Last night in the Royce Gallery in the North East Mission Industrial Zone, Pamela Z presented the second concert in the summer season of her ROOM Series events. These recitals offer some of the more adventurous approaches to chamber music in San Francisco. The composers are generally also the performers; and the evening traditionally concludes with an “all-hands” improvisation in which Pamela Z joins the composers she has invited.
The title of last night’s concert was Vox & Circuitry. Each of the four composers on the program (one of whom was Pamela Z herself) presented a different approach to vocalization mediated by electronic technology. In the case of Dean Santomieri, this was simply based on analog electronics for a keyboard and patch network; but it also involved support from an alto (Leann Petersen) and tenor (Ben Clausen). Santomieri’s own vocalizations consisted primarily of narration, occasionally lapsing into song, with his bass voice.
His composition was entitled “Facebook, the Opera.” If the technology was “old school,” the composition could not have been more contemporary. The libretto amounted to an extensive tour through all of the many ways in which “social networking” has devolved into the inchoate chatter of texts too trivial to even hint at the possibility of semantics. Petersen and Clausen served as a chorus, responding to Santomieri’s petty observations with typical Facebook reactions, such as “Like,” “LOL,” and, of course, “OMG.” Santomieri’s deadpan delivery made the result as hilarious as it was perceptive.
Luciano Chessa’s “Mr. Quill, Let There Be Light” also involved the “old school” technology of an electronic bullhorn. The text was a letter from an editor rejecting a submitted manuscript. However, Chessa delivered it as a series of disjoint utterances, mostly at very low dynamics but often vocalized in a way that would induce feedback. He performed in total darkness except for a light aimed at him by Pamela Z, who walked around the stage to illuminate him from different angles. Chessa, in turn, rotated with his music stand, allowing us to see a “score” consisting of heavily redacted text. For the second half of the piece, he bedecked himself with plastic spheres, each containing a light, fastening to his jacket with Velcro, giving him the look of a human Christmas tree. The overall performance gave the effect of an evasive rendering of language intended to connote “professional authority” through its own evasive rhetoric.
Kristin Miltner’s composition had no title and may have been an improvisation. She sat behind her Mac laptop controlling sound synthesis software. She would occasionally speak into a microphone, but at an inaudible level. Presumably, this served as input to her software, which we, on audience side, only knew through its output. The sounds had a generally ambient quality with some two-channel stereophonic spatial effects. However, through its landscape qualities, it had little sense of beginning, middle, or end, simply providing an auditory environment that the attentive listener was free to explore.
Pamela Z’s contribution consisted of five relatively short songs, all of which involved software processing (again on a Mac laptop) and one of which was an interpretation of the work of another composer, Meredith Monk’s “Scared Song.” “Hair Trigger” may have been the most fascinating of these, since it involved her voice controlling the intensity of a halo of lights through a logic that was not immediately discerned as straightforward. There was also an amusing account of a dyslexic soprano, who could only sing Puccini arias in reverse. (The title of the song was “Etra’d Issiv.”)
All of this made for a fascinating sampling of different was to engage the human voice. Bearing in mind that the support equipment can always be temperamental, the program itself might have been more engaging had things been a bit better coordinated and if Pamela Z had prepared her own remarks to the audience, rather than improvising them with a bit too much casualness. Nevertheless, this was an evening of an exploratory journey; and, for the most part, the journey was worth taking.