By Published: June 1, 2020

Digital artist Pamela Z is known for creating unique loops, voice manipulations and compositions. Her work earned her the Rome Prize. 

Pamela Z performance illustration Atop Janiculum Hill in western Rome, overlooking the city center, is a garden filled with olive trees and chamomile daisies. A pastoral cottage named Casa Rustica is nestled within it.

“Inside it’s got a baby grand piano, a keyboard, a little wooden desk and space,” said Pamela Z (MusEdu’78), who used the cottage as a music studio for six months.

This humble setup was all Z, a digital artist, needed for several months when she lived in Italy from September 2019 to March 2020 after being awarded the Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. The prestigious fellowship is annually granted to 30 Americans from specialties including architecture, medieval studies and literature.

“You are surrounded by this remarkable community of very intelligent, very interesting people from a wide range of fields,” Z said from Rome earlier this year. “We sit at the table and have the most stimulating and exciting conversations together.”

Z, known for her digital looping techniques, is a composer and performer from San Francisco whose work combines sampled sounds and her voice with live electronic processing. Onstage she is typically accompanied by a laptop and a wireless controller on her hand that uses technology ranging from infrared to ultrasound. Z can control pre-programmed effects on her laptop with the flick of her wrist or balling of her fist.

“I first became exposed to digital delay in the early ’80s,” said Z, who grew up in Boulder and studied voice in CU Boulder’s College of Music in the 1970s. “Before then I wasn’t using any electronics in my music at all.”

A couple of years after leaving CU, she saw the jazz fusion band Weather Report in San Francisco. At one point in the show, the band’s bassist, Jaco Pastorius, became the only member on stage. He used a delay effect to create a loop, which he then performed a solo over.

Z was astounded with this new method. She bought her own digital delay to plug a microphone into to manipulate her voice.

“Just overnight, it really changed my life,” said Z. “I could do layers and loops, and build structures out of these layered sounds.”

It was the first step in her evolution from singer-songwriter to the world-renowned artist she is today.

Now Z composes for other musicians, including the Kronos Quartet and Left Coast Chamber Orchestra.

Experience Pamela Z's Music

Pamela Z portrait“I have a lifelong problem of never saying no to anything,” she said. “I swore that I was going to keep this year clear, but I have way too many projects queued up.”

This year, she’s composed for individual cello players and the Los Angeles Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra. She writes for ensembles, sometimes using her voice to simulate instruments. Z’s solo compositions also include some elements of improvisation. All of the work is meticulous.

“She doesn’t confine herself to one medium or subject,” American composer Charles Amirkhanian told The San Francisco Classical Voice in 2017. “She’s always exploring.”

Z has dipped her hands in all sorts of mediums: Video, art installations, poetry, voice-over — her scope is limitless.

While in Rome, Z worked on a piece focusing on synchronicity. She’s fascinated, she explained, by sounds like the real-time translation occurring during a UN speech.

Ultimately, her fellowship was cut five months short as the world faced the COVID-19 pandemic. The academy closed its campus March 16. Z returned to California, where she self-quarantined for 14 days as a precaution.

“Leaving that wonderful studio behind certainly put a damper on my ability to make work,” she said, “but I’ve still got a very full slate of projects in progress and commissioned works to compose.”

Pamela Z’s mastery continues.

Illustration by Sam Kalda; photo by Shawn Harris