Voice Geek


With all the heaviness going down election week, I suppose it was a blessing that Pamela Z’s Voci was little but a joyride. The Kitchen billed her October 28–30 concerts as a “polyphonic, one-woman opera,” and it wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was a series of songs built around one subject, and that subject was the voice. For a performance artist, Z has turned out peculiarly introverted. Her new CD, A Delay Is Better (Starkland), unrelated to the Kitchen gig, is a lovely listen, but its closest approach to social relevance is the track “Geekspeak,” a comic continuum of loops of guys stuttering while they talk about being geeks and computer nerds. Once reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, Z has come more to resemble Meredith Monk in her emphasis on pure, often wordless crooning. And in place of Monk’s emotive aura of compassion, Z evinces a drier fascination with technology and its ability to create conceptual puns.

For instance, in the middle of Voci she put on a bathrobe and excused herself, disappearing behind a screen on which was projected a video (through frosted glass) of her taking a shower. Even here the emphasis was vocal, because she did what you do in the shower: She sang. In “Cellovoice,” she played an imaginary cello, as digital machines transformed her voice into cello tones. In “Voice Lesson,” invisible voice teachers offered her singing advice that called forth from her bel canto singing, Tuvan throat singing with overtones, and perfect Bulgarian folk yodeling. And in the most elucidating trick of all, she took a recorded birdsong, slowed it down by octaves until it was in her register, imitated it as perfectly as possible, recorded herself, and then sped up her own voice into the bird’s register, only to reveal how foreign to a bird’s voice a human’s ultimately is, even discounting register. They didn’t match at all.

Reversing the usual theatrical caveat about turning off cell phones, Z even drew voices from the audience. Before the show, ushers went through the space collecting people’s cell phone numbers. At intermission they passed out all those numbers to people on opposite sides of the hall, and for a piece called “Keitai,” Z instructed everyone to call their given number, and for the called person to let the tune play as long as it would, then answer the phone and shout in his or her most obnoxious cell phone voice, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now, I’m attending a performance, gotta go, bye!” First we heard a wild menagerie of “Ride(s) of the Valkyries” and Eine Kleine Nachtmusiks, but what was funny was that people either couldn’t quite remember what the phrase was, or couldn’t resist giving it their own twist, or seemingly out of habit demanded, “Who’s this?” Gradually trailed off like the last few popping kernels of popcorn, it was a vocal theme-and-variations, and the audience seemed almost relieved at a rare chance to let their phones ring at a concert without getting glared at.

Another Voci theme was a typewriter: Visuals of old-fashioned typewriter keys abounded, and at one point, using barely visible sensors on her fingers, Z typed on an invisible typewriter and elicited the sound of typing from loudspeakers, then sang the nonsense letters she typed. In one song she mimicked losing her voice, and in another (as she later admitted to me) she actually did for a moment, life imitating art. With civilization hanging in the balance, it seemed odd to just listen to a singer sing about singing (though there were some famous singers in the audience, like Joan La Barbara and Shelley Hirsch). In retrospect, it may be the kind of personal, relaxing art we could stand to indulge in for a while.