Participating in the biggest indie rock success story of the last decade is bound to dominate any musician’s career, but in the case of the Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, it’s truly just the tip of the iceberg. The man’s also a founding member of one of Montreal’s finest instrumental bands (which is saying something) Bell Orchestre, and has contributed to several other seminal albums including Islands’ Return to the Sea, The National’s High Violet and The Unicorns’ cult classic Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?.
Fully emerging as an outright neo-classical composer, Richard Reed Parry has released his full-length solo debut album of stunningly beautiful and uniquely executed compositions on the legendary Deutsche Grammophon label. Music for Heart and Breath lives up to its title, as Parry implores the players to search inwards to find tempos, listening to their own breath, or donning a stethoscope and tuning into their own heartbeats to lead them through seven powerful and intimate pieces. Strings are bowed with the unpredictable gentle drawl of our own natural breath, and horns and woodwind march in time to the pounding of heartbeats. The smaller ensemble pieces – for duet, quartet and sextet – move almost directly at a pace that embodies the human body’s own natural rhythms, but on the larger ensemble pieces (for nonet and full orchestra), wherein the open-ended nature of the scoring allows for tremendous amounts of player-led variation and interjection upon the music, a certain innateness shines through, and the feeling of a higher power at play hovers over the proceedings throughout. It’s perhaps the first grand musical statement fully expressing a sacred belief in the human body as its very own musical instrument. Parry’s concept has ingeniously stumbled upon a music that seems completely fresh and new, and yet utterly familiar at the same time. It is after all built on a rhythm we all keep 24/7.
Melodically, Parry’s indebted as much to 19th century impressionists like Debussy and Ravel as he is to the more commonly cited American experimentalism of John Cage or minimalism of Steve Reich. Besides the chilling and heart wrenching effect that the loosening of tempo has over the music’s pace, the melodies themselves are fabulously beautiful, and Parry’s colourful tonic palette across the project makes this perhaps the most exciting debut by a composer in living memory. It’s not as cold or indifferent as your standard experiment, and Parry never succumbs to atonality and dissonance in his search for new musical frontiers. On 2011’s From Here on Out album, featuring the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony playing new pieces by more established and experienced young composers such as Johnny Greenwood and Nico Muhly (the latter of whom now collaborates with Parry and features on his new album) alongside an early version of Parry’s For Heart and Breath Orchestra, it was ultimately Parry’s pieces that lingered in the memory. For want of a better term, it’s breath taking.
Between stops on the Arcade Fire’s Summer tour, I chatted with Richard Reed Parry to find out how the stunning Music for Heart and Breath really works, the irritations of playing wearing a stethoscope, and why nobody should care about Metallica playing Glastonbury...
DiS: How did you get interested in corporeal rhythms?
RRP: I got interested in them whens I was a student of electroacoustic music – so kind of ‘sound art’ – once upon a time. I was just sitting in class, not feeling very inspired by a lot of the music that I listened too, which was mostly electroacoustic music, but I was however very inspired by Steve Reich at that time when I discovered him, when I was about 20. And I was also really inspired by a lot of John Cage’s ideas, his using different compositional techniques to sort of free the composition from some of the restrictions of the page, and sort of introduce other ingredients, other factors into the mix; to sort of encourage it to take on a new life. So just kind of that philosophy paired with Steve Reich’s pointillistic aesthetic, you know his kind of pulsing things, were really turning me on at that time. And Brian Eno’s ambient stuff - Music for Airports and all these things where there sort of long, and the Discreet Music where there were these systems set up that allowed some randomness in, but were in a really specific tonal palette.
DiS: Well so how did you actually arrive at the heart and breath technique then?
RRP: Literally it came to me as I was not feeling a lot of the electroacoustic music at that time, and my mind was wandering as I was sitting in class. All of this music was being presented to me as music that was worth study was music that felt extremely cerebral, and only cerebral – and yet these musics that were really touching me and moving me were things that felt like they had something much more physical; like there was more of an actual physical imperative behind them and not just an idea or some, like, intellectual mandate. So I just found myself thinking about what would be the opposite of this, what would be the most connected to the body this music could be. So I had this idea of using the body itself, and the sort of unconscious involuntary things that the body does as an external influence on the music… well not an external influence actually, more of an internal influence! But yeah, something that would act on the piece.
