Q&A: Zeena Parkins On Being A Dancing Bear, Working With Björk, And Her New Band The Adorables
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 mysteryexquisitely 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 bearsthey 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 thingsendless hours in the studio, rehearsal time, and so onbut 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.