Björk's 2001 single "Pagan Poetry" opens with a music box, and then a harp. When was the last time you thought about – or even really heard – a harp on a pop song, a harp indicating more than just dream-sequence heaven?
This isn't about Björk, though, or "Pagan Poetry." It is about Zeena Parkins, the woman behind those harp strings; Zeena Parkins, arguably the most prolific if-you-know-you-know figure of the last four decades of avant-garde, experimental and improvisational music.
See, Parkins, despite her background of intensive classical training (at Detroit's public Cass Technical High School, which also produced late pianist Geri Allen), knew she didn't want to play piano transcriptions on harp, or wait around in an orchestra for "500 measures to play a glissando." At the time, it seemed as though these were the only available options – so Parkins stuck her harp on the back burner: "I wanted to do something with it, I just didn't know what that was going to be."
It wasn't until regular serious improvisation in 1980s NYC's so-called Downtown scene, and the formation of Skeleton Crew, her trio with Fred Frith and Tom Cora, that Parkins figured "it" out. She became frustrated with the primary limitation of the acoustic harp – it was just so quiet. She wanted to play with electric guitars and percussion, and it was in this space that Parkins' first-ever electric harp was borne out of necessity, or as she remembers it: "A just-practical need to be heard! You didn't want to be the only woman in the group and not be able to be heard, that was just reinforcing too many boring stereotypes."
Any single credit on Parkins' CV would be the crown jewel of someone else's – a quick scan of her career reveals a thousand different lives lived. Her collaborations with Björk, Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono – even her performance on Hole's edition of MTV Unplugged – all speak to technical prowess, a space carved out for the harp in a non-orchestral, popular context. But Parkins' career is by no means the sum of these parts. Yes, there's work in the popular sphere, but there is also the sheer weight of her back catalog beyond that: her "Disney Sun Ra" band, the Adorables; the LACE project, which translates the geometric patterns of lace into musical notation; her ongoing reconstructions of Debussy's La Mer.
Above all else, however, Parkins is unquestionably the driving force behind a revolutionization of the harp – the expansion, both physical and conceptual, of an instrument made unfashionable at best by its association with cherubim and wedding processionals. She's a pioneer of the electric harp, of the usage of unconventional materials, of new playing techniques. Through material, through movement, through sound, each of Parkins' projects pushes against established boundaries – what else is the harp able to do, to be?
Now several versions in on her electric harp, Parkins' current performance stint creates aleatoric space for improvisation within composition, tying together threads of ideas from across her career. As long as there is paradigm, however, there will be process. Make no mistake – Zeena Parkins and her harp haven't reached any conclusion yet.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Zeena Parkins is in Central Florida as part of their ongoing Atlantic Center for the Arts Residency program and she will be playing a one-off show at the Timucua White House on Monday as part of their Master Artists Outreach Program.