Echolocation is the debut album by Pamela Z, the pioneering Bay Area intermedia composer and performance artist. Written and recorded over three years, and self-released and distributed on cassette in 1988, Echolocation is a genre-defying document of Z’s earliest experiments with live voice and delay, and the impetus of an artist’s three decade search for sounds yet unfelt.
Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Z traded one snowy backdrop for another to attend the University of Colorado in Boulder at the tail end of the 70s, where she pursued a degree in music while taking local gigs covering Joni Mitchell and Malvina Reynolds b-sides on an acoustic guitar. While a host at KGNU, Z discovered a vast world of avant-garde music in the community radio station’s library, and was inspired to create towards, and alongside, the fringe sounds she pulled from the stacks and broadcast. This revelation intersected with a new era of accessible and affordable instruments and home recording technology, and a diversifying community of artists self-releasing music on cassette and finding an audience through underground publications.
Z moved again to San Francisco in 1984, legally changed her last name, and furthered her practice of vocal processing in live environments. A city simultaneously nurturing and stratifying the free spirit of the two decades prior, Z assumed an immediate role in the Bay Area’s interdisciplinary performance art scene, and began curating Z Programs, her own concert and event series. With a stage to workshop, the beginning pieces of Echolocation took form with the intuitive pairing of Pamela’s voice and an Ibanez DM1000, a digital delay unit with looping capabilities that would complement, and complete, her early craft.
Recorded on a Yamaha MT1X 4-track cassette recorder in the back room of an apartment Z shared with two other San Francisco musicians, Echolocation is a document of an artist finding her voice. Or in Pamela’s case, her voices. Outside of collaborations with Donald Swearingen and Bill Stefanacci on “I Know” and “An In” respectively, the album consists of live vocal and electronics compositions from her performance repertoire, and a few fixed-media pieces written, performed, and engineered entirely by Z, dutifully assuming and learning each mode as she went along.
Echolocation is a mélange of texture and meaning through melody. Each piece exhibits raw materiality, whether a metronomic click and clack of Z’s patent oversize drum sticks or an alien synth portamento, and each voice searches new emotion, at times through a strata and at others via lyrical abstraction chronicling the mundane duality in the everyday. As embedded in Echolocation as her current practice, Z states, “I have always had a fascination with language and speech, and use the sound of the human voice as both an inspiration and a primary source for the actual generation of the music.”
Upon its release, Echolocation received favourable reviews, and Z manufactured several editions of the cassette to accommodate the interest from independent distributors including Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening catalog. From there, Pamela’s performance and composing schedules exploded, becoming her primary focus. Writing, recording, and mixing new music remains a consistent practice for Z, as evident in her 2021 album A Secret Code, and Echolocation documents the earliest efforts of an artist’s lifelong commitment to an exploration of sound, and the individualism inherent within.
Pamela Z’s Echolocation will be released on Freedom To Spend as a first time vinyl edition and digitally on November 5, 2021. Remastered by Jessica Thompson, and featuring liner notes from Jon Leidecker, a portion of the proceeds from the sales of Echolocation will benefit The Center for New Music, which fosters contemporary music’s growth by giving practicing artists access to professional resources and expertise, and by providing them with opportunities for sharing knowledge and exploring new ideas.