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Moers Festival Interviews: Zeena Parkins

Moers Festival Interviews: Zeena Parkins

Courtesy Jeff Preiss


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The harpist Zeena Parkins is one of the key players on the New York City improvising and composing fronts, and indeed on the global scene generally. Most of her upcoming gigs are happening around Europe, although her 2024 datesheet is relatively sparse compared to her 2025 plans. She probably became known to most folks when playing with John Zorn in the late 1980s and beyond, particularly as part of his "Cobra" performances. Subsequently, she has developed her active solo trajectory, as well as remaining a serial collaborator.

Parkins will play two sets at this year's Moers Festival, the absolute home of musical adventure and unpredictability. The otherwise quite obscure city of Moers lies not so far from Cologne. Parkins will perform solo, and also as a duo with the Japanese koto player Michiyo Yagi. Her solo gig will take place in the Stadtkirche (town church) of Moers, a suitably resonant space for multi-string expressivity. "It's been many, many years since I played there," she says. "At least ten, if not more. I'm super-excited to return." Parkins has previously appeared at Moers with Zorn and Fred Frith, for instance.

"I used to bring my electric harp with me, but I don't get on the plane with that anymore," says the Brooklynite. "It's just difficult. Whoever wants to invite me to play has to also provide an acoustic harp. I'll be playing both of my sets with electroacoustic, so I'll put pick-ups on the harp and do some processing."

Parkins is only coming to Moers, with no other shows booked around Europe. Your scribe was hoping that she would also participate in the various improvising sessions on the festival's Annex stage. "No, I'm not going to be doing that, it's just too difficult with the harp. But I'll be around, listening to concerts."

The solo set will be mostly composed, and its contents very new. Parkins will also use laptop with max patch for real-time synthesis, as well as an array of pedals. "It's a solo project that I started working on at the end of November. I've performed it several times in the last five or six months, and I'm going to continue, and record everything over the summer. I just recently ended my teaching at Mills College in California, because they closed their music department. In honour of my time there, I commissioned three works from my colleagues, Laetitia Sonami, the electronic musician, James Fei and John Bischoff. I also have a new project that's part of my Lace series, that literally uses lace as a score. And I have a project that I started in Berlin ten years ago, which has to do with the impossibility of bending strings on a harp. What emerges from that impossibility. I'm arranging a piece that was part of my Three Harps, that I've scored for solo harp."

This promises to be a highly varied set, and when it is all recorded, an equally varied album will appear on the prolifically excellent NYC label Relative Pitch. Parkins has only played a handful of gigs with this new repertoire, in Zurich, Vermont and California. "That's a really great way of understanding what the material is, by performing it, keeping working on it. That's the stage where I'm at."

The second Moers set will pair Parkins with Michiyo Yagi. "We haven't talked about it," says Parkins. "We're going to come in with whatever our arsenal is, and play together." The harpist also plays with Miya Masaoka, another koto specialist, so she is certainly familiar with that sonic landscape. They have a trio with pianist Myra Melford, called MZM.

Has Parkins contemplated using other multi-string instruments, from other families? "I have my hands full," she decides. "I play a different bunch of harps, and I also use keyboards, electronics, synthesisers, organs and ondes Martenot, plus a little accordion."

The year ahead promises other manifestations of the Parkins prowess. She will team up with pianist Magda Mayas in Willisau, Switzerland, and also release an album with laptopper Ikue Mori's Phantom Orchard, with appearances coming up in Hamburg and at Le Guess Who festival in the Netherlands.



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