Zeena, Warrior Harpist

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

Zeena Parkins, with Kaffe Matthews

Washington University's Graham Chapel

How did we get here from there? How did we move from banging on hollow logs, plucking strings and grunting in caves to sitting in a concert hall, legs crossed, hands clasped on laps or chins resting on fingers, brows furrowed, listening to waves of static, wallowing cellos, freakazoid plucking and computer-generated pitter-patter? How to follow the rope that leads back from the structure to the dirt, from jerky nonlinear head music to rudimentary rhythm grunts? How did some music hop the elevator up from the pelvis and get off at the brain, never to return to the depths below?

With hard work, that's how. With sweat, brain-flexing and an extra helping of broccoli at dinner; overtime spent in the wee, wee hours with the quill linked to the melody meandering in the mind, or in the wood shop, channeling the first piano; with hope and synapse lapses and electricity, with absinthe and a shitload of money -- or flat broke, with a cigar box attached to a wooden pole strung with wire and some bootleg whisky. With a clown on a unicycle playing an accordion and Harpo in front of the monstrous stringed triangular thing making funny pretty music. With Pharaoh humming, "The Creator has a master plan!" With four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, with hallowed 4 a.m. halls filled with groggy, chanting monks; with a throaty, seductive whisper -- "Happy birthday ... Mr. President" -- into a rotary phone. With a beatbox. One huge wash of noise: History sweeps from here to there.

Zeena Parkins' history-sweep seems nearly as grand: She sprouted in Detroit with music in her head, which she translated first onto the piano. In high school, says Parkins from her home in Calgary, Alberta, "they thought it was very important to socialize the pianists, who were left alone practicing by themselves all the time. So my instrument was harp." Under the tutelage of an adventurous teacher, she learned the rudiments of the wonderfully impractical instrument. She hit the Bard College music program, and from there, in the late '70s, joined a circus, where she was, among other things, a dancing bear and an accordionist.

It was at this circus, which was touring Europe with a punk band, that she met one Chris Cutler, fresh from his stints with the legendary Brit art-rockers Henry Cow and the Art Bears. Cutler, she says, was interested in working with the harp. And although Parkins didn't own one, she stepped up and volunteered. "This is how I, all of the sudden, get connected to this whole music world," she says. In '84, she returned to the States and took up residence with a bunch of outsider jazz-skronk experimentalists, the kingpin of whom was Webster University alum John Zorn. The Knitting Factory opened around the same time, and, seemingly overnight, an oddball collective of instrumentalists merged jazz, rock, the avant-garde, classical and whatnot and created a new downtown-New York sound.

From there to here, Parkins wove a tangled web, a web that stretches this week to Washington University's Graham Chapel, where she'll perform with experimental electronic composer Kaffe Matthews.

Parkins' many impressive collaborations include stints with Zorn's Cobra project (she appeared in the early-'90s Cobra performance at Wash. U.'s Steinberg Auditorium), Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Yoko Ono, Marc Ribot, the entire Knitting Factory roster, Courtney Love's Hole (she was onstage during the band's MTV Unplugged gig), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), turntable artists Christian Marclay and David Shea, the amazing electric jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock and a brilliant cellist, the late Tom Cora.

And there's Björk.

Parkins creates music that draws from sounds and ideas that stretch way back; you simultaneously hear caves, churches and recital halls in her music (though seldom the streets, or the funk). During a conversation, she'll offhandedly refer to the music she makes as "such an unusual kind of music," which means: It doesn't have a good beat, and you can't (really) dance to it. A sample will give way to feedback, which runs smack-dab into a wall of percussion. It's an odd and beautiful music, created for her hand-built electric harp, a fraction of the size of the standard acoustic one. The electric harp took the place of an acoustic model because in New York City, there was a problem.

"You would rarely even hear me," she says. "I'd be playing my fingers to the bone. It's a soft instrument, and there were a lot of great things I was learning to do with it as I started to work on extended techniques." She stuck some pick-ups on the harp, but the sound was thin and tinny, so she found an instrument builder who could make an electric harp. It is, she says, "as different as an electric guitar is from an acoustic guitar. I needed something that I could call a harp but that's an electric instrument."

The result so far is ten solo albums, the meat of which is a trilogy of recordings with her group the Gangster Band: Isabelle, Mouth = Maul = Betrayer and Pan-Acousticon. Using electronic and acoustic percussion, piano, strings, metal springs, guitars and samples, Parkins and her band mine the history of sound and create what seem to be invisible soundtracks to unmade movies. Over the course of the first few minutes of Isabelle, a mournful string-and-piano ballad gives way to a sample of an alien chant, which gradually fades into a faraway ritualistic drum beat, which moves into a stutter-step piano/cello/violin breakdown, like a muffled, contained version of Bernard Herrmann's shower-scene music from Psycho. There's both divine beauty and unbearable tension.

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."

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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