So that just filed itself in brain as something that would be worth doing at some point, and just sort of sat there as an idea for a long time that I didn’t do. Then eventually in 2005 I was in the midst of the first Arcade Fire mega tour when we took a month off and I went to mountains in Canada to this music centre that I had a residency at and there was an afternoon where everybody that was there got asked to write a piece of music just in a single afternoon, and out of a hat I drew ‘a duet’. So I quickly wrote the duet for Heart and Breath, I thought I’d quickly just try this idea out that I’ve been sitting on for a long time. So I did that and was just immediately really pleased with the result. I just really loved what it did and really loved the quality it had. And that was sort of that!
So it really dates back quite a long time, but I didn’t do anything with it besides having it performed that day in the mountains for a few years, and then I had it performed at a music festival and then got invited to write for Kronos Quartet and then got invited to write for the Waterloo symphony and for yMusic and it sort of spiralled out one piece after another. At a slow rate though, as I was a doing a million different things - Arcade Fire has been active constantly, and Bell Orchestre was active for years at that same time period (although it’s not right now. So I found myself writing a piece per year, and hoping that in the interim nobody else would steal the idea and make an album of it quicker than I did!
DiS: So how do these pieces work? Do they all the pieces have the same rules? Is a conductor needed?
RRP: Well they all have the basic same rules. The duet is the simplest in its method, where the piano player wears a stethoscope and plays to the heartbeat, and the violist plays to their breathing. So there are three short movements – there’s inhalation, there’s exhalation and then both – so the violist just follows her inhalations for the first movement and plays one note per inhalation, and takes one bow per note, so it’s really just like simplest physical connection between the two, turning the one breathing motion into one bowed gesture. And then the piano player just follows the violist for the cues, so it’s really the most simple and transparent way of illustrating this really simple beautiful idea.
DiS: And does that same idea basically translate to the other pieces?
RRP: Yeah it basically does, although after a while I started wanting to hear more than these single-note, breath-speed melodies. So I thought I can just use the same divisions of time, but I can fit more notes in and they can play a phrase within a breath or an inhalation. There is actually a conductor on the orchestra piece, and the conductor then is just taking the breath lead and conducting at the speed of his breathing, or is taking a reading off of the soloist who is playing at the speed of their breathing. So there is some give and take with how it works, and some times there’ll be a leader of the ensemble at different points in different pieces and everyone will follow (for example) the cello’s lead and the cellist is listening to their breathing, so it’ll all stay together, and then it’ll be random for a while and everybody will follow there own breath so it gets a little smushier…different iterations of the same technique, mixed up to get more musical results. I really love it though, even at its most transparent, I really love listening to that.
DiS: Were there any major issues or troubles to overcome in getting the piece performed as intended? It must be quite taxing on the players to have to concentrate on that additional level… or perhaps it’s the opposite and its easier to not have to always look at a conductor and just listen to a stethoscope instead?
RRP: It’s definitely really challenging. You have to have your listening attention in sort of three or four different places at once, which is for any musician really crazy. The wearing of stethoscopes is sort of cumbersome and covers one of your ears, and that’s the main thing. Just sort of getting people to go against their musical intuition that they’re used to following. It’s like in order for this other deeper, inaudible thing to be heard in the music and for this sort of deeply human quality to come out, you actually have to go against some of your learned responses. There’s always a little bit of a learning curve at first for people playing, but as soon as they’ve gotten over it, it’s really a unique experience for the musicians as well as the people listening to the music. There’s growing pains involved every time, but there always is when you ask people to do something that is weird and not-standard.
DiS: What’s the difference like between on and off stage performances? Do the nerves come across, and make the pieces faster as players hearts race?
RRP: Yeah they do! Inevitably it takes much more time to rehearse them than to perform them live. The first time we performed the Nonet, Interruptions, in its entirety I think the rehearsal took like 28 minutes or something like that, and then live it was like 19 minutes, which for chamber music is pretty dramatic!
