Susie Ibarra and Richard Reed Parry had heard each other’s heartbeats – in many different forms – before meeting IRL.
The artists had been commissioned by Splice in partnership with new record label OFFAIR – a venture between Universal Music Canada and Versus Creative that seeks to create deeper experiences through music – to conduct a relatively simple experiment: create music centered on the rhythms of the human body. Rather than recording to the beat of a metronome, Parry and Ibarra composed to the beat of their hearts and breaths.
Parry, who is perhaps best known for playing an assortment of instruments as the lead member of a hit band Arcade Fire, has already found inspiration in unusual places; his 2018 two-part album quiet river of dust draws from sources as disparate as British folksongs and Buddhist myths. He’s also no stranger to collaboration, though he and Ibarra have never crossed paths before this project, in the music business or otherwise.
It’s not really surprising: Ibarra and Parry, although both musicians, evolve in totally different circles. Ibarra is a percussionist who has worked extensively on field recordings of native music from the Philippines and spearheaded new musical practices, such as working alongside a glaciologist to record glacial soundscapes.
Despite their widely divergent careers, Ibarra and Parry were able to find common ground in listening to and reacting to the natural rhythms of the human body. The couple spent many hours listening to their hearts (literally) to create the nine-track album Heart and Breath: Rhythm and Tone Fields. The work is being released as both a full album and a sample pack, which Ibarra and Parry hope will be picked up by others interested in their project. They’ll also be performing work IRL soon, and even plan to use audience members’ heartbeats to inform live music.
To input spoke with Ibarra and Parry about how they went about recording such an untraditional album and how they hope their body beats will affect listeners.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you start this process?
IBARRA: Well, Richard had already developed this idea of creating music with cardiac and respiratory cycles. I thought that was very interesting because it also connects to a lot of things in the traditional musical structures of many cultures. It’s something so innate for a performer – it’s a practice.
PARRY: It was a basic idea that I had many years ago. It occurred to me: why had no one ever done this explicitly before? Heartbeats and breathing are the most universal rhythms we have. No one had ever really attached to those things to guide the music. I wrote music around it, but I felt I had only scratched the surface of a looser, more embodied way of composing. Susie and I approached it in a more performance-based way.
IBARRA: As a percussionist, I always connect with that heartbeat, but what I find really wonderful is to have these old traditional practices connect with contemporary music, to understand that they can be more intentional and less unconscious.
It sounds like a lot of improvisation. Did you decide to write something specific, or did you mainly write in the moment and edit later?
IBARRA: We don’t score in a traditional Western way. We share these parts and compose them back and forth with each other. It’s more all over the body.
PARRY: It would start with improvisations on one side or the other, then we would break it up into movements and structure around sounds that we had already created. It ended up sounding pretty lively in some ways, like a set in one room. This way of improvising with a central rhythm that is – but not measured – was a unifying element that allowed us to be coherent hundreds of kilometers away. We had to be loose and sprawling, following our own beats, but we were still unified by that musically.
IBARRA: We don’t play to a click track or a tempo that we have decided. We play towards what our body tells us.
PARRY: Listening to it again has a very special feeling, it’s hard to put your finger on it.
What kind of technology did you use to listen to your heartbeat? Was there any specific material?
PARRY: Oh, yeah. A very specific material. A stethoscope.
[pause for laughter]
PARRY: I have a digital stethoscope in addition to a normal stethoscope. But it’s impossible to use digital while you’re playing, because it amplifies everything that’s happening, including the instrument you’re touching. I actually recorded a track like this because the song has an audible heartbeat. Playing with a stethoscope in your ears is awkward, but you can do it.
My heartbeat is quite irregular, which you can hear in some tracks. It’s pretty cool, there will be a hiccup in the rhythm or a jump in tempo. Sometimes this is mitigated by the natural process of two people playing together. When you follow a person’s pulse very closely, you can get a pretty tight rhythm section.
It’s one thing for a single person to play with their own heartbeats, but it must have been difficult to put their heartbeats together. Were you able to do this?
IBARRA: Yes, it’s very difficult. I play percussion, so I’m usually louder. Sometimes the stethoscope just wasn’t loud enough. I needed to take recordings and listen to them again sometimes.
PARRY: A friend of mine is developing a performance interface that we’ll use when we play it live as an ensemble. We’ll basically have a sensor that picks up our heartbeats and then sends them as sound to each person in the set. We’ll be able to mix and match that way, with everyone listening to a heartbeat or several, maybe even with some audience participation.
Have you ever had the chance to play it live?
IBARRA: No, not yet.
I guess it will sound a lot different live, like your heartbeat speeding up on stage.
PARRY: That’s right. Part of that is engaging in that rhythm that is outside of your decision-making process. Committing to playing to your own heartbeat while Susie is playing to hers, knowing that things will sync and get out of sync because that’s how bodies work. It opens musical spaces and mental spaces for a performer.
PARRY: You follow this inner metronome. This other presence, if you will. It really decentralizes your own musical control system in your mind.
IBARRA: The intention is so different that you play differently.
PARRY: And audiences listen differently. You open up this listening space for people. They know they listen to musicians by listening to their heartbeats or their breathing. A truly unique quality can come out of it.
IBARRA: In a lot of Southeast Asian percussion music, time is always expanding and contracting, especially in gong music. It puts your body in a different state – I can’t drive while listening to it. I have a similar reaction to this album.
PARRY: Listening to it is kind of hypnotic, it puts you in a kind of alpha state.
IBARRA: We are always in these polyrhythmic states, we are always in motion, but we are not always aware of it. In this case, we are actively and intentionally aware. And we invite the listener to experience it with that intention.
PARRY: It’s separate from the top-down brain logic that usually drives musical performances. When you listen, you can sense that there is a different logical system at play. It’s not brain logic; it is the logic of the body. You are freed from the counter hierarchy.
IBARRA: Our decision-making is totally different. When I practice polymeters, I have to place everything in my body. It is a practice where the heart and the breath ask us to listen and play from our body.
PARRY: You have to give up the normal controls that you hold as a musician.
Can you tell me about the sample packs you release for the project? Has thinking about sample packs changed your songwriting process?
PARRY: Sample packs are basically disassembled parts of the disc.
IBARRA: It became a very inclusive process because we knew we were doing both an album and sample packs.
PARRY: I ended up looking at it as a whole composition, which is how I approach all my music, and I thought the sample elements would present themselves. I didn’t really think much about samples when writing the music. I knew the most beautiful and interesting samples would become apparent.
Is there anything you learned during this experience that you will take with you in your future musical creation?
PARRY: It’s a pretty self-contained world in some ways. But any avenue you explore can become an avenue you revisit.
IBARRA: The process has become very layered, especially thinking about how we’re going to transpose that as live elements. And I really like where we got to. It will definitely influence the way I might listen and think about things in the future.
Updated 6/22/22, 5:00 PM, to correct Parry and Ibarra’s commission information.