Pamela Z


Interview by Alicia Austin, June 18th 2001


On June 18, 2001, I met with Pamela Z to discuss her work, her background, and her recent theatre production, Gaijin. Pamela has fostered a music community centered around processing and digital delay techniques in San Francisco.


We spoke over lunch at her favorite neighborhood restaurant, Ti Couz. Radiating the success of her most recent production, Pamela shares her creative philosophy with all the confidence of a woman who has recently come into her own as an artist.



Your new theatre production, Gaijin, explores the experience of being a foreigner. How did you come up with the idea for this show?  

I think I was definitely influenced by my six-month residency in Japan. The idea of doing a piece about being alien was from the experience of being one. I don’t think I have any particular message to get across other than the fact that there are all these different possibilities to the idea of being alien. One thing that I really wanted to be sure of was that people didn’t think the point was to emphasize how hard it is- or how awful. But rather that it’s just interesting. It’s just curious. Sometimes you’re mistreated but other times you’re actually treated special. Sometimes you’re given more privilege because of being alien. You get a better point of view since you get to look at something from the outside. All the different angles from which you may be seen as an outsider- it’s just really curious. It’s really different.


            As an audience member, I agree it was curious- to say the least. Switching from your usual role as solo performer into a full-scale theatre production must have been challenging. Did you discover any hidden strengths?

            I feel like one of my strengths as an artist is combining a bunch of little segments to make one big segment. I’ve always worked with these little nuggets. All of my solo performances have been these five-minute skits. When I do a concert, it’s just a bunch of these little things. I started wanting to do big theatre pieces and large-scale performance works. It was an overwhelming thing for me to create something that’s forty minutes long when I usually create things that are so short. The idea came to me that my style, the thing I’ve always liked, is juxtaposing ironic things with each other. I like variety. I’m one of these people who always order the variety plate when I go to a restaurant. I can’t make up my mind because I like samples of everything. I’m the same way with music. I felt somehow that to make big pieces I had to make bigger chunks. But its not so. You can take little chunks and learn how to glue them together in a seamless way. That’s the art form for me.


            How does musical variety appeal to you?  

            To me, any particular music segment by itself is interesting, but what’s most interesting is the string of them together. When I do radio I don’t like to play long pieces. The reason why is because I want to play a bunch of different pieces and there’s no time on a two hour show to play long pieces. I always play ten-minute pieces and then segue from one really different piece to another. To me, a lot of the magic is in the segue between the two. Each piece is really strong. When you’re in the piece you’re taken somewhere. Then all of a sudden, (gasps), you’re transported to this other place. I want my work to be like that. The condition that it leaves you in, hopefully, is to have been taken on this little journey through all these different things.


            How did you become interested in experimental music?

 I never studied experimental or electronic music in school because music schools were so conservative. When I was in Colorado, I listened to all these recordings that Brian Eno had produced. I had a radio program on Boulder’s free speech radio called ‘The Sound Alternative’. I started learning about experimental music through that. Philip Glass was on my show. Before meeting him I had listened to his solo piano record and one or two others. After hearing them, I thought I really liked minimalism. His work exposed me to it. But I didn’t study minimalism before that. I didn’t know who Steve Reich was or any of that. I actually entered the avant-garde through the “back door.” In the late seventies/ early eighties, there were a lot of musicians who were sort of art school drop-outs involved in the art world of the avant-garde. Through people like David Byrne, who came from the avant-garde pop world, I learned about experimental music. I learned about performance art by listening to Lorie Anderson. At the same time I was listening to the ambient recordings of Brian Eno, and the work of Pauline Oliveros and Ned Rothenberg.


            So when did you try your hand at these techniques?

            I started using electronics in Boulder. I used delays and processed my voice. I just did my work mostly with delays, reverb, and pitch shifters. I kind of taught myself how to do it. I got a lot of flack from people who liked my music before. They were like, “You don’t need all those gimmicks!” So I came to San Francisco. It was here that I found a real new music scene. Then I met other people who were doing the same thing. Then you learn from each other and share in a community. I was twenty-eight when I moved to San Francisco. It was like a second adolescence for me. I felt like I grew up when I moved here. 


            How did electronic devices affect your creative process?

