Zeena Parkins Interview by Stewart Smith
Zeena Parkins is this year’s featured artist at Counterflows, following in the footsteps of free jazz legend Joe McPhee and British underground hero Richard Youngs. An America composer, improviser and harpist, Parkins is perhaps best known for her collaborations with Björk, but her work has spanned avant-rock, modern composition, free jazz and improvised music, dance and sound art. Her many collaborators include Yoko Ono, Butch Morris, Ikue More, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Nels Cline, Bobby Previte, Okkyung Lee, Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the contemporary music group Either/Or Ensemble.
Parkins is renowned as a pioneer of the harp, an instrument she conceives of as a “sound machine of limitless capacity.” Through extended techniques, preparations and electronic processing, she has expanded the language of the acoustic harp. She has also invented her own original electronic harps, adding unique features such a whammy bar, ebony fretboard and MIDI.
Her questing spirit makes her an ideal fit for Counterflows, where she will be performing solo and with her band Green Dome. She will also give a performance of her ensemble piece LACE and duet with the brilliant young saxophonist Mette Rasmussen.
You came up through the New York downtown scene of the early ‘80s. How did you go from being a classical musician to discovering this world?
Even as a young classical pianist growing up in Detroit, I always had my ears pointed towards contemporary music from different genres and cultures. But it’s when I went to Bard College [in upstate New York] that I experienced a continuous stream of live music that was life changing: Mingus, Sun Ra, Chris Cutler/Fred Frith, Zorn, Lindsay Cooper/Sally Potter, UT, Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart and performances of Stravinsky: L’Histroire du Soldat, Messian: Quartet for the End of Time, and Crumb: Black Angels. I also discovered avant-garde film at Bard film department screenings: Frampton, Deren, Snow, Vertov, Genet, Brackage, Tarkovsky etc. All of this audio and visual stimulation was a perfect set-up for my move to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the mid- 80’s where I dove into an all-encompassing environment of— experimentation/performing/activism, dance, more films, and theatre: particularly the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman. Going to concerts nightly at the Knitting Factory and afterwards Tonic was essential and transforming.
What led you to develop the electric harp?
I was playing with loud musicians, electric guitarists and drummers and larger ensembles. The problem was, as an acoustic harpist I would always vanish into the sensational din… unheard. As one of the few women in the scene at the time, it was not a convincing situation to be in, nor a position that I wanted to propagate. To acquire a presence in my new-found world, I decided to devise the electric harp, a decision generated primarily out of practical need.
Perhaps you could outline some of the unique features of your harp?
At the time, the idea of electrifying the harp and bringing it into these alternative performance settings was unusual. Now all major harp manufacturers design electric harps, both solid body and electro-acoustic. My harp has a whammy bar and I had no doubts about needing one for my new instrument. The whammy bar and the ebony fingerboard, are certainly unique features. For more info about the history and design of the instrument, (there are now three of them) see my website, www.zeenaparkins.com Currently I am working on a new harp-instrument that will have most of its strings separated from the main frame. The strings will live on speakers that are placed at various points away and disembodied from the instrument itself. Inspired by the custom built speakers for the Ondes Martenot, this harp will exist as part instrument and part installation.
You’ve experimented with different ways of processing the harp, from guitar pedals through to midi. Are you always on the look-out for new devices or do you try not to rely too much on these?
What drew me to the harp from the beginning was its sound and the physical engagement needed to play the instrument. The physical challenges felt like a kind of choreography to be mastered. I wanted to consider ways to develop this physicality, imagining all aspects of the harp body available to me, not just the strings. The instrument folds or melds into you. It felt much more intimate then a piano, for instance. How could this intimacy be projected? The work with audio processing on both the acoustic and electric harps takes on many different formations. Sometimes I use pedals found in second hand shops and sometimes I design patches in Max/Msp. It’s an ongoing investigation for transparency. I also enjoy working with new techniques to play the acoustic harp with no processing at all. I might use specially constructed wooden bows/ metal bars/paper/basters/Ebows, rocks etc to transform the sound. This is tactile, about touch and shape. Then there is also the possibility to just use my fingers, attempting ‘impossible tasks’ on the instrument which leads to unexpected gestures and configurations.
To go back to early ‘80s New York City – an exciting time for sure, but I’m interested to hear how you think the current scene compares? Has gentrification impacted on creativity?
Economics and gentrification has impacted the lives of everyone including artists but I think the current scene in NYC is exciting and creativity is thriving. A big difference is that now, there are thriving scenes in other cities as well. When I arrived in the mid-80’s gentrification in the Lower East Side and East Village had already begun. The changes and realignments profoundly altering neighbourhoods has meant less centralisation and instead, activity happens in many different parts of the city. It’s challenging, but a lot is going on.
On that note, you’ve collaborated with some of the most exciting NYC players of the current generation like Nate Wooley and Okkyung Lee. What excites you about them? And who else should we be looking out for?
Those players are generously and rigorously engaged in sound-making in its many guises and outcomes. They are everywhere and they are powerful: Brian Chase, Jacob Sacks, Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Ava Mendoza, Madalyn Merkey, Gabriella Herbst, Jeff Kolar…
Can you tell us about the Lace Project and your band Green Dome?
Green Dome is a new band with two brilliant musicians: Ryan Sawyer and Ryan Ross Smith. We have not done a lot of playing yet but each time has been thrilling and yearns for the next opportunity. The Lace Project has unfolded over many years and speaks to my interest in fabrics, sewing, collections and the politics of craft. Within the context of Lace Project I can pursue my curiosity to create scores that translate sonic specificity with the least amount of information. These are not difficult scores that need months of rehearsal time but they generate the possibility to gather a large group of musicians, with a minimal amount of rehearsals, to create a kind of ‘piece’ identity. In this case we look at fragments of lace in different ways, as a picture, as a collection of stitches or as coded patterns and ‘play them’ through a filter of conditions and instructions.
As featured artist you’ll be doing a number of sets throughout the festival. Do you know what form these might take at this stage? Solo, collaborations?
I am playing with my band Green Dome and we are also going to be joined by six great local improvisers [Alex South, Daniel Padden, Peter Nicholson, Tony Bevan, Arnim Sturm and Ruth Morley] for the performance of Lace. I am performing In Place, which is a series of three solo performances on three instruments in quite intimate settings: for a piano installation, electric harp and acoustic harp. I will be giving multiple performances of this project. I am also very excited to play with Mette Rasmussen. This will be our debut performance.
Are there any artists you’re particularly looking forward to at Counterflows?
Really looking forward to hearing as much music as I can while I am at the festival!! I guess I won’t be getting much sleep while I am here.