Pamela Z – Knee-Deep
Pamela Intro (0:01): Hi, my name is Pamela Z. I’m a composer, performer, and I, um, also I guess a sound artist, installation artist, lots of things.
Dave Intro (0:24): Well, as the threat of the pandemic starts to recede, life appears to be speeding back up again. We’re going on dinner dates, we’re going to drinks with friends, and even attending our first shows back in the real world. It’s hard to remember that even just a few months ago we were all standing pretty still. Well, at least some of us. Pamela Z is someone who’s stayed very, very busy during the pandemic. Which – as we’re here – is great, but success has its own set of challenges during a pandemic. In this episode, we’ll be talking with Pamela about her heart, how she’s been coping during COVID-19, and we’ll ponder the long-term effects of it all, as the world starts to open back up. By the way, all the music in the background of today’s episode is by Pamela Z.
Dave (1:26): You studied music out in Colorado, kind of, uh, was your music- did it sound anything like it does, uh, nowadays or was it in a totally different vein?
Pamela Z (1:36): It was after I got out of school that I sort of found my voice as an artist. And so, sort of in the mid- in the early to mid, like, uh, early 1980s, um, I started playing with electronics. But before that, um, I was- my music was sort of, what I was singing in-in music school was you know, art song and opera arias, while by night I was playing in clubs, um, as sort of a singer-songwriter.
Dave (2:05): Mmm.
Pamela (2:05): And then, after I was out of school and I started doing radio, my experimental music, um, education was largely began with, uh, going through the stats of that radio station to find things to play on the show.
Dave (2:30): And was, at that point were you in San Francisco?
Pamela (2:32): No, I was actually still in Boulder, CO.
Dave (2:33): Ok.
Pamela (2:34): And, but, I-I sort of very quickly moved to San Francisco. So, I just picked up and started from scratch. And, um, discovered like a very, um, exciting and active contemporary music and experimental music and performance scene in San Francisco. So that was, uh, I-I would say that I started doing this kind of experimentation, you know, kind of from 1980…’81, ‘82, and, uh, I made the move to San Francisco in ‘84.
Dave (3:08): Mmm. So, I was just kind of curious about– were there other things that kind of drew you out to the Bay Area?
Pamela (3:12): Kind of an interesting story about that is that I had come to San Francisco a number of times, starting in ‘78. I was, when I was, I was still in my singer-songwriter mode and I was, um, busking on, you know, I-I was busking in San Francisco and in Berkeley. At that time, you could make like a seriously good living, um, busking. And so, uhh, then, uh, I had this sort of big epiphany in my life where I started, you know, moving more towards an experimental music direction. And, um, so I, um, I came back to San Francisco because a friend of mine and I, um, this is (laughs), like this is craziness. But, so King Crimson-
Dave (4:04): Huh.
Pamela (4:05): -Put out this record called Three of a Perfect Pair.
Dave (4:06): Uh-huh.
Pamela (4:07): And, um, a friend of mine and I were in love with Adrian Belew and we were loving this record. They were touring, they were not playing in Boulder, or in Denver, so we found out they were gonna be playing in San Francisco. And I said, I love the Bay Area, let’s make a little trip and go to San Francisco and see King Crimson (laughs). We came here and when we got here, um, it was the first time I came to San Francisco not for busking.
Dave (4:38): Ahhh.
Pamela (4:40): And so instead of spending my time on this, like, ridiculous kind of touristy parts that no normal San Franciscans even hang out in, you know, um, I instead went to other places that were more- arts spaces and saw different neighborhoods and parts of the city, and I just got this really strong feeling. And I remember that when we got back I said I think I’m supposed to live there. And so, I spent the next several months, um, preparing to-to just move. I packed all my belongings into my-into my hippie bus. I had like a Volkswagen micro bus.
Dave (5:14): (laughs)
Pamela (5:16): And I drove to San Francisco, kind of came with almost nothing in my pocket-
Dave (5:21): Mhm, mhm.