            I am stimulated by using new tools. There is something that will change the way you work. It also changes what sounds are possible. The weird mistakes you make when you don’t know how to use something make you come up with ideas that you wouldn’t have deliberately thought of. Sometimes they are more interesting than what you had originally intended. In regard to using electronics, the instrument I’ve always had the most facility with is my voice. I never felt there were things I had in me that I couldn’t get out through those instruments. With the processing, what it allowed me to do was expand my voice to make this much bigger instrument in which I could layer things in real time. This brought me to the point of hearing more densely. Also, the idea of repetition in delay and sampling made me hear differently. In using delay there is a density that occurs. Music also becomes more rhythmically complex with vocal delays of differing lengths. That heavily influenced the way I listen and compose.


            In Gaijin you used an electronic instrument called the body synth. Is this your invention?

No, it’s an instrument developed by a friend of mine. Chris is a dancer. He wanted an instrument that would allow him to create the sound he was dancing to through movement. So he and Ed worked together to develop the body synth. You wear electrodes against your skin and it measures the electricity from your muscles. Then it translates this into midi. Then you can use it to control whatever instrument you want. I started using it about six or seven years ago.


            In Gaijin, you went back to the same song many times. Other. This song has the melancholy mood of a blues tune. Yet the wide vibrato you used led me to think there may be other influences at work.

            The singing style I used in ‘Other’ was very influenced by ‘enka’ singing. I was trying to put a little element of that into it. When I did my residency in Japan, in 1999, I was trying to learn the traditional singing styles like’ kabuki’ and ‘Noh’. But what I realized is that I was interested in this very sappy pop music they have called ‘enka’. It’s the music that the old style Japanese like to sing when they go to karaoke bars. Also, if you watch variety shows on television, they sing these songs. They’re very sappy and someone usually winds up crying at the end. I first noticed this singing style when I went with a bunch of friends of mine to a karaoke bar years ago in Japantown. Once in a while the proprietor or one of the Japanese people who was just hanging out there would get up and do one of these enka songs. I remember this older woman who was wearing lots of make-up and had this real sultry personality. The way she sang the sustained notes, she had this vibrato that was so wide you could drive a truck through it. I was interested in that. When I told my friends in Japan they were like, “Why would you want to learn that?” That’s like someone coming to America saying, “I want to study how the people in Las Vegas sing old Elvis Presley songs or something.” They just thought it was so corny that I wanted to learn this music. The young people hate enka, but the older people love it.


            The lyrics of ‘Other’ speak of the dehumanizing effect of immigration, with its forms and bureaucratic process: “Which box did you mark on the form? Did you mark ‘other’? ‘Other’?” Yet you balance the song’s somber mood by making it the core of a silly scene later in the show. Tell me about this.

            I thought it would be really funny to have a karaoke scene with ‘Other.’ So I took one of those ‘Music Minus One’ recordings of a real ‘enka’ song, the one that you heard in the karaoke bar. Then I arranged a version that was in the same style for my song ‘Other.’ A friend helped me translate it into Japanese. In the karaoke scene there are two songs. The first is a real ‘enka’ song and the second is a karaoke version of ‘Other’ in Japanese.


             It seems there are many more layers of Japanese influence in Gaijin. Your use of language was engaging.     

            A lot of my work is around language. I’m really interested in language, but in this unfocused, unstudied kind of way. My interest has been fleeting from one language idea to another. Sometimes it’s really just the sound of the language. Either I like the sound of words or cultural ways of speaking. Japanese has a very finite number of sounds. The vowels are always the same and if you learn the basic Japanese phonetic alphabet, you can make every sound that you need. I did some of Gaijin in Japan. They absolutely loved the opening piece featuring the Japanese phonetic alphabet. There are two. One is called katakhana and the other is heraghana. The characters flashing on the screen in Gaijin were the heraghana.


            Sound seems to be a major preoccupation for you. Your processed musical textures are vivid and diverse. While in Japan, did you record any of the ambient sound used in Gaijin?

            Yes, you heard a little bit of it in the show. There were two segments where I used the body synth. In one piece I was triggering samples of the Japanese subway station. There were all these weird little music box sounds. All those voices were recorded voices that tell you what station you’re getting off at. When you’re there, this music is constantly coming. In another segment I was triggering sounds from a Japanese language tape. Also, a lot of the language I was triggering as I walked through the dancers just sounded interesting to non- Japanese. However, to Japanese it was very funny because it was just example phrases from a language tape that comes with a language book. So they were just saying things like, "What is that? That is a chair. Where is the store? That was delicious." So it was very innocuous and silly phrases that don’t really mean anything out of context.


