Jherek Bischoff


Between 23:57 and the Witching Hour each night throughout August, the video for the title track of Jherek Bischoff’s new album Cistern will be projected onto 40 large screens across Time Square in New York. The avant garde composer and multi-instrumentalist was chosen as this month’s virtual artist-in-residence for the Time Square Arts’ Midnight Moment. “Someone pinch me,” Jherek wrote in a recent blog on his website.

The prestige of appearing at the famously bustling Midtown Manhattan address seems a world away from an album born out of improvisation from within a two million gallon subterranean water tank. ‘Cistern’ will act as a three minute oasis among the cheesy bombast of Broadway, the interminable neon skirmish assailing the eyes, and the home of the mother of all clusterfucks in waiting just up the road. Indeed, walk down 46th Street and then up 5th Avenue and you can be stood outside Trump Tower in ten minutes. The album Cistern is thoughtful and meticulous, agile and artful; in other words, the antithesis of that blustering merry-andrew giving the US Presidency a shot this November.

If you’re unaware of Bischoff’s work, you may recognise his name from a David Bowie tribute that went viral in February. He arranged Strung Out In Heaven following the great man’s passing, performed with Anna Calvi and longtime collaborator Amanda Palmer; it certainly felt more germane – and a whole lot more poignant – than Mumford and Sons banjoing their way through ‘It Ain’t Easy’. Bischoff has kept himself busy with an array of projects over the years (Parenthetical Girls, Xiu Xiu, The Degenerate Art Ensemble, The Dead Science, The Wordless Music Orchestra to name but five), though he dropped onto the radar for most when his first solo album Composed was released in 2012. Most eye-catching among an album full of collaborations is a collusion with the ever musically promiscuous David Byrne. Their single ‘Eyes’ is a dynamically exquisite four and a half minute foxtrot with coercive timpani and exotic strings.

Cistern couldn’t be any less elaborate. If Composed was about active participation between composer and singer, then this time the main collaborator is the space itself, which Bischoff found deep within the tank based in Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington. “The vast emptiness of the cistern generates a reverb decay that lasts 45 seconds,” said Bischoff in an interview. “That means, if you snap your fingers, the sound lasts 45 seconds. That amount of reverberation is an absolutely wild environment to try to create music in”.

The composer spent three days improvising within the commodious environs, the conditions forcing him to slow everything down, and to think more about space than he’d ever done previously. Impracticalities such as not having enough air for the woodwind section, meant the album had to be recorded at the Future-Past Studios – a converted 19th-Century church in Hudson – nevertheless the echoey provenance of the project still resonates. There are still frills if you listen closely enough, provided by the New York ensemble Contemporaneous (check out opening track ‘Automatism’), but the name of the game here is meditative ambience. Despite the pervasive quietude (if that isn’t an oxymoron), it’s a record that is never short of being compelling, whether on the more serene numbers, like ‘Cas(s)iopeia’, or the more foreboding, like the title track.

For Bischoff, the experience also brought back vivid childhood recollections of travelling the open ocean in a sailboat. Born in Sacramento, CA, he spent time during his youth sailing the North Pacific with his parents, and then again as a teenager, floating down the Panama Canal and around the Caribbean for a couple of years. If Bischoff has spent an inordinate amount of time sailing on the water, then much of Cistern is more like how you might imagine being submerged within it feels. Landlubbers need not fear this album however. Midtown NYC is the beating heart of the metropolis after all. For three minutes every night in August, Time Square will belong to Bischoff. Let’s just hope and pray that November and the White House don’t belong to that terrifying demagogue The Donald.

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