Between this album of compositions from Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and the March release of St. Carolyn by the Sea/There Will Be Blood from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the National’s Bryce Dessner, Germany’s storied Deutsche Grammophon label has emphatically thrown its weight behind the notion of indie-rock brand names writing classical pieces.
But whereas the Greenwood and Dessner classical catalogs are already quite diverse, Parry’s more slender concert-music discography rests, thus far, on a single conceptual framework: no time signatures and no fixed tempos. Instead, musicians playing a Parry work are meant to follow their own pulse (a task that may be helped out by a stethoscope). Likewise, the length of a given note may be dictated by a performer’s exhalation while playing it.
Similar approaches have been tried in the free jazz world (specifically, in the pulses of drummer Milford Graves). And, in the classical realm, Parry’s approach has intellectual progenitors in the aesthetics of Cage and Feldman. But those sound-worlds are decidedly spikier than Parry’s attractive sensibility. His gorgeous cells of melody are lent a useful tension by the sometimes-jarring phasing of the instrumentalists.
This effect is best achieved, on this album, by the smaller ensembles. On opener “Quartet for Hearth and Breath,” the new-music all-stars yMusic never sound alienated from one another, despite the free-tempo playing. When Nico Muhly (who has composed extensively for yMusic members) joins them, on piano, for the “Heart and Breath Sextet,” his typically expressive way with entrances is a reliable thrill. The final three minutes build to a dramatic climax, as glissandos in the strings set the stage for a convergence on a single heartbeat. After some time spent listening to the instrumentalists foraging around on their own, the finale has the feel of a noble group ritual, and is worth the price of admission all on its own.
The big “orchestra” piece on the album, “For Heart, Breath and Orchestra” is sketched more patiently than it was on a prior recording by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, in 2011. But the tempo-free pointillism loses tension for stretches, and seems a less ideal venue for the sighing motifs heard in the earlier “Heart and Breath” pieces. The following, seven-movement “Interruptions” (for a nonet that includes the brothers Dessner on guitar), has a sour, brooding quality, all without abandoning the judiciously “at-peace” sense of Parry’s music. It would have been a fine way to end the album, though the composer gives us two more lovely, if inessential, looks at the “Heart and Breath” series, with a “Duet” between himself on piano and Nadia Sirota on viola, and then a Kronos Quartet version of the “Quartet.”