Music of the spheres: it’s a term that refers to the universal harmony generated by celestial bodies in orbit, but it means something different to Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. His musical spheres are floating worlds, 360° embodiments of memory, VR renditions of old family photos. These spheres not only served as metaphorical inspiration for the lyrics of his new project, Quiet River of Dust, but appear throughout the album artwork and, most strikingly, in the films Parry made to be projected in planetarium-style domes to accompany live performances of this music. “It was an idea of a floating world of memory and of a time that only exists insofar as you’re able to revisit it in your memory,” he explains. “But when you do, it becomes so all-encompassing and immersive that it’s like you’re stepping into this other world every time.” That’s as true of his music as it is of any of its visual representations.
The first volume of Quiet River of Dust was released on the autumn equinox of 2018; this second volume, out on the summer solstice of 2019, was created at the same time. (It was supposed to come out on the spring equinox, but got bumped because Parry and designer Tracey Maurice had to wait for salt crystals to grow on the artwork to create wave caps and mountaintops—do not underestimate Parry’s attention to detail.) Both volumes bleed into one another, by design. “It feels like a multi-sided window to me,” says Parry, “a different view into this prismatic song world.” Japanese folk myths, death poems and British folk music are tributaries flowing into a river of late-20th century avant-garde composition and traditional song craft, written and performed by a member of a Grammy-winning rock band. This is a meditative, widescreen musical experience with Beach Boy harmonies and a hypnotic pulse. Layered songs that move in a linear fashion, following a current rather than circular composition.
The genesis of these songs came after Arcade Fire’s first tour of Japan in February 2008. Parry stayed on for weeks after the last show, heading to a monastery for some solace in “the biggest silence you’ve ever heard.” One day he was walking alone in a massive, snow-covered cedar forest when he heard distant voices, voices that sounded a lot like his father’s folk group back in Toronto, Friends of Fiddlers Green. (Parry was 17 when his father died in 1995.) “There was no reason for something to sound like full-throated, British-Isle folk singing there,” he recalls. “I walked and walked but I could never get closer to where the music was coming from.” He started writing meditative songs about mortality. On a later trip to Japan, he discovered the “River of Death,” a body of water understood in pre-Buddhist Japanese culture to be a liminal space between life and an afterlife.
The two halves of Quiet River of Dust are meant to represent each side of that river. Vol. 2: That Side of the River is more interior, says Parry, dealing with the murky waters of memory and the unconscious mind. The elegiac opener is a soft fanfare featuring his father’s former bandmates. That bleeds into “Lost in the Waves,” a story about a boy who goes to the ocean with his parents; they fall asleep on the beach, he walks into the ocean “and transforms in some magical, nebulous way,” says Parry. “What separates us from dissolving into the experience around us? It’s a feeling I’ve definitely had many times, where the boundaries of self and world are permeable to the point of disorientation. So much of this record is about being this young person in an older people’s world of music and song, this folk music community where the torch is passed, and losing my father at a young age, and being completely disoriented by that. This record, the songs are also referencing that nebulous psychic territory when you lose your most familiar world, when the village of your childhood disappears and you try to relocate yourself in a different one.”
The music owes debts to that of his father, but Parry didn’t want to write in a traditional British Isles folk style. Nor did he want to create the kind of pop songs to which tens of thousands of people could sing along, as he does with Arcade Fire. That band’s landmark 2004 debut, Funeral, made a grandiose statement through big, bold gestures; Quiet River of Dust does the same, with vertical layers of sonic architecture, but with the inverse approach: small, soft and gentle, though just as grand. Parry wanted to create a tangible aural garden of rapturous colours that invite exploration, an immersive experience. To do so, Parry invited precious few people into his solo project, including Laurel Sprengelmeyer of Little Scream, Stef Schneider of Bell Orchestre, Dallas Good of the Sadies, Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto, Amedeo Pace from Blonde Redhead, mixer Tchad Blake, composer Nico Muhly and The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who first urged Parry to perform this music live in 2012 at an All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K.
When it came time to present Vol. 1: This Side of the River live, he booked two weeks worth of shows at the SATosphere in Montreal in November 2018, and set out assembling video footage that could be projected in the dome. They gave him a tiny 360° camera that he could immerse in water, place inside tree stumps, “all the immersive, tiny spaces that you wouldn’t be able to see inside, looking out,” he says. “It was so beautiful. It made my brain explode with possibilities. When I was a kid I’d get completely enraptured by a melting pool of ice water in the spring, and part of me wished I could be inside of that strange little world. Experimenting with this camera brought me to that kind of place. Bringing it into the dome, you can actually make that image this big, 20-foot, immersive world around you. It’s a zen, contemplative way to be inside nature. Filming all this stuff has become one of my greatest artistic joys, one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. It’s a unique format to play music in, to step outside the codified world of rock shows in a way that really suits me. This is where this music wants to live.”
That’s where it will live in the next two years: the immersive Quiet River of Dust experience will be returning to Montreal this summer, before travelling to domes in Hamburg, Vancouver, France, South America and Japan. “I’m very curious about who this music is going to find,” says Parry.
Maybe even those ghosts in the Japanese forest will hear the result of the journey they inspired.
Bio by Michael Barclay, the author of ‘The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip’.