Sweet Symphony

Andrea Hart

Think of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Picture Mickey Mouse passionately commanding dancing broomsticks and stars by meticulously thrusting his arms. This possessed mouse and his enchanted hat aren’t leading inanimate objects; they’re conducting a sensationally skilled orchestra.

Can these riveting sounds only exist in fantasy? Not anymore.

Mickey’s imaginary musicians have come to life in the Bell Orchestre. This Canadian quintet features Richard Reed Parry on upright bass; Sarah Neufeld on violin; Pietro Amato on French horn; Kaveh Nabatian on trumpet; and Stefan Schneider on percussion. Since their 2005 release, Recording a Tape in the Colour of Light, the Bell Orchestre has proven that horns and strings can rock as leading ladies.

“This is not just an indie rock album,” says Richard Reed Parry, the group’s unofficial leader. “Our demographic is wide and narrow. We attract all walks of life.”

Perhaps this is because they have tapped into a sentiment that graces the entire spectrum of music.

“There’s a free jazz spirit too, as well as a punk rock one,” Parry says. “It just has an edgy, unconventional spirit to it.”

Although critics, such as those at Pitchfork Media, have praised the band for their uniqueness, they’re still quick to categorize Bell Orchestre’s sound as post-rock. Parry just shrugs the titles off, saying: “I don’t think we sound like anyone else. We just try to be honest, interesting and have a heart.”

When asked if he could describe the musical personalities of his bandmates, Parry draws a blank. With a confused laugh, he says, “I just don’t think that’s possible.”

Amidst his laughter, Parry has a breakthrough. After a brief pause, Parry proudly says, “Scattered – that’s how I’d describe us.”

This uniqueness has helped draw distinctions between the band and its more famous sister, Arcade Fire. Both of Bell Orchestre’s founding members, Parry and Sarah Neufeld, are also members of Arcade Fire.

At first, devoting time to both bands was manageable for Parry and Neufeld. However, in winter 2003, Bell Orchestre began working on Recording a Tape in the Color of Light at the same time Arcade Fire started recording Funeral under their new label, Merge Records.

“After Arcade Fire signed to Merge Records (in 2003), Bell Orchestre stuff got put on the back burner,” Parry says.

Completing the Bell Orchestre album was put off further when Arcade Fire hit the road in 2004.

“Once the tour started, Funeral just had this insane growth all on its own, and we had to keep up with the demands,” Parry says.

Bell Orchestre intermittingly worked on the album for roughly the next year and a half. They recorded in studios, cottages and even under bridges.

Essentially this unconventional situation had little impact on their recording process. Parry breaks down their method as follows: “A good three-fourths of it is listening and the rest is a willingness to try anything new.”

Parry confesses that a lot of the time, songs stem from tiny ideas. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s do a duet for French horn,’ and then we’ll jump on it and we’ll make it into a band piece,” he says.

Relying heavily on improvisation and emotional communication, it’s surprising that Bell Orchestre’s debut album clocks in at less than an hour. According to Parry, this unintentional condensing comes from trying to make the record “hold together” and “ditching a lot of stuff.”

Ultimately, the band’s family dynamic has allowed these moments of complete freedom and restraint to coexist.

Recording a Tape in the Colour of Light was officially completed in August 2005. Rough Trade, the band’s record label, released the album in the U.S. in November 2005. At that time, Belle Orchestre was touring with Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade.

After the Fall 2005 tour, the band went on a small headlining stint. These venues consisted mostly of art galleries, museums and small concert halls. Parry says he “enjoys the smaller settings because you see how people react.”

While performing on stage, Parry says that the band gets filled with an “exciting energy,” adding that “it’s where we realize we’re all kind of lucky.”

Bell Orchestre has been playing together for seven years, transforming from dance accompanists to a buzz-worthy band.

Parry isn’t surprised that the band has been well-received. Their originality was never intentionally sought out, and, according to Parry, that has made all the difference.

“We never hung up signs saying this is what we’re looking for,” he says. “All of this just kind of happened, music makes itself happen.”

Medill freshman Andrea Hart is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected]