robinette

The career of the Bay Area composer and performer Pamela Z was long and varied, covering commissions for the Kronos Quartet and San Francisco Symphony, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and one of more abstract TED lectures never given. And while this year brought his latest album, A secret code, he also unearthed something from his past. Shortly after graduating with a music degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Z moved to San Francisco and began recording his voice-centric compositions, eventually releasing them on tape as a Echolocation in 1988. “I always thought of myself as a fence sitter,” Z says from her studio in San Francisco. She’s dynamic and upbeat as she moves through space, whether it’s turning off a blaring car alarm outside or digging up an old partition. “I had one foot in punk and new wave and another in the avant-garde,” she says. “I had things that I liked on all sides and I refused to choose a side. I have always tried to knit them together.



Echolocation is an overview of the different music camps in the Bay Area in the early 1980s. Z photocopied the cover art by hand, distributing it in the American underground. Decades later, a copy of the tape landed in the lap of Jed Bindeman, who runs the imprint Freedom to spend. “I knew right away that I was hearing something special, and as the band continued, that idea only solidified more,” Bindeman says.

Pianist Vijay Iyer, who collaborated with Z and the rapper Mike Ladd on his fusion of hip-hop and jazz in 2007, Still life with commentator, praised Z’s innovation. “Pamela Z is an absolute visionary, a one-of-a-kind artist who has been at the forefront of electronic music and contemporary performance since I started working on it. heard for the first time, ”he said via email. “She courageously and virtuously merges live audio processing, bel canto opera voice, movement and theatrical performance, with lyrical grace, ironic humor and a cohesive and appealing aesthetic.”

When Z first arrived in San Francisco, she still considered herself a singer-songwriter, performing on guitar her own songs indebted by Laura Nyro, as well as an array of covers from artists like Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens. But it was a Weather Report gig that changed her perspective. “There was that moment when the whole group left the stage with the exception of Jaco Pastorius,” she recalls. “He started playing solo, looping his bass with a digital delay pedal. The next day I went to a music store and asked what it was.



She brought home an Ibanez rack-mountable digital delay and was struck by how sampling technology instantly transformed her vocals. “From that moment on, I started to compose a whole different kind of music. I started to listen more to timbre, repetition, layering and pattern, thinking less about conventional harmony, melody, rhythm, structure of songs. My poor neighbors, I never fell asleep that night!

During the day, Z worked at Tower Records; at night, she makes her way to the city’s punk clubs, cafes, restaurants and art galleries, playing her music to a wide range of audiences. “The city was full of activities, before the gentrification of the com bourgeois,” she says. “All these different scenes: performance art, composed music, improvised music, interdisciplinary things with dance companies working with musicians, punk clubs. She laughs at the memory of her weird old punk rock / cabaret band, “We had a song called ‘Bald Boyfriend’, and every time we played it we would drag a guy from the audience on stage and shave his head!” “

At home, she continued to experiment with her digital delay, looping and layering her voice endlessly. EcholocationZ’s title song captures the results: Z’s purrs, barks and trills swirl until they sound like a bat cave, creating a hard-hitting and haunting piece that amazes even more than 30 years. late. “I was playing with the idea of ​​what’s real and what’s not,” she says of the song’s lyrics. His work follows the path of other explorers like Laurie Anderson, Joan la barbara, and Monk Meredith, but Z’s sensitivity belongs to him. “I was doing performance-oriented work – everything was live with my voice and my digital delay,” she says. She used her guitar on “Two Black Rubber Raincoats,” a track that Bindeman says made him even more in love with the band: -pulse punk, ”he says. Gushing drum machine rhythm and a brilliant synth line run through “I Know” and Z’s high opera notes make it feel like a surreal new wave song.



Then there are the unclassifiable “You ‘pop songs”. It builds on the utterance of that titular word as Z adds whispers and a range of lyrics that incorporate the word. It is thanks to his daytime work that the piece came to fruition. “When I worked at Tower Records, there were no computers. The database was the Phono Log, that giant, ring-bound ledger in the center of the store. It was like an overgrown phone book, a catalog of all the songs currently in print, ”she says. “One of my jobs was to update the Phono Log. So I took out a page to throw in the trash and started reading it and I said ‘Woah, this is a song’. This Ol ‘Redneck Feelin’ Blue “and” You say it is like that, George Jones “.

Z was pleasantly surprised when she learned that Freedom to Spend wanted to re-edit the tape, even though it made her think at first. “It’s so far away from where I am now, it’s a strange representation to have of myself there,” she thought first. But listening revealed something else. “There are two pieces that I still have in my repertoire as a performer. So it’s not such a big leap, ”she says. “It completes a story for me.”


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