Pamela (5:22): And just, you know, started fresh there. It was just, it was-it was really a, uh, this weird, risky thing that I did that wasn’t based on anything solid, just on a feeling that I had.
Dave (5:32): Mhm. Yeah, that’s a great story. It’s just, yeah, it’s interesting how the history kind of defines us and how we kind of move about. Your style of music is kind of like a whole bunch of different things. You know, you said you’re like a composer but then you’re also a sound artist and like a singer and performance artist and maybe a bit of DJ-ing in there too. Like, how would you explain what, uh, what your craft is to someone who-who isn’t familiar with it?
Pamela (6:01): Well, I’m always telling people I’m a very hyphenated artist. (laughs)
Dave (6:05): (laughs) Yeah.
Pamela (6:07): I guess I just, uh, I would describe myself as interdisciplinary.
Dave (6:11): Mhm.
Pamela (6:11): Uh, because I don’t-I really kind of love blurring the lines, you know, so I think that the influences and the styles that are-that are in my-in my work are stemming more from very specific areas aesthetically. Um, uh, but, in terms of medium, um, I-I have this love of kind of a broadness, um, and of, uh, crossing the boundaries – disciplinary boundaries.
Dave (6:42): Right. It’s kind of like the-the medium might change but the-the artistic voice is always there. (laughs)
Pamela (6:48): Yeah, yeah.
Dave (7:02): But I was curious about all your, like wireless controllers that, you know, you’re-you’re using, and I guess they can kind of respond to your gestures, right?
Pamela (7:10): Exactly. All of these different gesture-controlled instruments are-are using sensors of some kind. And all of the sensors are, um, they’re sensing something about your movement or your proximity. The first one I used was an instrument called the Body Synth and you wore it on your body and used your body to play it, and the way that I got into it was I was working with this, um, this, um, there was this guy called Randall Packer who used to have, uh, an organization called New Music Theater. And at one point he decided to make a production that was starring me that would happen as sort of a, uh, guerilla sort of intervention at Mac Expo, or MacWorld.
Dave (7:55): Oh, wow.
Pamela (7:56): We would take a booth as if we were, like, somebody selling software or some new component, um, and then instead-we would these-this demonstration and talk that looked like we were selling something, but actually it was a theater piece and the piece was called the Art-O-Matic.
Dave (8:12): (laughs)
Pamela (8:13): And it wasn’t even clear in our literature or speech that we were giving if this was a piece of software, or if it was a piece of hardware, but you just buy this thing and if you buy it, it’ll instantly make you an artist. (laughs)
Dave (8:12): (laughs) Oh, I love it.
Pamela (8:32): So we did this piece. In the piece, we were doing all this stuff with live video feed, and also like combining live video feed with prerecorded video feed, so I was up there like hawking this, this, fake product, and, um, I was controlling things by doing all these gestures, and we were using this instrument, the Body Synth. And so, I was like this is a perfect instrument for me because it brings together my penchant for making gestures and for composing works that involve gestures, with ability to actually control things with those gestures.
Dave (9:13): So, when COVID hit last year, you were in Italy, right? In Rome? For the Rome, uhh, I guess you said the, uh, you were there for the prestigious Rome Prize Fellowship?
Pamela (9:36): Yeah, so I was in the middle, like smack in the middle of my Rome Prize year, um, so I only got to finish half of my Fellowship and, um, then was, you know, we were all sent packing and had to return to the States, um, in sort of mid-March.
Dave (9:56): And so, what was the experience like over there? I know there was kind of, it was kind of rough in the beginning, uhh, of COVID in Italy especially, right?
Pamela (10:05): It was like every day a new major change would happen.
Dave (10:08): Huh.
