Chosen One: Jherek Bischoff
Interview with Jherek Bischoff.
“When I was inside of making this music, I was just living it and when I stepped back and listened, I realized quickly why this record made so much sense for me to create.”
Words: Mark Carry
The modern-classical opus ‘Cistern’ is the latest masterpiece from gifted Los Angeles-based composer Jherek Bischoff, which was released earlier this year on the ever-dependable Leaf Label imprint. The suite of nine stunningly beautiful modern orchestral recordings awaken a myriad of feelings: euphoria, joy and hope are inter-woven with moments of fear, anguish and despair as a voyage of epic proportions gradually unfolds with each momentous note and the intense reverb contained therein.
The album-title reflects the origins of Bischoff’s joyous string-laden voyage. An empty two-million-gallon underground water tank was the space in which ‘Cistern’ was conceived that led the prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist to improvise music inside this vast space and (as described by Bischoff) “fascinating days of music-making” would soon ensue. Distance and time are integral components to the immersive sound world of ‘Cistern’ where the space between the notes become just as important as the notes themselves. In many ways, I feel a striking parallel exists between the slowed-down strings of these exceptional compositions – for example, the heart-wrenching closing lament ‘The Sea’s Son’ or eternal rejoice of ‘Attuna’ – and the pioneering ambient works of revered duo Stars of the Lid (particularly the more orchestral-based works of the band’s last two records). Bischoff’s ability to stretch out space is one of the great hallmarks of ‘Cistern’, a timeless quality that indeed prevails throughout the record’s sprawling canvas.
The effect of the cistern as a recording space was in fact two-fold for the LA-based composer, which saw Bischoff drawing on his childhood growing up on a sailing boat: “The experience of being in that space brought back so many memories of my time spent traveling by sailboat on the open ocean. Compared to city life, the pace of moving on the ocean and the speed at which you travel is slow”. ‘Cistern’ immerses the listener deep into an ocean of enchanting sounds that invites inner-reflection of the rarest kind. The intricate arrangements and rich sonic palette – supplied by renowned New York-based Contemporaneous Ensemble and Bischoff’s (multiple) instrumentation of contrabass, flute, electric bass, ukulele, casio and bells – creates an utterly timeless tour-de-force that navigates the depths of the human heart.
‘Cistern’ is out now on The Leaf Label.
Interview with Jherek Bischoff.
Congratulations Jherek on the stunningly beautiful and epic tour de force, ‘Cistern’. First of all, please take me back to the inception of this enchanting record and the special journey it took you on? Discuss the sound world and acoustics captured within the cistern itself and the emotional trigger in which brought your musical ideas to glittering life?
Jherek Bischoff: Thank you so much for the kind words! The journey began when I was awarded a residency by Centrum/Artist Trust in Seattle. The residency was to take place in Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend Washington. The plan was to finish mixing my last record Composed, but for years I had been told about the Cistern that was there. Many of my friends had made music down there and many people have made great music in there so I wanted to hear it for myself. To get into the cistern, a park ranger takes you up the hill to a giant stone. The stone is lifted to reveal a manhole cover, the only entrance to the cistern. I brought my recording gear and set up for 3 days, planning on just messing around and experimenting. However, upon playing the first few notes down there, I realized immediately that this sound would be my new record – in fact, the first thing I improvised in the cistern was the title track from the record! The cistern itself has a 45-second reverb decay, and you could hear distance and time if that makes sense. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. Emotionally speaking, it was interesting because it is such a dark space, literally and tonally, and in the first day, I tried to fight it by experimenting with beats and trying different things but it quickly distilled into soft, deliberate and beautiful music.
The record as a whole feels akin to an epic voyage across deep blue seas amidst vast seas of engulfing moods, colours, textures. One of the hallmarks of ‘Cistern’ is the immaculate detail and rich tapestry of instrumentation that is so masterfully realized (and subsequently arranged). Can you recount for me your memories of making music inside the cistern? In terms of improvisation, please shed some light on any structural framework or ‘gateways’ you search for when it comes to composing music through the art of improvisation?
JB: I would say that maybe 5 of the tunes began in the cistern as seeds during improvisations. The rest was inspired by how it felt to play music in the cistern. Having that intense reverb was like having a collaborator, and slowing everything down that much in order for things to resonate gave me such a deeper appreciation for the space between notes. Slowing things down like that gives you time to think about the next step or even the next 3 steps. Arranging is maybe my favourite part of a musical process for that very reason. I get the chance to think about every single note that will be played. I get to sit there and ponder for a while if a note should even be there. So, arranging music that was so based on ideas that are already slowed down and in general kind of simple was wonderful because it was like a double dose of getting to think about every single note and also magnifying it. Sometimes looping something a dozen times and then just changing the note in one instrument and enjoying how much that changed the feeling made for the most successful musical moments on the record. It was a wonderful process.
What are your earliest memories of traveling by sailboat, Jherek? It’s fascinating how serendipitous Cistern’s story proved where an empty two-million-gallon underground tank led you to re-awaken ceaseless memories of your childhood at sea. What aspects of the sea – and particularly the axis of space and time – have made an impact on you?
