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Zeena Parkins - Between the Whiles

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Artist: Zeena Parkins

Album: Between the Whiles

Label: Table of the Elements

Review date: Jun. 4, 2010

A Zeena Parkins release ushered Table of the Elements into existence in 1993 (Nightmare Alley, Hydrogen), and 17 years and 109 elements later, Between the Whiles brings the two together again. It’s been so long that the element labeled on this disc, Darmstadtium, hadn’t even been synthesized at the time of Nightmare Alley’s release. But what Parkins brought to the table then, she still has in spades. Parkins, let’s be frank, simply owns the electric harp, as the instrument’s most renowned player and stretcher of boundaries. Her solo recordings, including the still electrifying No Way Back (Atavistic, 1998), are only part of her oeuvre. From the start of her career, Parkins has proven an adept collaborator and compatriot, playing with a roster of artists that stretches from Fred Frith to Hole, and most places in between. Here on Between the Whiles, Parkins cozies up with her trusty harp, a bevy of other instruments, and a collection of friends and family for the first disc to bear her name alone in over 10 years.

In Between the Whiles’s liner notes, Parkins is listed as playing 12 instruments, from the harp to paper to the sound processing application Soundhack. Given the diverse array of tools, one can only wonder what the et cetera at the end of the list entails. But even if it’s surrounded by numerous noisemakers and other players, the harp remains the centerpiece of Between the Whiles. Parkins’ signature instrument is the focus around which other instruments swirl, or the source material for augmentation, alteration and abrasion. Even when it’s recoiling from a mournful harmonica melody, like the bits of shrapnel in “Bubble,” the harp is the source of the music’s most intriguing sounds. She’s certainly capable of boisterous brawn, but save for the caustic second half of “Vibratory,” and some acrobatics toward the close of “Wire,” Parkins keeps things restrained over the disc’s hour-long duration. “Glass” uses pitch bending and delay to create a twinkling celestial warp, exemplar of Parkins’ approach on the disc. The weird and wild are used for atmospherics rather than aggression, with the chunky distortion Parkins has used so often and to such great effect largely avoided across the album. The music is often simple in scope, however crowded the stage, even the unpredictable menagerie of “Jumping Juggling” moves in a straight line, held on course by a glittering thread at its core.

Parkins has long been a composer for dance, and the majority of Between the Whiles consists of works originally made to accompany dance pieces by Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh and John Jasperse. This is likely a large part of the reason that the album feels far more about Parkins as a composer than a player, more about the larger musical creation than the uniqueness or impressiveness of Parkins’ chops. Where this falls on the scale between pleasing and disappointing is obviously up for subjective debate, but what should not be contested is the freshness and vitality that Parkins still brings to her work. Were she to play a more conventional instrument, she’d remain a formidable force in experimental music; that Zeena Parkins is still a trailblazer, changing how we hear the harp, is the icing on the cake…and, let’s be honest, sometimes the icing is the best part of the cake, no?

By Adam Strohm

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