Phantom Orchard is Zeena Parkins (acoustic and electric harps) and Ikue Mori (laptop computer). In August 2002, I drove from Los Angeles to Calgary, Canada, to film them recording their first record in the home studio of the fascinating David Kean, founder of The Audities Foundation, an organization committed to the preservation of rare electronic instruments. http://www.audities.org/
Zeena Parkins, a multi-instrumentalist known as the inventor and performer of electric harp, had recently returned from an international tour with Bjork, who had recruited Zeena as her harpist and multi-instrumentalist for the "Vespertine" album and tour. Parkins is a composer and improvisor who has collaborated with John Zorn, Sonic Youth, Yoko Ono, Jim O' Rourke, Nels Cline, and Kaffe Matthews, amongst many others. Among her many compositions is a piece for 16 feet and a cello; and MOUTH=MAUL=BETRAYER, a piece based around Rotwelsch, a Yiddish-based gangster language used by thieves in Germany from the 14th century to the 19th century as a code utilizing altered meanings of familiar Yiddish words for use in the subterranean world.
Ikue Mori is known to many as the drummer of No-Wave band DNA, who later rooted her work in laptop computers as her primary instrument for live improvisation. Her compositions include "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon," a piece based on the woodblock prints of the last master of Japanese Ukiyoe, Yoshitoshi, and a film which animates paintings from the Kertha Gosa temple ceiling in Bali, to depict the journey of the soul from hell to heaven, partially scored using her laptop electronics.
Phantom Orchard: An Interview With Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori.
Footage of Phantom Orchard in the studio making their first record. Shot and edited by Steve Elkins in Calgary, Canada. August 2002.
PARKINS: I was a classical pianist, but I was really aching to figure out ways to do something different with music. At a certain point, I realized that I had to stop playing the instrument I was trained in if I wanted to undo what I had been indoctrinated with. I began performing as a dancing bear in a circus, where I also played the accordion. That opened up a new kind of flexibility in my relationship to music.
Then I moved to New York. I began playing with this world of musicians who had a very fearless approach to their instrument. People who would think along the lines of, "Oh look, there's a knife sitting there, I'm going to use it on my guitar and make it sound incredible, like a gamelan; or, "There's a credit card, I going to weave it through my strings. I remember Polly Bradfield once took a toothbrush and played her violin with it. Little moments like that can be very powerful.
I remember my first gig in New York was in this basement space that John Zorn curated. Maybe ten people could fit in there. I brought my first harp, this little Troubador acoustic harp, which you could just throw in a taxi cab, if you rolled down one of the windows. I remember often times when I first started, I would go down Canal Street and go to the rubber store and buy all these wacky things that I could prepare my harp with.
I was really attracted to playing my harp with loud instruments, like drums and electric guitars. So here's this woman playing this angelic instrument, and no one can hear what she's doing unless the other instruments stop playing. I had found this was an endemic problem for the harp as an instrument, in most settings, and at one point I went so far as to explore that problem by reconstructing a well-known Debussy piece.
I did a reconstruction of Debussy's La Mer, which was not only a reorchestration, but also involved blowing up the original score and using improvisation as the glue to put the pieces back together again. My initial idea came from listening to the harp parts of La Mer with the score in front of me. I thought, 'These are amazing harp parts, but you never hear them unless the orchestra clears out. Wouldn't it be interesting if I took the harp parts and put them in front, then base the whole piece around those harp parts.' So I used two acoustic harps, my electric harp, turntables, drum machines, and orchestral instruments from the original score, like trombone. I then restructured the original score to reflect biographical elements of Debussy's actual life, and his life as a composer.
ELKINS: Has it been recorded?
PARKINS: Unfortunately, no.
So when I found myself in this same situation performing harp with rock instruments, the first thing I did was find some ways to amplify the acoustic harp. I had these strips that you just stick onto the sounding board, and then you plug them into an amplifier, or stomp boxes. That boosted the sound a bit, but it would soon turn into feedback if it was too loud. The main problem was that I lost a lot of the body and richness of the acoustic harp sound.
I do have a part of me that really enjoys the sensation of very high volume, and that is a part of my palate as a musician. It's a very thrilling way of exciting the senses in a particular way. But the strips made the harp sound tinny, not beautifully resonant, and I wanted to have a lot of options in terms of sound possibilities. I didn't want to bulldoze the people I play with, I wanted to be in the moment with them, and respond and communicate with them.
