Pamela Z in performance Credit: Thomas Steenland

Trailblazing avant-garde musician, sound artist, and composer Pamela Z, who gives a rare Chicago performance at Constellation on Saturday, began experimenting with vocal processing in the early 80s, but the first album devoted entirely to her work didn’t arrive till 2004. On “Bone Music,” the opening track of A Delay Is Better (Starkland), her voice rises in swells over thudding percussion, then plummets into speech—only it’s not quite speech. Her words, if they’re words at all, are impossible to make out. Her voice is joined by others, frantic and urgent, forming a frenzied babble that spins and disappears in a whirl. Its antediluvian wails contrast with the quotidian inquiries that punctuate “Questions,” a piece toward the end of the collection. A chorus asks insistently, “Where are you going? What are you having? How is it ending? How was your trip?” while Pamela Z trills with tragic inflection: “By the time I got your message, you had gone.”

I talked to Pamela Z as she wrapped up a residency at the School of the Art Institute before her Constellation concert. She describes Saturday’s performance as a series of “pop-song length” pieces, but they’ll nonetheless give audiences a chance to experience the complex, layered vocal processing showcased on A Delay Is Better. Some are excerpts from longer compositions such as Carbon Song Cycle, a chamber piece developed in collaboration with visual artist Christina McPhee. Others include a video component, such as This Impossible Building, which she performed at San Francisco’s biennial Soundwave festival earlier this month. At Constellation, she’ll manipulate her voice with a combination of software, pedals, and wearable controllers that use light or ultrasound.

Pamela Z wearing one of her gestural controllers, which she'll be using at Constellation
Pamela Z wearing one of her gestural controllers, which she’ll be using at ConstellationCredit: Goran Vejvoda

Pamela Z got her start in vocal processing—and delay in particular—shortly before she moved from her native Colorado to San Francisco in 1984. Her aesthetic developed in tandem with technology: though she used innumerable effects pedals in her initial setup, she put many of them aside when signal processing became available in Max, the visual programming language that’s a sort of lingua franca for interactive music software. Importing her digital-delay setup to a laptop had an unexpected benefit: “I was paying hundreds of dollars in overweight luggage fees because I had this huge, heavy rack full of gear,” she says, laughing.

When Z started using delay, she felt like one of only a few artists in the Bay Area processing her vocals that way. “When I first started doing it, I was like, oh my gosh, this is so amazing,” she says. “I better just enjoy it now, while my work is sort of unique, because in a few years, everyone and their dog is going to be doing it.” She waited and waited. In her view, it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when laptops became ubiquitous, that musicians began regularly using live looping and delay in a way that was meaningfully comparable to her performances.

By then, Pamela Z was using polyrhythmic compositional structures and multiple delayed vocal lines. She was also experimenting with speech sounds unmoored from denotation, which has allowed her work to inhabit a linguistic world of its own. “Language is embedded with baggage,” she points out. “As long as the language is one that the listener is fluent in and understands, it’s impossible to strip it of its meaning.” To leave this baggage behind, she utters carefully chosen consonants, syllables, and diphthongs that are meaningful to her precisely because they lack meaning. “It’s not like I’m making up words because I don’t have enough words to say what I’m trying to say. I’m making up words because they’re less than actual words.” That is, the goal is to not say.

This idea of baggage, of the burdens that knowledge and meaning can impose, forms the crux of Baggage Allowance, a multimedia work she debuted five years ago (and which may make an appearance at Constellation). The piece explores the physical and psychological memories carried by humans and possessions. The title can read as a callback to the freedom she felt after adopting Max, but it also hints at the way people desire burdens beyond what they already bear. The online portal that accompanies Baggage Allowance addresses this tension with an image of a suitcase in an airport security scanner. Instead of toiletries and clothes, it’s weighted with a translucent ribcage and a beating heart. As it pulses, a voice speaks. “Be nosy. Thoroughly inspect every bag. Take your time. You will uncover more if you linger.”

Looking ahead to an autumn packed with performances and recording projects, Pamela Z talks about air travel affectionately, admitting that she enjoys it—and that she knows it’s popular to take the opposite view. “In the old days, travel used to be this luxurious thing. People used to dress up,” she says. “Now it’s like riding the Greyhound bus.” Travel may spell trouble for electronic musicians with bags full of gear, but for Z, it offers moments of celebratory calm: “I always have a glass of wine on the plane.”