The Magic of Song: Pamela Z’s SPAN

13 May 2015 in Heather

Any classically trained singer worth their salt will have a copy of Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias on their bookshelf. The collection of songs by 17th- and 18th-century composers is a primer of bel canto style, with each song presenting a new technical challenge for the singer to master. The pieces rise above mere vocal technique; they’re also love songs. Each one requires the singer to deliver an emotional punch, and those punches are inevitably about love—first love, lost love, spiritual love, star-crossed love. The songs teach a singer to marry technique and emotion. They teach a singer to perform.

Pamela Z’s new work for voice, electronics, and chamber ensemble is similar in that it uses a single topic to explore a variety of performance techniques. Billed as “a multimedia electroacoustic chamber work,” SPAN comprises eleven songs on the idea of bridges. The piece features trumpet, trombone, cello, violin, and percussion in addition to Z’s voice and electronics and Carole Kim’s video, and it might better be described as an art song recital conceived by a cyborg. Z, using her real-time gesture controllers and some pre-edited recordings and loops, weaves an electroacoustic web around the instrumentalists, sometimes grabbing from their palette of timbres and textures and mixing them into the soundscape, at other times singing along with them in a more traditional manner.

If SPAN finds Z in her usual role, as a singer whose instrument is augmented by a laptop and different kinds of gesture controllers, it also downplays the idea of the singer as star soloist. In this piece, Z situates herself—physically—with the ensemble: standing at one side of the stage, she’s just another member of the band. Perhaps that allows her to monitor the status of the computer program more surreptitiously. Or perhaps it reserves the magic for moments when she does, more directly, engage with the audience, as in the song, “Sul Ponte dell’Accademia.”

The song marks the midpoint of the set. Z steps to the center of the stage, assuming the role of prima donna. An overhead spotlight illuminates her, blotting out the rest of the ensemble. She sings in Italian, unaccompanied and unfettered by electronic looping or processing. Her tone is strong, pure, and vulnerable. She is every bit the art song recitalist, delivering a plaintive ode to Venice. Sepia-toned images of the bridges spanning the Grand Canal fade in and out all around her.

After the song’s sparse opening, Z begins processing her voice, creating rippling echoes and fluttery loops which she continues to sing over. In hindsight, one can understand the opening as traditional recitative and the next section as arioso, with the electronic embellishments as support for a more emotional declamation. In “Sul Ponte,” Z shows how to reinvent the Italian love song for the 21st century.

Another one of my favorite songs was “33 Arches.” It begins with the recorded voice of an Iranian engineer reminiscing about his favorite bridge, Siosepol, and its many arches. The track repeats, underscored by the cello, which imitates the melodic and rhythmic contours of the spoken text. The cello part is like butter in the saucepan: it enriches the words, transforming them into lyrics. “33 Arches” pushes at the norms of auditory perception. Typically, we might not notice the song of spoken text, but here the engineer’s words sound composed, like melodies. Speech becomes music.

If SPAN is an anthology of songs on a common theme, some, like “33 Arches,” “Sul Ponte,” and “Get Me Across,” strike me as effective hit singles. Between the vocals, instrumental parts, electronics, recorded voices, and video, SPAN is a dense work, but for all of its bridge-oriented ruminations, its melodies stayed with me for days after the show. Brava.