When Max/MSP crashed in the middle of her rendition of Meredith Monk’s Scared Song, Pamela Z let out a weoarrrhhhoooooo-that-never-happens! She went on to explain that live electronics are a bit like aviation: things tend only to go wrong during take-off and landing. Not this time. Watching live performers deal with the unexpected thing-gone-wrong in real time can be excruciating or electrifying. But the feeling in this moment wasn’t actually that different from what we were experiencing just a few moments earlier. Throughout her performance Pamela Z slyly moves in and out of her own character so fluidly that watching her restart her software didn’t outside the realm of “the performance”. I had seen Pamela Z live one other time, in Harvard’s Paine Hall a few years ago. Her performance on that occasion as well as this one—the closing slot of the 2018 “Resonant Bodies” Festival at Roulette Intermedium—felt to me like they were designed to demonstrate the breadth of her musical expression.
After her performance, I had the feeling, however silly, that Pamela Z is the original “New Discipline.” I don’t mean to imply any intentional connection or heritage here other than that the tenets of the New Discipline seemed to me particularly applicable to what I saw Pamela Z doing. In the central paragraph of Jennifer Walshe’s 2016 casual and brief manifesto on the New Discipline she says that in this way of working, composers “draw on dance, theatre, film, video, visual art, installation, literature, [and] stand-up comedy”; instead of thinking only about pitches and rhythms, they “need to bring the tools of the director or choreographer to bear on compositional problems, on problems of musical performance”; it is about “the rigour of finding, learning and developing new compositional and performative tools”; and what composers working in this way are after is “[h]ow to locate a psychological/physiological node which produces a very specific sound; how to notate tiny head movements alongside complex bow manoeuvres; how to train your body so that you can run 10 circuits of the performance space before the piece begins; how to make and maintain sexualised eye contact with audience members whilst manipulating electronics; how to dissolve the concept of a single author and work collectively; how to dissolve the normal concept of what a composition is.”
What stands out to me is that she never says do this but not that or use this but not that but instead focuses on rigor. The Discipline is about learning and mastering new tools, methods, and techniques. Virtuosity is not shunned. Alternative kinds of it suggested over those of the nineteenth century. But, the excitement resultant from virtuosic live performance is not dismissed and is, in fact, often key to accomplishing their aims.
Pamela Z’s expression is grounded in her use of her body—as is always the case in live performance, but she makes us extra aware of it. Her manipulation of wireless electronics requires subtle movements of her hands and arms. As she vocalizes into a microphone, her arms swing and sway in the empty air, sculpting the sound by triggering prerecorded sounds or chains of live audio processing. We are transfixed by watching the movements of her arms and lips. As we listen, we are either trying to grasp the causal connection between her movements and the sounds that come out or simply wondering at the concoction she has put seemingly in orbit around her own stationary figure.
Just as her body’s movements are translated into sound, they are simultaneously translated into image. A camera sits on stage next to her, stubbornly directly in view. At different points in her set, what this camera shoots appears in some form on a screen at the back. This serves to give us a third presentation of her body’s movements, in addition to unprocessed version we can witness by simply looking at her and the version rendered in sound.
She is a magician, as all great live performers are. But she is a magician that often lets us see part way up her sleeve, all the more inviting us in. Sometimes she builds wonderfully rich assemblages of vocally-derived sound, while other times she simply writes a letter in plain English on a typewriter in the air. The methods and tools vary during the set, but the “psychological/physiological node” that she touches in us remains constant throughout.
The structure of the Resonant Bodies festival, which gives a 45-minute set to three vocal artists each night, allows us to witness multiple virtuosities. Before Pamela Z, we also heard from Gelsey Bell and Sarah Maria Sun. Bell’s central tool is the manipulation of her singing voice’s tone color. This thread runs through all of the work she presented. The first piece, Corner Song, explored altering her voice’s color by bouncing the sound in various angles off a corner in the space. It started off intriguingly but then I lost interest after a while. Its point had been made. Feedback Belly called for a large dress, which Bell wore as she sat on the stage. She placed a small speaker under the dress, sang into a microphone, applied reverb and delay, and pointed the microphone at the invisible speaker, to create a wash of sounds.