Pamela (10:09): It was crazy. I mean, it was like the first thing was like they closer the bar, and we were like “What?” We were like, we need our bar! (laughs)
Dave (10:13): Oh, ho-ho. Oh, no! Not the bar…
Pamela (10:21): And then, shortly after that, you know, they said you know, we’ve gotta move you out of this building and so they moved us all- instead of being in one building, we were now in adjacent apartment buildings each with our own apartments. Then they were like, uhh, sorry, I think we need to send you home. (laughs)
Dave (10:38): (laughs) Ah, man. It’s-it’s, uh, it’s crazy to think that that was over a year and some change ago, but it still feels so, uh, it still feels so intense, you know? You know, now here we are, we’re still experiencing the pandemic – although things are maybe starting to see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel here – but I’m curious, uh, kind of how you’re practice has changed, you know, have-has the way that you’re creating, um, your compositions changed or the type of music that you’re doing, has that changed much?
Pamela (11:15): I don’t know if it’s changed the work itself so much as the intensity and manner in which I’m doing it. I have this bad habit of saying yes to everything, so I was kind of overcommitted already. Like, I had too many commissions that I had to complete within too short of a period of time, and I thought that COVID would fix that because I thought a lot of things would just get cancelled. And what happened was all the live performing, you know, um, uh, all the performing ob-obligations that I had on the books, those got cancelled, but some of them got just moved to being online things. So, I had to do them but they were just virtual. Um, and the other thing is, none of the commission works were cancelled. I’m still actually in that now, just wading knee-deep in, like, you know, punishing deadlines. And there’s something weird about this-how time has just changed, and it’s done something weird where it feels like simultaneously, you know, just the last year feels like ten years, or you know, but at the same time it feels like it went by in a blink. It’s sort of confusing. Being here and not going anywhere, it really seems to be hard for me to get through the tasks I have to do, it just takes longer somehow.
Dave (12:55): Yeah, yes. 100%. That’s, uh, I’m sure there’s many people out there who feel this exact same way in all different disciplines or professions, but I think, you know, when you’re just stuck in your, in your room in your screen all day, there’s some sort of- your perception of reality ch-shifts a little bit. (laughs) And then, there-at the same time, because you’re just inside yourself, you’re not talking to other people all day, so you’re-there’s just kind of like a pressure that builds, uhh, and there’s no way to get away from it.
Pamela (13:33): But I am getting a lot done, it’s just that it’s really being- it’s requiring every fiber of my being to do-to do it. (laughs)
Dave (13:44): (laughs) Yeah, so I mean, besides the virus itself, there’s so many other crises that have presented themselves in this past year, um, you know, environmental issues, talking about all the fires we had here, and political stuff, dealing with the election, of course, and the insurrection, and all this sort of stuff, and then, of course, there’s protests and Black Lives Matter. How do you put this all in context? You know, the kind of like intense emotions that are of our times. Do you take that into your music?
Pamela (14:17): I think everything in life effects everything, and I think that my art is effected by the world that’s around me, but generally not-not in the sort of literal way that people might expect. In other words, I’m not making Black Lives Matter pieces and I’m not writing works about Trump. But, I-I I just think that it seeps into you and it comes out somehow in your work, and so I think there’s no way to quantify in what way it’s effected it but I can tell you that it has effected the way people relate to me, um, and I feel like there was one of the hardest things about that whole year of social unrest that we went through, um, is that all of the- everyone would come to me like – and I think this is happening to a lot of black people – that people are kind of coming and expecting you to kind of teach or-or expecting you to kind of, like, asking you can you sit on this panel where we talk about human rights, and talk about racial inequality, or can you, um, can you contribute a piece, uh, to this um-all these like classical music organizations scrambling to seem politically correct, and like they’re going, like, we need to program a bunch of black people, you know? (laughs) So, it’s been really weird ‘cause it’s been like, and I just had so many interviews, uh, people like wanting to ask me about Black Lives Matter and wanting to ask me about, you know, my experiences with it and how it’s impacted me, or, you know, or just people like emailing me, especially like in the height of it – just emailing me to check and say are you ok? But I don’t really make an effort to address issues in a literal way, but I do think that I do make work that reflects what I’m living in and what my environment is and what we’re all living through. And so, fragments of that wind up in the work but they, they get fragmented and become pieces that are more like puzzle pieces or something
Dave (16:47): I was curious about your performances as part of your virtual engagements – I know you’ve been doing quite a bit of performances and-and what that feels like, um, instead of performing in front of a live audience… Have you kind of developed a different, um, performance strategy, I guess you might call it, for these online gigs?
