by Gabriel Paquin-Buki
The inimitable Bell Orchestre will be at the Maison symphonique on November 25 to present their new album House Music, in an orchestral version with the musicians of the OSM. We asked the group’s bassist, Richard Reed Parry, a few questions.
You introduce yourselves as 6 musicians from different musical backgrounds. Can you describe yourselves as individuals and explain how Bell Orchestre originated?
We all have very different musical backgrounds – some classically trained, some studied jazz, some self taught. I myself did a degree in Electroacoustics and minored in Contemporary dance and I didn’t start playing the double bass until I was 19 or 20. The music we make really includes elements from many areas of the musical spectrum and tries to find a balance between exploring intuitively to find new colours and feelings, and drawing equally on our influences and traditions/backgrounds. We started playing music together during university, making live scores for contemporary dance performances.
In a traditional orchestra, there is a conductor to guide the musicians. In Bell Orchestre, does someone assume that kind of ensemble leadership?
There is no conductor as such in our ensemble, and we are extremely collaborative in most everything we do. Sarah and myself started playing together initially, and in many ways our particular shared musical chemistry has permeated all the music Bell Orchestre made since, but the band is really a very symbiotic beast that has its own sensibility. We tend to make our best musical decisions unconsciously, without discussing things first. Each member is really their own essential, unique voice, and any one of us can lead at any point if they have a clear idea. Louis Armstrong famously said “if it sounds good, it *is* good” and we tend to all agree amongst ourselves when things are sounding good, thankfully.
Does classical music play a role in the development of your works, and if so, what is that role?
Absolutely. We each have countless classical works and performers that have influenced us profoundly, from Debussy to Stravinsky to Steve Reich and Kronos Quartet. We’ve gone to see many such performances together in fact – I remember us all going down to New York together to see the Steve Reich’s 70th birthday performance at Carnegie Hall!
When writing music together, we’ll often ask ourselves what a specific composer might do with whatever idea we are working on – whether it be for tonal inspiration or compositional forms. Classical music is a very deep well of inspiration.
How did the idea of adapting your House Music album in a symphonic version arise?
We are naturally a very collaborative bunch of people. I think this idea began with a concert in Copenhagen with André de Ridder where we had a couple of friends of ours – Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett – orchestrate a handful of older pieces of ours for us to play with the symphony there, as well as a handful of solo compositions. Sarah performed one of her solo works with the orchestra and they premiered the first movement of a piece I wrote with my friend Bryce Dessner… all of which was great fun and went really well, so we decided to raise the stakes and try and perform the entire new record in that format.
What can we look forward to in this concert where Bell Orchestre and the OSM merge?
Hometown magic, we hope! This is the first concert that most any of us have played since Covid began so… there is a lot of dormant musical energy waiting to rise to the occasion for sure.
It’s one 45 minute uninterrupted piece of music we’ll be performing as well, so it’s actually much more of a natural classical format concert than most of our shows in the past, though we are still going to be amplified.
Since its release, House Music has evolved in many ways. After it initially came out, an orchestral version was made. After that, it became the accompaniment to a Pop Montreal event screening. What makes this album so fluid between different mediums? Do you envision other forms for it?
New formats and new hybrids is always exciting for audiences – it’s so difficult to find new ways of doing things that music fans and audiences also know how to find, and that goes for all branches of music – classical or pop or hip hop or jazz… so it’s exciting to do something that crosses the boundaries somewhat. And with the OSM, no less! We couldn’t be more thrilled.
What is your fondest memory of Bell Orchestre?
Writing our first album Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light together in a freezing cold cabin in Vermont in the dead of winter many many years ago. We had to bring in our food on sleds and walk across a frozen lake with our instruments on our backs. This band has a really special shared wavelength in the way we do things together, both inside and outside of music.