Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry Uses Heartbeats To Create Something Beautiful

Richard Reed Parry is commonly known for his multi-instrumental work in one of the biggest bands in the world, Arcade Fire. But this month he releases his debut classical record and it revolves around a new and intriguing concept. ‘Music For Heart And Breath’ is just that: music created around the rhythm of each orchestral players’ heart rates and breathing. To enable the musicians to play in sync with their own heartbeats, they wear stethoscopes. Sounds like it should be an unholy mess? The result is something that sounds really, well, natural. Unlike much modern classical music, which can be esoteric, jarring and atonal, Parry’s album is a primordial balm. I spoke to the artist to find out a little bit more about the classical side of his life.

So why is now the time to put out a record?

Funnily enough, this is just how long it took. I had the idea for it 10 or 15 years ago, and I wrote the first of the pieces of this record back then. I had this idea for music that was really delicate in the Steve Reich and John Cage school of things. Delicate and visceral and with really beautiful, tender, introverted, musical repercussions and then I actually put it to paper. I wrote the duet in the middle of the first year and a half of Arcade Fire madness. All of my experience at that time was just be on this insane rock train with constant loud volume, constant group activity and group decision-making and large audiences. All of the experiences were big and musical, and sort of overwhelming and extroverted, if you will, and I was really craving some balance and more of an introverted, delicate, quiet musical space. I wanted to balance it with something that felt more personal, and more intimate, quiet, reflective and a little bit more individual. Less dictating than working in rock songs with lyrics and so I found myself just thinking ‘Yeah, I want to create this stuff. I want to create a different musical experience. For other people, but also for myself.’

What kind of possibilities can you explore in writing classical music compared to rock music?

I mean, fundamentally with this music it’s the risk of writing anything that’s experimental and hasn’t been done before. You’re really starting at the point of ‘What will happen if… ?’ Or, ‘What will happen if I make this music completely at the mercy of the heart rates of the orchestra?”


Which is what you’ve done with this album, right?

Which is specifically what I’ve done, yeah!

Where did that idea come from?

It came into my head when I was at school. I got bored of listening to the music that I was listening to, like the electroacoustics music [which Parry studied in Montreal, along with contemporary dance]. A lot of it is incredibly cerebral and I just need a visceral response to most music, because if it only speaks to the conceptual or only speaks to the mind then I don’t ultimately find very satisfying, and that’s what I was being exposed to.

I heard ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ when I was 19-years-old which really changed my life, I was like ‘Woah! This is a pure idea, to just stay true to it, to it’s logical extreme.’ It’s really just one idea but it’s so visceral and so deeply connected to the body. I just thought, ‘How can I create music which is born out of the body and the unconscious impulses of the body?’ The unconscious and subconscious things which are happening in the body all of the time, you are not normally listening to them. I was also really into John Cage at the time and his different ways of allowing things into a piece of music that would completely alter it. I love that idea, but I also didn’t love, musically, everything that John Cage was doing. I did love some of it, a great deal, and I thought ‘I want to find something which is in-between these things.’ I was also really into Brian Eno at the time, when he was trying to make music which seduced him, like, that was his goal. If I can make something which seduces me, then great. That’s what I want to achieve.

How did that work then? They were wearing stethoscopes but I imagine everyone had a slightly different heart beat?

It was an idea and technique which I was exploring as I went. It’s also quite a pain in the butt to do, because you have to wear stethoscopes and musicians already have to listen to themselves playing and the people around them playing to make those adjustments. So their attention is already in a few places and to then also have to listen within yourself and your rhythm and to have to obey that is really quite difficult to do. You already have to put your attention to three or four different places, musically, and it’s crazy, but it works out to great results.

What do you call that technique, does it have a name?

I just call it ‘music for heart and breath’ which is its own thing.

I wonder if it will become a technique, like other aleatoric methods?

Yeah, it is aleatoric to a degree. I mean, music is aleatoric to a degree. It’s not Chance music, which John Cage got really into [music determined by chance procedures such as the rolling of the dice] but there are elements of chance involved and there’s this enforced aleatoric principal, that keeps it slightly different every time.


So did you score the music then get then musicians to play it alongside their own heart rates?

I knew there would be differences in the heart rates and breathing rates, so I just constructed it with a lot of stops and starts so people could move out of sync with each other or catch up with each other. It’s not always a free-for-all where every person is going at their own pace, I mean, sometimes there is a group leader. So that person’s breathing influences their playing, which influences their signalling and the overall piece. But a lot of people go at their own pace.

Are you conscious of wanting to write melody and harmony to evoke particular emotions, is that something you think about?

My vision for it was to free the music of certain confines and to bring really fragile and deeply human characteristics out of the music through using this technique. I wanted it to be satisfying and tell a story, or describe a state, with some kind of emotional arc to it, even if it’s an abstract one. I’m always very conscious of wanting each piece to feel like a bit of an emotional journey, and definitely as a record or a collection of music. Also if you listen to it and give all your attention to it, it’s great, and that’s definitely part of the intent here. But, I’d love it to tell a quiet story or allow people to go to a quiet place where they can create their own space whilst listening to it.

How did you get involved with Nico Muhly?

He originally invited me to write one of the pieces from the album and he conducted and recorded it. He’s a good friend and someone who is much more pedigree than I am! His skills as a composer are absolutely rock solid, whereas I’m following my nose a bit more, so we’re from slightly different places in that sense. He’s also from the common belief that there are no boundaries anymore, which I absolutely agree with.


I interviewed The National’s Bryce Dessner about his recent workds, ‘St. Carolyn By The Sea’ recently, and I think he produced this album for you and has an album of works out alongside Jonny Greenwood’s recently. Are you a fan of Jonny Greenwood’s work?

Yeah, dude, really, for sure. I love that he’s doing what he’s doing. I love a lot of the stuff that he is influenced by like Ligeti and Pendericki but I am currently not getting drawn to writing the more spectral, atonal stuff – I just love to write melody and write harmony.

Do you feel more comfortable in a classical setting to the one your with Arcade Fire or is it a totally different thing?

It’s just different sides of my musical world and musical self. It just happens that the loud, rock’n’roll side of my musical self is more famous. And that’s great. For me, it’s just about achieving musical balance and, really, getting to express all the different things. I love so many different types of music, so deeply, and I’m so drawn to all of them. It’s a challenge to balance it, so this record is definitely a step to achieving that balance. I mean, getting to do something that is profoundly quiet and introspective music as opposed to the massive, extrovert spectacle that is my day job.