Zeena Parkins Gets Back to Basics

Zeena ParkinsThree Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics (Good Child, 2017)

zeenaparkins-threeharpsI tend to encounter Zeena Parkins primarily as a composer and electronics performer, including electronically enhanced harp. But of course, her base instrument is the harp itself, so it’s a change of pace to hear so much of the unadorned acoustic harp on Three Harps, Tuning Forks & Electronics.

Harps are good for spinning a sense of wonder and calm, and you get plenty of that on Three Harps. But you also get lots of creative, non-traditional playing, even before the electronic enhancements and tuning forks come in. The simple plinking of harps, played aggressively by Kristen Theriault, Megan Conley, and principal harpist Nuiko Wadden, plus Parkins herself on occasion, yields some engaging results with an overarching tunefulness built by minimalist, abstract strings of melody.

“Muted” starts with a lively, tickling pulse. What keeps it rather quiet is the nature of the harps themselves, but the track is still full of moments such as a sudden run of notes from one harp, or small strumming motions — musically percussive slaps — coloring one short segment.

On “Determined,” Parkins (or possibly Ikue Mori) adds splashes of electronics consisting of sampled harps compacted into small splashes of gibberish. “Mouse” then introduces a truly new array of sounds: Vibrato, percussive scraping, and a gray electronic roar join a backdrop of scurrying, minimalist flickers on the untreated harps.

The contemplative “Tuning Forks” is, of course, where the tuning forks come in, played by Mori. They’re played straight, creating shimmering tones that are so abstract as to feel almost tuneless at times. The overtones linger, creating a contemplative backdrop for Parkins’ swampy array of electronics.

Based on music written for a 2008 dance projectThree Harps is a nice showcase for technique and compositional approach, and it works as a single, coherent piece — it has that narrative thread to it.

Yes, It’s a Harp

I have to admit, the first time I looked up The Stone‘s listings for Tuesday and saw “harp” on the bill, I moved on.  Plenty else to do on Tuesday.

But I recanted later.  It’s The Stone, after all, where bookings are hand-picked.  And harp can be an interesting instrument. It’s got pedals that can change the tone of strings up or down by two half-steps — all the Fs can become F#, for instance, or all the strings can be set up in a pentatonic scale (just like playing all black notes on the piano) for that classic “harp” sound. And the bio for the musician noted she’d played composers like Elliott Carter. I like Elliott Carter.

So on a rainy Tuesday, after splurging at Downtown Music Gallery and dining at Boca Chica, the only Lower East Side eatery I know, I decided: What the heck. It was just after 8:00 p.m., and I was blocks away. When else am I going to even consider a harp recital? Let’s see what solo harp can do.

Bridget Kibbey was in the middle of some richly chromatic, modern-classical piece when I arrived. Not the pillowy, heaven-sent cloud music you normally hear. This had lots of color, lots of rich tones. A great start.

Most of the program was not solo harp, in fact; Kibbey used the opportunity to bring in some friends and to play some new pieces (with the composers in the audience).  The next number, called “Crossfade,” actually used two harps, Kibbey and a friend, with one or the other taking the lead in, of course, a kind of crossfading pattern. This was really enjoyable — again, lots of modern chromatic tones, and a good technical showcase. Any classical recital can be described as having pinpoint accuracy, but something about the harp makes “pinpoint” seem more appropriate, more tangible.  It’s a delight to watch the notes get plucked out, right there in the open.

I learned something new about the harp: Harmonics. They’re all over the place in some of these compositions.  They’re played with one hand — I assume the thumb sits atop the string at just the right spot while another finger plucks the note, so there’s a high degree of accuracy involved (same is true for any fretless instrument, I suppose, but it was a lot more surprising on the harp).

Kibbey then brought up a flautist for a succession of several Bartok songs based on folk music. This had more of a “classical” classical feel to it, with jaunty rhythms.  The pieces were written for flute and piano, with Kibbey having transcribed the piano part for harp.  As you’d imagine, it works quite well.

