Globalism is nothing new for Zeena Parkins. She routinely zigzags between New York, where she has lived since 1985, and various concert dates in Europe and behind what used to be the Iron Curtain. Years before Mikhail Gorbachev was implored to tear down the Berlin Wall, American avantgardists were burrowing underneath it. Two decades on, Ms. Parkins — a one-of-a-kind musician who composes and improvises on electric harp — may play an electronic music festival in Moscow one night, come back home, then fly back for a gig in Lithuania.
“I have my bag of toys that literally expands or contracts depending on how far I’m going,” Ms. Parkins, who also employs various keyboards, samplers, acoustic harps, and a Foley setup in her performances, said. Getting through JFK airport can sometimes be a challenge, but nothing in her travels prepared her for her biggest and most recent move: across the East River from downtown Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“I got kicked out,” she said recently, sitting at a 1950s modern dining table in a nook of her new apartment, with a sunny view of a garden and the waterfront a few blocks away. A Brooklynite for all of two days when we spoke, Ms. Parkins was catching her breath before another long trip. “I don’t even know where the coffee shop is where I’m supposed to meet someone later.”
If Ms. Parkins feels a bit symbolic — part of an artistic diaspora that has accompanied the real estate boom in lower Manhattan — at least she is accustomed to thinking fast on her feet. It’s a major part of her process. She has become to the harp, an instrument that suffers from an antiquated image, what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar: She plays it in ways no one has ever thought to, and extracts sounds — often manipulated in mid-strum — that have never been imagined.
Whether her soundscapes evoke pyrotechnic frenzies or cast lyrically hypnogogic spells, Ms. Parkins compels attention with the swirling ease of her hands at play. She often collaborates with choreographers; presently, she’s working on a piece with John Jasperse that will make its premiere this fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festival. It’s a natural fit: She can make the most immobile of orchestral instruments seem as kinetic as a rocket ship.
Ms. Parkins’s approach, which tends to de-emphasize the harp’s “harpiness,” put her in immediate demand when she first arrived in New York from San Francisco 22 years ago. She began gigging immediately, hooking up with the protean guitarist Fred Frith (with whom she will perform tonight at the Stone) and the late cello player Tom Cora in the trio Skeleton Crew. Over the years, she’s been a versatile collaborator, playing alongside such pop acts as Sonic Youth and Björk, on whose 2001 album “Vespertine” she proved essential.
“I lucked out,” Ms. Parkins said, eager to note that the harp was forced on her while she took music classes at her Detroit high school. “I came to New York and started playing in John Zorn’s game pieces — like ‘Cobra’ and ‘Darts’ — and met Fred and Tom.” She also began working with the percussionist Ikue Mori. A few years ago, the pair formed the band Phantom Orchard, which will perform Friday at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn.
“With any improvisation, it’s all about being profoundly in the moment and out of the moment,” Ms. Parkins said. “It’s really a moment of inhabiting opposite states. It’s a unique position to be in, and I think it’s taken me a long time to be able to articulate that. You can say: ‘I don’t know what happens.’ But it’s much more than that.”
Her work with Ms. Mori actually comes closer to the song form — or what the duo calls songs. The partnership has evolved such that Ms. Parkins handles the hardware — an array of keyboards, her harps, and various baubles — and Ms. Mori peddles the software, conjuring homemade percussive samples on her laptop and projecting short films she has made.
The duo’s performance this week will take advantage of a 16-channel speaker array installed at the Issue Project Room, a former oil silo adjacent to the Gowanus Canal. The venue will move at the end of June, according to its director, Suzanne Fiol, due partly to landlord issues but also because a pending shutdown of the canal will turn the area into “a rat-infested garbage bath.” The show will be one of the last at what has been one of the city’s most distinctive performance spaces, although Ms. Fiol intends to continue at a new Brooklyn address in July.
“We’ve never played there,” Ms. Parkins said. “So it will be a first and a last. It’s not often that Ikue and I are here at the same time, so it’s nice to play for our friends in New York.”
Speaking of final shows, the recent closing of the Lower East Side experimental music club Tonic has sent a chill through Ms. Parkins and many of her peers. It’s the first time in more than a decade that Manhattan has lacked a sizable venue catering to the amorphous avant-garde scene, which is most visibly championed by Mr. Zorn’s tiny nonprofit club, the Stone.
“It’s kind of inexcusable that the city can’t support it,” she said. “Hopefully, this is some kind of strange transitory moment. It’s an economic problem and it has to do with greed and all those tall buildings going up downtown.”
Ms. Parkins, who still manages to keep a rehearsal studio in Manhattan, is nonetheless happy to embrace Brooklyn. She’s carved such a singular niche for herself, that the relative inconvenience of the G train will not impede her career. “If you want that thing I do, you know where to go,” she said with a laugh. “You thought it was in Manhattan, but check that new address.”