But the most captivating item of the first half of her set was Anip, a piece that featured nothing other than her voice. The melodies she sang seemed to have referents in American folk musics, but to what specifically I don’t think matters. Words had long been abandoned somewhere along the journey to the music’s current state. Only a trace of language remained, as she moved the center of the pitches around in her mouth. Implied vowels were warped, boundaries of singing traditions collapsed, and Roulette’s natural acoustics were animated by her subtle vocal acrobatics.
Her set ended with an EP that was released that same day called This is Not a Land of Kings. These three pieces, which included vocalists Starr Busby and Catherine Brookman, amounted to an at-times nearly explicit repudiation of Trump. The world that she had begun to open up over the previous thirty minutes expanded vastly. Vocal clicks and other noises provided a sonic backdrop for a Charles-Mingus-like blend of individuality within an overall togetherness. Closed triadic harmony turned to stunningly accurate slow unison glissandos which would immediately yield to a single voice belting over the others: “The only voice that really sings over the static & noise / Is the many throated choir.”
The mix of sounds and traditions, aside, part of Bell’s appeal is the radical transparency of her techniques—they are on the surface of the performance. The object of her attention during the performance seems to be the same as that of the audience. This is the opposite of European classical music, where the musicians must pay attention to an elaborate system of notated music, visual cues from conductor, counting beats, and so on—a set of things we as the audience never “hear” even though the musicians must give them all considerable attention. This is not to say that Bell’s approach is without rigor or complexity. Rather, the performance of the work she has put in honing her materials happens in real time, composed as the music may be. We can hear her listening to the resonance of the space and changing the shape of her mouth in response. This is what we are listening to and it is also what she is listening to, and we feel uneasily close to her because of it.
Sarah Maria Sun opened her set and the whole evening with a piece called Seadrift by Per Nøgård, a setting of part of Whitman’s Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. It went on for far too long with too little contrast and made too much of Whitman’s characteristic interjections. The ensemble was also unable to achieve a blended sound and felt under rehearsed to me. But Sun’s set really took off when she got into her wheelhouse: two pieces by Georges Aperghis. She owns this repertoire.
If part of the power in Bell’s set was the transparency of her techniques, Aperghis’ pieces ask for a opposite kind of performative multitasking. Poise, maintenance of extended vocal technique, and fully engaged showmanship, must be attended to at all times. The first piece was Le rire physiologique, with Cory Smythe at the piano. The vocal sounds are mostly various kinds of laughter, or laughter turning into some other kind of sound. As the audience howls in laughter in reaction to the performer’s laughter, the performer must still maintain the poise required to keep the piece moving along, further increasing their performance of delirium. They can’t laugh at their own joke or else the contract with the audience is broken. We are not invited in, but rather are observers of clearly acted roles. As such, Sun and Smythe must be somewhat detached from what they are doing.
Two issues arose in my mind as I was watching this piece and the following better known Les Sept Crimes de l’amour, which included ICE clarinetist and percussionist Campbell MacDonald and Ross Karre. The first is endings: how do we know when it’s over? A smile, a nod, and a chuckle, and even a bow, could all be part of these pieces, but we know they are not. We don’t know they are over merely because they stop (which in a lot of contemporary music seems actually to be how we know!). We know before that. Les Sept Crimes signals the end is coming when it goes through all seven acts in a kind of VHS-rewind-motion. But how we know Le rire is over when it’s over remains a bit mysterious to me.
The second thing I thought about had to do with Smythe at the piano. Les Sept Crimes de l’amour is a classic and wonderful piece of music theater. But Le rire physiologique astounded me even more, I think because of the part that Smythe had to play: it is a piece of work. Under Smythe’s hands, the part sounded like demented or robotic speech. Irregular rhythms, remarkably evenly played, reigned, as if someone making impassioned pleas but in the stubborn monotone that is sound production on the piano. And this is all occurring while Smythe is vocalizing, too. Smythe told me afterwards that usually the piano serves as a “big box to hide behind between me and the audience.” Smythe’s discomfort with being watched and with vocalizing was apparent. His nervousness was tangible. But watching him overcome this and simultaneously execute a virtuosic part on the instrument increased the excitement. Moreover, the contrast of this scene on the left of the stage with the unmistakably natural Sarah Maria Sun in the center created a further hilarious incongruous tension on the stage. I am not suggesting it should or even could have been any other way. This was by design, and it was perfect. In fact, that Aperghis wrote such a demanding piano part ensured that someone who is primarily comfortable in the role of “pianist” and not actor or vocalist would have to play the part.