Not Your Angel's Harp

Parkins embraced electric caterwaul at Bread & Salt

New-music champion Bonnie Wright’s adventurous concert series Fresh Sound at Bread & Salt may have reached a zenith with the Feb. 21 solo harp performance of Zeena Parkins, who delivered a blistering set of no-holds-barred improvisation -- heavy on the extremes but decidedly light on any preconceived notions of what a harpist might do.

In fact, Parkins opened the show with the help of her soundman (Sam Doshier), who played musical glasses. In tandem with discrete, computerized electronics, the two rubbed the edges of five wine glasses that were filled with varying amounts of water and created a fog of dreamy, choirlike washes that droned into the rafters. The ethereal wafting harmonies were not a portent of what was to come.

Playing a custom-made electric instrument heavily amplified and plugged into about 20 or so floor-pedal-effects, Parkins began using a guitar pick with her right hand while her left jerked violently around the instrument, stopping various strings at nodal points and using both hands to rake atonal shapes that sounded like Derek Bailey mauling a mandolin.

Parkins’ harp even has a guitar vibrato arm attached to the lower strings, and at one point she made a single one of those lower strings a focus of study. Linking multiple pedal effects in series, Parkins leaned on the whammy bar to make barking, howling sounds that roared like a leviathan being water-boarded. She would choke an arpeggio while rocking her foot on a pitch-shifting pedal with the frenetic motion of a flea-scratching dog, producing weird siren effects that yielded to abrasive scrapes via the insertion of metal bolts rubbed against the strings.

My favorite moment, however, came when Parkins’ cranked up the distortion, picked up a household scrub brush and proceeded to scuff the entire instrument with a malevolence that was belied, somewhat, by the innocent-looking smile she sported.

It wasn’t all caterwaul, though.

Another highlight came when she created a fulsome loop of hovering pulsations, then wandered about the cavernous factory space of the venue, playing dulcet tones on a melodica, melding in and out of the phasing electronica coming from the speakers with a real-time demonstration of acoustic phasing.

Although Ms. Parkins pulled no punches and took no prisoners, I loved the audacity and total commitment to her fierce, almost punk-rock aesthetic, which blurred the boundaries and expectations of where the lines between music, sound and noise are drawn.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

Contact Us