For Good Measure

Pamela Z - Part 1

June 06, 2022 Pamela Z Episode 1
For Good Measure
Pamela Z - Part 1
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

For Good Measure, by Ensemble for These Times (E4TT)
Episode 1: Pamela Z - part 1

Looking for a way to listen to diverse creators and to support equity in the arts? Tune in weekly to For Good Measure!

In this week’s episode, we talk to Pamela Z about finding her compositional voice and how she prefers to work. If you enjoyed today’s conversation and want to know more about Pamela Z, check her out here: Parts of this episode originally premiered on January 2021, found on Youtube, click here

This podcast is made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council and generous donors, like you. Want to support For Good Measure and E4TT? Make a tax-deductible donation or sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the podcast!

Intro music: “Trifolium” by Gabriela Ortiz, performed by E4TT (Ilana Blumberg, violin; Abigail Monroe, cello; Margaret Halbig, piano),  as part of “Below the Surface: Music by Women Composers,” January 29, 2022
Outro music: “Lake Turkana” by Marcus Norris, performed by E4TT (Margaret Halbig, piano), as part of “Alchemy,” October 15, 2021

Transcription courtesy of

Producer, Host, and E4TT co-founder: Nanette McGuinness
Audio Engineer: Stephanie M. Neumann
Podcast Cover Art: Brennan Stokes
Intern: Roziht Edwards

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Nanette McGuinness:

[INTRO MUSIC] Welcome to "For Good Measure," an interview series celebrating diverse composers and other creative artists sponsored by a grant from the California Arts Council. I'm Nanette McGuinness, artistic executive director of Ensemble for These Times. In this week's episode, we're joined by Pamela Z, who we spoke to in January 2021. [INTRO MUSIC ENDS] Thanks so much for making the time to join us. Could you talk about your path from singer songwriter to composer? How did you find your compositional voice?

Pamela Z:

In the early part of my professional life, basically, my early adult life, I was a music student at University of Colorado Boulder. I was studying voice with John Paton. I was very lucky to have him, because he was probably the only instructor on the voice faculty that would allow their students to sing anything other than bel canto. And he preferred that I do, opera arias and art song when I was studying with him, but he did not mind that after hours I was going and playing in clubs and singing other styles of music. There were people on the faculty that would have dropped you as a student, if they'd found out that you were doing that. So I was very lucky in that regard. So I went to music school singing classical music, mostly common-practice period – opera arias and art song and so forth. And at the same time playing singer songwriter-like rock and folk rock in clubs. And then after I graduated from college, I was actually making my living as a musician, playing music in clubs. But at the same time, I had a radio program on the local NPR affiliate, which was KGNU in Boulder. And I feel like I got my sort of contemporary music and experimental music education from the stacks of the that radio station. And I was doing this freeform radio program where I was just playing all manner of contemporary music, avant garde music, experimental music, across all different genres. And so I would be seguéing from Varèse and Stockhausen into, like, you know, the Ramones. [laughs] You know, or Brian Eno, and so I became enamored of

Nanette McGuinness:

[laughs] contemporary music, and I really wanted to veer more in that direction and do things that were more avant-garde than what I was doing. But I was having a hard time finding that. And I tried in my songwriting, to just write things that were that were more experimental. And it just ended up sounding like quirky versions of what I was already doing. And then, at one point, I was exposed to someone using a digital delay. And it happened to be Jaco Pastorius, who used to be the bassist of a group called Weather Report. And at a concert, he played a piece, the rest of the band left the stage, and he sat down and started doing a duet with himself by looping his bass into this digital delay. And I was just so taken by that I was like, how is he doing that? So I went to music store the next day. I described it to the guy, and he was just like, oh, that's a digital delay, but you don't want the one that Jaco was probably using because that's a foot pedal one and it has a really low sampling rate, and it's not going to sound great on your voice. So he sold me a rack-mountable digital delay unit. And I always tell people that I went home and, my poor neighbors, I never went to bed that night. I just was amazed at what can happen when you can loop and layer your voice. That was a very specific moment in time where I actually found my voice as an artist, because as soon as I started working with the delay, I had to run out and buy more delays and build a rig that was made from a whole stack of digital delay units and multi-effects processors. But the thing that was specific about that situation was that I, I began to listen differently, I began to construct work differently, I became aware of other elements being important besides melody and harmony and rhythm, I was I was much more interested now in timbre and in texture, and I became aware of structures that had to do with repetition and slowly changing processes. And I also became really aware of how musical the sound of spoken words can be, because of all the melodic and rhythmic material that is embedded in speech sound. And so I just started composing completely differently. And I basically jettisoned everything I had been doing before that and just started a whole brand new way of working. What are the various ways you work? Is it different composing for others rather than yourself, and do you have a preference?

