Pamela Z and D-Composed Foreground the Breadth of Black Artistry at Merkin Hall

Pamela Z is generous as both an artist and a teacher. The first time I saw her perform live was in 2018 when I was an undergraduate at Spelman College. Even then, I was struck by how her influence spans decades, yet her sound is still as unique and unparalleled as it was in the 80s. At Merkin Hall on Apr. 4, performer and composer Nathalie Joachim expressed the same experience I had when discovering Z. In a short pre-concert interview with New Sounds host John Schaefer, she shared, “When you’re a young person who sees somebody embodying a career that you never even imagined, it starts to become possible for you to believe that you can do that, too. Pamela was that for me when I was younger, and is still that.”

The evening was part of Kaufman Music Center’s “Artist as Curator” series with Joachim as curator. The program centered around Z and the Chicago-based chamber music collective D-Composed, and featured a world premiere from Joachim alongside music by Tomeka Reid, Jessie Montgomery, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Z, and Meredith Monk. The D-Composed string quartet featured Caitlin Edwards and Khelsey Zarraga on violin, Wilfred Farquharson on viola, and Tahirah Whittington on cello. By exclusively performing works by Black composers, D-Composed spotlights not just the music, but the compositional traditions, techniques, and stories of Black artists in contemporary and experimental music.

The concert began with D-Composed performing Z’s Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances, which portrays the fictional story of a character named Ethel who falls asleep while watching TV and spends the night tossing and turning as the news, advertisements, and mixed programming infiltrate her sleep, her dreams “re-written and edited to please the corporate sponsors and underwriters,” according to Z’s program notes. The metronomic opening mimicked being inside the mind, a trance-inducing, constant tick. A recurring eight-note pizzicato theme grounded the piece as it flitted through a slew of clashing television segments. “This program has been made possible…” the samples began, layered and repeated, with the cadence of drawn-out infomercials on late-night television. The strings fought back against the sounds of tenor drums, temple blocks, and a rodeo song with lush, emotive, legato phrases, but as Z’s pre-recorded voice spilled out, they followed her, as though being tugged along by a rope.

D-Composed members Khelsey Zarraga and Caitlin Edwards -- Photo by Point of Order Productions

D-Composed members Khelsey Zarraga and Caitlin Edwards — Photo by Point of Order Productions

After establishing a looping theme — first plucked, then bowed — Tomeka Reid’s Prospective Dwellers played with various approaches, including moving the theme between members of the quartet, crowding it with neighboring notes, rhythmically jostling note groupings, slowing it down, or letting all of it slosh together simultaneously. The excellent cohesion within the ensemble and their ability to acoustically summon electronic-like spurts made the piece and the performance a standout of the evening.

Inspired by West African drumming patterns, Jessie Montgomery’s VooDoo Dolls is her contribution to a suite of dances each dedicated to different childhood toys, including Russian dolls, marionettes, rag dolls, and Barbie. Exceptional in this piece was the movement between and meshing of quick, staccato articulations and sliding pitch bends, which gave the music a visceral quality that sat naturally in the body, trapping the listener in its dissonance. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Klap Ur Handz” from his String Quartet No. 5, “Rosa Parks” was a breezy, foot stomping, and literal hand-clapping two-step folk dance. The ensemble’s clapping spread to the audience as the cello slipped between the downbeat with syncopations that set the rhythmic pulse in motion.

Before a solo set of her own compositions and Meredith Monk’s Scared Song, Pamela Z spoke about her initial spark to seek and build her own practice of layering, looping, singing, storytelling, and avant-garde explorations. “I reached a point after I was out of school and I was making my living as a musician where I realized that what was on my turntable at home was not at all what I was playing professionally, and I wanted to make my music more in the genre of the work that was interesting to me,” she said.

Pamela Z -- Photo by Point of Order Productions

Pamela Z — Photo by Point of Order Productions

Written between 2003 and 2022, Quatre Couches, Flare Stains, Syrinx, Unknown Person, and Le Corps conjured mysterious sounds with Z’s body – sliding, chopping, waving, floating, and dangling her limbs with liquid movements while using a gesture-controlled MIDI. Each piece is patiently and methodically built in real-time through layers of electronic manipulation – though watching Z, it feels like magic. Whether through the amplified vibrations of tuning forks, popping bubble wrap, or Z’s own voice, her works have the ability to shock, tantalize, and soothe simultaneously.

The world premiere of Nathalie Joachim’s Betwixt featured D-Composed and Pamela Z contending with pre-recorded voices that sliced and slowed, sped up and broke into pieces, pondering states of in between: “in between 1999 and 2009…in between jobs…in between you and me…” An interlude of strings silenced the voice, with plucks in the violins dripping like water out of a faucet. Farquharson and Whittington shined in this piece with a viola-cello duet that dipped and swayed, as though lamenting.

The program closed with “Joni, ”the first movement of Z’s The Unraveling, and an homage to Joni Mitchell. “I basically made my living as a musician playing a bunch of Joni Mitchell covers when I was younger,” Z told the audience from the stage. The work samples the dulcimer interludes from Mitchell’s “All I Want,” transcribing the fragments for string quartet and turning the ensemble into a “human sampling machine,” Z joked during her on-stage interview with Schaefer. As she sang with the quartet, the rhythmic pulse tripped over and cut into itself with new samples overlapping one another.

D-Composed gave a stellar performance, leaning into a diverse set of fluid, disjointed, reserved, and brash musical styles. By noticeably having fun with the program, they made the complex electroacoustic music dance, evoking visible enjoyment in the audience. The music and on-stage interviews complemented and built upon the other, advancing the mission of D-Composed to “break down preconceived notions, barriers, and opinions of what classical music should be,” and fashioning a new vision for the future of representation in classical music.


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