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EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry on 'Music For Heart And Breath,' Bryce Dessner and Growing Up With Folk Musician Parents

By Maria Jean Sullivan m.sullivan@classicalite.com on Sep 28, 2014 07:36 PM EDT

We recently caught up with Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry in transit to the Hollywood Bowl for a few quick quips on his album Music For Heart And Breath, released this summer on Deutsche Grammophon Records in the midst of the Reflektor tour. 

Parry's first solo piece reinvents the use of the body in music composition by having the performers wear a stethoscope, playing to the speed of their heartbeat and breathing. The record features Classicalite favorites the Kronos Quartet and promises a quiet, intimate atmosphere.

Classicalite: This is your first classical music record. How did the idea come to be?

Richard Reed Parry: This is an idea I had over 10 years ago as a student studying electro-acoustic music. Being electro-acoustic music, it was sound-based rather than melody- or pitch- or rhythmic-based. It was a fascinating field with lots of interesting stuff going on.

But I found that for whatever reason studying music that was lacking in melody and lacking in harmony made me think really hard about wanting to make music that was super melodious and super harmonious. And at the same time I was doing a lot of collaborations with contemporary dance, so I was devoting a lot of time to thinking of ways to develop relationships between movement and music.

Also, at the time I had freshly discovered John Cage and Steve Reich and was turned on by them. I would find myself sitting in class thinking of ways to directly connect the body to music compositions. And I was thinking about really delicate music and how making a musical piece feel hyper-human and extra delicate and fragile. One day, an idea popped into my head to use internal muscular responses as a different take on chamber music collaborations.

CL: How do you feel about the sensitivities of the artists' awareness of performing these pieces live with natural bodily reactions, such as nerves?

RRP: It’s an inherent part of the process and part of the performance. When rehearsing, you're more relaxed, so your heartbeat is slower, making you play slower. And when you perform live, your heartbeat is quicker, so you play quicker.

For instance, the "Duet For Heart And Breath" is just for the piano and viola. The pianist is playing to their heartbeat and the viola playing to their breath. When I’ve performed it on stage before, I have definitely had my heart going so fast that it would, in my opinion, have ruined the piece. So I’ve done it before where I played every other heartbeat instead of every heartbeat because I thought, "Well, this isn't the idea for this piece, so I'm gonna adapt the rules a little bit." It creates a different feel every time.

CL: The first piece was written in 2005, when you were on tour with Arcade Fire. How did you find the time?

RRP: You have little gaps. You find and make little gaps to make the quiet, restorative music. You find the opposite musical space from Arcade Fire to balance out that experience. Writing all of these pieces is something that I had to find the time for but the urge to do this comes natural. You just find the time when it's important to you.

CL: And the first ensemble was written for the Kronos Quartet. How did that come about?

RRP: It was a commission by the Music Now Festival in Cincinnati. I performed the "Duet For Heart And Breath" at the festival the year before, and they invited me to write it for Kronos the next year.

CL: How did Bryce Dessner of The National, Nico Muhly and yMusic get involved and what do you think of the recent indie-classical crossover that is happening?

RRP: I don't, really, as I don't think my friends don't really make real big separations on a social level. Obviously, the way the Met Opera works is very different than the way a touring rock band works. I think in the musical world they are different but have a lot of commonality and always have.

People these days grew up exposed to a wider range of music than they ever were, say, 50 years ago. Even before the radio, when people had a piano in their house, that was where music came from. Everything changed quite a lot with the gramophone and the radio. And now with the Internet there is no dividing line as to what is available.

That is all to say that all of those people that you mentioned are just musicians doing interesting things. Musicians just find each other and now more than ever people from different camps can find each other a lot more easily and collaborate.

CL: What about you? What can you say was your influence or musical exposure growing up?

RRP: I grew up on a pretty steady diet of folk music around me. My parents were folk musicians and I grew up in a community of oral tradition and folk singers. There was a lot of people singing and that was what music was. Eventually I realized that we had people's records in my house. And there was a lot of classical music around and I had piano lessons.

It was a bit of a hybrid environment, but very focused on music as a thing that people do. It was just part of life, part of the deal. When you have parities, you sing together. It wasn't till later that I realized it was quite an anomaly to have this totally oral tradition. Everybody knowing the same songs and singing them. And there wasn't Christmas carols. They were these esoteric British chantings and things like this.

I experimented with a lot of different instruments, never too disciplined about one or the other, and played in bands. I wanted to play the guitar and the bass, and then I taught myself the upright bass and drum lessons, and eventually you find yourself an adult who plays many different things.

CL: As vocals are such an influence to you, do you think you will ever add them to your classical music?

RRP: I have been writing choral music for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus for a show that's happening in November that is extremely vocal. The Music for Heart and Breath, I don't think I would add vocals to but maybe I would, you never know. I really just try and follow the idea, and whatever occurs and seems like a good idea from that, I follow it.

CL: Any new compositions in the works?

RRP: I'm gonna do a second volume [to Music For Heart And Breath] that will be one big piece of music rather than a collection of shorter pieces like this first record was. I am currently working on a piece based on ocean waves with my friend Bryce. We are doing a collaborative orchestral piece that's pretty exciting. That’s it. I’m doing this BYC chorus show in less than a month and a half.

CL: What can we expect from your performance at Roulette in Brooklyn Monday?

RRP: There is a large amount of natural variations built into the music. The compositions are still the compositions, but it changes quite a lot in the performance by classical music standards. But by jazz standards, it hardly changes at all. You can expect a gentle, quite, intimate night.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Q&A, Arcade Fire, Richard Reed Parry, Music For Heart and Breath, yMusic, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Roulette

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