Mixing it up at Vancouver’s Modulus Festival

Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry taps heartbeats, bikes, and breathing for his other passion—electroacoustic composition
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It’s not necessary to know about Richard Reed Parry’s rock-star day job to appreciate his parallel career as a composer. Familiarity with Quebec’s thriving electroacoustic scene would help, though, for it’s had a profound, if largely negative, impact on the Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist’s more “serious” output.

The quick dirt is that la belle province has a long history of supporting progressive music, and electroacoustic composition—as documented on the prolific empreintes DIGITALes label and elsewhere—enjoys a considerable presence in its well-funded education system. The downside is that the more academic forms of this electronic subgenre can be as cold as a Chicoutimi winter, a fact that wasn’t lost on Parry during his student days at Concordia University.

“I was having a really adverse reaction to a lot of the music that I was hearing under the guise of studying electroacoustics, and finding it not engaging in any kind of direct emotional or physical way,” he tells the Straight, on the line from his Montreal home. “I just found that 90 percent of it was music that only appealed to the mind, and that it didn’t leave me with any lasting visceral impact. I just found it very unrelated to the body, if you will.

“At the time I was really interested in [British composer and theorist] Brian Eno, and Brian Eno talks a lot about the small brain and the large brain—the large brain being the body, and the small brain being the brain,” he adds. “Music that impacts both brains, for him, is kind of the superior music. That idea really impacted me, and so I found myself, in the middle of electroacoustics class, thinking ‘What would be the opposite of this most heady, most nonphysical music that I’m experiencing now? What would the music sound like that came directly from the body?’ ”

Parry developed a theory about this but, as he notes, circumstances interfered with putting it into practice.

“It kind of sat there for a long time as an idea in my idea book,” he admits. “And then my life got quite busy with, of all things, rock music, and I didn’t get around to working on it for a long time.”

He’s working on it now, though. At the time of our conversation, Parry was preparing for a visit to Vancouver’s Modulus Festival, where his pieces will both open and close the event.

Three of those—the Duet, Quartet, and Sextet for Heart & Breath—draw directly from his realization that the rhythms of the body can also control the pulse of a musical composition.

“The idea I was left with was that the speed of the music could be entirely generated by the individual internal body speeds of the players,” he says. “For now, what I’m working with is the heartbeat and the breath. But also blinking and other subtler, quieter things are kind of waiting to be tapped into.”

For the first few Heart & Breath compositions, which also include an orchestral score, Parry asked that some of the musicians control their playing by following their inhalations and exhalations, while others take their cue by listening to their own heartbeats via stethoscope. Never one to do things in a small way, he was able to enlist San Francisco’s renowned Kronos Quartet to premiere the four-piece version—which, for Modulus, will be reprised by the equally accomplished Calder Quartet.

That initial experiment was an aesthetic success, and since then Kronos has recorded the work for Parry’s upcoming album of compositions. Even so, he notes that bandleader and first violinist David Harrington has mixed feelings about the process.

“He got a little bit stressed-out by it, to be honest,” Parry reveals. “He feels like he doesn’t necessarily want people to hear how fast his heart rate is, which I find quite funny. But those guys are always looking for something next and different to do, and this was definitely a first for them—having to stop in the middle of their set to be strapped into their stethoscopes with tensor bandages. I think they really enjoyed it!”

Parry’s other piece in the Modulus program, Drones/Revelations, can be seen for free at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Sunday afternoon (September 30). It, too, draws on an electroacoustic staple: the multispeaker diffusion concert, in which sound is given a spatial dimension by being broadcast from all corners of the venue. This time, though, the speakers will be boom boxes mounted on bicycles, whose riders will circle the audience in the dark.

The work is both a reaction to the increasing use of remote-controlled drones for surveillance and warfare, and an exploration of what Parry calls “the beauty of the Doppler effect”. Mostly, though, it’s another way of enlivening an art form, new music, that’s all too often incorporeal—and a welcome one at that.

The Modulus Festival takes place at Heritage Hall and the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from Thursday to Sunday (September 27 to 30).

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