When performing, we’ll often do the duet first because it’s so illustrative and easy for people to grasp what’s going on, and for me (I’ll often play on that piece) your heart does beat faster. You’re at the beginning of a show, so your stage nerves are up and your adrenal glands start going you know? I always have to concentre to bring my heart back down, so it doesn’t go absurdly fast and the music can have the effect that I hope it’ll have.
DiS: What is the intention, meaning or message of Music for Heart and Breath? What do you personally think of and feel when you hear these pieces performed? How much of the performers’ fingerprints get put upon the music, and how much of yours remain intact?
RRP: So the surface meaning is quite simple and inherent in what they’re doing. Even if you divorce from any sort of philosophical meaning, or spiritual meaning or anything like that, or any bigger artistic gesture, you just have a different way of playing music, which is obeying this set of commands from your body, ignoring your musical impulse that you’ve learned, and following your deepest natural pulse. I think even if you divorce that from any other meaning, there’s something profound going on there. You could then derive from that a bunch of philosophical or quasi-spiritual messages, but for me it’s not like my mandate that those be there for other people. The gentlest way of putting is just that your letting something bigger than you in as an influence in to the music. Your letting something that isn’t under your control, that isn’t entirely your decision to make in as an influence every time, and you have to go with it every time. You can’t say, “oh I liked it better last time”; you have to go with it. If you’re going to follow the instructions of the music, which is to follow how you’re breathing, is, and not to try and slow it down or whatever…if you’re breathing fast and short, then that’s how you’re playing it. I like it, there’s a big kind of non-denominationally religious overtone to that. But I quite like that it’s ambiguous, and you can take of leave that intention, but it’s there whether you like it or not. There obviously aren’t any lyrics or anything that say any notions about letting God in or anything like that, but I like that in a certain sense it’s really sacred music, or religious music in a way, but more in a mystical tradition than in a Christian tradition or anything.
DiS: Yeah, it’s more innate than that.
RRP: That’s it, which I love about it. When the idea occurred to me, that’s what struck a chord and made me like, OH! That’s it!
DiS: Perhaps you’re second best known project after The Arcade Fire is Bell Orchestre. How much has musical notation come into play with either band, and how you decide that Heart and Breath didn’t fit into either project and had to be a solo thing?
RRP: Musical notation in Bell Orchestre didn’t enter into it at all, except for maybe jotting down ideas we might have. The way that band worked was always just like improvising together or arriving with ideas and playing together, recording it, and working it out…
DiS: Yeah then spending hours listening back, trying to work it out again…
RRP: Yeah! Do something brilliant once by accident, and then try and learn it forever more. With Arcade Fire it only comes in when we do like string sections or orchestral sessions with like horn players and whenever we do string stuff, but two thirds of the time we do just as like an improvised quartet and we might write some of it down sometimes if we want to add more people or wanna get super specific about voicings and stuff. It’s usually just the four of us, Owen [Pallett], Sarah [Neufeld], Marika [Shaw] and myself who’ll be the quartet of sorts, and we’re really creative just like on the spot about writing arrangements and doing things. Owen’s really fast at writing things down, so he’ll often write things down. So you do end up with a pile of little scores, but we just adjust things by ear and intuition, whatever works best.
Originally I did want to do stethoscope stuff with Bell Orchestre, but somewhere along the line of just being incessantly busy with like band world, and tour world I also wanted to branch out of that world which I’d fallen into. It was never my one intention to just be the guys who was in bands, I was always really full spectrum, and interested in lots of kinds of music and more experimental things, and deeper listening stuff, and quieter things… The fact that Arcade Fire got insanely famous was just sort of a roller coaster ride we got thrown into. It’s great and wonderful, and opens up a lot of opportunities, but there always was, always is and will always be this quieter path that is just waiting there for me – musically speaking.
