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Pamela Z
Echolocation Vanessa Ague , November 30th, 2021 09:08

This re-issue of Pamela Z's debut from an offshoot of RVNG Intl offers a timely reminder of the breadth and brilliance of the American composer-performer's work with the voice and electronics

Since the 1980s, Pamela Z has been experimenting with her voice: filtering it through electronics, exploring a variety of singing techniques, and using it to play with the meaning of language itself. She started these experiments while living in San Francisco, and since then, she’s become most known for connecting electronic sensors to her body that pick up every slight motion, distorting and changing the body’s natural rhythms. Z’s work has mainly existed in transience – in concert halls and live installations. But over the past year, it’s started to have a greater presence in the recorded music world. Her May 2021 album, A Secret Code, which was only her third studio album, presented several new works for the San Francisco-based, always innovative Kronos Quartet and her own voice, showcasing the new material she’s been working on that brings her techniques beyond her voice and to other ensembles. 

Echolocation, on the other hand, unearths the moments when she started electronically processing her voice. Echolocation was Z’s first album, released in 1988 on cassette. Now, it receives a digital and vinyl reissue on Freedom to Spend, an arm of RVNG Intl that highlights ground breaking, archival releases to shine a light on their influence on today’s electronic music. Echolocation provides a glimpse into the variety of Z’s vocal work, venturing from stilted, shrieking melodies into spoken word echoes and funky operatic songs. Ultimately, it paints a picture of Z’s range and experimental spirit, showcasing the wide variety of sounds she can make with her voice, electronics, and sparse instrumental accompaniment. 

Each track on the album takes on a new musical theme, and Z switches between styles at an incredibly fast pace. The album’s title track finds Z’s punchy voice rippling and reflecting against a static, forceful beat, mirroring the scientific process of echolocation, while ‘I Know’ blends 80s synthpop with Z’s soaring singing voice. Other tracks, like ‘Pop Titles You,’ traverse completely different paths. Here, Z speaks short phrases of poetry above a chorus of spoken ‘you’s and chilling whispers, creating music from the interwoven layers of fragmented speech. But all stem from a similar interest in repetition and patterning, letting small phrases blossom by looping them, layering them, and letting them collide into each other.

Listening to this reissue of Echolocation in 2021 is like pulling back the curtain on Z’s career. It shows us where she began and how her experimentations would eventually grow into her large-scale multimedia works that have found homes across the globe. The album zigzags between sounds and styles, and each track feels like it encapsulates yet another facet of Z’s innovation. But each also stems from the same desire – a dream of finding new pathways for the voice that extend beyond the human body.