Zeena Parkins: Interlacing

(Photo credit: Claire Paul)

It’s tempting to draw a connection between ancient meanings and modern practice. In the case of LACE, an ongoing project from harpist Zeena Parkins, such connections become more tangible than any etymology ever could be. The word “lace” is derived from the Latin laqueum, meaning “a noose, a snare,” but any negative connotations of such parlance turn to a cloud of dust that Parkins draws, particle by particle, into light. LACE began with an invitation in 2008 from the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio as part of its “Music Mondays” series. “There was an impending deadline,” she recalls, “and most of my compositions at the time would have taken months to learn. I had collected fabrics over the years and I just grabbed some graphic-looking pieces of lace and made conditions for improvisers to read each piece as a score. It worked.”

Since then, she has created an action card-based game piece, recently recorded by percussionist William Winant, a project for her band Green Dome—with Ryan Sawyer (percussion) and Ryan Ross Smith (piano and electronics)—based on transforming the lace knitting patterns from the Shetland Islands into scores and a fourth movement, entitled “Stitchomythia,” performed on an anamorphic carpet designed by Nadia Lauro. If anything, Parkins does not tie snares but unravels them in hopes they might reach the soil of the ear and grow without forsaking their precise comfort.

Such impulses have been a running thread of her ethos since 1993’s Nightmare Alley. Across the terrain of that formative album, a near-catharsis unfolds, as if the very zeitgeist from which it arose were crying in search of change. Parkins cites it as an important turning point in her career. “I felt a need to do a solo record, lay my gauntlet down and take a place. It’s not like I had a manifesto, but I was really at the beginning of a process of determination to do something that I hadn’t heard exactly the way I was doing it. My mission was to do something with the harp that was unfamiliar to me.” To be sure, it was just as unfamiliar to the audience who came to hear her play at New Langton Arts, curated by visual artist Nayland Blake in San Francisco in the summer of 1991. “I hadn’t done that many solo shows and they didn’t have an acoustic harp available, so I played with my electric harp. The gallery had rake seating fanning out from the center—and it was packed. I was in a state of shock. Inspired and excited, I just improvised. That’s when Table of the Elements approached me and asked if I would be the first artist on the label. It was a special way to start.”

Besides introducing listeners to a voice that needed hearing, Nightmare Alley revealed the harp’s multifaceted potential. Though the credits list “electric and acoustic harps” as its material resources, the album was a revelation of immaterial forces that betrayed next to nothing of their origins: “I’m very connected to the harp,” notes Parkins, “but not in a way meant to convey technical virtuosity.” Trained in the rigors of classical piano yet aware that it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow, she encountered the harp while attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “They took pity on us pianists for being isolated in our practice rooms, so they assigned us orchestral instruments to get us out there performing. The school had many orchestras and I was willing to give it a try. Walking into a back room without windows and seeing eight concert harps was the most unexpected situation I could ever have imagined myself in. I totally fell in love with the instrument; it made total sense to me physically. When I realized that I was really going to seriously be involved with harp, I trained privately knowing I wasn’t ever going to play it live in a classical setting.” Out of that training emerged a musician who understood the corporeal math needed to bring forth a sound that translated her inner equations into a language that we on the outside could understand.

It wasn’t long before her interest in developing that language opened a portal into the harp’s very soul, pulling from that formless void a second heartbeat in electric form. The earliest version of her electric harp was built by late cellist and Skeleton Crew bandmate Tom Cora and visual artist Julian Jackson in 1985. The following year, it was remade by luthier Ken Parker as a freestanding instrument allowing her to play standing up. Next, sound artist and clandestine instrument builder Douglas Henderson added, among other things, new pickup placements and an ebony strip along the whammy bar side, which Parkins praises for a certain physicality, noting that it “profoundly changed the instrument, creating a fingerboard-like environment for me to develop different kinds of playing techniques.”