It was around that time that I joined Skeleton Crew, the band with Tom Cora and Fred Frith. We all thought it would be great to somehow find a way to get the harp into the mix, but this was kind of a rock band, and bringing that big acoustic harp really wasn't going to work on tour. So Tom, and a friend of his, built a prototype for an electric harp. The first one was really primitive. It was literally a triangle made from two by fours, and we figured out a way to attach it right on my keyboard. The tuning parts and the pickups were all things we found in used parts stores.
About a year after that, we went to Ken Parker, who builds guitars and pickups, and asked him, "How would you like to make a better version of this electric harp?" He came up with the version that's close to the version I use now. Each time I played it, I realized new things that could be done with it, so I kept upgrading it. The trajectory of the electric harp's development was a long process of trial by error.
I'm getting ready to build two new harps. One will be a midi-harp made out of plexiglass.
ELKINS: You've just come back from a tour of opera houses with Bjork, but the music you are typically associated with tends to require small, intimate spaces for the music to translate effectively to the audience. I'm curious if you have developed a preference between performing at big venues versus small venues associated with the musical underground?
PARKINS: Doing more "outside" music, you become used to building up fans painfully one by one, without the machine of the music industry behind you. It was very interesting to me to experience working within the machine, and with someone that I really respect. It's a very different experience to feel the wave of love and energy from 6,000 people at once. But there is a machine that helps create this situation. As a musician, I'm not sure that actually has a greater impact on me than being in a room with five audience members. Those moments have a power that can change you permanently, depending on what kind of communication is taking place between the few people in that room.
I always felt that the musicians and music I am more typically involved with, have been marginalized to a point that is unnecessary, and that if we had the resources to get our music out to a wider audience, there would be a wider audience. Unfortunately, most of us don't have the resources to allow that to happen. And by resources, I mean money.
ELKINS: It seems that you've played not only with the extending the possibilities of your instrument, but with the possibilities of composition as well.
PARKINS: I put together an ensemble, called Gangster Band, which I used to explore a number of musical ideas. One was a piece based around Rotwelsch, which is a Yiddish-based gangster language used in Germany from the 14th century to the 19th century. It was a secret code used by thieves, which altered the meanings of familiar Yiddish words for use in the subterranean world. One of my sources was a forced police coercion of a professional forger who worked with the Rotwelsch-speaking thugs. He was caught by police and put in jail.
I think that interest in the connection between visible and concealed worlds was explored in a very different way through a later Gangster Band piece, "Pan-Acousticon," which was inspired by Bill McCagg, an Eastern European scholar who was unusually adept at learning languages, but suffered from increasing deafness. So that piece was more of an exploration into the inner life of one man's passage between the audible world and the echoes of that world which he could only hear inside himself.
My first piece for Gangster Band was a musical exploration of the life of the European nomad Isabelle Eberhardt. Here again, I imagined, through music, her dual exploration of the outer world of the Algerian desert, and the silent world she experienced dressed as a man in order to have the freedom to travel in Arab society that she may not have had otherwise, after her conversion to Islam.
I explored very different ideas in a bubble wrap score called "Money Shot." The idea was to make a piece that did not involve any instruments I was known to play. I used a tone generator, and built up my palate from a lot of different kinds of plastics, leather, styrofoam, glass, and body parts. It was definitely rooted in musique concrete, but when you just hear it, without knowing what is making the sounds, it's amazing how much it sounds like electronic music.
ELKINS: Music took so many radically different turns in the 20th century. Ikue, having rooted your work in cutting edge technology and musicians who are pioneering new musical directions, how do you see music history changing now?
MORI: There are less borders in music now. Genre is losing the meaning it once had. I don't know where that will take music, but it will be interesting to watch what happens. Also, more and more people are picking up the laptop as their first instrument. It will be interesting to see how people make a machine like a laptop personal.
[Pictured left to right in photo above: Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori, Steve Elkins, Jessica Tjalsma.]
Click the box on the left to hear additional audio, recorded between takes of filming.
Capturing our conversation alongside sounds of Zeena and Ikue preparing their instruments, this audio clip occupies a rather magic space between "real life" and "performed music," while not really being either.
Zeena Parkins: harp
Ikue Mori: laptop computer
Voices: Zeena, Ikue, David Kean, and Steve Elkins