Zeena Parkins is decades into a career as a figurehead of the musical fringes. Best known for collaborative work with John Zorn, Björk, Nels Cline and countless others, Parkins, on her new record, showcases her strengths as a solo harp composer and performer. More than anything, Captiva is deeply entrenched in a somewhat passé style. The thematic development, use of extended techniques and straight-faced playing all come from a European tradition, something at the midpoint of high modernism’s headiness and a more explorative, playful postmodernism. Still, Parkins is an accomplished, bordering on virtuosic, player in this manner, and if mid-century classical sounds are your thing, this can’t miss.

Parkins’ approach is fairly accessible, focusing on big motifs and contrasts, always signaling where she’s going and when she’s ready to depart. The way the wave-like pedals on “Captiva I” flirt with masses of chaotic dead notes gives the track a push-and-pull motion, and even more enticing is the arpeggio play on “Captiva II.” The simplicity is deceptive, and it’s a testament to Parkins’ compositional skills that each of these roughly 10-minute tracks avoids stagnation. The technicality and harmonic language of something like Berio’s Sequenzaseries is present, but with a greater concession to the expressionism of first-wave free improvisation and tasteful silence.

The album’s structure presents a warped mirror of itself. Across five tracks there are only three unique compositions, with “Captiva I” and “Captiva II” presented in both acoustic and electric versions. The latter designation is a bit misleading, as the electronic aspect mostly consists of subtle effects such as delays, distortions, reverbs and other mild treatments. Most of Captiva’s second half, then, ends up being a near-repeat of the first two tracks. The electric/acoustic dichotomy is interesting as a concept, but the lack of variation can give the whole experience a numbing repetitiveness. Electric renditions of “I” and “II” speak better, as the additional textures and greater timbral variety provide more nuance to the compositions.

Given its performance-centric approach and reliance on an older compositional style, Captiva enters into a tension with its contextual surroundings. For instance, when taken alone, the title sounds ancient and mystical—something like a lost Roman epic or the deity of a dead religion. A Google search, however, brings up two things: a Chevy model and a high-end resort island off the coast of Florida. These compositions are music-for-music’s-sake, and plugging them into a digital, late-capitalist world slightly spoils the necessary illusion. These criteria might be beyond Parkins’ control, but that’s just the point. The burden of the internet is always weighing upon our music experiences, and blissful ignorance is rarely—if ever—the solution.

It’s not that Captiva ultimately fails in this digital context, but it does force listeners to question the relationship between a classical tradition and a changing, confusing world. These types of compositions demand attention and focus—they lose their power when you can pause them or face distraction from another tab. The remedy might seem like the responsibility of a respectful, patient audience, but it’s inescapable that this type of music, is largely at odds with the means through which most listeners will engage with it. The pure sonics of Captiva are great, especially for those who prefer a classic Downtown sound. Regardless, if you really want to appreciate this music, find a physical copy. Better still if you’re lucky enough to catch a live date.

One Comment

  1. Dave Montrose

    February 21, 2019 at 8:36 am

    It’s called Captiva because it was developed on Captiva Island, in residency at the late artist Bob Rauschenberg’s home. The island has some high-end resorts, but nearby are uninhabited or sparsely inhabited barrier islands creating mazes of mangroves, which perhaps give the piece its air of mystery. It also has a long history; it was called Captiva because the 18th Century Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar was said to have brought captive women there. Read some of the novels by Randy Wayne White, and you will get a sense of what the nearby area is like.

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