Hearts Afire

“There are no time signatures: the tempos and rhythms are always governed by either the heart rates or the breathing rates of the individual players…to enable the players to hear and play in sync with their own heartbeats, they wear stethoscopes.”

Uh huh

[This] “results in a delicate musical `pointillism.’

Oh yeah

“The idea is less about `performance’ in the traditional musical sense and more about attempting to translate directly into music the quiet internal rhythms of the body.”

Of course

There are records where one look at the cover art and without listening to a note, you know exactly what’s inside. And then there are projects whose back story is enough to keep you away. Finally, there are a few recordings, very few actually, that no matter how precious the back story nor how perfectly tousled the hair in the cover shot, you need to listen to more than once before taking out the critical knives.

After repeated auditions over the past few months, Music for Heart and Breath (titles can also be a dead giveaway) by Richard Reed Parry of the Montreal rock band, Arcade Fire, is yet another attempt by a rock star to make classical music and classical music labels, in this case the great and powerful Deutsche Grammophon, once the exalted home of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Phil, to seek the riches of that mystical Shangri-La known as “Crossover.” While this impulse has its admirable side, as in let’s draw younger listeners into classical music and maybe get them to actually buy a Beethoven record once in awhile, the results are usually more about dabbling than anything else, Jonny Greenwood’s buzzy effective soundtrack records notwithstanding.

More than most rock star classical side projects, Perry’s opus has a number of advantages that actually make it listenable. For starters he had the good sense to bring in precocious young American composer/arranger Nico Muhly who has successfully collaborated with Grizzly Bear, Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy), Usher, The National and others, as well as having scored films, written a boatload of classical commissions and had the Met stage his opera Two Boys in 2013. Parry's record was mostly recorded at Dreamland Studios in upstate New York, which in recent years has been revitalized by drummer Jerry Marotta and employs young, talented engineering types like Dylan Shad. And of course, like all rockers who wanna go classical, he brought in the Kronos Quartet for a cameo appearance.

As great as these projects always look on paper, the results are usually less than thrilling and that is the case here. Given its guiding premise, the structure of these musical bits is no structure. As is the case with most rock classicists, quiet and musing are the predominant emotional modes here. These are minor chord tone poems, colored by a beginners fascination in a piece like Heart and Breath Sextet with touches like long to and fro notes played slowly on the violin. Impressionistic splashes of color flash by. Pensive string phrases appear starkly and then fade. And then there’s pizzicato everything. Heartbeat rhythms aside, plucked string instruments seem to be a de rigueur touch when it comes to rockers making classical music.

Yet amongst all these exuberant beginner composerisms, some of which are inventively arranged, there is actual music worth listening to, though perhaps only for a time or two. There are some striking themes, played mostly on low strings, scattered in Interruptions I–VII (Heart and Breath Nonet) the seven movement work that is the most accomplished piece on the record and its obvious heart. And the unique way that the Kronos foursome in Quartet for Heart and Breath (For Kronos) make a violin sound like a harmonica or later a pipe organ—between the ubiquitous plucked string sections—is a gas to hear.

While it’s difficult to discern the actual heartbeats and rhythmic breathing patterns supposedly underpinning this record, there are snippets, sproutings of ideas, some good, some less interesting, all of it well–recorded, which conglomerate into a body of similar sounding works that should draw in a few curious Arcade Fire faithful, as well as adventurous classical fans, anxious to hear their music set to the pulse of rock’s beating heart.