The Brooklyn-based harpist Zeena Parkins doesn’t follow rules. Whether she’s playing with Björk, Thurston Moore, Ikue Mori or John Zorn, her harp rarely sounds like a harp. Instead, it’s soaked in digital surrealism and alien mystery—exquisitely dripping, cosmically pinging or wildly feedbacking. When she isn’t designing her own harps (because standard models simply don’t provide the sonic capacities she requires), composing music for choreographers (like “Danza Permanente” for the choreographer DD Dorvillier, which debuts at The Kitchen in September), or working as a solo artist (listen to her stunning 2010 release Between The Whiles), Parkins teaches music for one semester every year at Mills College in Oakland, California. She also has a new trio, the Adorables, with the electronicist Preshish Moments and the percussionist Shayna Dunkelman. The delightfully pop-oriented group plans to release its debut album in January on Cryptogramophone, and the trio play The Stone on Thursday night. SOTC Skyped with Parkins from her Greenpoint apartment.
The Internet told me that you used to dress like a bear and dance around while playing the accordion?
Yes, I did. [laughs] Where did you find that out?
You mentioned it in an interview with Steve Elkins about 10 years ago.
Wow. And you had to just go right to that, didn’t you?
I couldn’t resist, and I apologize.
Okay, if I must… I went to the University of Michigan as a piano major in the School of Music, and then transferred to Bard, where I finished my undergraduate degree. We all had to do these senior projects. I was mostly a pianist at that point, playing contemporary classical music, so I did a fairly rigorous piano concert premiering a new work by one of my professors, and blah blah blah. For his senior project, a really good friend of mine did this big roving theater group that presented its work in the context of being in a circus. It was called the Janus Circus, and it ended up taking on a life of its own after we left Bard. We toured in Europe and had a residency with these kids in East Harlem, and we did outdoor gigs all over the place. I learned to play the accordion so I could have an instrument that I could sort of rove around with, and, it’s true, I also performed as a dancing bear. My big trick was to leap through this big fire. In a bear outfit!
That sounds pretty dangerous.
It was. Life was at stake!
But it must’ve been a refreshing thing to do after having spent the previous few years studying to be a classical pianist.
From playing Schoenberg piano pieces? Yeah, it was a very nice change of pace. I love those Schoenberg pieces, but the circus was very liberating on a lot of fronts. None of us had any serious circus skills, but we had a lot of enthusiasm and energy as performers. It lasted for a few years, and then we disbanded, as did my career as a dancing bear.
Björk, with whom you frequently work, seems to have some sort of fascination with bears—they are in her videos and photo shoots, and I think she once dressed up like a bear, too.
[laughs] Yes, I guess we do share that, among other things.
What’s it like working with Björk?
I did the 10 Biophilia shows earlier this year in New York, and I’ll be playing the 10 shows with her in San Francisco this fall. It was great to play with her again. I did extensive work with her while recording Vespertine, and I’m on a few tracks from Biophilia, but I hadn’t played with her live in about six years. I’m very proud of the music we’ve made. It’s always a lot of fun.
Is it a big transition going from huge, sold-out pop concerts with Björk to the smaller, more intimate experimental music venues where you more regularly perform?
Going from working with a pop star, and being in that beautiful pop star bubble, to being a mild-mannered avant-garde composer is a huge transition. It’s crazy! But it’s the way of the world, and there’s no way to compare the two. It’s a luxury, and a privilege, and there’s so much access to things—endless hours in the studio, rehearsal time, and so on—but those things are never going to happen in the world I normally live in. But I feel very lucky to have dropped in on that world here and there during my career. That doesn’t normally happen to those of us making music more on the fringe, but it’s fun to dip into that world sometimes.
The thing that’s really interesting to me is that Björk just happens to write pop songs that people really like. She’s very, very good at it. But when it comes down to it, she’s just a damn good musician and very exciting to work with. She’s very open and very curious, and that’s no different than any other scenario I work in. There’s nothing conservative about the way she approaches music. Everything surrounding the music is different, but that part’s the same.
Excerpts from (like a vase), with score by Zeena Parkins
Do you ever wish that the experimental music world you belong to was a bit less insular, and that you were able to reach more people and play larger venues?
I toggle back and forth. I’d love to find situations where I could get more people to listen to the type of music I do. I always wish there was a bigger machine around this kind of music. I think it’s more of a publicity problem than a music problem. One of the things you get when you have more resources is that you can reach more audiences that you didn’t know you had instead of the ones who were always there for you. Access to that kind of outreach would be fantastic, and I’ve often thought about ways to make that happen. But I don’t think there’s something inherent in the music that makes it not likable or not accessible to people, I just think it’s a communication and outreach problem.
When you play in rock or noise-oriented groups with people like Nels Cline (of Wilco) or the members of Sonic Youth, do you see this as a way to disrupt the insularity of the avant-garde music world?
