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Theater 30.2 (2000) 58-65

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Parts of Speech

Pamela Z, Interviewed by Tom Sellar



Pamela Z has composed and performed her densely layered works in the United States, Europe, and Japan since 1984. Using her voice, live electronic processing, and sampling technology, she combines operatic bel canto and extended-vocal techniques with digital delays, found percussion objects, and sampled sounds. One of her preferred instruments is the BodySynth, which uses computer-linked electrode sensors to respond to the performer's muscle movements, allowing her to manipulate sound through physical gestures on stage.

In her most recent piece, Gaijin, she blends live and sampled vocals, texts, and sounds into a lush polyphonic weave. Voices on multiple tracks reflect on the mysteries and disorientation of being an outsider, while, center stage, Pamela Z stands with quiet assurance at a microphone console, building and inhabiting a lonely character (who generates and absorbs the sounds around her). Waving her wrists, she triggers humorously chirpy samples from elementary Japanese-language lesson tapes, while an endless loop of basic phonetics underscores her painful estrangement. Although the piece relies on digital delay technology, the human voice resonates in and above the soundscape with grace and haunting clarity. I spoke with Pamela Z after her performance in Montreal in November 1999.

TOM SELLAR What does "Gaijin" mean and what is the impulse behind the piece?

PAMELA Z I came up with the idea when I was in Japan recently on a six-month visit. The word gaijin is a Japanese slang word, which is shortened from gaikokujin, which means "other-country person" or "foreigner." Gaijin is slang and is often, but not always, used in a derogatory way. One of the things I learned in Japan is that if you're not Japanese--if you don't look Japanese, if you don't speak Japanese--then you will always be a gaijin. It was a real lesson to me because I began to be aware of what people who live in my own country must feel like when they're never allowed to feel that they belong, because other people don't allow them to or because they just don't feel like they do. I think a person can feel like a gaijin on many levels. The language lessons I use in the piece reflect the fact that I was struggling to learn Japanese the entire time I was there. The other text segment is a poetic fantasy I wrote at the time.

It's still a work in progress, which I plan to perform in November 2000 as an evening-length multimedia performance piece with projected images, three Butoh movement artists, and a set with various levels and a lot of [End Page 59] scrims. It will be made of various modules or sections that are all in some way about the idea of foreignness--whether that means visiting a country you're not used to, or feeling like a foreigner in the place where you live, or all kinds of other ways that a person could feel foreign.

Surprisingly, although you work almost entirely through electronic technology, we nearly forget that the machines are there in the course of your performance. What can you say about the way you use technology? Do you consider these machines musical instruments?

Anything you use to make music is an instrument, and I don't differentiate between instruments that are made out of wood or flesh and instruments made out of memory chips. Trying to use new tools always inspires me. When you first start using them you make mistakes, and half the time the mistakes are more interesting than what you were trying to do in the first place. I've been using voice in digital delay for about sixteen years. When I started, I just wanted to make a repeating loop of my voice and use it as an accompaniment, which I would sing over, like a canon. When I got a second digital delay machine, I wanted both of the delays to sing together, but I couldn't get...


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pp. 58-65
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Archived 2005
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