Virginia Tech Magazine
College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Sound Inspiration

Pamela Z both premiered a new work and inspired poets at Virginia Tech.
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VIBRATIONS
Pamela Z both premiered a new work and inspired poets at Virginia Tech.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF ARS ELECTRONICA

Traditional bel canto joined with digital experimentation when composer, performer, and media artist Pamela Z premiered a new work at Virginia Tech in April 2016. The work was held in—and inspired by—the Cube, the Moss Arts Center’s high-tech and theatrical immersive space.

The performance, presented in partnership with the School of Performing Arts, featured works for voice with processing, samples, gesture controllers, spatialized sound, and interactive video. In creating the work, Pamela Z collaborated with Eric Lyon, an associate professor of practice in the School of Performing Arts, to explore the spatial sound projection capabilities of the Cube.

A pioneer of live digital looping techniques, Pamela Z processes her voice in real time to create dense, complex sonic layers. She also uses wireless musical-instrument-digital-interface controllers to manipulate sound with physical gestures. Her solo compositions combine experimental vocal techniques, operatic bel canto, found objects, text, and elements of musique concrète, an assemblage of recorded sounds abstracted for their musical value.

Her Cube performance marked the culmination of Pamela Z’s weeklong visiting artist residency at Virginia Tech. During her stay, she discussed her creative process and sources of inspiration with members of a graduate poetry workshop led by Erika Meitner, an associate professor of English and director of the master of fine arts program in creative writing.

“In my writing workshops I ask students to engage with different modes across the arts spectrum,” Meitner says. “My students had no previous exposure to musical composition, and because poetry has a large aural component, they were curious about Pamela Z’s methods and inspirations. Being able to attend her performance and make poems from her pieces was a truly generative experience for all of us.”

I left Pamela Z’s performance feeling emotionally affected in a way I hadn’t expected and couldn’t fully explain. The way she was able to evoke emotion purely through sound made me think about the overall relationship between sound and memory. In responding to the performance through poetry, I attempted to create a piece that speaks to the experience of accessing—and attempting to understand—a difficult memory through sound.

~Kaitlen Whitt Creative Writing MFA, 2017)

Echoic Memory

If the realization that you’re texting a friend who
committed suicide two months ago
made a sound, it might sound like this—
Straight pins dropping on a tiled floor in a quiet house
The thump tires make when they compact a small animal into two dimensions
Fresh snow crushed beneath feet that are carrying a body someplace it doesn’t want to be
A telemarketer’s voice on the other end of the line when you weren’t expecting a stranger
The mournful song of ungreased escalator gears
A smoke alarm’s serrated, inconsistent yelp
The wind snapping trees like toothpicks as it opens up a hollow
the seal on a jar being opened, that—that pop—
that sudden—burst of knowing—
Your friend’s ruined flesh—the pop of the hammer
As it came down on the firing pin and opened a tunnel
Straight through her skull—your friend escaped through the hole
She’d made in herself—that pop opening her up—the last thing
She must have heard—before your friend and your friend’s
body became two different things—