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Pamela Z presents a world premiere at the Exploratorium

Filmmaker Paul Clipson and sound artist Ashley Bellouin
Filmmaker Paul Clipson and sound artist Ashley Bellouin
courtesy of the MEDIATE Art Group

Last night at the Exploratorium, Pamela Z presented the world premiere of “ACQUA” as the final set in a three-set program entitled (sub)mersion. The program was one of the events in Soundwave ((6)) Water, the current San Francisco Innovative Art & Music Biennial presented by the MEDIATE Art Group. Pamela Z’s medium as a composer involves primarily subjecting vocal work to electronic processing. However, the water-based theme of the Biennial was evident both in her use of sampled sounds and in video images projected behind her performance.

As I previously observed, “ACQUA” has been described by the composer as “a suite of short works for voice, electronics, and video, incorporating live and sampled watery sounds and images, manipulated in real time with gesture-activated MIDI controllers.” However, this rather nuts-and-bolts account of techniques and technology runs the risk of masking the impact of the listening experience itself. In performing her own creations, Pamela Z brings qualities of exploration and wit to “raw materials” that would otherwise be dryly abstract. Furthermore, by adding movement-based control to the process, she establishes a setting in which choreography becomes part of the execution. Nevertheless, her approach always seems to combine an underlying foundation of comprehensive control of the technology with a sense of playful discovery when confronted with what that technology yields.

This made for a refreshing conclusion to an evening that ran the risk of succumbing to tedium. “ACQUA” was preceded by an untitled film by Paul Clipson that provided a visual account of “a detailed study of the reflective, associative and rhythmic qualities of water, through an interaction of surfaces, reflections, patterns and structures found in water” (quote taken from the program book). The soundtrack was provided by Ashley Bellouin through real time control of electronic equipment (which was apparently uncooperative enough to require a delay before the performance could begin).

The operative word in the above paragraph is “detailed.” Clipson strove to be exhaustive in using his cameras and film editing equipment to provide views of water in motion, many of which most viewers would not dream of imagining. However, his succession of images had all of the narrative impact of thumbing through the Oxford English Dictionary. This may have been a deliberate decision to exclude time-consciousness from the experience; but the result ran the risk of being trying for even the most patient viewer.

Bellouin’s contribution to the mix involved little more than a single sustained tone with gradually changing spectral qualities, which gradually ascended to a fortissimo dynamic level and then receded back into silence. This, at least, involved a bare-bones journey through time. However, there did not seem to be any effort to coordinate that journey with Clipson’s enumeration of moving images.

The opening set, “Condition of Form,” was equally problematic. This was a project by the IN/S duo of John Davis and Collin McKelvey, and it again involved the juxtaposition of sound sources and film imagery. In this case the audio sources came from hydrophones, sound recorded with equipment immersed in water. This provided the environment for the screening of three 16mm films (each on a projector that had clearly seen better days) being projected side-by-side. In the center was a film about the chemistry and physics of water, which had some nice animations of the interactions between oxygen and hydrogen atoms. On the left was an animation that probably was a school film about properties of water. The images on the right seem to have come “from the field” but were too blurred to create anything other than a vague (but watery) impression. The overall result could have made for an interesting installation (even in the exhibit area of the Exploratorium itself); but it seemed very much out of place in front of an audience expected to sit still and watch.