DiS: You’ve previously mentioned how you’ve no real interest in digital social media, and highlighted the perhaps false perceptions that we all tend to have of popular music now in comparison to the past as a result of high speed digital media. How important do you feel commentary and discussion about music is? It struck me that with your piece in particular, contextually knowing a bit about the music and learning about it has certainly added to listening experience. The other side of it’s true as well though; that you can know everything about a new band’s music before having even heard anything…
RRP: The slight tragedy of it for me is never having there be any mystery to the world of a musician or composer or band…and to a song. It’s really great to be able to hear a song, hold your up phone up, Shazam it, and immediately have it and be able to listen to it forever more, but there was also something really good about not being able to do that… I’m not going to moan too much about this “bygone era when music was more of a mystery”, but you lose things, and you gain things. Nothing’s all bad or all good. If you were a record enthusiast which I was, it wasn’t necessarily great to spend a really long time looking just ‘cause you wanted to hear this one thing again, and never being able to find it because it was out of print, or expensive or out of print or whatever. I think it’s great to be able to find, like, any and all obscure Nigerian funk recordings, which are coming out in droves now.
DiS: And what about the onslaught of commentary nowadays?
RRP: I mean it’s definitely annoying that any grouchy internet-dwelling asshole’s opinion can sit there as a pockmark on a YouTube video of a really awesome piece of music just because they’re grouchy and they don’t get it and they feel like they need to share that opinion in some kind of semi-permanent way with anybody who’d care to listen. I think that’s a drag. But that’s … fine too. I’m just over-sensitive to that because I’m a person who puts things out there, and all my friends are people who put things out there, and easily have their day ruined by mistakenly reading a YouTube thread under their new video or whatever, and people are just like laying into it. I think it’s good in some ways for people to be able to directly see the ripples that the stones you throw into the pond create, but in other ways you really don’t need to know what everybody thinks about everything you do.
DiS: Yeah, that mystery goes both ways doesn’t it! It probably used to be nice to not know what all your listeners though too…
RRP: Yeah, but conversely it’s sometimes really cool to know.
DiS: You first had some of the ‘Heart and Breath’ pieces come out on a release alongside new pieces by Johnny Greenwood and Nico Muhly (From Here on Out with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony). The National’s Bryce Dessner (who had his own compositions out on Deutsche Grammophon last month, and in fact produces and performs guitar on Music for Heart and Breath) is another close associate and collaborator of yours. Why do we see the gap between popular and ‘classical’ (or perhaps ‘neo-classical’ or ‘orchestral’) music shrinking, and artists like these straddling genres? How come it’s so much rarer to see musicians go in the other direction too?
RRP: We’re sort of like the second, or maybe even third generation, of people who’ve grown up just exposed to everything, and exposed to the previous generation. Being able to, and necessarily, listening to everything is jut like a given. For creative, musically minded people who’s ears have pricked up, you’re not just being exposed to the one school of music or the other. All of those things just add up over time and you have no reason to feel like there’s a division between them, they’re all just part of the same stream.
So if you’re a musician, you have no reason to not embrace all of those things and just say, “yeah I love Debussy, and yes I love Orbital, and yes I absolutely love AC/DC’s first records before Bon Scott died”. That’s who I am, and that’s who many or my friends are as well. Rock and Roll was the devil many years ago, and it’s just not been the devil for generations now – we grew up under that paradigm and there just like is no division. Those influences just come falling out, and you aspire to some of them, but you just can’ t help some of them. You just find yourself making decisions based on things that have just come in…
DiS: You’ll be appearing at Glastonbury pretty soon, and there’s a lot of controversy surrounding Metallica’s appearance, suggesting they don’t “fit in”. What do you think of the whole thing?
RRP: Last time I was at Glastonbury I feel like there was another metal band, didn’t I see like Converge or something? Well, Metallica does not seem like a very controversial band to me any more. I don’t quite understand what the fuss is. It seems to me like the very definition of Glastonbury is that it’s like this absurdly broad-minded and widely varied festival, so I don’t entirely understand it. You’ve got like, I dunno, the Foo Fighters up there, and Metallica’s not that different from the Foo Fighters except that they’ve been around longer, and they’re only a tiny bit more aggro. It’s not like this cacophonous music any more than any other heavy rock and roll now. I mean, if it’s just people saying ”Metallica are a terrible band” then whatever - people have the right to say that.
