As Seen Through Windows
Arts and Crafts, 2009
“If elephants didn’t exist, you couldn’t invent one. They belong to a small group of living things so unlikely they challenge credulity and common sense.”
The same could be said of the music of Bell Orchestre, the Montreal-based instrumentalists whose music is so sonically unique, it can be difficult to categorize or describe. The group stretches the limits of composition so far, and bends their sounds, both manually and electronically, so well toward the entities and impressions they choose as subjects, that their pieces become more like simulated experiences than simply songs.
The group is comprised of many of the non-Butler members of Arcade Fire: there is violinist (and yoga celebrity) Sarah Neufeld, multi-instrumentalist and producer Richard Reed Parry, and French Horn player and mixer Pietro Amato. Percussionist Stefan Schneider is Amato’s bandmate in The Luyas, while trumpeter Kaveh Nabatian and lap steel guitarist Michael Feuerstack are each primarily part of other groups themselves. Many of the musicians also have successful solo careers. This makes Bell Orchestre something of a side-project supergroup.
They first blew my mind in 2007, when I was lucky enough to stumble upon their first record, Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light. My mind struggled to identify any traditional combination of instruments, or any conventional song structures, and failed. I was left to be simply picked up and transported wherever the noises took me, sucked through a tunnel, surrounded by sounds. In a 2005 interview with Adam McKibben of Red Alert, Parry described the album this way:
“In the beginning, middle and end, there are sections that were recorded in a tunnel in Montreal, a tunnel that goes under a canal near where I live. There’s this loose concept running that the album is a collision between different atmospheres and different environments and different places, and that’s there a thing going through the middle of it, tying it all together, although it doesn’t always make sense right off the bat. (laughs) We were trying to get all over the map and be dynamic, but have something physically holding it together. We recorded all of the stuff in the tunnel, and I was like, “What if there was actually kind of a tunnel running through the middle of the album?”
I loved the record so much that while so many music fans spent the late-aughts anxiously anticipating new projects and performances by Arcade Fire, I was secretly hoping they would go on hiatus so Bell Orchestre could reunite. It finally happened in 2009, with the release of As Seen Through Windows. It was that rare situation when a band whose debut absolutely blew me away followed it up with something I liked even better. My favorite track, which has become a staple in my earphones ever since, has accompanied me on numerous walks and jogs, lulled me to sleep and sparked so many fantastical dreams, is “Elephants”:
Did you know elephants are fantastic swimmers? Well, I didn’t until I heard this song. I started daydreaming about riding on an elephant swimming in the ocean (an internet search later confirmed that would be an actual possibility).[i]
Bell Orchestre composes through improvisation. They jam together, find something they like, and then figure out how to repeat it. Most of the finished pieces they record are brief, but “Elephants” sprawls out proudly and triumphantly like a herd of the animals themselves. Nabatian’s trumpet mimics the bellowing of their trunks, while Neufield’s staccato notes evoke their playful and surprisingly nimble feet. Wordless vocal harmonies and sustained cymbal crashes create the aura of enigmatic majesty associated with the largest mammals, while hinting at the expansiveness of a panoramic African sky. Underneath it all, Parry’s bass line, perhaps distorted by Amato, resonates like the deeply powerful infrasounds made by elephants, which humans cannot hear, but can feel.[ii]
It’s not often that an instrumental becomes stuck in my head. There aren’t many instrumentals that are as vivid as this one.
Bell Orchestre had not played together for several years prior to a show on January 28th in Copenhagen. Neufeld and Parry have both recently put out solo instrumental albums.
[ii] Infrasounds may have powerful effects on humans. They likely contribute to the awe so many of us feel when we encounter the animals that can make them, such as elephants and whales: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tX6nHUrL1Xs