At the same time, there is a deeply metaphysical aspect to her work that has continued to evolve from one setting to the next. For Parkins, however, it’s less of a dichotomy than a spectrum: “The physical can become metaphysical because gesture and materiality are so important. It’s about presence, which is very much a part of how I am as a performer. Not just the body, but also one’s intention and absence of intention, desire, expectations, failures—all these things help.” A case in point is her latest album, Glass Triangle (released in February 2021 on Relative Pitch Records), for which she joins Mette Rasmussen (alto saxophone) and, again, Sawyer. Despite having played together only once at The Stone Series at Happylucky no.1 in Brooklyn, the trio made the studio its crucible. What ensued in the freely improvised session was reverse alchemy—not turning lead into gold but breaking down the latter into its constituent parts, each no longer precious alone yet all the more authentic for having been liberated. Thus, what begins as a fragmentary coalition gathers around the campfire of an intimately connected excursion. Sounding at times like an electric guitar, at others like a voice dying in its attempts to communicate from behind the wall of noise erected by recent politics, the harp hoists a protest sign for a generation woefully uncertain of the future, as if some gargantuan lie were morphing into truth. In this space, magic is outed as a restless muse that would sooner destroy its adherents than enable a miracle. Between dips into sustained beauty, one encounters the profundity of “The crystal chain letters,” a track that references Bruno Taut, whose legendary correspondences with kindred architects imagined a future in which urban planning welcomed rather than dictated human behavior. The letters were also, more importantly, a honeycomb around World War I, the traumatic effects of which begged not for utopia but for an ability to use the rubble of the past as material for mosaics of the future. This sensibility is broken and rubbed into the skin of Glass Triangle as if it were a necessary armor for the road ahead.

In light of this historical awareness, Parkins reflects on her beginnings as an artist as follows. “I was myopic then in thinking about the future, just living in the moment. Growing up with an immigrant father and a first-generation mother, I was encouraged to be practical, to be good in school, to do music on the side but focus on a career. But I just wanted to be in the world of music, to be surrounded by a community of musicians, to hear things I’d never heard before. I wanted every experience.” Under the current circumstances, one would be remiss to ignore this motivation. The need for community seems to have grown in proportion to the world’s tendency to fall down the rabbit hole of isolation. Such concerns were already on Parkins’ mind before the pandemic, when questions of safety and practicality prevented her from touring with the electric harp. The mindset of quarantine rekindled her relationship with the instrument. With the help of her partner, filmmaker Jeff Preiss, she began shooting solo performances as a means of reaching out. As she sees it: “You put a recorder up and instantly it’s more than just you in the room.”

Seeking other channels through which to foster a sense of community, including a virtual book group, has allowed connections that might not normally have crystallized to take root and flourish: “This situation we’ve been enduring is like a combination of patience and faith, but also the understanding that there need to be points of correction, a sense of urgency for transformation. It gives us a new way to look at our world with brutality and honesty, knowing that we are faced with a different kind of time.” What a sonic blessing, then, that we can wield the lanterns of her creations to show the way. As justice shines like a constellation above a horizon that only seems to recede the more we approach it, we need all the light we can get.

(This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

zakir-ji
(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Interview with Yours Truly

Rachel Cordasco of the website Speculative Fiction in Translation, interviewed me about my translation of Japanese author Yusaku Kitano’s science fiction masterpiece, Mr. Turtle. Click the cover below to read!

Turtle Cover

Matt Borghi & Michael Teager: Illuminating through Shadow

While feeding your eyes, why not feed your ears:

Guitarist Matt Borghi and saxophonist Michael Teager turn gasses into solids. Their process, however, goes beyond chemistry and physics, drawing as they do from a less definable well that some might call inspiration, others spirit, and still others ether. Separately, they have broadened their cartographies across continents. As a duo, they form their own by tender volcanism.

I spoke via e-mail with the musicians, both of whom were grateful in sharing their time and wisdom to illuminate the drift they have manifested. When I asked them to describe their relationship, Borghi likened it to a “combined meditation,” by which two become one through their non-traditional overlap. Teager, for his part, sees what they’re doing as a “contemplative improvised music,” forged not through a simple meeting of instruments but a more rhizomatic, orchestral sensibility.

