“I don’t have any interest in doing something more straightforward,” says the fledgling neo-classical composer and quasi rock-star, Richard Reed Parry. “There’s enough straightforward music out there already, and it doesn’t move me.”
Parry is a producer and multi-instrumentalist with Arcade Fire, the star indie rockers from Montreal. He has just released an album of his own compositions, and it is the most curious thing: Music For Heart and Breath involves musicians – such as the Kronos Quartet, a significant American string quartet – generating tempos by listening to their pulses during a performance. Ace bandages, stethoscopes and heart rates are involved; time signatures are not. This is radical.
What isn’t so radical any more is the notion of a rock or pop artist composing so-called serious music. Beethoven no longer rolls over in his grave. Rather, he’s propped up on one elbow listening to Radiohead. Musicians such as Parry, Owen Pallett, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the National’s Bryce Dessner – who produced Parry’s Music For Heart and Breath – are at ease in classical and pop genres.
Montreal-based Pallett is the busiest of the bunch. In addition to collaborating with Parry and Arcade Fire, he has arranged orchestration or strings for such acts as Taylor Swift, Grizzly Bear, Alex Turner and Franz Ferdinand. He composes film scores and has one Polaris Prize under his belt (for 2006’s He Poos Clouds), with another this year a distinct possibility (for his elegant pop album In Conflict). As well, his 2011 violin concerto (co-commissioned by the Barbican and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) debuted at 2012’s Britten Sinfonia.
Pallet, Parry and the others, they’re all young. The full musical spectrum they embrace is a generational matter, really. If you’ve grown up listening to the Beatles and Bartok or Debussy and Devo, the lines inevitably will blur.
Or as Seinfeld’s George Costanza might put it, worlds will collide.
“I tend to ignore the divisions between genres and schools,” says Parry, speaking this week from Chicago, where Arcade Fire played the United Center in advance of concerts in Toronto (Aug. 29) and Montreal (Aug. 30). “You don’t need to be a fully qualified classical composer to make a piece of art that is culturally resonant or interesting.”
Parry’s first piece for an orchestra – For Heart, Breath and Orchestra, which is part of his new album – was recorded by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony on its 2011 album, From Here On Out, together with pieces by Greenwood and the fresh American composer and arranger Nico Muhly (who conducts on Parry’s record).
Pop songwriters have crossed into classical composition before, but even oratorios by high-ranking figures Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello were not received well. There was a sense the two esteemed but unschooled musicians were a bit above their station with works such as Costello’s 1993 song cycle The Juliet Letters or McCartney’s multiple efforts in the highfalutin.
Parry “half expected” a similar backlash for his Music For Heart and Breath. “I’m not a pedigreed composer, so you anticipate a certain degree of negativity or hostility,” he says. “But most of the feedback I’ve received has been positive. It’s real music. It has a quality to it, and I think people respond genuinely to genuine music.”
The music of Arcade Fire, as heard on four albums including the dizzying epic that is 2013’s Reflektor, is highly intense and exceedingly extroverted. In response to the band’s relentless touring and robust, carnivalesque concerts, Parry virtually retreated deep under the skin for his neo-classical work. “What I was craving was the opposite,” he explains. “I was looking for quietude and introverted music. I wanted to feel the smallness of myself.”
Parry’s aleatoric vision (inspired in a very broad sense by John Cage) facilitated the internal quality he desired. For the players to hear and play in sync with their own heartbeats, it was natural (if not required) for them to play quietly. The result is a serene, elegant and human work.
Which isn’t to say there wasn’t heavy breathing – or at least deep sighs – involved when it came to composing. “I was going for a delicate, ephemeral effect, but the writing quickly degenerated into a lot of problem-solving and logistics,” he says. “It wasn’t about having the joyfully free hand to write as you wish.”
But with the problems came beautiful solutions. “Ultimately it worked out well,” says Parry. “And I think the logistics imbued a really unique quality into the music.”