Billboard Music Awards

Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry Explains His Heartbeat-Driven Classical Album

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for YouTube
Arcade Fire backstage at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards, November 3, 2013 in New York City.

Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry gets to the heart of the matter — literally — on his new classical album, "Music for Heart and Breath."

While recording the 12 compositions for the set, Parry and co-producer Bryce Dessner of The National outfitted the musicians, from duos to a small orchestra, with stethoscopes and asked them play in tempo with "their lungs and their hearts, the involuntary organs of the body. I had the idea, like, a long time ago and thought, 'Oh, this is a really good idea that nobody seems to have done, for some magical reason.' It just had something that felt very real  and very important to me."

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Parry tells Billboard that the concept first occurred to him while he was studying at Concordia University in Montreal, while he wrote the first piece — "Duet For Heart and Breath" with violist Nadia Sirota — in 2005, while attending a musical retreat in Alberta during a break from touring with Arcade Fire. "I wanted to try writing something where the people playing the music were explicitly linked to their heart tempos and breathing rates," he recalls. "I just had this aesthetic vision for how it could work and how it could sound. So I just wrote this duet and recorded it, and I just found myself going back to that recording over and over again, listening to it. I just worked, and it was a template for the whole project. I found it so calming and so centering, and it just sort of stuck in my brain as a thing I was going to continue with and write more of when the time came."

Arcade Fire's burgeoning career, of course, stretched that time out, but Parry gradually crafted more of the pieces, a mostly spare and atmospheric (think acknowledged influences Brian Eno and Steve Reich) including "Quartet For Heart and Breath" for Kronos Quartet, a "Heart and Breath Sextet" with yMusic, "for Heart, Breath and Orchestra" and the seven-part "Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet)" suite with yMusic, Dessner and his brother and National bandmate Aaron Dessner.

Parry acknowledges that he was apprehensive about how the unorthodox process would pan out, "but thankfully I only worked with really fantastic musicians from the get-go. when you work with fantastic musicians, one thing they're good at is immediately making something musical and making something work. So they make little decisions and fall into the little gaps in the ways they addressed the things that maybe you haven't addressed in what you've laid out as a composer. They just immediately make musicians decisions and performance decisions that make the piece come across — if you're feeding them decent and interesting musical ideas in the first place. And it seems like these ideas have been well enough received by the players."

Parry has posted a making-of video online as "an explanation of the project," and he hopes some of the pieces will be performed live. He's planning "a proper tour" in North America and Europe starting in September — including the Bascilica Soundscape festival Sept. 12 in Hudson, N.Y. — and says he has "all sorts of invitations" to perform at other events. But don't look for him to start putting stethoscopes on the other members of Arcade Fire, which plays the Fuji Rock Festival on July 26 in Nigata, Japan and starts a new North American tour on July 30 in Mountain View, Calif. "I prefer to keep (the classical work) as a separate musical world," Parry explains, adding that his classical work "is part of a balance with that musical world." He and Bryce Dessner are also curating a show in November at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that will include the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and the duo is collaborating on "a piece of symphonic music, which is very exciting" and will be unveiled in 2015. And Parry is finishing up the second album by Little Scream, the dream-pop projected fronted by Laurel Springelmeyer.

"It's super beautiful," Parry says of the set, which he expects to be released "early to mid-winter. I'm very excited about it. It is dreamy and happy and sad and ecstatic and devastating and has a lot of different musicians playing on it — a revolving door case of musicians, which is really fun." Among the Little Screamers this time are Bryce Dessner, Basia Bulat and Sharon Von Etten. "I think it's going to be one big, smushy dreamscape of a thing, which is fun to be sculpting."