Interview with Pamela Z

Continuing with this season’s eclectic array of new works, on November 18th Kaleidoscope will showcase four composers in collaboration with the LA Philharmonic’s “Noon to Midnight” concert series. As a series featuring LA’s top new-music ensembles, these new works promise to be as equally groundbreaking and transformative. Pamela Z, one of the four composers featured on this concert, will have her World Premiere of And the Movement of the Tongue alongside Krists Auznieks’ Snippets of Joy, Peter Shin’s Screaming Shapes, and Gabriella Smith’s Carrot Revolution. Generously donating her time, I was able to sit down with Pamela Z to not only discuss her compositional influences for And the Movement of the Tongue, but how in developing creative ways to play with spoken language she ultimately discovered her own uniquely pioneering and remarkably bold original artistic voice.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started with music?

Pamela Z: It’s hard to say how I “got started” because, I’ve been a musician and deeply interested in music and sound ever since I was a small child. In fact, my first public performance was singing a duet with my sister in a grammar school talent show when I was five years old. My father had also bought recorders (blockflötes) for the family when I was little. He had a tenor, one of my sisters had an alto, and the rest of us had sopranos. I played viola and guitar in elementary and junior high school, and at that time started experimenting with multitracking and writing music.

CR: For those that don’t know, what is multitracking?

Pamela Z: I use the word “multitracking” as shorthand for “multi-track recording”, which is a studio recording technique. It’s a way of recording music that has many parts by making separate passes onto different tracks that will then be played back simultaneously to create the final stereo mix. For example, if a single person wanted to record a song with three-part harmony, they could record one part onto the first track, record the second part onto an adjacent track, and so on until all parts were recorded. Then all three parts would be played simultaneously and mixed down to stereo.

CR: I see. My understanding is that you also do live layering of your voice in performance. How were you exposed to this technique? Did you have any specific musical influences in this style of music making?

PZ: In the early 1980s, several years after having graduated with a music degree, when I was already working full time as a musician, I heard a bassist use digital delay to perform a layered solo in concert. I immediately wanted to try that with my voice so purchased a digital delay unit and started experimenting with it. That was a life-changing moment for me. That was when I truly “found my own voice” as an artist, because it opened me up to whole new ways of listening and composing and thinking about sound and ways of structuring music. In terms of my musical influences for the style of music I compose, I would site a wide array of people including minimalist composers like Glass & Reich. Also, there are a number of artists that I like who use alternative vocal techniques as well as artists who work creatively with language and text-sound poetry.

CR: Out of all your musical experiences, what is your favorite thing about being a composer?

PZ: That’s a tough one. I suppose it’s the freedom to create new things rather than only reinterpreting existing work.

CR: Absolutely. In regards to that freedom to create, how would you describe your compositional style?

PZ: It varies. It depends on whether I'm composing for solo voice and electronics, creating experimental theatrical performance work, scoring for a choreographer or filmmaker, or writing for a chamber ensemble. Most often, I compose works for my own solo voice and electronics, and I work a lot with layers – using these digital delays and sampled found sounds, with voice as my primary sonic source. When I compose for chamber ensembles, the sonic palette is expanded to include strings, or whatever instrument families are included in the ensemble in question. I rely heavily on the poetic and musical properties of speech sounds– often using fragments of recorded interviews to build text layers, and I sometimes derive melodic and rhythmic material from the melody and rhythms found in speech. Repetition also plays an important part in my work, and I love the sound of gradually phasing rhythmic or sustained layers.

CR: Regarding your work, And the Movement of the Tongue, does this piece incorporate the properties of speech sounds, rhythms and melodies that you are describing?

PZ: Yes, absolutely. And the Movement of the Tongue is a work about speaking accents, specifically accented English. It started as an exploration of the profusion of broad-ranging accents that abound in the San Francisco Bay Area–from various regional accents from all over the United States to accents from other English-speaking countries and accents of people who speak English as a second language. I have always had a fascination with language and speech, and have made many works that use the sound of the human voice as both an inspiration and a primary source for the actual generation of the music. I spend a lot of time listening to, exploring, and working with speech sounds, but in this case my focus was on the sometimes subtle and sometimes extreme differences in pronunciation and inflections of various English speakers.

