What is your background?

I have a life-long history of being involved in music making. As a child I was making sound with objects and was singing. I also played the viola and guitar during elementary school in orchestras and singing in choirs. As a singer and songwriter during my teenage years I had training in classical voice on the side. My music teacher spotted people who she thought had some kind of talent and she would work with us. Then I went to the music school and studied voice at the University of Colorado and got my music degree there. All the while I was singing classical opera arias by day and at night I was playing in clubs more rock, folk rock and later also punk. But I would say the point in which I really found my voice as an artist was in the early 1980s when I started playing with digital delays to process my voice. I just learned an entire new way of listening, thinking and organizing sound. My composing started to focus on layers of sound and repetition, texture and timbre. Those elements became as important as melody, harmony and rhythm. From there it went on.

What are your experiences being a woman in the music technology field?

There is introduction of technology into the arsenal of tools that I’m using but I don’t think of it as the technology part being the prominent thing. The aesthetic and the adventurousness of the work is more important to me than whether or not there is technology involved. Because it is all technology. Even somebody who just plays a concert grand piano, that is probably one of the most technologically sophisticated instruments that you can imagine. It is all about the well balanced and designed mechanical thing.

In the early days and that was even before I used a lot of processing, I was living in Colorado and started my career as a professional musician. During that time you had to have your own PA system because the restaurants, bars and nightclubs didn’t have one, it was ridiculous - every musician was carrying around their own PA system. Once I was set up, there was always some guy who would come up and go “so who set that up for you?”. Or “who showed you how to do that?”. Now people are much more aware and pose different questions like “did you design that, have you build that?”. Another thing is when I first started working with voice and electronics I moved to San Francisco Bay area and immersed myself into the new music and performance scene. I found whenever I was selected to be on a program on electronic music or I was on a compilation CD that I would be the only woman. Everybody else was men - white men (laughter). And the same was true for my other colleagues, women that were doing these things. And it was not that we weren’t doing it, it was just that our work was not getting respected and represented. And I see now that has changed a lot over the years. I think that is exiting!

From left to right: Pamela Z, Karolina Jawad and Tone Åse during the interview. Photo by Anna Xambó.
From left to right: Pamela Z, Karolina Jawad and Tone Åse during the interview. Photo by Anna Xambó.

Did you have a role model or mentor?

I wouldn’t say I had a particular role model. But I had a lot of people who were inspirations to me and who I learned a lot from. They range from people who I don’t know personally but who’s work I admired to people who I did know and who worked with me and helped me. I was really influenced by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. But also Brian Eno and his collaborations with David Byrne. Later people would say my work would remind them on Meredith Monk, whom I haven’t heard of until that point. I was very moved by her work. Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galás, Joan la Barbara and her work with Morton Subotnick also. But also a lot of people who were not musicians who were equally influential on my work. People from experimental theater like Robert Wilson or in dance it was Pina Bausch, then Merce Cunningham company and his work with John Cage. John Cage was immensely important in my upbringing in this world.

One of my dearest friends and collaborators is Donald Swearingen. I feel like I got a lot of our hanging out together in the starting in the mid 1980s all the way through now. He works with sensor based controllers and sound. For many years I have been focusing on the musicality on human speech sounds. When I look back now I realize that Donald was doing music using speech sound as well, he was doing it in a different way though. But I still do think that it had a great influence on me. Then there were a lot of wonderful people at Mills College in the Bay Area. Charles Amirkhanian was an important person in my sphere, I followed his early text sound works before I even knew him. As a curator and programmer and also as an electro-acoustic composer.

What is your main focus right now?

It is really fragmented right now because I have so many projects going on. This is coming from the fact that I have a lot of commissions. Commissioned projects were rather at irregular intervals, but for some reasons the last year, suddenly, there were a lot of them. The line of my work over the last 30 years has been focused on live works for solo voice and electronics. Just in the last couple of years it has been added into that a surprising amount of chamber work. I’m composing works for chamber ensembles and getting commissions from string quartets and sextets so I have been doing a lot of writing for other instruments, which has been really enriching for me because it makes me yet excited about these other timbres and colours. When I then start composing for myself it makes me start wanting to add those colours into what I’m doing in my own music.

How does work the system you’re using in your performances?

To give you a very encapsulated picture of what I use - all of the sound that I’m doing is live and in real time. I’m not playing tracks that are pre-recorded. All the processing of my voice, the layering, the looping, the granulating is going through a patch that I have written in Max MSP. With that I’m using MIDI controllers and they use various sensors. These days I use to have 3 types of basic controllers. One is ultrasound - it really works on the same principles as echo location. The sensor is emitting a sound and is looking for mass and when it senses mass, usually my hands - it pops the sound back at it. A microphone picks it up and understands how far my hand is away. Another sensor I use works with a very similar idea but instead of ultrasound it is using infrared light to do the same thing and has 4 channels that I can play with. Then I have sensors that I wear, one on each hand and those are using gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer. Those are really looking for the X, Y and Z attitudes of the movements of my hands.

My movements and gestures are creating numbers that I then make a decision about. So I could be making notes or changing the velocity or even in some cases I could control the image on the video, make it brighter or darker, blurred or focused. There is kind of no end to what you could control with these MIDI signals. It is just a matter of programming it and deciding in each situation what it is that I’m controlling.

What advice would you give to women interested in pursuing a career in music technology?

Again, to me ‘career in music technology’ sounds a little bit like you’re talking about circuit benders or that they are writing and designing software. I see myself as artist and so I can only speak from that what my advice is about trying to be an artist. Then it doesn’t matter rather you are using technology, and what kind of technology you’re using. I have two things to say about that, one is make work. Don’t be constantly saying someday I’m going to … and you have all these great ideas but you somehow are waiting for all the conditions to be just right before you actually do it. Just start doing it. No matter what. Otherwise if you don’t have a body of work then you’re not going anywhere. The other advice is go and see other people’s work. Support your fellow artists and see what they are doing. Because you want them to come to your shows. Come to their shows. But also because that is where you’re getting your inspiration. From seeing other work and that doesn’t mean you’ll see that work and say “oh now I have to make something just like that”. You might see work where you say “oh this is horrible now I know I never want to make something like that”. And that is also useful, but it is more than that. You might get a really strong feeling from the work. When I’m at home I try to attend everything I can as it makes you also known in the community.

Do you have anything to add?

No thank you.