JB: Well, I was sailing since the year I was born and my earliest memories of sailing were probably in San Francisco on my parents’ first boat. I loved the moment when the sails filled and you could feel the wind pull you along; you could turn the motor off and you would hear just the water against the hull. I travelled many great distances on the boat including crossing the Pacific. I learned to appreciate the things that I had at hand. People used to ask me if it was boring to travel around so slowly and it absolutely was not. The colour of the ocean in the middle of the Pacific is the most incredible blue and you can see the rays of the sun shoot down toward what seems like infinity. I could and did just stare at that for hours on end and it never got old. So yes, the cistern and sailing were very similar in a lot of ways that only became apparent to me later upon listening to the music as an outsider. When I was inside of making this music, I was just living it and when I stepped back and listened, I realized quickly why this record made so much sense for me to create.
‘Headless’ is one of the record’s defining moments: a golden dawn fills the vast skies above and seas below. The mesmerising guitar-based melody is particularly poignant, as is the delicate piano notes and gradual pulses of soul-stirring strings. Please talk me through the construction of this piece of music and indeed the moment in the journey ‘Headless’ signifies for you?
JB: This tune I added at the last moment. Another song that I had recorded with Contemporaneous I decided to not use and it left me short a song. I had just written this tune and was headed up to Seattle to do some other work and very quickly pulled together a recording session with some friends. I had to piece this one together more like my typical process. I recorded the strings and then put my bass melody on there and then I ended up playing the rest of the instruments myself just because of lack of time and budget. I did my best to mix it to feel like it was in the same space as the rest of the record and I think it does pretty well. With pretty much all of the tunes on Cistern the biggest challenge was trying to decide how many times I could loop something before it would lose its focus too much. I wanted the listener to be able enjoy it as ambient music and be able to get lost in it, but I also wanted it to be something that an active listener could enjoy. I kept shortening and lengthening this one over and over until the end to get it right. As far as what the tune means for me emotionally, I can only really say that it was music that I made to satisfy something deep within myself.
Looking back on the making of ‘Cistern’, were there certain moments or parts in the process that proved pivotal in achieving the record’s desired sound and feel? For instance, collaborating closely with the wonderful ensemble Contemporaneous and recording in Hudson’s Future-Past Studio must have many of these sonic creations afoot to new pathways or directions as a result?
JB: As I was working on writing the pieces to go on Cistern, I was playing a lot of shows in New York and started working with Contemporaneous pretty regularly. We were playing some of these tunes and I was refining them as we went along. It was apparent to me right away that they were the perfect ensemble to play this music. They are the right size, have more than enough skill and have so much great energy. We could all be very serious and get deep into the work, but we could also have a laugh and shake it off. We were working on this recording for three days and getting very, very specific to get the most out of every note. We were developing and honing in on specific vibrato for instance that created a feeling of the sea, and if everyone was not totally focused, we would lose the feeling. That kind of focus causes a lot of tension in your mind and body, so being able to have a good laugh is critical!
I wanted to record outside of the city so we could remain more focused. We decided to go upstate and Future-Past was recommended by a few very smart musical minds in the area. We were all able to stay out at Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman’s place in Woodstock. It was so wonderful to be able to work all day together and then party together in the evenings.
In mixing, it took a long time for me to find the right combination of reverbs to feel like the cistern. It was at times a combination of 4 or 5 reverbs to create the desired effect.
I must ask you about the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, which took place very recently. This must have been a very special moment for you and also I must congratulate you on the gorgeous and deeply heartfelt ‘Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute’ EP. Can you describe the importance of David Bowie’s music in your life and indeed this beautiful chapter that saw you work closely with Amanda Palmer, among other wonderful voices?
JB: Oh man, Proms was THE BEST! It was such an honour to be part of that. It was certainly one of the highlights of my musical life so far!
Making the Bowie EP was wild. We did it so quickly! I had a day to arrange each tune, including “Blackstar”, which is basically three songs in itself.
I was actually not much of a Bowie fan growing up for whatever reason. I certainly had tunes that I liked a lot and appreciated him as an artist, but in the last few years my enjoyment of his work has grown so much. About 6 months before his passing, I did an arrangement of “Life On Mars” for tuba octet! His passing was so intense for me and everyone around me. Like I said, I didn’t grow up with him, but losing him was such a huge blow. I felt losing him so much heavier than I think I had ever felt losing someone I didn’t actually know personally. This is one reason why I felt that working on the EP was okay to do. I felt that I was in mourning and I should deal with it anyway I could.
What are your earliest musical memories? I wonder how did your musical upbringing develop and with whom do you feel you have learned a lot from when it comes to making music and forming your own unique musical path?
JB: My dad is a musician as are/were his friends. When my folks would invite friends over, the night would usually end with them all on the couch, a little whiskey in hand and eyes closed, just sitting there listening to music together. I remember distinctly Kate Bush being played a lot. I used to think it was really strange and now I do the same! Still with Kate Bush!
As far as musical upbringing, my great friend Sam Mickens from our band The Dead Science would certainly be that dude. We had that band for about a decade and see eye to eye on almost every single piece of music. It’s crazy. We always pushed each other too. If we didn’t see eye to eye, eventually we would. I remember him playing me OK Computer and thinking it wasn’t for me…even Bowie, too! He was always pushing me and I like to think I did the same for him.
Lastly, what artists, musicians, records or live shows do you feel made a profound impact on you?
JB: Live that I have seen: Jimmy Scott, Tom Waits, James Brown, Prince, Boredoms, Deerhoof.
Arvo Part – Tabula Rasa (particularly Gil Shaham playing Fratres)
Tom Waits – Bone Machine (for the sounds)
Busta Rhymes – E.L.E
John Jacob Niles – Tradition Years: I Wonder As I Wander
Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come
Prince – Purple Rain
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
‘Cistern’ is out now on The Leaf Label.