Saturday, July 9, 2016

Pamela Z Gifts Herself for her 60th Birthday

Last night the Royce Gallery presented the first of two performances of the final installment in the 2016 season of Pamela Z’s ROOM Series. The title of the program was Z Program 60, and Z created it for the celebration of her 60th birthday. It also turned out to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the ROOM Series, whose very first program was the celebration of Z’s 50th birthday entitled Z Program 50.

The major work on the program, which occupied the entire second half of the evening, was entitled SIXTY, which Z described as her gift to herself. The piece was a 60-minute collage consisting of 60 movements, each exactly one minute in duration. This strict framework was emphasized by the image of a ticking clock with an enumeration of the individual movements, “0” to “59,” in the upper left corner. The collage consisted of music from a diverse variety of sources but also included dance and film. Each movement represented a year of Z’s life, and the program included an insert providing “Random Historical Facts” for each of those years.

Z also recruited a prodigious number of “friends, siblings, colleagues, and collaborators” both to contribute material for the collage and to participate in the performance. Performers appeared both in person and on film; and, in Z’s case, two of the films presented selections of past performances by The Qube Chix, a vocal trio in which she performed in the early Nineties. The total number of performers joining Z, enumerated by name, came to 21; and, if that were not enough, audience participation was also part of the process.

If there were any concerns that this would be a grand design that would collapse under the weight of its multifaceted good intentions, they were almost immediately dispersed with the good-natured humor of the very first minute, Z’s own “Baby Howl.” True to its title, this vocal solo basically captured the first moments after birth of the neonate making her first efforts at vocalization, beginning with soft, hesitant burbles and gradually rising through a sustained crescendo to the first full-out wail that would only be silenced by the first introduction to mother’s milk. Z’s ability to fit this to the first go-round of the second hand on the projected clock set the standard for both the timing and the flow of the 59 movements that would follow. (One might also insert the coy observation that this pieces was performed from memory, but that would probably be a bit of a stretch.)

The “Random Historical Facts” often provided a useful context for many of the episodes. One of the more explicit examples involved violist Charith Premawardhana evoking the seven-year-old Z’s struggles in learning to play that instrument. Similarly, at the age of nine Z learned to play “Dona Dona” on her sister’s classical guitar; so the minute for that year involved Z and her sister, Hillary Maroon, singing the song with guitar accompaniment in a reduced version that fit perfectly into its allotted one-minute span.

Not all references to the past were explicitly acknowledged. Z’s “Minute Waltz” credited Frédéric Chopin but not Barbara Streisand’s lyrics for the track from her Color Me Barbara album, which was the source for the words Z sang. Mind you, that track lasted for all of two minutes. Between an even more breakneck tempo and judicious cuts, Z managed to pull off the whole thing within its assigned 60-second allotment. There was also a radio evangelist behind one of Donald Swearingen’s keyboard solos that sounded as if he had wandered in from John Adams’ “Christian Zeal and Activity.”

The whole thing came to a conclusion with a second-by-second count from 1 to 60 by the entire audience. Words were projected on the screen with occasional diversions into Italian, French, German, and Japanese. (The audience was totally unprepared for the Japanese characters.) There was never any sense that this thoroughly engaging experience had gone on for too long.

This rather epic endeavor was introduced during the first half of the program by a selection of “old and new” Z compositions for voice and electronics. This included “Badagada,” which she described as her first composition based on real-time sampling of her own voice. There were also several examples of her most recent work with proximity sensors in which the music that emerges depends as much on her keen sense of choreography as on her skills in making music with digital media. (After a brief ting of a pair of finger cymbals, I had to look twice to confirm that Z was not actually wearing them.) She also included her own “cover” for Meredith Monk’s “Scared Song,” which began as part of a project involving different artists performing Monk’s pieces. She told the audience that her performance came very close to the recorded version; but what mattered more was the in-the-moment spontaneity of her execution, through which she made this music her own, rather than merely an accounting for Monk’s initial ideas.

Those whose curiosity may have been whetted by this report will be happy to know that Z Program 60 will be given a second performance tonight. The Royce Gallery is located in NEMIZ (the North East Mission Industrial Zone) at 2901 Mariposa Street, between Harrison Street and Alabama Street. General admission is $10, and tickets may be purchased in advance through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. In addition to the $10 rate, there is also a Truer Cost Ticket rate of $16, as well as a 60 Dimes to 60 Dollars option for anyone to pay what they wish to support the production with a $6 minimum.

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