Pamela (17:08): I wanted to think about a way to make the performance more site-specific. In other words, to make a performance that was for this bizarre, and I’m doing air quotes, “venue” that we’re all playing. Um, because, um, I, uh, my thought was if you’re trying to reproduce that concert hall situation you’re just gonna end up with something that’s just a sad shadow of the thing that it wishes that it was, you know? Um, so I thought instead I should think about, like, what is specific to this-this-this platform? You know, like one of the, one of the things is this-that we’re playing to this little camera and it’s possible to get very, very close and you can be intimate in ways you couldn’t possibly be in a concert hall. Um, and so I started playing with that and sometimes using my gesture controllers, moving my hands right up into the camera so that the audience could actually see my hand up close and see this device that I’m u-manipulating. But, if you’re playing to this-to this camera and creating this flat, rectangular, uh, space that is the playing area, everybody is seeing it from the same exact angle and so there isn’t a good or bad seat in the house, it’s all the same seat. Everybody’s in the same seat.
Dave (18:41): And that’s really cool. That’s a different way to think about performing that you’ve-maybe many people have never kind of had that option before – to really have your audience in one s-place. That’s what you’re thinking about, the presentation inside this box, you know? (laughs) W-so, Thinking more towards the future, what are the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and this whole intense experience that we’ve all been through?
Pamela (19:15): I definitely think that this has changed us in ways that aren’t gonna go away when it, when the, when the, um, when the pandemic goes away. Um, I think that we’ve all learned some stuff from this that we can carry forward into – and incorporate – into our hopefully more normal (laughs) world. For example, there’s this-this, uh, sort of long-distance collaboration that’s happening between a lot of artists where people are working on things together and I think a lot more people are doing that kind of collaboration than used to, but some of us already did it. Like, I used-I’ve done s-a number of collaborations with artists who didn’t live in the same place I did and we sent our stuff back and forth, even back in the day when you had to use FTP and it took like all night for the video to upload. But this has really accelerated that for us and it taught everyone how to do it.
Dave (20:17): Yeah, it’s never seemed easier to reach out and connect with artists all over the globe.
Pamela (20:29): I mean, like, it breaks down the geographical barriers, you know? Um, it means that people don’t have to jump on a plane every time they need to work with somebody else. Um, but it also… there’s weird things about that, like the timezone issues are-are-are kind of intense, and that people have had to start learning now, I notice like people post their events online, they say it starts at 8:00. You can’t say it starts at 8:00 anymore!
Dave (20:55): Right, right. (laughs)
Pamela (20:56): (laughs) You have to say it starts at 8:00 central, or 8:00 pacific, you know?
Dave (21:02): (laughs)
Pamela (11:03): You have to tell them what (laughs) time it starts. (laughs)
Dave outro (21:20): Well, regardless of what timezone you’re in, I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. Thanks again to Pamela for sharing all those great insights into her life and experience. You can check her out and all of her music in the link we’ll give you in the show notes, and in addition she actually has a new album coming out on June 18 called A Secret Code, which features some of the music in the background of today’s episode. Moving forward, we’re going to be taking a bit of a pause in the production of Audium Listens, uh, so we’re considering this episode to be the end of Season 1. I’ve had a blast and gleaned a whole lot of inspiration talking to all the guests we’ve had on the podcast. I hope that you guys out there in podcast land have had just the same. But as COVID recedes from the headlines, we’re hoping to kind of change things up and explore some new themes for the podcast in the next season. For the time being, you can stay in touch with all things Audium-related at our website Audium.org, or on the old social media – Instagram and Facebook @audiumsf. And, of course we wanna thank one more time our wonderful Audium Listens crew – we have Nate Tedesco working on vocal editing and some of the sound design, Odin Rosado on final transcriptions, and Emma Skelly providing help with storyboarding. I’m Dave Shaff, and as always, stay safe, and until we meet again, keep on listening.