Zeena, Warrior Harpist

The sounds Zeena Parkins coaxes from her hand-built electric harp are odd and beautiful

That's probably what Björk heard in her. The two hooked up before the Icelandic singer made her most recent studio album, Vespertine, part of which was recorded with Parkins in an NYC loft. The two bonded, and Parkins has been a collaborator ever since.

"I started doing gigs with 6,000 people in the audience," Parkins replies when asked how her life has changed since the Björk gig. The harpist isn't famous, but she does sit front and center with the singer during performances -- an interesting twist for a musician whose professional life has hitherto existed outside the mainstream. Parkins leaves in two weeks for rehearsals in Iceland in anticipation of Björk's summer tour, which will make its way to the States in August. "There are four people in the band, basically," Parkins explains. "It's Matmos, myself and Björk -- and for the last tour, there was also an orchestra and a choir. The only acoustic instruments onstage are those that I'm playing, so I would say that's a pretty big role in a band to have. And this year, when we do a tour, we're going to be working with an Icelandic string octet. We're going to have fireworks and an octet."

Then there's Weightless Animals -- Kaffe Matthews' interactive Web-site project examining outer space -- which brings the two to town. Matthews has collaborated with a NASA rocket scientist, explains Matthews' Web site (www.annetteworks.com), "to collect space station orbiting data, processing a 'soundscape for space' (Ravel's piano concerto for the left hand as cited by one of the astronauts), actual cassettes of astronaut chosen music that have been into space, underwater recordings, breath recordings under different conditions, electric harp down the telephone, live radio from space, anechoic chambers and making and extracting tiny and precise details."

Zeena Parkins' harp music contains divine beauty and unbearable tension.
Zeena Parkins' harp music contains divine beauty and unbearable tension.
Washington University's Graham Chapel

With the aid of microphones placed throughout a performance space, Matthews samples the sounds -- buried beneath chairs, next to radiators, wherever -- of the space, then fiddles with them inside her laptop. The result, judging from a recording of her most recent St. Louis New Music Circle appearance in 2000, is a quiet epiphany of clicks and cuts, odd creaks and blusters. Explains Parkins: "She'll often do a gig where she'll bring her laptop and not have any sounds at all prerecorded, and she'll put microphones up and she'll just grab sounds from the room. In the gig that we'll do, she'll be taking a live feed from me and she'll be processing that as well. This is something that we've been working on now, especially because of the Weightless Animals project, for several years, so there's a real rapport between the two of us with this technique that she's using."

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