Tag: singer-songwriters

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Giving Voice: Teaching Artistry

Chris Cresswell sitting at a work station in front of a keyboard, a computer terminal, and a pair of speakers

Working inside Twin Woods Studios

Last year, on June 4, I had my own cubicle in Boosey & Hawkes’s midtown Manhattan office, a favorite sandwich shop on 7th Avenue, and plans to see the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 4 the next day. On June 6, after two flights and one long layover at the Chicago Cubs Bar at O’Hare (while wearing a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt), I found myself at a summer camp in the middle of rural Michigan, standing next to a pile of boxes of recording equipment that would eventually become a recording studio—that I was supposed to be in charge of.

Thus began my first day working as a teaching artist.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant. I’d worked as a teaching assistant in college and had taught composition for a couple of summers, but this was the first time I’d encountered the label “teaching artist,” let alone had it applied to me. Over the course of the next nine weeks, I would learn more about being a composer, a teacher, an artist, and a person than I ever thought possible.

The Association of Teaching Artists defines the position as a “two career professional: a working artist and a working educator.” These dual roles inform one another, with the typical artist bringing their experience as an artist into the classroom and their education experience into their studios. Teaching artists work in wide-ranging environments, including school residencies, after school programs, and summer camps. By integrating artists into these educational settings, young people encounter professional working artists and have a direct link to people who use their creativity to make a living. In the best of these situations, teachings artists are able to cultivate a sense of community and invigorate all students, teachers, and administrators, not just the one’s directly involved with their programming.

Three years ago, The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities launched the Turnaround Arts initiative, utilizing teaching artists and arts education as the basis for reforming failing schools throughout the United States. In the initial year, the program launched in eight schools. These schools were all considered to be high-poverty, low-performing schools and represented a range of communities, from the inner city to rural districts. In the three years since the launch of this pilot program, participating schools have seen improvements in math and reading scores, attendance, and a decrease in suspensions.

The organization I work for, Music Ascension, has seen similar outcomes as a result of our programming. We bring teaching artists and music technology into schools and summer camps throughout the United States. Our programming brings songwriting and beat production into classrooms, built on the concept of giving voice to young people. We’ve transformed traditional classrooms into recording studios, utilizing the same software that studios use around the world, creating a safe space for students to share their stories. Our teachings artists run the gamut from singer/songwriters and hip-hop artists to a classical composer. Each of these artists brings their own, unique sensibilities into their education setting.

This brings me back to my first day as a teaching artist. At 26-years old, I was about to attend summer camp for the first time. I arrived that day with a suitcase and a couple of guitars. One week later my first day with the campers began. Over the course of the next eight weeks, the campers recorded and produced a new CD, wrote over 50 new songs, and performed countless times across the campground. We covered Taylor Swift songs around campfires, explored musical structures, and talked about Brian Eno. I shared my day-to-day creative process as I built my first sound installation, I was walking home…or at least I thought I was walking home…, and shared my ambient work On the Verge while discussing the use of sampling in hip-hop. They witnessed both the pre-premiere anxiety and post-premiere anxiety when my work, the memory evokes, forget what time, premiered while I was at camp.

Over the course of this month, I will share my own experience as teaching artist, crossing musical genres, learning to become present in another’s work, and how working as a teaching artist has impacted my own creative work and professional goals. Although it was an unexpected career shift, working as a teaching artist has had a positive impact on me creatively, professionally, and is an alternative to more traditional tenure track career paths.


Chris Cresswell fingering a chord on a guitar and strumming it.

Chris Cresswell

Chris Cresswell is an internationally performed, award winning composer, teaching artist, and arts advocate. As at ease in front of an orchestra as he is behind a mixing board, he can alternately be found composing new works for artists and ensembles around the country, helping students write their first songs, advocating for the arts with Congressional staffers, or covering the latest Taylor Swift single at a camp fire.