Two pieces for guitar and harp closed the evening. One was an original, written by the guitarist (I’d written names down on scratch paper & will fill them in if I can find that paper), an pleasant piece that was based on a folk tale about an object that creates such an obsession, it absorbs the owner’s entire reality.  That was followed by some Celtic reels, made folky and rocking by the addition of occasional guitar-chord strumming.

Given the rain that night, and the stigma of the harp, there wasn’t much of a crowd — maybe five of us who weren’t players, composers, or personal friends.  But I’m glad I went. Saxophone after saxophone can only teach you so much, after all.

Playlist: January 22, 2010

Click here to see the full KZSU playlist for Friday, Jan. 22, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.


* Matthew Welch — “Self/Non-Self And Luminosity In The Bardo” — Luminosity (Porter, 2009)You gotta love bagpipes.  That is, if you’re going to make it through most of this album, you have got to love bagpipes.  That’s Welch’s instrument, and this album compiles some of his compositions … for solo bagpipe … for three bagpipes … for five bagpipes.  It gets shrill; if I ever play the five-pipe track, I’ll warn the audience to turn down the radio first.

The plus side: With dronescapes being a perfectly acceptable form of experimental music, Welch’s work has an obvious home. (Think about it: bagpipes are the original drone instrument.)  Also, there are two 20-minute pieces for large ensemble.  “Symphony of Drones #1,” ironically, doesn’t drone; it’s a spritely, bustling group improv with some agile bagpipes thrown in the mix. “Self/Non-Self” is a different animal, a 20-minute concerto for harp and bagpipeless ensemble that does drone in parts, albeit against some nicely scattery harp plucking by Zeena Parkins.

* Ernesto Diaz-Infante & Jeff Arnal — “Brooklyn Mantra” (Generate, 2009)It’s a 7″, one of three such disks we got from Arnal recently.  Experimental jazz singles!  I love it.  The A and B sides here make up all of “Brooklyn Mantra.”  I wussed out of playing the A side, in favor of the noisier B side, which is dominated by a one-chord guitar rhythm from Diaz-Infante, over which Arnal plays various percussion. Energetic, abstract, and a bit lo-fi. I liked it a lot, and I’ll be anxious to hear the other two 7″ disks when I get time.

* Tim Berne — “Quicksand” — The Sevens (New World, 2002) … Just in a modern-classical mood today, I suppose. This album compiles pieces Berne wrote for guitarist Marc Ducret and/or the ARTE Quartet (a sax quartet).  “Quicksand” is a 25-minute piece that combines all three (Berne, Ducret, ARTE) for some lively improvisation and galloping composed segments. I skimmed off the first 10 minutes for radio purposes, but the entire piece would be worthwhile someday, even in a radio environment where most listeners aren’t paying full attention.

* Bruce Friedman — “MCT-4 with Duos” — O.P.T.I.O.N.S. (pfMentum, 2009)It stands for Optional Parameters To Improvise Organized Nascent Sounds, and it’s a graphical-score piece intended to be stretched into an improvisatory framework.  The CD starts with a 3-minute run-through of the piece by itself: a scattery, disjoint, group jumble that reminds me of Rich Woodson’s Ellipsis (which performs through-composed pieces of dense complexity, full of sharp precision corners).

That’s followed by three longer takes, extended to include solos (or, in this case, duos).  They all tend to be calmer than the first track, and each of the longer tracks has its own personality. There’s apparently a sense of form that can develop from the original piece. No wonder it’s being used in the music curriculum at a Vancouver college.  Read more about O.P.T.I.O.N.S. here.

….. Notice how everything this week was “pieces,” not “songs.”  Not intentional.  Either I was in a modern-classical mood today, or I’m just getting all fru-fru with how I describe the music. Maybe I’ll remedy that by dragging out some Gutbucket next week.