            You gathered other sound bits from conversations with friends on the experience of being perceived as a Gaijin in America. How did you collect such candid interviews?

I had planned to do them ever since I had the idea of making the piece. I didn’t actually do them until close to the time that I performed the piece. Before leaving for Japan, I’d had a conversation with a friend where she talked about being perceived as a foreigner in America. For Gaijin I wanted to record her saying the same thing. I didn’t want to make her nervous or self-conscious but I was really hoping I could get her to tell that story again. I wanted to use it for my piece. So I just asked her a bunch of questions until she said it. Then I had to sort of edit it together to get it into a concise little nugget so I could build a piece around it.


Do you have any favorite moments in Gaijin?

One thing that really struck me as beautiful when I saw the video was at the end of the show. The dancers take a full five minutes to go from being in a fetal ball on the floor to growing up to these kind of tree-like things. Visually I thought that was just stunning. There was the sound of the music at that point with the people’s stories in it. I’m actually torn about that. When I was watching it I almost wished that the stories of the people were not there because the image was so powerful. I felt like hearing Leigh talk about her bald head in India, while this incredibly gorgeous and organic thing was happening, wasn’t exactly a wise choice. But the actual sound of the music I composed underneath these stories, with the image of their growing is a really powerful moment to me. After they go into a ball on the floor, I come down triggering the body synth. Then the music starts and they start growing up. This all really seems gorgeous to me.


            Tell me about the role of Butoh dance in Gaijin.

One of the things about Butoh dancers is that they move really slowly. It’s like this slow motion thing with very subtle changes in their bodies. So I had the idea that I wanted them to be separated from each other physically, but still have the same experience. One of the conclusions I came to about this whole notion of alien-ness or Gaijin- ness is that we’re all the same. We’re all experiencing slightly different versions of the same kinds of things in completely remote places. Everyone is born; everyone has to struggle to grow up. So I thought I would like to have them do this thing where they all start out in this fetal ball and then slowly grow into their standing position. I was picturing it being plant-like growth.  I really directed the dancers on that scene. I said, “Think of it like time-lapse photography.” Have you ever seen time-lapse photography of plants growing? It’s an amazing thing to see. When I was a kid in science class, they would occasionally show us one of these films of a seedling growing. They take however long it takes for a seedling to grow from this tiny thing. It ends up looking like a plant that has fully grown in a day or two. They shoot it and then they just condense that to five minutes. So you see this plant and its kind of growing, but it has these weird moments where the shoot flips the other way. As a kid I always wondered, “Why did it do that?” Then I realized that if it took five days for this plant to grow, the sun goes up and down. When the sun comes up, its suddenly interested in trying to point itself toward the sun. Also, as the sun goes across the sky, it actually tries to follow it. So there’s a cyclical thing that happens that looks kinda spastic and jerky, and you don’t know what it is. It’s probably the bud responding to the light going away and coming back. So I told the dancers to do that. “Just imagine in your mind that it’s taking you a certain number of days to grow from being a complete little ball, to being a tree. In your own mind just feel where the sun goes up and down. You can act the movement more slowly. Occasionally you can suddenly change your direction. Or you can sometimes retreat a little bit.” When plants are in the dark they retreat a little bit, and then they continue to grow up. So that was the imagery I used.


            This image stayed with me long after I saw Gaijin. The power of this show lies in its simplicity. In Gaijin, we are drawn inside Pamela Z’s quirky vision of being foreign- what it is and what it is not. She juxtaposes these trivialities with refreshing humor.  If you’ve ever traveled outside your homeland, only to find yourself the focus of curious looks, or if you’ve ever felt like a tourist walking the streets of your own neighborhood, then perhaps you know all too well what it is to be a Gaijin.  

Interview © by Alicia Austin in San Francisco, on June 18th, 2001... Thanks for visiting Paris Transatlantic. If you enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in reading our talk with theater director and musician Heiner Goebbels, or with film director Peter Greenaway.