Detroit-born Zeena Parkins is best known as a maverick harp player, who has worked with everyone from Björk to Yoko Ono, Courtney Love to John Zorn. This album, however, foregrounds her role as a composer and conceptualist rather than as a musician. It continues something that started as a commission by Merce Cunningham’s dance studio in 2008, when Parkins devised a spartan, visual score to guide improvisers, based on lace patterns, a concept that she has been exploring ever since.
The opening 10 tracks [Lace I] see the percussionist William Winant playing fast and fiddly workouts on the vibraphone, hypnotic pulses on woodblock and cowbell, and atmospheric background noises created by rain sticks, gongs, Chinese drums and timpani. These are pieces based on slowly mutating repetitions, shimmering pulses, and leaps between simplicity and complexity – all things we associate with the repeated patterns and flourishes of lace as a material.
The last five tracks [Lace II] see Parkins conducting an eight-piece ensemble featuring her sister Maggie on cello, James Fei on analogue synths, and the massed horns of the Tilt Brass Sextet. Strident blasts of repeating horns quickly break down into discordant chaos but retain a lopsided pulse; military fanfares are mixed with electronic squalls. There are shifts in tempo and subtle shifts in tonality; there is slowly mutating minimalism played on out-of-tune horns, like Steve Reich played by a clown troupe.
Conceptual compositions like this are often more fun to rhapsodise about than actually listen to, but there are plenty of tracks here – like Wave, Merge-Echo and Lace I.iii – that serve as compelling pieces of stand-alone music.
Also out this month
The violinist and recorder player Laura Cannell is best known for her work in early music and folk, but Echolocation (Brawl Records) sees her collaborating with a host of unlikely people; including a wonderfully dense fug of drone music with Gazelle Twin; some folksy duets with bagpiper Kathryn Tickell; and a shimmering piece of electro-acoustic, vocal-led minimalism with violinist Rakhi Singh. Music Now For Harp (WeWantSounds Records), originally released in 1974, sees Ayako Shinozaki playing avant garde harp solos by contemporary Japanese composers. Best of the lot is the 25-minute Heterodyne by Takehisa Kosugi, which puts the harp through humorous electronic effects to sound like a miniature by Fauré or Debussy mutilated by wah-wah and phaser pedals until it resembles a sitar improvisation. As well as being a visual artist, Kristen Roos is something of a virtual one-man Radiophonic Workshop from Vancouver. His LP Universal Synthesizer Interface Vol II (We Are Busy Bodies) sees analogue synths arpeggiate, burble and glisten, creating shiny, intricate, jewel-like pieces, like rave classics without a hint of drums.