Yes. But mostly I just enjoy listening to a lot of different kinds of music, and playing a lot of different kinds of music. And this works both to my advantage and disadvantage, because I don’t do one thing. It’s harder to figure out who the hell I am, and it’s harder for people to label me. That’s frustrating, but that’s just the way it is, and we’re all just gonna have to live with it.
Let’s talk about the Adorables. How did this project start?
The project started—as many of my projects do—because I work quite a lot with choreographers. Every year I do music for about two large-scale dance productions. It’s something I really love doing. So there was a score I did for a choreographer named Neil Greenberg, and it was for his piece called (like a vase). The dance piece is about how we assign meaning, and try to find meaning in things, even when there’s no intended meaning or narrative. So I explore this question of why we try to make meaning all the time, and why there aren’t these other ways to take in information. The score I made is very cinematic, and we decided it should be performed live, so the group I put together was with Preshish Moments—who uses electronics to do live processing on my harp and percussion, and also uses beats—and Shayna Dunkelman—who is a percussionist extraordinaire working with a whole array of orchestral percussion. And I stick mostly to acoustic harp, but now have a few pieces for keyboards and one with electric harp.
Both Preshish and Shayna are graduates of Mills College. Were they your students?
No, they both went to Mills, but they were there before I was. I did meet them through the Mills connection, though. They coincidently moved to New York, and then they coincidently moved around the corner from me in Greenpoint. And then a few weeks ago, my landlord called me and said, “Zeena do you know anyone that needs an apartment on the top floor of your building?” So the two of them moved in, and now we live in an Adorables building. We’ve almost taken over the whole thing! I’m on the bottom floor and they’re on the top floor of a three-floor building. They’re incredibly talented and have great energy. And they like to rehearse, which is a novelty. They’re not daunted by any musical challenges.
I saw the Adorables’ performance last year at Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, and was pleasantly surprised by how pop-oriented the music was. Alongside some of the other performers—like Peter Brötzmann and Anthony Braxton—it was very refreshing and accessible, but also unpredictable.
Yeah, it definitely nudges with its elbows right into the pop world without really being pop. It’s pretty, it’s cinematic and it’s very luscious. I love the fact that these little melodies get to sneak into the fabric of the show. There’s something about the chemistry between the three of us that allows the music to really cross into the audience in a very unique way. It’s part mystery and part magic. This material isn’t easy listening, but there’s something about it that makes it easy to hear, I think.
Having worked with several generations of experimental musicians, and having taught younger musicians at Mills, what do you think younger artists—like Shayna and Preshish—are bringing to the scene that wasn’t previously there?
The biggest change that’s happened in the time I’ve been involved in making music as an adult is that there’s less compartmentalizing of genres. The person that can play a Beethoven piano sonata, might DJ the next night and have a folk group on the next night. There’s less concern that if you’re a classical musician you’re not allowed to play other kinds of music. It’s much more fluid; the boundaries are disappearing. There’s a lot of grey area, and the definitions are more open. The younger musicians aren’t bothered by how to classify what they’re doing, and are more interested in making good music. This is definitely a new thing.
You mentioned earlier the different types of “machine” that surround pop and avant-garde music. Do you think these younger players might be bringing with them a new machine?
There’s no question that this new generation is more aware of how to place themselves. They’re thinking about—well, I hate to use the term “business model”—but they want to get their stuff out there. They’re not going to wait around and let someone else take care of those things for them. Everyone is doing everything now, because there is no choice. There are a lot of really savvy young people who are able to get their music out and make their presence felt.
Tell me about the Adorables’ debut album. Do you have a title yet?
I think we’re just going to call it The Adorables, and it will be released by Cryptogramophone in January. We recorded most of the record last December in a studio in Rhinebeck, New York called the Clubhouse. It’s a beautiful place. We tracked for two days for about 14 hours a day, and then we went up to Woodstock to work with the producer Danny Blume to do some overdubs. Then I used this studio called Audities Foundation in Calgary with David Kean, who has a great collection of electro-acoustic instruments.
A good portion of the material is reworkings of the music I wrote for “(like a vase),” but we’ve reconstructed them into standalone pieces. And we’re also doing this kick-ass version of Henry Mancini’s “Something For Sofia.” Then we have this feedback piece that’s not gonna be on the record. We’ve been doing it live, and we might record it and put it out as a cassette. It’s very noisy, and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the debut album. We’ll be playing most of these pieces at the gig at The Stone.
I apologize in advance for asking this, but is there any chance you’ll take the bear costume out of storage for the show?
[laughs] It starts with the bear, and ends with the bear!
It’s a perfect circle!
The bear outfit did make an appearance at the old Roulette about 10 years ago. When that happens, it means there are minimal acrobatics involved, which there was. But after that, the bear was officially retired. The bear is back in Iceland, where it belongs.
Zeena Parkins & The Adorables play The Stone tonight.