Thursday, July 8, 2021

A New Album from Pamela Z

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

About two months ago Neuma Records released a secret code, profiling recent compositions by Pamela Z. Not long after my wife and I sold our house in Palo Alto and moved full-time to San Francisco, I became aware of the ROOM Series concerts that Z presented at the Royce Gallery. It did not take long for me to get hooked and attend as many of these events as my schedule would allow. Over the last year my attention has shifted to following her streamed offerings, many of which have taken advantage of video to expand the scope of her work.

a secret code provides a survey of works that Z composed, performed, recored, and mixed covering the period from 2003 to 2018. The physical album (hyperlinked above to its Web page) includes a useful booklet in which Z provides program notes for each of the ten tracks. Sadly, the PDF of that booklet is not included in the Amazon MP3 download page. I find this unfortunate: There is no end of imaginative invention that goes into each of these tracks; and, when the listener is deprived of watching Z execute the performance of her music, her written commentary makes for a useful alternative. The good news is that the PDF file is included as part of the digital download from the Bandcamp Web page.

Z is far from the only composer to draw heavily on the latest technology. She even serves up some prankish winks about her dependence on all that technology in “Typewriter.” The sound source in this case is that of a pre-electric typewriter, and Z narrates what she is reading from the page that she is typing. We thus learn that she is using the typewriter because her Macintosh computer is being repaired. There is then a brief “electronic coda” after she has finished her typing.

Personally, however, I tend to be more interested in her pieces that involve overlaying a series of tracks, each of which involves Z’s voice, singing, speaking, or just exploring different phonemes. I have a particular fondness for “A Piece of π,” which is based on a recitation of the first 200 digits in the decimal expansion of that transcendental number. When I was a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I remember reading about someone that could recite at least 1000 of those digits, claiming that he could do this by approaching that sequence as if it were a piece of music. (As I recall, he went as far as to liken the music to a fugue.) In Z’s case the recitation becomes the music through the overlay techniques that she develops.

I also appreciate Z’s acute sense of duration. Depending on the resources that she is developing, she consistently knows when enough is enough. I quickly became aware of this quality when attending her performances, and it serves her equally well in all of the tracks on this album. From my point of view, the primary advantage of these recordings is that, when I find myself uncertain of just what techniques have led to the sounds I encounter, I can always revisit those tracks in an effort to resolve that uncertainty!

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