DiS: And you’ve just come from Primavera festival too, and are off to play loads more festivals this year. They’re just this huge thing now, bigger than ever before, just an industry unto itself. You’ve been doing them about ten years now, how do you think festivals have changed?
RRP: It’s true - my first one was the summer of 2005. The last couple of years there definitely seems to be this new idea of the ‘VIP sections’ of the festival being like, where the action is, or something, which as a band can be a bit of a drag – just having the moneyed folk allowed access to the front rows can not be the most inspiring vibe! That’s definitely a trend that’s disappointing, but I suppose I get that it helps pay for the whole festival and means that more obscure artists can be paid to be there which is great, so on a pragmatic level I get it.
It does seem more and more, but starting with Glastonbury and moving on to Coachella perhaps, that people just go to festivals just to go, and that the festivals will sell out before the line up is even announced. That’s been the deal with Glastonbury for ages, and that’s been a recent thing with Coachella, where it’s like automatically sold out just as a social event regardless of whether you care about who is playing or not, which sort of just is what it is really. I wouldn’t really ever go to one of these things really unless I was playing! [laughs] I didn’t even like it wen I went as a teenager, like the environment of it, but I liked specific bands. I went to see Fishbone of Jane’s Addiction and that was what I was excited about, I didn’t really like just being in the midst of a bajillion people and hot and paying too much money for food or whatever.
DiS: In addition to electroacoustics, you studied contemporary dance in Montreal. Have any aspects of this influenced your music (specifically Music for Heart and Breath?
RRP: Yeah definitely. It was when I was doing both of those things that I had that original idea. It was inextricable from that, and there’s almost a performance art, sort of dance idea behind the whole thing. I sort of hope that there will be a handful of contemporary dancers or choreographers who will get into this music – if the world of it was like it was when I was in it. I think I sort of aspire to that on some level. I would love to have these things be choreographed in some way, and see how it physically relates to the idea. Somewhere in the back of my brain I had that in mind when I was composing it, and I did used to write music for dance. Going back to what this music may mean as you were asking before, they may not necessarily have a certain typical meaning, but I automatically try to imbue them with a sense of movement, and energetic flow or some sort. When talking about how the piece flows and moves you can very quickly turn that into ‘dance speak’.
I have two big specific next stages for Heart and Breath pieces in mind, and one of them is to do something with more of an installation piece. Where the musicians are sort of spread out through a room, and it’s more of a giant installation experienced walking around the room, being up close to the bodies and the music. That could very much easily be a part of the dance world...
DiS: You’re definitely a ‘multi-instrumentalist’. Which instrument did you first learn to play, what do you use to compose?
RRP: I first learned to play the piano, but I’m someone who never really stuck with anything for a really long time. I wasn’t very disciplined sadly, but it meant that I did get to dabble in all these different things and know how to do a bunch of things to a certain degree. I will easily write behind the piano, because the voicings are all just sitting there in front of you, which is nice. But I can also just write on paper, and I’ll write with double bass, or guitar often as well. My brain’s naturally quite flexible about it by this point, but I’m definitely not a thoroughly trained arranger either. So I often will think “ooh this’ll sound great on clarinet” or something and realise that it’s just not in the range of a clarinet, “whoops!” There’s a little bit of a way to go.
DiS: Are we going to be seeing any of Music for Heart and Breath performed live any time soon?
RRP: Well Arcade Fire’s only busy up until the end of the Summer, and then I’m doing launch shows for this record in the fall, so in late September I think, I’m gonna try and come to London, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam.
DiS: One thing that’s clear in this music, and you touched upon it earlier on, is that we all do things for a reason, even if it’s not under our own control. So my final question is, why music?
RRP: [laughs] For me? Completely out of my control! I just can’t help it. It feels like every cell of my body has only ever wanted that and only ever loved music, and only ever aspired to all things musical. Perhaps too many things musical, which is a blessing and a curse; to want to do all of it, want to touch all of it.
Music for Heart and Breath is out now.