Richard Reed Parry, a composer and multi-instrumentalist best known as a member of the rock band Arcade Fire, has gradually been building up a body of classical compositions based on a simple concept: the music is driven not by a shared rhythmic pulse, such as the beat of a conductor or a metronome, but by the actual pulse of the performers themselves, who listen to their own heartbeats while playing; the phrasing is determined not by the barlines but queued by the performers' breaths.
Parry's "Music for Heart and Breath" is out on Deutsche Grammophon, a 116-year-old record label that, between this release and their release earlier this year of classical music by rock guitarists Bryce Dessner (The National) and Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), seems to have gotten awfully hip in a big hurry. Certainly, the performers gathered for these sessions are about the hippest that the new-music world has to offer: Parry himself, of course; Bryce Dessner and his brother Aaron, both of The National; the wildly flexible sextet yMusic; the Kronos Quartet; and performer/composers Caroline Shaw and Nico Muhly.
The conceptual coup Parry has struck here must be the envy of his composing peers. This is a pure and lovely idea for music-making, obvious in hindsight but almost total new: the opening of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich, a major Parry influence, is phrased according to the breathing patterns of the clarinet player. But who has ever had an orchestra literally taking their own pulse with stethoscopes?
But the concept would hardly count for much if the music that resulted were not so bewitching. Parry's stochastic technique creates rich and rippling, yet oddly steady, textures that sound like the product of extremely elaborate, hard-to-execute notation, but come off as naturally as breathing, and with good reason. His writing marries the rock musician's knack for warm, affecting chord changes to a classical composer's ear for orchestral color and, in the longer works, sense for the structure and proportion of large-scale forms. This is sophisticated, satisfying stuff—and a deeply pleasurable listen.
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