A multi-instrumental performer, composer and producer based in Los Angeles, Jherek Bischoff started his music career as a bass player with various experimental and indie pop bands. A regular collaborator with Amanda Palmer, the musician gradually moved towards orchestral composition, often adopting a DIY approach. His 2012 album Composed was originally written for ukulele, but the composer painstakingly recorded and arranged all the instrumental tracks himself into a full-blown orchestral score.
Financed through a successful Kickstarter campaign and released on 15 July 2016 last on the Leaf Label, Cistern is a majestic modern-classical ambient opus featuring 25 musicians – the New-York based Contemporaneous Ensemble, a string ensemble and Jherek Bischoff on contrabass and electric bass.
In August 2010, Jherek Bischoff was awarded a residency at Centrum, a gathering place for artists and creative thinkers which provides workshops, youth programmes and artists’ residencies. Centrum is situated on the site of Fort Worden in the state of Washington, two hours north of Seattle and outside Port Townsend. Now a historical state park, the former US army base was decommissioned in the 1950s.
Fort Warden is also the location for an underground two-million gallon concrete water tank originally built in 1907 to store soft water or to put out fires in case the Peninsula came under attack by Japan. The cistern was drained when the Fort closed. 60m wide and 4m deep, the structure is renowned for its unusual 45 second reverberation and has been used over the years by many musicians and artists.
That particular space was the original venue for American experimental composer Pauline Oliveros’ landmark 1989 Deep Listening album, originally released on New Albion Records.
Pauline Oliveros – Deep Listening
American composer John Cage’s experience in a soundproof chamber at Harvard University in the early 1950s prompted a lifelong reflection on sound and the impossibility of true silence. Arguably, Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening project had a similar impact on the musician’s experimental journey.
On 8th October 1988, composers Pauline Oliveros (1932 – 2016), Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis descended into the cistern with instruments and battery-powered recording equipment to capture a once-off performance in the resonant chamber.
Consisting of slow-moving improvisations for piano accordion, trombone, PVC didgeridoo, conch shell, metal pieces, voices and whistling, the four tracks recorded that day and released in 1989 became the landmark Deep Listening, a superb ambient masterpiece that has influenced a whole new generation of improvisers, drone and electronic musicians.
While most modern reverb is now generated electronically, the unique sonic qualities of the underground cistern meant that Deep Listening is an entirely acoustic recording, allowing for a natural layering of instruments, sounds and voices.
“Consequently”, notes Panaiotis, “it is impossible to tell where the performer stops and the reverberation takes over”. For Pauline Oliveros, the cistern recording triggered a new fascinating and original philosophy of listening combined with principles of meditation and improvisation. The three musicians also continued to perform as the avant-garde Deep Listening Band and Pauline Oliveros subsequently founded the Deep Listening Institute.
Down the Cistern
In August 2010, Jherek Bischoff spent three days improvising in the same underground space. This experimental and forced immersion in a reverberant hole sowed the seeds for the creation of new pieces that would eventually be recorded and released as the Cistern album.
Since there is no electricity in the cistern, I hooked my computer up to a car battery and setup a couple of microphones around the room. You have to adapt, walking and talking very quietly and being very patient, because every sound you make lasts 45 seconds.
For technical reasons, none of the album recordings took place in the cistern. But the musician “decided instead to focus on how the space itself drastically changes the way you make music”.
In an effort to emulate the exceptional acoustics of the cistern, the album was recorded live to tape in New York’s Future-Past, a hi-fi analogue recording studio housed in a 19th century church, thus an ideal space to capture a full chamber orchestra.
All developing slowly, most themes on the album take full advantage of the main hall’s acoustics – “Closer to closure” for instance is built around percussion and pizzicato rhythms while “The Wolf” hinges on the steady unison pulse of electric bass and plucked cello.
The bass playing on tracks like “Headless” alludes perhaps to the music of Angelo Badalamenti and his soundtracks to some of David Lynch’s films. A long-time admirer of the American composer, Jherek Bischoff released Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Walk with Me in December 2017, a short EP collection of classic Christmas songs in the style of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score.
Born in a subterranean meditative space, Cistern gradually reveals itself as a sumptuous concept album whose sweeping compositions seem to have stirred a whole range of childhood emotions buried in the musician’s memory.
Each time I would perform, it would bring back more and more memories, and I discovered that all of these memories were from my many years of living and travelling on a sailboat, crossing oceans. It was surely my subconscious at work. I realised that the reverberation of the cistern, and the way everything had to be slowed down in that space corresponded to the pace of life and relationship between distance, space and time I experienced sailing the ocean. When sailing, everything slows down […] I would never have guessed that such a cold, dark and empty space would unlock dear memories from years gone by, bringing me back so vividly from whence I came.