by, Paige Johnson-Brown, JazzRightNow.com
Feb 20, 2018
In tarot, The Three of Cups is often pictured as three women raising their glasses in celebration and signifies forces coming together to focus on a common emotional or creative goal. I pulled this card during a tarot reading that happened to coincide with the final moments of my initial listen of MZM, the wonderful first release from Myra Melford, Zeena Parkins, and Miya Masaoka. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the Three of Cups and the trio’s debut, a powerful collaboration between three of the most intriguing, ever-evolving, and prolific composers, performers, and women in experimental music.
The power and energy behind the 10 relatively short improvisations that comprise MZM is fueled by the incredible instrumentalists behind it. Pianist Myra Melford cut her teeth playing with Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, and countless others in the New York downtown scene, and went on to make over 20 records as a leader and 40 as a side-person, honing what has become her signature sound: expansive, percussive yet incredibly gentle, always unafraid to explore and test the boundaries of expression while retaining emotional depth and, often, a lyrical romanticism. Multi-instrumentalist, composer, improviser, and trailblazing harpist Zeena Parkins has had an expansive and exploratory career, working with everyone from Bjork to Fred Frith to Merce Cunningham, writing for dance and film, and always finding new ways to deepen and broaden her musical capacity and create new sounds. She plays an acoustic harp, often outfitted with preparation or electronic processing, or a custom electronic harp, which she custom-built herself. Best known for her exploration of the koto, a traditional Japanese 13-string instrument somewhat akin to the zither, Miya Masaoka has performed and recorded her trademark electroacoustic playing with the likes of Pharaoh Sanders, Pauline Oliveros, and Anthony Braxton, among others. Her work pays particular focus to the body and nature, sometimes quite literally: she has performed with live cockroaches, honeybees, and plants on stage, their internal organs’ movements and sounds recorded by EKG and EEG sensors feeding into the music and video.
Melford, on acoustic and prepared piano, Parkins, on electric harp and electronics, and Masaoka, on her infamous 21-string Japanese koto, come together at peak potency, individually and collectively, to create something fantastic. MZM is a tight, well-conditioned muscle, an exhibition of sonic capability, control, and beautiful, synergetic, sister-like unity. Each instrument’s voice feels related to the others, in tone and approach. The instruments often sound alike: their timbres are all bright, the core of their playing sits in a higher, more female range, and the extremes they take their phrasing, tender, spacious, conversational to strident, unceasing, machine-like mirror and seem to inspire each other. Melford strikes the keys of the prepared piano with the same blunt and stunted fury that Masaoka’s bow makes soon after, when it dryly bounces off the strings of the koto, which is then echoed in the way Parkins recoils from fully articulating a solid strum, dancing upon a single electrified string like a theremin. In the record’s opening track, “Red Spider,” there are moments when the only instrument that doesn’t sound like a harp is the harp. The prepared piano’s shuddering, loosened strings echo the dull, plucked sound of a harp and the strumming of the koto rings is unmistakably angelic and harp-like, while the harp sounds like the wind whistling through your window or the hollow twang of a jaw harp. They trade roles, sometimes all occupying the same role at the same time, oscillating between harmonic, lush, orchestral, harsh, percussive, metallic.
It’s frequently unclear from whom each sound originates, giving each piece and the record as a whole a rootless, untraceable, even rhizomatic, non-hierarchical quality. Similarly, it’s difficult to tell how exactly each piece, or the record as a whole for that matter, begins or concludes or who, if anyone in particular, is the central impetus that drives the music to the many places it goes. “Red Spider” doesn’t seem to begin from human action but feels as if it arises, a natural occurrence like rain clouds slowly eclipsing the sun, and evolves, swelling into a storm of cascading chords from the koto atop stomping, low-end prepared piano and bursts of tinny harp before dying down.
A mysterious rootlessness is echoed in the record overall, which is just as consumable as a whole, from beginning to end, as in parts, select improvisations at a time. There are many points of entry. Similarly, it is just as powerful an experience to trace a single instrument’s arc, throughout a single improvisation and throughout the record, as it is to get lost in the collective wash. On the penultimate track, “Ant,” follow the koto as it dances between wet, dense harmony and dry, feverish percussion, the piano’s Xenakis-like, penetrating clusters as they morph to become Gershwin-like and bluesy, the harp as it flickers in and out of blinding brightness like a light, or get lost in the remarkably seamless assemblage.
There are a few stand-out moments that bloom from the absence of hierarchy, when each player’s palate shifts towards something more intrinsic, or at least more easily attributable to their instrument: when the acoustic piano kicks into a distorted stride in “Bug” or when the prepared piano’s distinctly dull, stunted plunking cuts right through the center of the bright strings or when the koto is strummed and left to ring out, organic and lush, against the harp’s array of electric-guitar-like sawing and buzzing in “Eight-burst”.
Even more memorable moments emerge when each instrument reaches its limit, usually during a pinnacle of frenzy and movement, and starts to sound completely alien. Parkins is directly responsible for a lot of those instances. Once, during “Saturn” the harp’s twanging sounds exactly like a steel drum. Another in “Eight-burst” when it sounds like a surf-rock guitar solo. Though each individual voice has moments where it bobs to the surface and dominates the forefront, the sense of collective is never overwhelmed. Throughout, the trio creates space for each other to play and test a very deliberate and curated selection of their instruments’ extremes, fluctuating between their most beautiful and strange, still and agitated, structured and discordant.
Each movement on MZM, of the one or whole, is driven and supported by a mesmerizing individual and collective focus, sometimes strikingly precise, sometimes a daze of gestures in hypnotic abandon. The force behind this focus lends an air of witchiness to the music, as if it was conjured. And the spell that MZM casts is enthralling. Let it hypnotize you. Raise a glass. Or, better yet, three.