Wait For It: Jherek Bischoff Explores The Spaces Between Sounds

Jun 11, 2018

Jherek Bischoff emerged in the music world as a member of indie rock outfits such as Parenthetical Girls, Xiu Xiu and Degenerate Art Ensemble. Since then he has performed with David Byrne, Amanda Palmer, Bang On A Can and a number of other artists and collectives. Additionally, he's established himself as a formidable force in the world of orchestral music.

He's presently writing material for a new project from Kronos Quartet and a 20-minute piece for Symphony In The Flint Hills. He performs in Wichita on Monday, June 11, in the Ruffin Building Atrium, 100 N. Broadway, with the WC String Quartet. Bischoff and his colleagues will explore the natural reverb of the space through this performance.

This show takes inspiration from the composer's 2016 effort Cistern, which was inspired by the time he spent in an underground water tank beneath Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington.

The Monday evening performance in the Ruffin atrium is free of charge.

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: I could probably explain to our listeners what is significant about this performance that you're doing here in Wichita but I thought you might be more capable than I.

Jherek Bischoff: My most current music was a record that I made based on time that I spent in a two-million gallon empty water tank underground. It had this incredible 45-second reverb decay. So, when you snap your fingers you hear that sound for 45 seconds. It was a really magical, wild space that changed the way I compose and affected me deeply. So, the record I put out was really ambient, kind of glacial, textural, orchestral music.

So, when talking to the folks in Wichita about trying to put together a concert I mentioned that it would be great to find some reverberant spaces around town to check out and see if there's something that could emulate that effect a little bit. They found a building downtown that could do that. It's not a 45-second reverb but it's probably an eight or 10 second reverb, which is actually much more manageable and pleasing to the ear. It's a little less cumbersome.

A lot of times musicians are asked to work against a room, against the natural properties of delay and so forth. You're actually working with it.

That's exactly right. A bunch of my friends had recorded in this cistern before. They had learned all sorts of things about how to play with the room and collaborate with the room in the best possible way. They relayed that information to me. But me being the kind of stubborn, creative person I am, I said, "Sure, that's what works best in the room but I want to test the limits of the room and bring loud instruments into it."

Everyone was saying, "Oh, quieter is better, low-end is pretty unmanageable." I'm a bass player, so I decided to bring my big old bass amp down there and crank it up and try to find the resonant frequency of the room. I wanted to just blast things and see what happened. Within about five minutes of being down there, I was playing an extremely quiet violin. [Laughs.]

The room had such a character to it that I just said, "They were right!" Giving the room its own space and chance to speak was really important. It was just fascinating. I play a little trombone and I could play eight notes and then all those notes would sustain in a long chord. There's really no other opportunity in the world that I've found where you can play music like that.

It affords you a different kind of opportunity. You could play one single note and that note would be sustaining. You have time to reflect on it and really think about the next note, the perfect note to follow it. You can play that note and then there's two notes lingering in the air and you can think about what would be nice to add to that. You even have time to think about whether you should play a note with or without vibrato.

Everything is slowed down to this glacial pace. You can really just think about music in a wholly different way.

Going down into that tank and playing by yourself is one thing. What happens when you add other players to the mix?

The process was that I spent three days down in that space. I invited two musicians to accompany me. But I only ever had one other person that I was improvising with. I had no other intention than to just explore sound and have fun for three days, making noise. I figured, "Well, I'm going to be down there, I'll have some recording gear, I'll record the improvisations."

The moment I walked down into that space, I made a couple sounds and I immediately knew it was a record. The constraints of that space, technically speaking, were something I had to think about. The park that the cistern is located in is very concerned about people falling. It's not a closely watched space. The park officials are very strict on how many people are allowed in that space at a time. They're also very concerned about the air. There's an air meter they send down the manhole with you, it starts going off if the oxygen starts getting too bad.

So, as I said, I immediately knew that this was going to be a record but I also immediately knew that there was no way I was going to be able to bring an orchestra down into that space and I was really interested in making an orchestral record again. So, I what I did was use the information that I gleaned from improvising in that space to then go above ground and use that information to inspire the way that I would be composing.

So, I didn't actually record the record in that space. I actually recorded it in a church in upstate New York and added reverbs and things like that to emulate the sound of the cistern.

Can you talk a little bit about how that informed the compositions themselves?

When I went into that space I wasn't really thinking about how many connections a space like that has to me as a creator. It wasn't until after I'd recorded the improvisations in that space that I said, "No wonder I ended up down in that weird, dark place." I was raised on a sailboat my whole life. My childhood was traveling all around the world on that boat, moving extremely slowly on the water. When you think about a gigantic, empty cistern, it's a place that holds water and, with a reverb like that, you slow things down.

You can almost feel distance when you're performing in a space like that. The connection of it being a water thing and this slow-moving, distant feeling made me think, "Well, this is exactly sailing." Musical sailing. When I was composing, it really brought out a lot of thoughts about my childhood and traveling and being on the boat. So, there are several songs on the record that are basically three chords but a chord will sustain for about five seconds and then I will stop the musicians and then the sound of that chord carries for fifteen seconds or something. Then I play another chord and it's the same thing. It's like really slow-moving ocean waves. When I first heard the music being played back at me with a real orchestra all sorts of memories I had forgotten about from childhood just flooded back and made it a real personal, moving experience for me. It was unlike anything else I've ever created.

Once you'd done this did you begin to think about other spaces and other possibilities or did you say, "This is kind of a singular thing, I don't know if I want to revisit this idea too often"?

You know, that's something I'm thinking about right now, actually. It typically takes me about four years to make another "me" record. My first record ended up having a very full, interesting, weird story as well. I don't really set out to have such a clear, interesting intention behind the records I make. It just sort of naturally happens. I'm waiting for that next little exciting discovery to pop up in my life.

Until then, I'm writing a record for Kronos Quartet and writing music for Symphony in the Flint Hills. I'm also doing other projects that are in collaboration with other people. But having touched on this concept with the cistern, I don't feel like I'm ready to abandon that yet. I don't know if my next record will be that specifically but I do feel like at some point in my life I will have to revisit it because it feels like there's still a lot to explore.

Today there's a wonderful crossover between musicians who emerged from, for lack of a better term, the punk rock world and the classical sphere. It seems to me that there was a time where if one wanted to go to a concert with cellos and clarinets and flutes there was almost a kind of extreme vetting process that went on. Those walls don't seem to be as high today.

I walked into working on orchestral music very late. It's only been in the last seven years that I've even begun to explore it. But I have learned things pretty quickly. But there are all kinds of rituals in both kinds of music, in rock music and classical music. It's interesting to come from rock music and begin playing classical music with orchestras because I feel like I have the opportunity to decide which of those rituals I really admire and enjoy and which ones I don't care much about.

There's the tradition of the orchestra walking out and then the conductor walking out, then the soloists. Or maybe it's the soloists and then the conductor. I don't know. I'm not really that familiar. [Laughs.] I personally feel that everyone should walk out on the stage as equals and as a band. When I'm in charge of putting these kinds of things together, I try to make everyone feel that they're equally important. That we're creating this thing together. Things like that.

A thing that I love about orchestral music is the tradition of dressing up in a tuxedo. Even when I'm playing my music in a rock club or a little DIY venue, I still put on the tuxedo. It just feels good. When else, other than getting married, do you get a chance to wear a tuxedo?

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.