Over the past three decades, Andrea Parkins has cultivated an inventive and diverse body of work with sound as its integral element. Her projects encompass creative approaches to music and the materiality of sound in a process-oriented form of making. Notions of the body’s physical limitations collide with performance, improvisation, and installation as sonic architecture. Combining her roots as a pianist and accordionist with practices in electroacoustic music, drawing, and performance, Andrea is a true interdisciplinary explorer. Two Rooms from the Memory Palace, her recent release on Infrequent Seams, is followed by the release of its companion piece, The Third Room. We spoke at Andrea’s flat in Berlin about processes of translation, the shift from conventional music to the outer reaches of abstraction, the role of creative process, and generosity toward an audience.
Lea Bertucci: I’m interested in where you draw the line between sound art and expanded notions of composition. What, to you, is the difference between those two things? And how does your history with visual art inform the way that you compose music?
Andrea Parkins: Within my own work, I don’t think about this distinction. However, there are works engaging with sound that definitely are not “music,” because they don’t aim to be music, but instead might focus on a critical consideration of what sound does. There is also music that does this, and some of it might also be considered sound art in terms of how it addresses social or even metaphorical space while taking up musical aspects of form, duration, timbre, or orchestration.
I was first a musician, although maybe now I could say that I’m an artist whose primary material is sound. I studied classical piano through my early twenties, which overlapped with five years of improvisation studies in Boston with jazz pianist Harvey Diamond. In our work together, we focused a lot on sound production on the piano, addressing timbre, density, and overtones. In 1981, I bought a synthesizer and dove into those sonic possibilities. Soon after, I took classes in sound and experimental film at one of the local art schools, composing tape pieces on reel-to-reel machines and making non-narrative Super 8 films. I began to realize that I could think about compositional structure in music in relation to what I was learning about film structure. Eventually, I decided to go to art school full time, making drawings, sculpture, and video while continuing to improvise and compose music outside of school.
Around this time I also acquired an accordion and was immediately compelled by its capacity to produce sonic textures, complex dissonances, and drones. I installed a pickup into the instrument, ran it through a line of effects pedals, and connected it to a big tube amp. The resulting sound absorbed me endlessly and took me in a direction that I’ve continued to pursue.
This was the beginning of my life as both an electroacoustic improviser and a composer. It was also the time when I started making connections between the materiality of the visual media I was exploring and the materiality of sound.
Andrea Parkins, Big Amplified Drawing: Being, Not Sounding, 2017, video capture. Courtesy of the artist.
What’s been fundamental is that I began as an acoustic musician, and that experience of my body’s gestural interaction with and resistance to my instruments is deeply embedded within me. Early on I noticed that this gestural aspect was also present in the way that I worked with drawing materials. Eventually, I decided to combine drawing and sound-making in a process that would help me to understand more about this connection.
I began drawing ambidextrously, working large and on the floor, amplifying the sound of my drawing tools and processing that sound through the custom-designed software instrument that I have been working with for many years. The instrument picks up the drawing sound and responds to it with sudden eruptions of feedback, stutter, and glissandi so that an improvisational dialogue ensues between the instrument and the act of drawing. I’ve discovered there is a real tension between gesture and the sound in this work, with the drawing mark as the artifact of that tension. I don’t know if this aspect of my work is sound art or music, but I think it’s musical. When I listen to recordings of my amplified drawing, I hear something that sounds compositional.
LBT: he more I think about this question, the more these kinds of boundaries dissolve or become irrelevant. As someone who also came from playing a conventional instrument, I find it liberating to think about an instrument as a sounding object in the way that you describe your approach to the accordion; you’re not trying to play accordion songs, necessarily, but instead to figure out the sonic characteristics of the object.
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