“There is a part of me that wishes I was one of those artists that does their one thing extremely well,” ponders composer/singer/instrumentalist/producer Jherek Bischoff. But he isn’t too concerned about his identity: “I love the idea of not knowing what I am.”
Even if he’s not certain about who he is, Bischoff can be sure of what he’s done. His 2012 release Composed is a significant, singular contribution to the broadly defined, ever growing world of indie-classical music. The album contains songs that erase divisions between genre, combining pop and art through a variety of styles that reflect his musically diverse background.
Bischoff was surrounded by music from an early age. His father was the percussionist of experimental rock group Amra Arma. His brother is also a percussionist, and Jherek first picked up the bass when he was young. But his family jam sessions were rather unconventional. He spent most of his childhood living on a sailboat; he and his family would play for friends on rafts tied to their floating stage anchored outside of Seattle. On a two-year trip around Central America and the Caribbean, his family would haul their instruments ashore to play with indigenous musicians, trading American rock tunes for local songs. After moving on land at age 17, he worked with a number of bands like Parenthetical Girls and Xiu Xiu and toured with Amanda Palmer.
Now, Bischoff is emerging in the world of contemporary classical music. As a composer, he is mostly self-taught, his ears his most valuable tool. And his music shows that he has listened widely and carefully.
In “Eyes,” high and low strings converse smoothly with each other, swelling over the Latin rhythms Bischoff picked up at sea. “The Secret of the Machines,” sung originally by Caetano Veloso of Tropicália fame, has a Brazilian air to it, but with its alternation of dissonant, hammered chords and florid flute passages, it is also equal parts Sufjan and Stravinsky. (The bassoon solo that opens the latter’s The Rite of Spring is echoed throughout the song). “Young and Lovely” begins in more of a rock idiom with a heavy backbeat and syncopated horn blasts but switches character entirely when the oom pah pahs of a waltz take over. His collection of songs is certainly eclectic, but it is not a disparate, distracted one. It is a synthesis that reflects a conscious attention to the music swirling around Bischoff’s world. “I feel like I have very organically found a way to utilize all of the things I have learned through playing music for most of my life in a genuine way,” says Bischoff.
Collaboration is a necessary part of a project like Composed; it couldn’t happen through Bischoff’s writing alone. “I had always done everything myself because I was terrified to ask people to be a part of my own project,” he told NPR’s Fresh Air. “So at this point I kind of decided OK, never mind, I’m going to just ask everybody.” And, a testament to Bischoff’s talent, people said yes. The story of the album’s production contributes to its charm. With no orchestra at his disposal, Bischoff traveled to the homes of friends and colleagues, recording part by part and mixing his lush arrangements out of these layers on his laptop. He then enlisted the help of some well-known singers, such as David Byrne, Craig Wedren, and Mirah Zeitlyn. He put a lot of trust in his singers particularly, giving them freedom to stray from his melodies and asking them to pen their own lyrics.
Bischoff has performed his songs live several times with a shifting team of players. As a part of the Walker Performing Arts season, he has assembled an all-star group to present his engaging work. An ensemble of Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra instrumentalists will play his intricate orchestral writing. They will be joined by drummer Greg Saunier of indie noise band Deerhoof, who previously provided percussion on the recording and live treatments of Composed. Like Bischoff, Saunier has a unique blend of experience; he has received training from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Congolese drummers. Also like Bischoff, Saunier is interested in stretching genre boundaries in new music.
An international set of vocalists will also present his work. Bischoff in turn has arranged songs by each of these artists for performance as well. Who will be singing?
Ólöf Arnalds is an important player in the small but artistically productive Icelandic music scene. A classically trained violinist, singer, and composer, Arnalds’ music is mostly acoustic, her lyrical, understated voice shifting easily from sweet to haunting. She recently talked to the American Swedish Institute, explaining that only lately has she become proud of her Icelandic roots. This fact may come as a surprise considering her compatriot Björk, the experimental powerhouse with whom she has collaborated. As far as working with Bischoff, she told ASI that it seemed to be fated after meeting him at one of her shows: “We got along really well … and it was almost like we planned to do something together at some point.” She is excited about working with him because “the connection comes from a personal acquaintance and a feeling of joint passion for music.”
Singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche is a true star in his native Norway; his face graces a Norwegian stamp. He had previously gained some attention in the US, but it wasn’t until his 2011 self-titled album was released that he received widespread acclaim in this country. Lerche writes consistently effective songs across the genres of jazz, rock, and pop and has a vocal adaptability that will lend itself well to Bischoff’s writing. As with Arnalds, the idea of working with Bischoff has been floating around for some time. Lerche also spoke with ASI, explaining that they “started talking and emailing about how it would be fun to do something together.” He’s anticipating the reciprocal aspect of the event: “He’s a great songwriter and lyricist and arranger, so I’m looking forward to having him reinterpret some of my songs and contributing as a singer to some of his stuff.”
Channy Leaneagh is best known as the frontwoman of Poliça, currently one of the biggest names in Twin Cities music. Inhabiting a space between cool R&B and synthpop, Polica’s music was called “austere and abstract yet at times soaringly symphonic; repetitive and mechanical yet warm and organic” by MPR. The bands next album, Shulamith, is out later this month. Part of the band’s unique sound is the Autotune-heavy treatment of Leaneagh’s voice. Singing with Bischoff may seem like a distinct departure, but have no fear. Her previous band, the local folk group Roma di Luna, was known in part for her emotive voice. Leaneagh recently conducted an interview with Bischoff for The Green Room in which she admitted she was both nervous and excited for the show.
Bischoff, too, hinted at his anticipation for collaborating with these artists and for the contemporary classical cabaret that they will present. He sees his music as an infectious celebration, and hopes that upon listening, “love travels into your ears and spreads love bugs all over your brain.” I’m looking forward to this infestation.
Jherek Bischoff: Composed – copresented with the SPCO’s Liquid Music series and in association with the American Swedish Institute and Minnesota Public Radio – takes place Friday, October 18, 2013, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.