Zeena Parkins: Modernizing the Harp and Jolting the Ear

Posted by on November 8, 2016

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Outside a small church in Brooklyn, a crowd lingers in the September air, delaying facing the pine-scented humidity inside. A modest drum kit and a small harp wait in front of the pulpit. The triangular harp catches the eye, a sleek, minimalist update of its bulky orchestral ancestor.

Two musicians take the stage at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn Heights, following Oren Ambarchi at the opening of ISSUE Project Room‘s fall season. Behind the strings is composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist Zeena Parkins, playing a custom electronic harp, joined by Brian Chase, drummer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Tonight’s concert is the furthest thing from Sunday Mass. Instead, an improvisation filled with shrieking, dissonant thrashes and arrhythmic tribal drumming unleashes onto the audience. The harp bellows evolving drones, ringing stabs, and remnants of traditional glissandos, all processed by a cluster of effects pedals. The thudding drums intensify, morphing into a heavy belligerent rumble. The musicians chase, duck and weave around the cacophony, into areas of quietude that bring out the harp’s softer character, moments where the strings hum as if alive, the trebly timbre of the strings reverberating at their tonal brink through the church.

The harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world, but as tonight’s performance shows, it can also be modern. Parkins has cultivated an impressive body of work from the instrument, including freeform electroacoustic compositions, acoustic harp works, and commissions for site-specific pieces for long-standing collaborations with choreographers. She’s worked with esteemed musicians you already know: Yoko Ono, Björk, Matmos, Ikue Mori, John Zorn, Nels Cline, Pauline Oliveros, and members of Sonic Youth.

Parkins first met Chase when touring with Bjork during her Vespertine tour, with Yeah Yeah Yeahs supporting for several shows. Parkins considers her duo with Chase uncanny. “There’s a telepathic connection when we play live,” she says. “We’re both interested in the idea of resonance and exciting the strings with tuned skins, or vice-versa, as a way to expand our language.”

An extreme way to expand one’s language is to develop a new way to speak. To that end, Parkins now plays with the third iteration of her electronic harp, constructed by sound artist Douglas Henderson; which seems to be the final version, at least for now. Parkins explains, “Douglas and I had gotten it to where I didn’t desire it to do anything else. He made a stunning instrument. Now though, there are a few things I’d like to work on.” Even though Parkins plays an evolving instrument, adjustments don’t require her to relearn how to play it. “Through playing and understanding what’s already there, I start to comprehend what I’m really yearning for. Once the feature is there, it actually works like I want it to. You realize how important every aspect is: the ergonomics, the relationship of the body to the instrument, the material, its height, where the pickups are placed in relationship to the strings. It seems easy when you see it all together, but you have to consider that we started from nothing.” Parkins does make it look easy, which is part of the fun of watching and listening live. Often, not seeing how the sound is being made dilutes the home listening experience.

The electronic harp transmits signals from the string’s vibrations through electric pickups, similar to how an electric guitar works. Parkins has also added a whammy bar that affects three strings, and an ebony strip that enables the player to tap, slide, crunch, smash, or wiggle the strings on that end. The instrument also contains three outputs: two for the main twenty-stringed harp and one for the whammy. Multiple outputs mean a wider variety of sounds can be mixed and processed, compared to the guitar’s single output.

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These outputs are routed through Parkins’ expanding collection of effects pedals. Their sequencing determines their dense sound in person. “There was a moment where I was so sick of lugging the effects pedals. The number of them keep growing. They’re made for guitars, so I’m always swapping them out since a harp won’t always react in the same way.”

The guitar and harp are both polyphonic stringed instruments, but the similarities end there. Harps don’t have frets and are larger in size, and with their extra strings are capable of rendering a much larger range than a guitar. Harp strings also exert more pounds of force than a guitar’s. For these physical reasons — and purely aesthetic ones — incorporating an effect tailored for a guitar is not as straight-forward as one might think.

At a certain point, Parkins was considering porting her processing to the computer — but she wasn’t very enthusiastic. Surely, a computer would dissipate the live show’s visceral energy. A laptop can function as a safety net for musicians, where a prefabricated set can be easily arranged without much need or leeway for variation. Gesturing with an instrument also becomes minimized. Pedals, although heavy to lug around, contain a flexible and desirably gritty palette. That’s not to say Parkins isn’t against working with a computer; it just has to fit the proper performance. Parkins is working on a set of new acoustic harp pieces using custom processing software combined with some of the pedals. She also regularly uses computer sound processing for other projects.

While the venue and project circumstances may call for different setups and execution, Parkins’ consistent element over the years is her methodology for making and translating ideas into sound. “As a composer this means coming up with scores that can translate my ideas to be realized by others, whether through traditional notation, something more experimental, or in ways that don’t involve scores at all. Whether it’s through [the graphical programming environment] Max/MSP, a guitar pedal, or just playing acoustic harp in a super reverberated space, my approach to both synthetic and organic sound has been the consistent through-line over the years.”

Some of her electroacoustic collaborators, like Ikue Mori, rely on extensive use of Max/MSP to process and control sounds. These different working modalities make Parkins’ work with Mori, as one half of Phantom Orchard, some of her most compelling and accessible. “I was using Max before Ikue and I collaborated. I’ve been interested in electronics and the materiality of sound since I got involved with music outside of the classical tradition.”