CR: Did you find that there is a certain accent that’s more melodic or more rhythmic?

PZ: No, I don’t think any specific accents on their own stand out as more or less musical than others. It’s more about the variation found between all of them – the beauty in how many different ways one word or syllable might be pronounced by people with various accents. In making that piece, I was fascinated by juxtaposing the different accents sonically, but I also loved finding the melodic and rhythmic material embedded in the speech of any one person regardless of their accent.

CR: Very interesting! You’ve worked with so many incredible artists in your life, but have you previously worked with a conductorless orchestra?

PZ: I have not. In fact, I have never composed for any orchestra. I have only composed for my voice & electronics, for fixed media, and small 1-per part chamber groups. The work that Kaleidoscope will be performing was originally written for Kronos Quartet and is being adapted for string orchestra for this event.

CR: Oh wow! Being that this is your first orchestral adaptation, what are some of your expectations going into the rehearsal process?

PZ:  I’m excited about the timbral possibilities. It would be nice to someday have the opportunity to actually compose something new for them. I’m also intrigued to learn how things work with an orchestra that works without a conductor – even though I’m accustomed to working with much smaller ensembles who are generally conductorless. I’m assuming the rehearsal process for this project will be interesting, because the orchestra will be trying out ways of distributing the parts that were originally written for two violins, a viola and a cello.

CR: Absolutely. Speaking more to the mission of this orchestra, Kaleidoscope is invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, eliminating ticket sales, and giving donation based concerts. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. If any, what are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to your community through your music?

PZ: I live and work in San Francisco, so the San Francisco Bay Area community is the one I’m most closely tied to. I also spend a lot of time in New York, and I suppose that most of my community involvement is related to the arts communities in these cities. Though, I have had some non-arts community engagement through collaborative projects I’ve done with choreographers, such as a piece I composed for choreographer Jo Kreiter about aging homeless women, which involved interview material from a number of homeless and formerly homeless women. I’d also like to think the piece Kaleidoscope is performing will be received as a celebration of diverse national and immigrant communities.

CR: With that in mind, are there any charities or causes that you’re passionate about that you would like to raise awareness to?

PZ: One of the first causes that springs to mind is affordable housing. Given the extreme gentrification that seems rampant in cities everywhere, it is particularly out-of-control in San Francisco at the moment. Another one I feel quite strongly about is arts education. I really think it’s essential for the health of humanity that children, and people of all ages for that matter, receive a strong foundation in and deeper engagement with art.

CR: Absolutely. Is art another passion of yours outside of music and composition?

PZ: Yes! I’m a devoted follower and supporter of the arts across the broad spectrum of disciplines. I draw some of my greatest inspiration from visual art as well as experimental performance and dance-theater work. When I’m not making work myself, I love going to see other people’s work in concerts, museums and galleries and wherever the work is found. When I arrive in a new city, which happens a lot because I travel all the time for performing and artist residencies, the first thing I always want to know is where is the Contemporary Art Museum in the city. I’m also an avid fan of avant garde designer couture, and I love food & wine.

CR: If you had to choose, which Art Museums are your favorite to visit?

PZ: Yes, I have a few favorites that spring to mind. I adore attending La Biennale di Venezia, which is not so much a museum, but a biennial international art exhibition. I also love the Peggy Guggenheim. I just visited that today, and I pretty much make a pilgrimage there every two years when I come to Venice for La Biennale. I love the DIA Museum in Beacon, New York, and the Fondation Cartier in Paris. I guess I have lots of favorites. Mass MOCA is a new favorite for me. Of course, you can’t leave out MoMA in NY. And SFMOMA in San Francisco has gotten amazing with their new remodel and expansion. I could go on, but I’ll stop here.

CR: *laughter* They really all are pretty incredible. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! Is there anything else you’d like to leave with our readers?


PZ: Enjoy the performance!

CR: Thank you!

PZ: Thank you!



Carrie Rexroat is a freelance writer for Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, but is also the founder of the storytelling blog and podcast, A’tudes & Brews. To read other artist stories, go to


Kaleidoscope will give the World Premiere of the string orchestra version of And the Movement of the Tongue on:

Saturday November 18th @ 10pm
Walt Disney Concert Hall
111 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA, 90012

Sunday November 19th @ 2pm
First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401


Carrie Rexroat