Sounds Heard: Azure Carter & Alan Sondheim—Avatar Woman

Avatar Woman

Avatar Woman
Azure Carter (voice and songs) and Alan Sondheim (instruments)
(Public Eyesore 123)

The description “folk music from another planet” has been used to describe the output of musical creators as diverse as Meredith Monk, Captain Beefheart, the English art rock duo Renaldo and the Loaf, and the proto-New Age jazz-fusion ensemble Oregon. In fact it’s an expression that even I was tempted to use when I wrote about recordings of the ancient Mayan-inspired compositions of Jeremy Haladyna and in fact did when I wrote about the fascinating sonic explorations of a Taos-based duo called Untravelled Path. But it’s always struck me as a somewhat disingenuous explanation for oddball sounds since, after all, who’s to say what music from another planet would sound like? It might sound completely bland. And certainly people on our own planet have been making pretty strange sounds for millennia. Yet it’s the first thing that comes to mind yet again as I ponder how to describe Avatar Woman, a collaboration between Providence-based singer-songwriter Azure Carter and her life partner, multi-instrumentalist Alan Sondheim.
Carter’s magnum opus has been an ongoing performance/video piece called The Fairyland Around Us based on unpublished naturalist writings of Opal Whitely (1897-1992) who is mostly remembered for her mysterious and controversial childhood diary. Sondheim, though no relation to the iconoclastic Broadway composer-lyricist, has been an iconoclast of both music and words for almost as long as his more famous namesake. Back in the late 1960s, ESP-Disk issued two LPs of his experimental improvisations on a wide range of string, wind, and percussive instruments. In subsequent decades, he became even more devoted to experimenting with written language, becoming one of the pioneers of cybertext; one of his more radical techniques involves blurring poetry and computer languages. The 12 songs featured on Avatar Woman are admittedly somewhat less ambitious than some of Carter and Sondheim’s individual large-scale projects, but they are no less adventurous. Although all of the songs herein were composed by Carter, they sound the way they do largely because of Sondheim’s unusual performance approach to a potpourri of instruments from around the world—including violin, viola, oud, pipa, sarangi, electric guitar, electric saz, dàn môi (a Vietnamese jaw harp), and something that was totally new to me, a cura cümbüş which is a small banjo-like instrument that was developed in Istanbul in the early 20th century.

On “Buried,” Carter’s extremely pretty sounding vocals on a ballad are prevented from being at all soothing by the presence of a truly off-kilter sarangi accompaniment—this has nothing to do with raga. Toward the end, the voice completely slips away and all that’s left is a reverb-laden double-stop. On “Dark Robe,” Carter’s voice sounds far less innocent; there’s an almost eerie creepiness to her tone quality as she sings about death stalking her against a backdrop of mostly plucked strings and occasionally drones from two saxophones played by Christopher Diasparra and Edward Schneider. “Surely,” in which Sondheim again accompanies Carter on a bowed string instrument, reminds me somewhat of G.B. Grayson’s performance of the creepy murder ballad “Ommie Wise” from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, although half way through it sounds like Albert Ayler sat in on the session. The almost tender “Among the Ferns”—similarly arranged for voice and bowed string, but this time no saxophones—is based on poems by the Edwardian socialist and LGBT activist Edward Carpenter. For “World,” the electric saz strums madly as the voice and a saxophone weave melodic shards around it.

In the alternate universe I often wish I lived in, “Making Boys” would be a Top 40 hit; in the real one I do live in, it sounds like what might have happened if Jacqueline Humbert sang Robert Ashley’s songs with Eugene Chadbourne. Sondheim’s erratic bowing offers the one element of variance in the hypnotic, austerely minimal “Blood Tantra”—I write this as a compliment! The dàn môi gets pulled out for “Avatar Man with Dream Woman”; much more flexible than most jaw harps, the instrument is capable of a very wide range of sounds, all of which seem to get used here. In fact, pun intended, the conclusion made my jaw drop. The saxophones return on “What Remains,” which is perhaps the most song-like track in the entire collection thus far; at times it’s almost hummable, almost. “Marriage to Language” contains my favorite lyric of the entire album: “Perhaps I understand what you’re saying but don’t understand why you are saying it.” The dàn môi returns for a reprise of “Buried”; the different instrument and different key almost make it sound like a different song. I could actually image folks in an arena singing along to “Credo,” the album’s closing track. Carter’s melody is positively anthemic, and Sondheim’s resolutely primal tonal electric guitar accompaniment rarely upstages it. Then again, I live on that other planet where this stuff is folk music.