Moving to New York was a catalyst for her exploration of these styles. Parkins began working with choreographers in the mid-eighties, relationships she still maintains. Those alliances are valuable to think about sound outside of the compositional context in the music world. “Those projects rarely translate to the strictly sound/music world,” she explains. “The installations are so ephemeral. As performances, they’re made for a particular situation and have a hard time finding a life elsewhere. If it’s more traditional notes on a page sometimes I’m able to make recordings and release them, which I’m doing now for a piece called Really Queer Dance with Harps for commissioned by choreographer Neil Greenberg.” Conceived in 2008, the release has been a long time in the making. Good Child Music will be putting it out in November, releasing it as a download, a limited CD run, and an LP. “It was a labor of love, a huge project with a lot of reworking, and worked as a standalone piece. That’s the first release in a while of a big project of mine even though it’s already several years old.”

Scoring for dance occupies a good chunk of Parkins’ time. “Every year I work on at least one choreographic project. It occupies an essential and nurturing position in my life as a composer. These collaborations are a completely different way to think about making work and how that work lives. It’s also beneficial to try things I rarely have an opportunity to, like being in a particular space for longer than a day to realize how the sound will work best.” Parkins finds comfort in rehearsal studios and the giant empty spaces that accompany them. “The bare studio is full of possibility. It feels like home. I realize how full of possibility it is, but you also don’t know what’s going to happen. I find that juxtaposition totally exhilarating.”

It’s clear Parkins has had an affinity for her instrument for decades. Though she grew up playing the piano and was assigned to play the harp in school, she chose to stick with the latter as her instrument of choice. “I have this attachment to the physicality of making sounds on an acoustic harp. You bring the instrument into you. You become one with it. There’s something about the proximity to a sound-making device — having it literally in your ear and vibrating your bones — that I connected to as a starting point. From there it was quite an open landscape. There was a space to do something and I grabbed it.”

Harp experimentation is an area that’s wider than for piano — the model, of course, for the electronic synthesizer. Championed by synth pioneer Bob Moog, the adoption of the keyboard was nevertheless an arbitrary choice for the new sound paradigm, contested by rival Don Buchla to little avail. John Cage’s prepared piano experiments further opened the classical instrument’s avant-garde possibilities. The harp remains largely untouched. A logistical angle led Parkins to choose the harp too: a piano takes up way too much space in most New York City apartments.

Parkins gravitated to a group of musicians in the city while developing her artistic sensibilities. John Zorn, one of the most prolific artists of our time, was an early connection. “As soon as I arrived I was immediately doing a million things with many great people: Butch Morris, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Chris Cochrane. It was kind of crazy. It was a moment where my particular skill set was extremely valuable to all kinds of work people were doing at the time.”

Of all her collaborators, working with Björk has had the biggest impact on her career. “It was intimate but rigorous. Participating in a project over its several-year arc, from its conception to rehearsing, making parts, going to studio, perfecting material, rehearsing for tour, going on tour, and being on stage with a perfectionist who is also so generous, that was truly life-changing. I learned a lot from her.”

Parkins is now looking to collaborate with lighting designer Thomas Dunn. “I never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I’m working on a micro-opera [an opera not longer than twenty minutes.] A few years ago I discovered the artist Jay Defeo, an incredible painter, photographer, and collagist,” Parkins says, handing me a book of her work to peruse. “I became transfixed with her work and I had to use her as a subject. Thomas Dunn and I are trying to carve out time to do the project. I’ve been wanting to work with light for quite some time.”

Perhaps the lights would be triggered by the harp, but Parkins isn’t sure. “My starting point is to work with light as an object. Whether that’s a character in the opera or something that has a presence when I’m playing solo acoustic harp, I’m not sure, but I’m going to him with that idea. Together we’ll figure out what that means without having preconceived ideas of what it should be.”

The life and writings of Isabelle Eberhardt, a 19th-century Algerian explorer who dressed as a man and survived an assassination attempt, serves as another point of fascination for Parkins — Eberthardt having inspired her album Isabelle, recorded and released in the early 90s. When I mention the subject, Parkins grabs Eberhardt’s book of short stories from a shelf filled with books. Excitedly, she asks if I’ve ever read her. “I heard about Isabelle from choreographer Jennifer Monson decades ago. I became obsessed with her diaries and short stories. At the time, John Zorn was curating the Avant label, a precursor to his Tzadik label, and invited me to do a project. It was the first time I’d been asked to make whatever I wanted for a record, carte blanche. I had to do something about Isabelle.” Yet, a project without inherent constraints proved challenging at first. Parkins solved the problem by writing a screenplay to score to. “It was a way in for me as a composer, and the piece came out sounding really cinematic. Devising that framework was the way I could figure out how to tackle the problem of what to do. Those kinds of restrictions are really fruitful.”

In addition to collaborating with musicians, Parkins has worked with esteemed artistic institutions like The Whitney and The Tate Modern. “For the Whitney project I worked with another harpist, Carol Emanuel. I decided to rebuild the first movement of Claude Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ as if the two harp parts were in the primary instruments and everything else shifted to the background. It involved doing a ton of research, including reading Debussy’s diaries. He had so many incredible sound and cultural influences which fed into material I used for the piece. His influences were inserted throughout, all hanging on the harp parts which were pretty much verbatim. I used a skeleton crew compared to an orchestra. In a funny reversal of roles, Jennifer Monson then choreographed to that piece rather than me making something for her.” Parkins has a recording of it somewhere, so maybe we’ll get to hear it one day.

For now, catch Zeena Parkins live in New York City, November 9th performing Captiva Pieces with Green Dome at Roulette.

[Header and second photo are via the author Tristan Kneschke. Parkins and Chase’s live recording appears courtesy of the artists and ISSUE Project Room.]