Album du jour: Richard Reed Parry, “Music for Heart and Breath”

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“It’s not every day that a composer invents an entirely new way of creating music,” writes annotator Adam Sweeting in the booklet to the new album under review here, “but Richard Reed Parry may have succeeded in his Music for Heart and Breath.” Hmmm…is either part of that sentence true?  Let us see.  First, some background.

36-year old Parry plays in the Montreal-based Arcade Fire, among the better-known ensembles in indie rock.  From a musical family, though not academically trained in classical composition, Parry cites influences ranging from Guillaume de Machaut and J.S. Bach to John Cage, Steve Reich and Brian Eno as formative in developing his own style, one which fits comfortably into the “post-minimal” or “downtown” or “alt-classical” groove.  Here’s Parry talking about the new album:

Following an earlier 2014 release of orchestral works by Bryce Dessner (of the group The National) and Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), Deutsche Grammophon, probably the world’s most eminent classical CD label, has just put out an entire album devoted to a cycle of chamber works by Parry.  An undeserved distinction, considering the fine work of so many of his lesser-known peers without indie rock credentials?  That’s really up to DG to decide.  If they think (probably correctly) that Parry’s rock affiliation will spark interest and sales, they’ve made the right choice.

But how about musically?  And what about the sentence in the first paragraph?  Let’s take on the first part of the sentence first:  “It’s not every day that a composer invents an entirely new way of creating music.”

In each of the six works on “Music for Heart and Breath,” Parry employs a unique (as far as I know) technique for the musicians to determine the speed at which they play many of the works’ passages:  Using stethoscopes, the performers use their heartbeats as organic metronomes, basing not just tempi but other decisions (e.g., changing harmonies, cueing other instruments) on their pulse rates.

And since each performer’s heart beats at a different pace, the passages meant to be played “together” will sound off-kilter rather than in perfect synchronicity.  Hearing the music once before reading the explanation in the notes (which all listeners should do, IMHO), I found the effect mesmerizing at first, and wondered how Parry could rhythmically notate such beautifully controlled chaos.

As I let the CD continue from piece to piece (which turns out not to be the best way to enjoy it), the effect progressively lost its charm, and actually began to get on my nerves.  But after I read how and why it was done this way, I heard the music again with greater pleasure, welcoming the heartbeat passages the way one might the successive appearances of an eccentric but endearing character in a TV series.  Add another case to the age-old debate on whether knowing the story behind the music is a help or hindrance to comprehension and enjoyment.

But speaking of age-old, while Parry’s concept may be a new one, the concept of employing a concept is anything but.  As far back as the “ars nova” of the early 14th-century, composers (of which the previously name-checked Machaut is best-known) used notational tricks to give some of their music the slightly-out-of-phase effect Parry achieves with his stethoscopes.

Closer to our time, “conceptual” works, in which some internal or external device triggers what is played and when, have been a mainstay of the avant-garde at least since John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Starting in the sixties, composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich innovated new techniques to give their works the complex interlocking quality that has since been a hallmark of the musical style they pioneered, minimalism.  Check out Riley’s “In C” (piece and explanation) or Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” (piece and explanation). And anyone who attends a decent number of new music concerts can no longer be immensely impressed by an “entirely new way of creating music.”  Composers are forever coming up with clever new ways in their works for musical event A to trigger musical event B, or for the combination of X and Y to lead to, of course,  Z.  I’ve heard some doozies in my day, and I bet you have too.

So, contra annotator Sweeting, it probably is “every day,” perhaps even several times a day, that a “composer invents an entirely new way of creating music.”  OK, chalk that part of his sentence up to hype.  How about the far more important second part?  Has Richard Reed Parry “succeeded” in his “Music for Heart and Breath?”

Well, if one measures success in this case as contributing music with style, personality and that combination of intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure that makes you enjoy listening and want to listen again, I’d have to say he has.  Oh, some of the six variously-scored works are more successful than others.  Best is the one that’s featured twice, in different scoring, as both opening and closing selections, the “Quartet for Heart and Breath.”  Using very simple gestures to pace and shape the music, Parry expresses his ideas succinctly, and with a coy but thrilling sense of drama and suspense.  It would be fun to see what some talented choreographer could do with the Quartet.

The other selections, to varying degrees, combine the same drama and suspense with patience-trying longueurs, the risk a composer runs when sustaining a small number of gestures over the length of extended works.  There were moments in the “Heart and Breath Sextet,” for instance, when the Arvo Pärt-ish portentiousness of each note, each silence, had me rolling my eyes, though the piece redeemed itself by the end.  I liked the field-of-crickets effect of the pizzicati (plucked strings) in “For Heart, Breath and Orchestra,” though it might drive others up a wall.  Full kudos thoughout, by the way, for the performers, including yMusic, the Kronos Quartet and pianist-conductor Nico Muhly among a few others.

Later in his booklet annotation, Adam Sweeting writes: “Defining boundaries between musical genres is becoming increasingly difficult, not least because the most creative musicians increasingly prefer to ignore them.  But is it fair to say that artists such as Parry, Bryce Dessner and Jonny Greenwood are renewing classical music for the 21st century?”  Oh boy, another couple of sentences to decode and weigh in on!  But not this time.  Maybe when I get to the other new Deutsche Grammophon album of classical pieces by indie rockers.  For now, let me recommend that you give Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath” a try.  And please, do tell us how you liked it.

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