For Good Measure, by Ensemble for These Times (E4TT)
Episode 2: Pamela Z (part 2)
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In this week’s episode, we talk to Pamela Z about her compositional process. If you enjoyed today’s conversation and want to know more about Pamela Z, visit http://www.pamelaz.com/ . 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 Otter.ai.
Producer, Host, and E4TT co-founder: Nanette McGuinness
Audio Engineer: Stephanie M. Neumann
Podcast Cover Art: Brennan Stokes
Intern: Roziht Edwards
[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 continue our conversation with Pamela Z, who we spoke to in January 2021. [INTRO MUSIC ENDS] A fascinating aspect of your work is how you break down language into sound and syllables, as in “Bagadah” and “Geek Speak,” for example. The way that I often start the process of composing a new work is to conduct a series of interviews with a large number of people – ranging from a handful to often as many as 20, or 30 – one at a time. I bring them into my little soundproof recording booth in my studio, if I can. Otherwise, I have to just find the most clean, pristine recording environment to get the interview in. And then I will record, I'll ask them a lot of questions, and I'll record the interview. And then when I've amassed a whole series of these interviews, I will, in Pro Tools, edit each interview, to isolate and make what we used to call regions, or I think they now call them clips, of little speech fragments that will become part of the music. And those can be as long as full sentences or phrases. But more often, they're just like, maybe a single word, or even syllables or just phonemes. And I name them so that they're searchable for me later. So I have this bin that is full of hundreds and hundreds of these little named clips for any given project. And there'll be named things like "NM: um," or "GR: yes, I think so". And then when I'm searching those, I can pull them up and build the music from them. And then I just start assembling these little clips into tracks in Pro Tools. And they actually kind of almost look like Legos. They're like little building blocks, that if you look at any of my Pro Tools sessions, they have sort of bricks that are spread along throughout the tracks, layered and overlapping with each other. And that's how I actually compose the music because these speech fragments actually become the music itself. So when I do these interviews, the answers that people give me are both inspiration for making the work and giving me ideas for making the work. But they also are the actual material that I use as to make the music. Most of the music is actually made out of the sound of those people speaking. And then I often build the pieces by listening to those phrases, and fragments and the pitches and rhythmic figures that are embedded in them. And I sort of tease out those sounds from the speech sounds themselves. A lot of people actually think of speech as being unpitched. But in fact, it's not because there is no such thing as an unpitched sound. All sounds have frequency and pitch is frequency. So if you take little passages of spoken text, you can actually find the pitches, and the rhythms that are being spoken. And those could be transcribed and notated musically so that they can be played or sung by musicians. So I often find some of the material that becomes the work through transcribing the rhythms and pitches in this found text. That's cool, yes. You talk about finding the sound and the shape, and so forth for your pieces, and both your processes and your music seem very mindful and intentional. I find it fascinating the way you work with found sound and the intersection with 20th century art concrete and musique concrete, for example, in your works such as "The Muni Section," which I really love. Would you talk about that? [laughs] Well, I do think that a lot of the work that I compose is really in the realm of musique concrete, because I am using actual sounds, found sounds from the environment or, you know, from the world around me. And, I'm building the music –a lot of it – out of those sounds. And I always like to say, especially if I'm giving a workshop or something like that, and I'm asking people to make a found sound or a found text piece, I always have to define what I mean by “found sound” and “found text”. So when we're talking about text, I think of found text as being text that was not intended by the author to be art, but was maybe instructions for doing something or the ingredients for something, or a method of assembling something that you bought from a store – like from the instruction manual, or an official notice that you may have gotten. So I take that language, and it becomes the libretto. It becomes the lyrics, instead of using a poem that was written by a poet that was intended from the very beginning to be art. And so then that just becomes like setting somebody else's poetry to music, or writing my own poetry or lyrics. I sometimes do write my own poetry or lyrics. But more often, the text is either found text, or it might be invented text, like I might make sounds that sound like language. They sound verbal, but they're actually in some kind of invented language or language from another planet. [laughs] So because as a singer, actually, I think a lot of singers will relate to this. It's tricky, it's harder to sing music that has no syllables. I mean, it's hard to sing anything other than sustained tones on solfege or vowel sounds, you know, it's much easier to articulate rhythmic singing, if you've got some consonants to land on. And it's more interesting, I guess it or feels more natural and somehow communicative if there's some kind of verbal essence to the sounds. And so that's why I sometimes just start using found language because I just need something to hang the notes on. And so the language does that for me. So I'm talking about found text now. But I can also say that, for found sounds, I have a similar definition. Found sounds to me are the sounds of actual objects or events that occur in your space or outside or whatever. So it could be me dropping my keys on the concrete floor in my studio and recording that, or it could be me filling basins of water in my kitchen sink and splashing that water to get some water samples. Or it could be just recording the sounds of emergency vehicles – sirens as they go by, or birds that are sitting outside my window. So those become found sounds as opposed to hiring a cellist or a trumpet player to come into my studio and then ask them to play scales throughout their entire range and record those sounds and then make a bank of samples of cello sounds or trumpet sounds. Those are just sampled musical instruments, those aren't really found sounds. So, and I tend to use more found sounds – not that I've never used samples of musical instruments – but when I use samples in my pieces, more often than not, they'll be found sounds. Your "Baggage Allowance" comes to mind here. There are actually two different sections in "Baggage Allowance," at least two, that directly use found language. One of the sections is a piece called "Unknown Person" and the lyrics to that song are simply the questions that they always ask you when you when you go to board a plane when you're traveling, I think those questions were usually asked during international travel, "Did you pack your own bag" and so forth. And then I have another section in that piece, where I am simply reading the little love note... [laughs] ...that the TSA leaves in your bag whenever they open it to inspect it. I have found there have been times when it seemed like it had been opened and they didn't put the note in but they're supposed to put this note in. And I happen to have one right here, and it says, "To protect you and your fellow passengers, the Transportation Security Administration is required by law to inspect all checked baggage. As a part of this process, some bags are opened and physically inspected. Your bag was among those selected for physical inspection..." Then it goes on from there. So I have a piece in "Baggage Allowance" that just uses that language as the text of the piece. [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 www.E4TT.org. 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]