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date: 16 December 2019

Pamela Z [Brooks, Pamela]free

  • Ryan Dohoney

(b Buffalo, NY, 13 July 1956). Composer, performer, vocalist, and media artist.Her creative output has focused on the combination of two primary elements: her vocal performance (capable of operatic lyricism as well as extended techniques) and her use of computer technology. Z began experimenting with recording devices in her youth and made pieces that layered her voice with homemade instruments and concrete sounds. She went on to study classical vocal performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder and performed as a singer-songwriter. She relocated to San Francisco in 1984 where she began performing her own inter-media theatrical works and concerts. Her performance pieces have situated her in a field of processed and live sound accompanied by video or projected images.

A prominent feature of Z’s compositional practice is her use of various delay and sound processing technology. Her early works used digital delays, effects units, and samplers that manipulated her voice, MIDI-generated sounds, and samples. In 2000 she began working with Max/MSP software to produce loops and delays, as well as other effects and textures. She has also made use of gesture-based MIDI controllers such as the BodySynth—a set of electrode sensors worn on her body with which she has triggered and manipulated sounds via muscle movements and physical gestures—as well as Donald Swearingen’s Ultrasound controller.

Z’s musical aesthetic is one of sonic accretion. With her electronics she has created sound beds built up from her voice as well as sampled sounds. She has also been interested in language as a compositional resource and explored the musicality of spoken words by subjecting them to looping and delay. With her use of gesture as well as her physical presence in her performances, Z has offered a humanistic musical technology. By manipulating her own voice as well as exploring the physicality of computerized performance through the BodySynth, she has allegorized technology not as an alienating force but as an extended network of human agency and emotion. In her performance pieces she has explored a number of recurring themes: the materiality of voices and language (Voci, Parts of Speech), dislocation and alienation (Gaijin, Baggage Allowance), and the production of knowledge (The Pendulum, Wunderkabinet).

Z’s oeuvre includes sound installations, concert pieces, and chamber works written for ensembles including ETHEL, the California E.A.R. Unit, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. She has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the CalArts Alpert Award in the Arts.


(selective list)


Parts of Speech, 1v, elecs, video, projections, 1998

Gaijin, 1v, elecs, dancers, video, 2001

Voci, 1v, elecs, video, 2003

Metal/Vox/Water, 1v, elecs, video, amp metal, 2005

Wunderkabinet, 1v, vc, elecs, video, 2005, collab. M. Brubeck

The Pendulum, 1v, elecs, video, 2008

Baggage Allowance, 1v, elecs, video, 2010


The Schmetterling, 1v, chbr ens, elecs, 1998

Shifting Conditions in the Southland, 1v, chbr ens, elecs, 1998

Persistence, 1v, chbr ens, elecs, 2001

Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances, str qt, tape, 2005

Twenty Answers, chbr ens, 2008


Badagada, 1v, elecs, 1988

Bone Music, 1v, elecs, perc, 1992

Pianobend, 1v, elecs, 1994

Broom, 1v, elecs, 2009

Flare Stains, 1v, elecs, 2010


  • T. Sellar: “Parts of Speech: Interview with Pamela Z,” Theater Magazine, xxx/2 (2000), 59–64
  • P.Z: “A Tool is a Tool,” Women, Art, and Technology, ed. J. Malloy (Cambridge, MA, 2003), 348–61
  • H. Gray: Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation (Berkeley, 2005)
  • F. Uitti: “Pamela Z,” CMR, xxv (2006), 587–9
  • G. Lewis: “The Virtual Discourses of Pamela Z,” JSAM, i/1 (2007), 57–77
  • K. Kennedy: “A Few Facets of Pamela Z,” Musicworks, no.76 (2000); repr. at 〈〉 (2013)
Journal of the Society for American Music
Contemporary Music Review