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Words (and Sounds) with Zeena Parkins

Playing a “sound machine of limitless capacity,” New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Zeena Parkins is a pioneer of contemporary harp practice and performance. Over the last two years she’s been collaborating with the BodyCartography Project on Super Nature, which world premieres at the Walker this week, as well as the precursory work Mammal. Accomplished and […]


Playing a “sound machine of limitless capacity,” New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Zeena Parkins is a pioneer of contemporary harp practice and performance. Over the last two years she’s been collaborating with the BodyCartography Project on Super Nature, which world premieres at the Walker this week, as well as the precursory work Mammal. Accomplished and in demand, Parkins has worked and performed with Jim O’Rourke, Thurston Moore, Björk, Yoko Ono, and John Zorn, and she was the inaugural artist for the Walker’s gallery-based music series Sound Horizon (January 2010). In welcoming her back to the Walker, we invited her to give us the scoop on the nature of her collaboration with BodyCartography and to take part in our 8-Ball series, in which artists answer some of life’s most (and possibly least) pressing issues. She agreed, upping the ante: she’s sharing audio of one of the pieces that’ll be included in this weekend’s performances of Super Nature.

Tell us a little bit about your compositions for Super Nature.

I’ve created a sonic ecosystem made from several categories of sounds:

1. Instruments: harps and synthesizers.

2. Bodies: the sound of the dancers moving, grunting, breathing, working, panting, leaping.

3. Choreographed actions or tasks in nature: walking down a steep hill, running along a pond, patting the floor of a pine grove.

4. Field recordings that have been reconstructed, re-orchestrated and dramatized.

5. There will be four live foley artists whose actions act as a link between the recordings and the live movement.

What has been surprising about this collaboration?

The beauty is coming up with something that you absolutely didn’t expect– one starts with a plan and then through the working process, the plan morphs and becomes something that could not have been predicted.

We hear you’re playing with guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco) next month (he’ll be here with his Dirty Baby project in November as well). What’s the gig?

Very excited about this!! We are playing a duo at the Sleepwalk Guitar Festival in Toronto. Yes, I know, I don’t play guitar and never want to, but perhaps they made an exception for me.

Here’s audio of a Parkins’ score for Super Nature:

8-BALL: ZEENA PARKINS

If you could have any job/career, what would you choose?
I would be a landscape architect and design mazes and gardens.

Who is your favorite villain of fiction? Of non-fiction?
Undine Spragg, the protagonist from The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. She is bad, bad, bad!!!

If you could throw a dinner party for anyone in the world, who would you invite?
Of course this could be an endless list, but would be fun to include: Agnes Varda, Sonia Delhaunay, Tony Judt, Iannis Xenakis, and Sarah Silverman.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
Would love to be a Piezo pickup.

What three items can always be found in your refrigerator?
Brown rice, miso, ice cream, and rose from Bandol when I am lucky.

What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?
Frank Lloyd Wright, Sun Ra and Thelonious Monk.

What have you been reading lately?
Currently reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte.

What is your favorite inanimate object?
I have a very special relationship and fondness for inanimate objects. I recently wrote a piece, Spellbeamed, in which all the musicians had to collect favorite objects for over a month. Nearly 600 objects were collected, photographed, and catalogued for an archive which became part of the score for the piece. So, I have many favorite inanimate objects. Presently I am quite fond of a small cardboard box from the ’60s that used to hold paper clips but is now wrapped in wire. It is a thing of beauty.