While on paper their credits imply rock or jazz lineages, with respect to their instruments Borghi and Teager rest in a world apart. Despite a self-professed love/hate relationship with the guitar, Borghi manages to distill magic from its strings through an array of digital effects, but also, more importantly, an unrestricted approach. “That’s why I like improvisation so much,” he says. “It’s a constant exploration. Sometimes you find gold, sometimes you don’t, but each time you start there’s the possibility of hitting something that’s musically profound.” Teager, having more experience as an improviser, has overcome the challenge of owning his reeds, saying, “As a saxophonist in a stylistic continuum, I’m on my own island when it comes to our music. The name I get most often is Jan Garbarek, and while I do like Garbarek’s playing (particularly with Keith Jarrett), I don’t have a deep knowledge of his catalogue. (He’s my ECM blind spot, partially intentionally.) I try not to listen to other ‘ambient’ saxophonists too much. There are so few of us, and the last thing I want is to subconsciously encroach on another’s territory.”

If anything may be compared, it’s Teager’s likeminded patience for notecraft. To be sure, he has found a beautiful comfort in Borghi’s elastic netting, one in which he more often reacts than dictates in a real-time space that privileges atmospheric over egotistic expression. It’s a dynamic evinced in the 2013 album Convocation. Though an unscripted narrative, it develops from the title reverie to a slow-motion ballad (“Discern Descent”) with inchoate coherence. “Nebula Divide,” on the other hand, operates on a more cosmic scale, changing from monochrome to color and back again along an epic flight path. Such titles, among them also “Constant Apex,” help visualize the music’s ethos in all its asymptotic blush.

Convocation

For me, the most evocative drop takes shape in “Precipice.” Borghi wrenches an organic pulse from his guitar, like a light signaling a lone wayfarer from far off, while Teager echoes its promise of shelter in a darkening sky. I can’t help, if from the title alone, be reminded of a performance I once experienced of Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, who barely moved a few inches from a wall over the course of an hour, as if standing on a cliff in contemplation of suicide. Though not so morbid, here the feeling is one of suspension, embraced by the grandeur of creation.

If my association suggests anything, it’s that these sounds welcome any interpretations listeners might bring to the table. The same is reflected in the artists of influence lurking in the background. Just as Borghi cites Claude Debussy, Pink Floyd, and Harold Budd as vital touchpoints in his growth, Teager’s range from Dave Liebman and Charles Lloyd to Richard Wagner and Smashing Pumpkins. And while you may not necessarily detect any of these on the surface, an emotional affinity lances them all.

So it is with 2014’s Shades of Bending Light, wherein mixtures born of experimentation yield integral new structures. “Joyce’s Fanfare” begins at dawn, flowing with the tide between binary chords, while Teager builds his wingspan one feather at a time. A similar approach—spreading the seeds and listening to them grow—blossoms through all that follows.

Shades of Bending Light

Whether in the desolation of “Daisy Chain” or the rhythmic fantasy of “Weird Minor,” or even the farewell energy of “Blue Sky Fades,” an environmental residue stays behind to remind us of what transpired. The album is, further, an enmeshment of contradictions. Teager lights up layers of gray and mist in “Watch Over” with virtuosic runs, even as Borghi tempers his searching with diffuse endpoints. And in “Nightdrive,” which feels like an orphaned folktale hitchhiking along a runway of solitude, one may feel a bodily connection taking place. Even the album’s title track, which despite being its longest feels like its most ephemeral, is as intimate as it is boundless.

The merging of these polar forces hints at their ultimate unity, as made even clearer in 2014’s Awaken the Electric Air. Played as a late-night (4-5am) radio broadcast for WXPN in Philadelphia, it references some Convocation material with lucidity and openness of heart. Ever the transient traveler, Teager’s saxophone pulls the very horizon like a blanket before slumber, his modal sopranism in “Bed of Ash / Coda” being especially moving.

Awaken the Electric Air

The album’s live setting gives the now-familiar motif of “Nebula Divide” (paired with “Somnolence”) and, like the title track, feels sacred by sheer virtue of audibility. Lit by heightened awareness, the paths before listeners remain visible even when the final torch is extinguished, as its smoke continues to guide us by the wrists into dimensions beyond.