Harping On: Zeena Parkins Interviewed

Ahead of her appearance later this month at Semibreve festival, Zeena Parkins talks to Claire Sawers about the need for boundaries and the need for generosity

Zeena Parkins appears at Semibreve Festival on October 29

A key member of Manhattan’s downtown scene, the Detroit born, New York-based experimental musician Zeena Parkins is an utterly mesmerising solo performer and frequent collaborator. Her career as a composer and multi-instrumentalist spans over three decades, where she has worked with Pauline Oliveros, Fred Frith, Hole and Lee Ranaldo, amongst scores of others.

Her pioneering, playful and searching approach to her chosen instrument, the harp, has once again repositioned it firmly in the experimental world, reinventing the instrument as a tool for free improv and avant jazz creations.

She also performs with tuning forks, prepared piano, samples, bells, oscillators, found sounds and homemade instruments and has composed scores for both dance and film. The Quietus picked her brains before she plays in Catalytic Sound festival, which she has helped organise in six locations around the world, and the electronic weekender Semibreve in Portugal.

The last time we saw her perform was in a fancy house in Glasgow, during Counterflows festival in 2016. We were driven to a secret location in Kelvinside on a coach, where she welcomed us with champagne and canapés, before proceeding to batter and caress a grand piano and harp that had been set up with lots of e-bows in a tender, exploratory, turbulent, interactive spectacle. It was amazing.

She also performed with the Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and Glasgow’s One Ensemble that weekend.

When talking about Counterflows, Zeena Parkins recalls: "It is such a wonderful festival and Alasdair Campbell, the curator/director, was completely open to any ideas I had about projects that I wanted to present. I wanted to share several very different works, which included the site-specific piece, Impossible Tasks, as well as the improvised duo with Mette, which I believe was the first time we played together as a duo. The performance was highly charged. As well as teaching a group of local musicians to learn and perform a couple movements from LACE piece."

She says she doesn’t recall "battering" the piano or the harp during Impossible Tasks during the performance held at a secret location but that both instruments were "being approached and sounded in unconventional ways."

She continues: "It is extremely tactile and defines much of my work with sound connected to touch, a physicality at once sensual and as an aspect of listening. My desire was to be so close to the audience that I could feel them listening, hear them breathing, and in the case of the piano, they could come up to it and comprehend the instrument as a vibrating body, with multiple e-bows activating the strings, tossing off a multitude of overtones."

Is it important for you to disrupt or play around with the traditional setup of an audience and a performer?

Zeena Parkins: Many of my pieces thrive in situations that remove the expectations of the proscenium stage. I am not sure I would call it a disruption, perhaps more of a reconsideration or an expansion of possibility in relationships between listener, the specificity of a particular space and the performers. This is true for all kinds of situations: music for dance, a concert with live performers, or a situation with loudspeakers, standing in for or joining players.

How do you approach a performance such as the one for Semibreve – where this time you will be playing alongside André Gonçalves in the large and very grand Teatro Circo?

ZP: There have been a few performances in large, grand theatres, though not many since my Björk days, when we toured the Vespertine record for over a year, performing in opera halls with a string orchestra and a chorus, in Europe and the United States. I played solo in concert in a beautiful hall in Tbilisi several years ago and presented a large messy, complicated work, J’ai plus souvenirs que… on the Great Stage in the Haus de Berliner Festspiele. In this piece I placed the audience on stage with the performers and loudspeakers in the house.

At first, I did resist this insistence to play in the Teatro Circo in Braga, but now I am intrigued to see what André and I will make of it.

It’s a brand new commission with the Portuguese sound artist André – what did you know about him before the festival paired you guys up? How did you approach the brief?

ZP: I knew very little about André but did my research and I am very excited to be working with him, though we have a very short amount of time together before our show. I sent André some acoustic harp samples of my more unusual playing techniques, so he could hear what the harp can sound like, with the thought that we might use them in some way during our performance. We have a couple of days and I am hoping that we can dive into our work together as soon as I arrive.

You have worked in the past with Björk, Yoko Ono and Merce Cunningham. What in particular drew you to collaborate with them and what did you take away from it?

ZP: Yes, I have been very fortunate to work with these great artists, each of them – so different – expresses or connects to specific interests of mine. Björk speaks to me as a performer, instrumentalist and composer and embodies the sheer thrill of playing with such a magnificent musician with immense musical and emotional intelligence and expression. The joy of sharing music with others.

With Yoko, I was able to join her with a completely different kind of performative awareness and placement of personage in relationship to music. She is defiant, a poet with insight and sly humor. And with Merce, I was simply in my element working with dancers and bodies in motion. I was a serious dance student as a kid and have worked with dance artists and choreographers since moving to NYC. My work with dance has been a significant aspect of my practice. It was inspiring to be in the Westbeth Studio, watching Merce give class before our performances and observing his decision making process in putting together our pieces.

What would you consider to be a bad collaboration, or an artist with which you wouldn’t be compatible?

ZP: Someone lacking in generosity would be a drag. A great collaborator invites you to see things/ hear things and reconsider materials in alternative ways.

What golden rules do you try to work by?

ZP: I don’t particularly enjoy rules, golden or otherwise. Boundaries can be interesting for generating work, especially when they are stretched.

What do you have planned for this weekend at Catalytic Sound

ZP: As I am one of the organisers, I plan on being there for every performance. It is the first Catalytic Sound Festival in NYC, curated by myself and Brandon Lopez. Two spectacular evenings of music, at the Fridman Gallery.

What remains on your to-do list?

ZP: Remain present and currently I am working on a feedback instrument in the shape of a harp.

Semibreve Festival runs October 28 – 31 in Portugal

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today