Cistern is Jherek Bischoff’s anticipated follow-up to his debut album Composed, which featured a quirky, orchestral pop sound. On Composed, Bischoff recorded orchestral instruments separately and layered the sounds to create a full ensemble. With Cistern, he gets help from the excellent NYC-based ensemble Contemporaneous, who provide the orchestral sounds that have become the touchstone of his work. It’s been called “headphone music,” and it is experienced best when enveloped in large headphones. Audiences in Times Square were given just this opportunity, listening to a late-night “Silent Orchestra” performance of Cistern on wireless headphones, accompanied by visuals displayed on massive video screens (a Midnight Moment presented by Times Square Arts).
Serenity – that’s the feeling that pervades the music on this album. It’s music that isn’t meant to really excite or engage you in a particular way, but seeks to bring you to a contemplative place. For Bischoff, that place was a massive cistern underneath Fort Worden on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where he improvised inside a space with a 45-second reverb. This is no place for fast, complex music, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration of this cavernous space in the music of the album, which uses simple, slow motives and a lot of repetition to convey its ideas.
The experience of playing in a massive darkened echo chamber is possibly the most closely portrayed by Lemon, the album’s shortest track, and the evocative closing track The Sea’s Son, which use silence to the fullest extent. Interesting orchestration abounds on Cistern from the start of the album, with a toy piano and militaristic percussion entering the mix on the track Automatism. Strings sliding and bending pitch create an interesting atmosphere on the title track, a straight-up passacaglia. The one track to create a bit of tension is The Wolf, playing low instruments off the rest of the ensemble in a hunt-like dance of sound, but it stands apart from the all-encompassing introspection of this album.
Though music that is relentlessly inward-looking and meditative rarely suits my taste, the melodies and harmonies of Closer to Capture, together with the stop-start of this music’s rhythm makes it the star for me on this new release. It’s also hard not to be swept away by the nostalgia of The Sea’s Son; Bischoff says that as he composed in this album’s slower, almost back-to-basics style, he was reminded of the simpler times of his childhood, growing up on a sailboat in Seattle. As the final track’s unresolved harmony hangs in the air, it’s easy to visualize a human figure standing on the prow of a boat, gazing across the bay. I find that I actually enjoy the music of Cistern much more in film soundtrack form; Bischoff has done a small amount of scoring (i.e. Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer), and I hope we can look forward to more film-related projects from this busy composer.
For more videos featuring Jherek Bischoff, visit our video page for 3 tracks from Cistern recorded right here in our studios with a quartet of the Seattle-based string ensemble, SCRAPE.