Cistern by Jherek Bischoff
Formats: CD (BAY 99CD) Limited edition gold vinyl LP + CD (500 copies) Limited edition black vinyl LP + CD (BAY 99V) Digital (BAY 99E)
Release Date: 15 July 2016
All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them
‘Suzanne’ - Leonard Cohen
Cistern is the second album by prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist and composer Jherek Bischoff. Gloriously cinematic, these modern orchestral recordings showcase Jherek’s unerring ability to pull at the heartstrings. It comes hot on the heels of Strung Out In Heaven, a moving string quartet tribute to David Bowie, conceived with Amanda Palmer and featuring the significant talents of Anna Calvi, John Cameron Mitchell and Neil Gaiman. A prolific and divergent collaborator, working with the likes of David Byrne, The Kronos Quartet, Caetano Veloso, Xiu Xiu and Australian star Missy Higgins, it can be difficult to pin the real Jherek Bischoff down. Here then, is an intensely personal work. Like his previous album Composed, Cistern is a real labour of love.
This is a record intrinsically linked to the space in which it was conceived, born from time spent improvising in an empty two million gallon underground water tank. A space which forced Bischoff to slow down, to reflect, to draw on his childhood growing up on a sailing boat - an unexpected journey of rediscovery, from the city back to the Pacific Ocean via the Cistern.
Jherek first discovered the cistern while mixing previous album Composed at Fort Worden, an old army base in Washington state. Intrigued by rumours of a 45 second reverb and Pauline Oliveros’ 1989 Deep Listening album (which was recorded in the same space), his adventurous spirit drew him to this subterranean world to explore the acoustic possibilities. Hooking his computer and bass amp up to his car battery and armed with an arsenal of instruments he descended into the darkness.
“I spent three days in the cistern improvising, one day by myself and two days with a couple friends I invited,” explains Jherek. “They were fascinating days of music-making. I found it so interesting how much the space itself seemed to tell us how to play, in essence becoming a collaborator. Things certainly worked best when we slowed down and gave the room time to sing.”
Being forced to work at this pace ignited something in Jherek. What started as musical experimentations soon allowed time for reflection and recollections of a slower pace of life, prompting a deeper emotional response to the space that stayed with him long after his visit. “The experience of being in that space brought back so many memories of my time spent travelling by sailboat on the open ocean. Compared to city life, the pace of moving on the ocean and the speed at which you travel is so slow.”
Practical implications thwarted plans to record a chamber orchestra in the cistern, not least the lack of adequate oxygen. Instead, the record was realised in Future-Past Studios in Hudson, NY, a converted 19th-Century church. Enlisting the New York based Contemporaneous ensemble, and using the church’s reverberant spaces, Jherek set about recreating the immersive sound world of Cistern. This is an album of sumptuous dynamics. Jherek revels in exploring the musical space afforded him by the lengthy reverb tails, and is unafraid to unleash the full power of the orchestra when necessary.
Broad vistas are painted in cerulean tones on ‘Headless’ and the meditative ‘Attuna’, while ‘The Wolf’ offers a glimpse into murky depths. The album builds to the climactic title track, one of the first to come from those early improvisations: ‘Cistern’ is majestic, huge in scope and utterly devastating.
Fittingly, the journey ends on ‘The Sea’s Son’, where the pace is slowed and buoyed on swelling strings, and the lines between Jherek as musician, collaborator, composer, arranger and producer vanish on the horizon. It is here that he is most at home. It took an empty water tank to inspire his return to the sea.
The Story Behind The Album, by Jherek Bischoff
In August 2010, I was awarded a residency through the arts organization Centrum in Port Townsend, Washington. Centrum is located on an old army base called Fort Worden, which is now a state park. During my time there, I was finishing mixing my record Composed. I had also heard about musicians recording in the underground water tank, or cistern, at Fort Worden, so I made sure to leave some time to get down there and improvise.
The cistern at Fort Worden is large enough to contain two million gallons of water when full, but exposes a massive room of cement walls minimally adorned with structural cement pillars when empty. To get to the cistern, you follow a tractor up a long dirt road until you come to a grassy field with a big rock in the middle. The tractor pulls up to the rock, attaches its claw, and hoists it up to reveal a manhole cover. Removing the manhole cover unveils a vertical ladder which descends underground. This is the only entrance into the cistern, as well as the only source through which natural light streams down into complete darkness.
Underground in pitch black, without the ability to see, the sound of the space is even more exaggerated. What is revealed instantly is a reverberation unlike anything you have ever experienced. The vast emptiness of the cistern generates a reverb decay that lasts 45 seconds. 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. 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. I would press the space bar to record, and I would have to wait 45 seconds before even beginning to make music. If I shuffled my feet or cleared my throat, I’d have to wait another 45 seconds. It was a bit maddening at times.
When going into the cistern to improvise, I had no intention of making an ambient record, and had no idea I would be inspired by the space as much as I was. But as soon as I began to make music in that space, I knew that I had just embarked on a journey.
The very first improvisation became the title track of Cistern. It started out simply as a piece with acoustic guitar and singing. It was unlike any music I had created before, and lead to my exploring new territory as a composer. I spent three days in the cistern improvising, one day by myself and two days with a couple friends I invited. They were three fascinating days of music-making. I found it so interesting how much the space itself seemed to tell us how to play, in essence becoming a collaborator. Things certainly worked best when we slowed down and gave the room time to sing. I tried different things, playing ultra quietly on various instruments, experimenting by hooking up a bass amplifier to my car battery and blasting bass tones. The reverberation was so long that I could play single trombone notes layered one on top of the next to create giant eight note chords on solo trombone, and the chord would just hang there. Incredible. During those three days, many seeds of pieces on Cistern were created, but they were just that — seeds.
I wanted to develop these seeds into larger works for chamber ensemble. I considered trying to record a chamber ensemble in the cistern, but because of the lack of adequate oxygen inside, it was not an option. Also, the Deep Listening Band’s 1988 release Deep Listening, recorded in the very same cistern, is already a perfect testament to the other-worldly qualities of the space. I decided instead to focus on how the space itself drastically changes the way you make music as a jumping off point to compose a whole record for chamber orchestra.
I began performing some of these pieces live and continued to write songs with this idea in mind over a few years. During that time, I performed a few concerts with a marvelous group of musicians in New York called Contemporaneous. I knew they were the perfect ensemble to play this music to its fullest potential. Even though the music is seemingly simple — not too many notes, slow tempo, repetitive motifs — it is actually quite difficult to play as beautifully as they were able to.
We recorded live to tape at Future-Past Studios in Hudson, NY, with Patrick Higgins (of Zs). Future-Past Studios is housed in an historic 19th-Century church. As luck would have it, my friends Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman had just bought a house in Woodstock that had enough beds to accommodate most of the orchestra, and they were kind enough to let us stay there. It was the perfect retreat after a long day of recording — sitting around a campfire, playing music and drinking wine through the night. I like to think it added to the warmth and harmony of Cistern. It was a wonderful few days of recording.
Since I began performing this music live, I have had many memories of my past unexpectedly spring into mind. 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 traveling on a sailboat, crossing oceans. It was surely my subconscious at work. I realized 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; if you are going fast, you are going seven knots, or eight miles per hour. I once sailed from Mexico to Hawaii: it took 19 days to sail there and only five hours to fly back. I spent a good portion of my life traveling this way, so composing in this slowed-down but very intentional manner felt extremely natural to me. 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.
2. Closer To Closure
7. The Wolf
9. The Sea’s Son OTHER