Pamela Z:

I don't prefer one or the other, but they are different. And I like that they're different. I think it makes life more interesting that I have these different approaches. I thought it would be helpful to break down for you the different ways that I compose and the different types of work that I do. I've done all kinds of things, but the things I do regularly, kind of break down into four categories. And one category would be my solo works for voice and electronics that involve, me singing with processing and gesture controllers, and maybe, occasionally a single channel of video being projected. And then I have these large-scale performance works, that are more theatrical in nature. And they often involve multiple channels of projected video, they sometimes involve other performers, they usually have a lighting design and a set design, and involve maybe some kind of movement on the stage, and maybe even props. So there are those two things. And then I also do a lot of chamber compositions these days. And those are generally works that were commissioned either by an ensemble or a soloist. And those pieces sometimes include a part for my own voice and electronics, and other times, they’re just for the ensemble. And then there is installation, which sometimes takes the form of a fixed media stereo sound work, or a multi-channel, fixed media piece that is intended to be projected through an array of multiple loudspeakers. Or it might be an installation work that involves sound and video. Often and/or video embedded in objects. And so these are kind of four different ways that I work. The other thing I often do when I'm composing work for chamber ensembles, is that I tend to begin building phrases by listening to sampled text, finding melody in it, singing it, and then transcribing it. And however I go about deciding the pitches and rhythms that I'm going to give to the ensemble, there is a point in time where I enter things into the computer using a MIDI keyboard, and put them into MIDI tracks in Pro Tools, and I sort of construct the piece there. And then I export the MIDI out and import it into Sibelius, which is the notation program that I use. And then I sort of work on fudging the score and cleaning it up and making it be what it's supposed to be. And then I have to work on how I express all the things that are not notes and not standard notation type of ideas. How do I express those in the score and make it so that it's legible and understandable for whoever is going to be performing it. So that's kind of one way that I work. If I'm making pieces that are just for my solo voice and electronics, the way that I tend to start with those is by setting up all my gear as if I was going to give a performance in my studio, everything that I need, all of my controllers and everything, and then I just start playing, and I improvise a lot. And I come up with ideas by doing. And often, those things almost come to me whole cloth like, I'll just be playing around and then all of a sudden, I’ll realize that the last five minutes I just did, that's a piece. And then – hopefully I was recording– and I have to go back and learn it. [laughs]

Nanette McGuinness:

[OUTRO MUSIC] Thank you for listening to "For Good Measure," and a special thank you to our guest, Pamela Z for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our podcast by clicking on the subscribe button and support us by sharing it with your friends, posting about it on social media, and leaving us a rating and a review. To learn more about E4TT, our concert season online and in the Bay Area, or to make a tax deductible donation, please visit us at This podcast is made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council and generous donors like you. "For Good Measure" is produced by Nanette McGuinness and Ensemble for These Times, and designed by Brennan Stokes. With special thanks to audio engineer extraordinaire Stephanie Neumann. Remember to keep supporting equity in the arts and tune in next week "for good measure." [OUTRO MUSIC ENDS]

Could you talk about your path from singer/songwriter to composer? How did you find your compositional voice?
What are the various ways you work? Is it different composing for others rather than for yourself? Do you have a preference?