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Pamela Z closes Intermedia Fest

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Pamela Z was meant to open the Intermedia Festival of Telematic Arts, a showcase of all manner of electronic, acoustic, electro-acoustic and telematic music and art presented by IUPUI, and in particular IUPUI's new media workshop, the Donald Tavel Arts Technology Research Center.

But she got held up by a volcano.

Luckily, the skies cleared long enough for her to make the trans-Atlantic flight, just not in time for her Friday gig. So the headliner for the Fest went last, performing an hour-long representative survey of her work before a small but appreciative crowd made up of the die-hards that weren't worn out by the tenth concert of the weekend.

A San Francisco-based media artist who has been around since the days of transistors, Pamela Z works primarily with voice (her own, manipulated with digital delay and other processors), video (some pre-taped, some live) and gestures (triggering various sounds by waving her hands across MIDI controllers). And she's employed her talents in concert with plenty of big names in the new music world: Bang on a Can All-Stars, Vijay Iyer, Charles Amirkhanian.

And when Pamela Z promised to deliver a sampling from her work, she wasn't kidding: the concert included both traditionally-structured, verse-chorus songs and more digressive, multi-tracked vocal explorations, pre-prepared works of musical theater and the new media artist's equivalent of a throw-off joke song. A full-evening concert would probably end up being altogether entrancing — and I wonder how her upcoming intermedia work "Baggage Allowance," from which she excerpted two pieces, will turn out. But this show had occasional striking moments, enhanced, of course, by her striking appearance, a thick head of dreadlocks topped by hairsticks leaning every which way.

Highlights included "joke" songs — one piece saw Pamela Z breaking out an imaginary typewriter to write an old friend, making typing and carriage return sounds by manipulating a MIDI controller, theremin-style, with her hands, closing her letter with "pamelaz@typewriter.com"; another for which she read a couple pages of songs starting with "You" from a 1986 edition of the Phonolog Report, a database of pop songs would have been found at any record store worth its salt in a pre-Internet age.

Pamela Z, a bit agitated
  • Daniel Axler
  • Pamela Z, a bit agitated

Not to mention those excerpts from "Baggage Allowance," two songs about travel which struck a balance between the ordinary (itineraries, directions) and the metaphysical (her lines "What I put inside of it; what I'll get back out of it" taking on new meaning with each repetition).

And her more obviously improvised works were equally thought-provoking: the live video piece that incorporated a simple "webcam" to create a collage of Pamela Z faces on perpetual loop; an audio piece devoted to birds during which she sped up her whippoorwill call until it sounded like an actual bird call.

Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk are obvious touchstones for Pamela Z's work, and while there was great diversity in how she employed her instrument, she chiefly works with manipulated human voice, often looping a single vocal line throughout an entire song as the backbeat or bass, using wordless vocals as often as narratives in English (or French), generally sticking around the now-hip world of digital delay — which, as she mentioned, she's been working with since one had to use huge stacks of equipment to accomplish looping effects, instead of the laptop computers which have now become de rigeur, and which now offer more than enough power and options for an artist working with live electronics.

But what made Pamela Z the most compelling performer during the Fest was the emotional diversity of her work. She moved from overwhelming confusion to simplicity, building up layers of vocals and noise, raising her hands in frustration, spattering out wordless, frustrated vocals before — with a swipe of her hand — returning to silence or a heartbeat-like repeated vocal, into a territory of sacred repetition, of more relaxed experimentation with her voice.

And then there's the humor — several of her pieces were quite funny, whether her reading of song titles ("You tell it like it is, George Jones") or her implicit answer to detractors ("I would like to think that art in and of itself is enough of a statement," she said during one song). It was her graceful attention to the core elements of storytelling that was lacking from many of the pieces presented during the Intermedia Festival — and again, which impels me to seek out more of her long-form work, when all her ideas and moods might find amplification within the structure of a full-scale theatrical work.

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  • Daniel Axler

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