Zeena Parkins was born in 1956 in Detroit, Michigan. As a multi-instrumentalist, composer and performer, she explores the boundary zones between the conscious and the unconscious. She prefers to explore performative terrain that oscillates between disciplined control and trusting release, during the process of which she attempts to transform “commonplaces like technique, form and notes on paper” and to break through “into another realm of attentiveness and intensity”. For her, “immediacy, extreme concentration as well as the readiness and the desire to abandon oneself”, which she characterizes as “presence in absence” and as a “trance state with the lights on”, have decisive importance. Parkins unites the powers of an extraordinary performer and improviser with those of the visionary composer who often works in a combination of media; all in all, she embodies a broad palette of musical forms of expression, from free improvisation to contemporary composition and Noise to avant-garde pop, as well as music for film and dance.
After studying the arts at the University of Michigan and at Bard College (dance, piano and harp), her early career was primarily dedicated to Improvisation. As the accordionist for a theatre group she began touring Europe, where between 1981 and 83 she met Chris Cutler, Dagmar Krause and Phil Minton, as well as Lindsay Cooper and other members of the Feminist Improvising Group, which inspired her. In 1984 Parkins moved to New York, where she became involved in intensive collaborations with a number of musicians from the influential Downtown scene, which at the time was tearing down any and all boundaries between improvisation, new music, rock and jazz. At that time Parkins also developed her electric harp, for which she has become famous, and which she characterizes as a “sound machine with unlimited possibilities”. Her pioneering approach to the harp, which previously was treated somewhat conservatively, encompasses extended playing techniques, preparations, and electroacoustic applications, as well as modelling the sound of the harp with effects devices.
In New York Parkins played in John Zorn’s game piece ensemble Cobra and took part in Butch Morris’s conductions; Tom Cora and Fred Frith brought her into their Skeleton Crew; she released her first records with Ikue Mori, Christian Marclay, Tom Cora and Wayne Horvitz, founded a duo with Elliot Sharp, and improvised with Peter Kowald. In addition, she participated in various projects with Anthony Braxton, Eugene Chadbourne, Nicolas Collins, Shelley Hirsch, Arto Lindsay, David Linton, David Moss, Yoko Ono, Bobby Previte, Ned Rothenberg, members of the band Sonic Youth, Tenko, David Weinstein, William Winant, and others. Her current ensembles include the Gangster Band, sawsunhere (with her sisters Maggie and Sara), Phantom Orchard (with Ikue Mori), the Phantom Orchard Orchestra as well as Zeena and the Adorables. Since 2000 she has engaged in a close musical collaboration with Björk, playing a major role as the harpist on the latter’s albums “Vespertine” and “Biophilia”.
In 1987 Parkins created music for dance for the first time – and has since composed for circa fifty productions, chiefly with New York choreographers including Jennifer Monson, Jennifer Lacey and Neil Greenberg. The first of her to date twenty works for film was composed in 1988. Since 1993 she has been writing for a variety of chamber music configurations that have been commissioned by the Whitney Museum, Bang on a Can, Roulette Intermedium, the Ne(x)tworks Ensemble, the Eclipse Quartet, and others.
As of February 2015