Published: July 9, 2019 By

Pamela Z performing

When trailblazing composer and multimedia artist Pamela Z was a student at the College of Music in the 1970s, she was already a singer-songwriter, performing gigs at local venues by night while pursuing rigorous undergraduate voice and music education studies by day.

She wasn’t a composition major. In fact, it didn’t even dawn on her that composition studies might be the right path to pursue until she was well into her senior year.

“I joined the early music group, and the lute player was a composition major. So I thought, ‘Oh, if I want to be involved with people doing experimentation, I should have been a composition major.’

“That was when Richard Toensing had his synthesizer lab, but I had no idea about that.”

But this summer, the truly multifaceted musician is preparing for an upcoming stint in Italy, joining the elite ranks of scholars, historians and artists awarded the Rome Prize. In April, the American Academy in Rome awarded Pamela (pictured above; photo courtesy Rubra/Ars Electronica) the Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize for musical composition.

The prestigious prize—awarded to just 30 people each year, only 10 of whom are artists—carries with it an 11-month fellowship at an immersive and interdisciplinary setting in the heart of Rome. It’ll be the first time the San Francisco-based artist will spend so much time away from her live-work artists’ building for a residency.

“With most fellowships, there are eight or 10 artists in residence, and it’s all artists,” Pamela says. “This time, it’ll be a much broader range of intellectual minds who I can connect with. I get a lot of energy from being around interesting people, and just being in Rome will be amazing.”

Pamela says she’ll use the time and the diversity of her fellow prizewinners to her advantage as she creates a new piece she’s calling “Simultaneous.”

“It’s a little open ended, but the intention is that it’ll be a performance work that involves a lot of interactive video components and live processing on my voice.”

She has always been moved by the stories and passions of the people around her. As a student at the College of Music, Pamela says despite her budding career in non-classical music making—supported by former faculty member John Paton—she came late to the notion of academic study of composition. The revelation was thanks, in part, to her interest in a wide range of musical styles.

“In my senior year, I decided to do something different, so I did Collegium Musicum, which was an early music ensemble. I learned that’s where all the new music people were. 

“There’s kind of an affinity between early and new music people. New music people usually like early music, and vice versa, and neither is terribly interested in what falls in between.” 

Since graduating in 1978, Pamela has become known as a pioneer of digital looping during performances. She’s collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and many others and was a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004. Now, “Simultaneous” will draw on past experiences and her interest in language translation and synchronicity.

“One of the inspirations was that idea of things happening simultaneously,” Pamela explains. “I’ve always been fascinated by people who can do simultaneous translation, listening to one language and speaking in another at the same time. I love that ‘United Nations’ sound where you hear the chatter of people translating into different languages.

“I’m also thinking about the magic of finding out that someone somewhere else in the world is doing what you’re doing at the same time as you, or coming up with the same ideas at the same time.”

Throughout her career, Pamela has pocketed ideas like this one, along with the two thoughts she says should guide current music students as they venture into the world of artistic expression:

“If you really want to be an artist, you need to do two things: You need to make work. Don’t just sit around saying, ‘Someday I’m going to do this or that project.’ Just do the project. 

“The other thing is that you have to be supportive of the community of people doing things you want to be doing. Go to events and concerts, hear other people’s work. That will have a really strong impact.”

Pamela Z leaves for Italy this September. To read more about the Rome Prize, visit the American Academy in Rome’s website.