Avant Garde brass composer Experimental improvisation percussion Performance Art review sound design tuned percussion

Zeena Parkins – LACE Review

Transforming patterns of lace into patterns of sound

What does Zeena Parkins sound like?

Experimental harpist and electro-acoustic sound designer.

The review of Zeena Parkins – LACE

As high concepts go, Zeena Parkins has been working on one for the last 15 years. ‘LACE’ is a highly experimental voyage into fashion, textiles and their relationship to music. The idea is that by using lace patterns as musical scores, Zeena is able to command an experimental tuned percussion led orchestra to translate fabric patterns into sound. It is fascinating as you can hear the fabric patterns translate into sound waves and then into musical movements. This isn’t an easy, melodic or at times tuneful collection of sounds. It’s something closer to music and movement.

photo of Zeena Parkins
Zeena Parkins – photo by Jeff Preiss

The physical box set of ‘LACE’ comes with black cards with white lace patterns to help guide the listener into Zeena Parkins’ world. The recordings open with a suite called ‘LACE 2’ and these patterns are led by William Winant and his percussive ensemble of one. As he moves from marimba to metal sheet rumbles to glassy rattles to singing bowl feedback, the whole section sounds unhinged and unfolding. For example ‘Wave’ is a wobbling cascade of glockenspiel, triangle and cymbals sliding up and down a scale. It sounds exactly like the lace pattern that curves and crashes down. ‘Falling (Apart)’ is a slinky snigger of rainstick and wind funnels as the thread of lace comes undone. Other tracks like ‘Necklace-Swell-X’ merges three lace patterns together and these are some of the most chaotic and absorbing pieces. I particularly love the way the percussions bend off key and off note, almost like Zeena’s harp bending has taken root in the percussion. The ten tracks here are largely short but make a lasting impression and William sounds like an army of ten people as he plays.

Whilst LACE 2 is glossy, majestic and abstractly sonic, LACE 1 is brash, guttural, throaty and jarring. For these five tracks, Zeena is translating the repetitive nature of stitch patterns into music. The first track is a circular bellow with the second being staccato burps of brass, string and woodwind. The switch towards a brass, cello, synth and a sextet makes LACE 2’s songs far more diverse but also much harder to listen to. None of this album is a casual listen but the semi-improvisational “follow my rules but with feeling” approach makes for difficult listening. There is no tune, only feeling and bursts of noise as the instruments smash over each other aggressively. Only the eerie detuned synths in ‘iii’ really stood out as musical and that was because it sounded like a hammer horror movie.

Coming from someone who had only heard Zeena Parkins through Bjork, this is a leap. Readers of this site know I love a crazy concept and this is certainly one of the most abstract. For me, ‘LACE 2’ really clicked sonically as I could follow the percussive patterns and feelings with the lace cards. ‘LACE 1’ was a step too far for me personally into brash, unabridged raw chaos and I struggled to find a thread to cling onto. As a listener, I must honestly say this is an album of two halves and I only ‘got’ one of them.

For those who truly love the avant garde, the physical box set has lots of extras. There is an interview booklet, poem and the lace scores and playing conditions for both LACE suites. Interestingly, there is also a score for LACE 3 included which is all about Shetland Lace, which contains more intricate lace patterns. The musician in me wants to see what kind of sounds I’d create from what Zeena Parkins score and rules. It reminds me of music jams where you have to create within certain parameters and it is a wonderful slant on creativity within a concept album. Whilst I marvel at Zeena’s ability to translate fabric patterns into sound, this album is not for the faint-hearted. I think listeners who experience synesthesia might get some extra mileage from the visual aspect of the project. Unless you enjoy the more atonal, visceral aspects of sound design, this body of work might not be for you.

Recommended track: Necklace-Swell-X

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Zeena Parkins - LACE



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