Jherek Bischoff has been a sort of living, breathing rumor, an uncanny enabler, a crucial part of a flurry of bands, retaining a sort of shadowy quality even on his first solo release – 2012’s “Composed”. His life story is truly fascinating and perhaps explains a lot of the odd angles from which he approaches musical composition and performance. Spending a good chunk of his life on a sail boat is actually the self-declared inspiration for this, his newest record release, titled “Cistern”, which makes perfect sense once you let the album unfold.
RELEASE DATE: 15 July 2016 LABEL: The Leaf Label
The material on this record is both very personal and very referential. Bischoff’s most recent work with Amanda Palmer definitely shows traces of this dual approach in which neoclassical tropes are grafted upon a vast knowledge of the vocabulary of pop music. The excellent EP of string quartet covers of David Bowie songs he arranged and performed with Amanda Palmer is not unlike Philip Glass’ own developments of Bowie albums into symphonies, which is truly high praise for Bischoff from an ardent Glass fan such as myself.
The concept behind “Cistern” is hinted at in the title – Jherek Bischoff spent hours in an empty two million galloon underground water cistern, improvising music and listening to the staggering 45-second reverb cascade every sound would create in that eerie space. Forced by this almighty echo, he learned to love the silence between notes even more, he learned to harness sonic space, drape it with minimal textures and allow time itself to breathe between his musical stanzas.
Of course, he could not record these ideas inside the cistern – the tyrannical reverb would not allow any development past the very simplest sketches. But it was without a doubt the catalyst for an adjustment to a new wavelength of time, if such a thing can be imagined. Once Bischoff brought his layered arrangements and a full orchestra into play, the results became simply excellent.
Phenomenal interplay happens between music and its own lingering echoes, time is suddenly made visible and palpable in a way I have not experienced since Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. Jherek Bischoff surpasses even that landmark in his ability to somehow compress a similar hallucinatory effect of time dilation and emotional surge in shorter and more varied pieces which leave the listener filled with an alien sort of energy, which might even feel like exhaustion at first.
“Cistern” is built like a purification ritual, something ancient and religious in nature, much like a Gregorian chant in some ways, much like the lament of the choir from a Greek tragedy, in terms of simplicity and emotional impact. Maximum effect with minimal means – the gambit of artistic minimalism, perfectly rephrased in this gilded record.
This is also a bit of a drawback as the referential aspect of the music dominates the personal one until halfway through the album, as if Bischoff is using round-about references to prepare the listener for the breathtaking climax of the final two songs. These ring so shockingly true, so perfectly accomplished, that I think they actually end up taking a bit of the luster away from the first part of the record. It’s as if the trope of a bad ending ruining a good movie were reversed: we are given such a spectacular ending that the rest of the album slightly pales in comparison.
“Cistern” could easily become an entry way into 21st Century (neo)classical music for all who have been curious and yet reluctant to take the plunge. Serialism can sometimes scare off even the most stalwart listener, but minimalism of such utter poetry as “Cistern” can open windows to unseen connections between sounds, unfamiliar ways of perceiving time, all without any pretention and without succumbing to the tyranny of structure. For Bischoff, what is said is at least as important as how it is said, and the balance makes this record truly memorable.