THREE HARPS, TUNING FORKS & ELECtronics
Music is a matter of bodies in motion. Composed in the midst of dance, Zeena Parkins’ “Three Harps, Tuning Forks and Electronics” demonstrates the material continuity of music and sound as traces of physical movement: fingers exciting resonant strings, hammers striking metal, voltages travelling the electrical pathways of circuits. Contact builds relationships across and between bodies, and the work’s six movements register the flow of energies across the hand-string interface and the software-controller interface as a musical manifold, with the pressure of resonant fork upon resounding wooden chamber further expanding as a material source becomes processed into an unrecognizable shadow of itself. Whether acoustic or electronic, these sounds are all traces of touch. But they are also traces of thoughtful, open dialogue at the intersection of music and dance.
“Three Harps, Tuning Forks and Electronics” was first constructed in 2008 as the musical score for choreographer Neil Greenberg’s “Really Queer Dance With Harps.” Breaking with the traditional presentation of dancers as visual focus and musicians as acousmatic accompaniment, heard-but-not-seen on the sidelines, Greenberg placed Zeena’s trio of harpists at the center of the stage. Queering the division of labor between dancer and musician, Greenberg’s staging decision makes each component ever more intimately responsive to the other, activating the dance-potential of musical gesture and prompting the audience to listen for the musicality of limbs in motion. Queerness might name the synaesthetic consequence of such a move: look with your ears, listen with your eyes. Weeks of research, development and experimentation on site in the open space of the dance studio- a time and space that Parkins terms “a total luxury”--birthed a range of gestures, phrases and sounds that became the basis for the first performances of “Really Queer Dance with Harps”, which debuted at Dance Theater Workshop in New York and traveled to Redcat in Los Angeles.
Having worked with the dance community in New York since her arrival there in 1985, Parkins is intimately familiar with the collaborative process between composer and choreographer. The recipient of three Bessie Awards for her scoring, her collaborations with DD Dorvillier, John Jasperse, Jennifer Lacey, Neil Greenberg and Jennifer Monson have been notably responsive to the embodied specificity of dance practice, often deploying unusual sound sources and multi-speaker arrays in order to diffuse sound across the space of performance. Such insistence upon the site-specific maximizes the possibilities for the encounter with the audience, but they can also trap the score in its context, freezing it in a you-had-to-be-there disappearing act which Peggy Phelan has defined as the essential condition of performance as such. Which is why Parkins’ re-working of the score to “Really Queer Dance with Harps” into its current form as “Three Harps, Tuning Forks and Electronics” over the past three years crucially lifts and translates this work, rendering it both portable and powerful. Reconsidered in the wake of the dance, the stereo placement becomes itself a trace of the spatialized moment of performance. Pushing beyond its original contours, Parkins has re-composed her work for new listening conditions. The result is a response to its context that remains, for all that, free-standing.
The work in its present state offers an exploded view of the harp’s sonic possibilities. We hear strums, strikes, knocks, rustles, caresses, and the construction of a wide range of material assemblages in which the harp makes contact with objects that modulate and excite its surfaces. As Parkins describes this dynamic, the first movement (“Muted”) threads ribbons through the strings for a muted sound; the second movement (“Determined”) uses plastic basters and ebows, while the third movement (“Mouse”) uses hard yarn and wooden mallets on the low wire strings. These objects are activated with a widened repertoire of gestures and movements: scrapes and hits explore the zone between harp as instrument and harp as wooden and metallic object, while tremolo rolls generate an array of overtones. When a large metal bolt is placed between the strings and then pulled downwards to create a diving bend in pitch, Parkins violently de-familiarizes an instrument still all too often constrained by its sacred associations with psalms and divine praise.
Extended technique is thus a component of the work, but it’s not a fetish that reifies the uniqueness of one performer. On the contrary, Parkins welcomes the interpersonal expansion that comes from players other than herself (on this recording, the principal harpist is Nuiko Wadden, and, in addition to Parkins herself, Kristen Theriault and Megan Conley also appear). Though she concedes that the work could have been played entirely by her through multi-tracking, Parkins insists that:
“I wanted the ensemble interaction and I wanted different personalities negotiating the score. I was very curious about how all of my extended techniques would be realized by other players Now many classically trained harpists are open to a more expanded vision of what is possible on the instrument and are using objects and processing that extend the language and palette of the harp, so it’s not as unusual, odd or radical as it may have been 20 years ago, but in sharing my personal language and my ‘tools,’ it creates an opportunity for a kind of translation to occur, and so much unexpected information emerges from translations.”
That process of translation is also effected by the work itself as its titular list of harps, forks and electronics announces the narrative progression of the sequence as a whole: we move from a trio of harps on “Muted” to the sounding of the forks at the end of “Determined” to the entry of electronic processing in “Mouse”, giving the work as a whole a ziggurat-like additive structure of gradual expansion and accumulation. In Parkins’ hands, the harp is both multiplied (from one harp to two to three) and translated (from harp as instrument to harp as object to harp as source for an electronic signal chain of digital sound processing). By the end of “Tuning Forks” we have passed from a moment of powerfully simple acoustic immediacy- the striking of a tuning fork- to the outer reaches of musique-concrétedistortions and transformations of sound, courtesy of the electronics of Ikue Mori, Parkins’ partner in the celebrated electroacoustic duo Phantom Orchard. But this very passage into the impossible spaces of backwards-reverbs and flipped and layered processing is in turn countered by the breathless forward gallop of “Drumming.” As hard-panned cascades of fast thrums invoke both Reichian minimalist phasing and the athletic duende of flamenco, hand percussion on the bodies of the harps brings us back to the immanent heat and friction of performance. It’s a beautiful example of Parkins’ overall compositional dialectic. Commencing in fingers on strings and ending in a shuddering wisp of distortion, “Coda” recapitulates the arc of multiplication and translation that defines the work as a whole.
Insisting upon the co-creative intimacy of these sibling forms, Ezra Pound said that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance”. Attuned to the vitality and pressure of bodies in motion, Zeena Parkins’ “Three Harps, Tuning Forks and Electronics” draws its own queer kinetic power from decades of experience, collaboration, and thought along the margins of these disciplines. Thinking its way past tradition and unfolding beyond its initial performance, this is music that coils itself and leaps- resoundingly- forward into the present moment.
- DREW DANIEL (from Matmos)