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Too Composed: Jherek Bischoff at the Fitz

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance by Jherek Bischoff. Agree […]

Jherek Bischoff and Members of the SPCO. Photo: Justin Schell

Jherek Bischoff and Members of the SPCO. Photo: Justin Schell

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance by Jherek Bischoff. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The first collaboration of the season between two of the more innovative music series in the Twin Cities (the Walker and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series), kicked off with Seattle’s Jherek Bischoff at the Fitzgerald Theater last Friday. The show featured drummer Greg Saunier from Deerhoof; singer and songwriter Sondra Lerche; singer Channy Leaneagh from Poliça; singer and guitarist from múm Ólöf Arnalds; and members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Bischoff, tall and rail-thin, sported a rockabilly suit, greaser hair, and shiny, shiny gold shoes. Alternating between a Hofner bass and a series of ukeleles, Bischoff, with his toothy grins, is nothing if not a showman. (During the show’s opener “DAE-2,” he serenaded the SPCO members on bended knee.) All that was missing to my eyes in his arsenal of moves was a Chuck Berry duck walk.

The first half of the show was mostly Bischoff’s material, either original songs or arrangements. These disappointingly felt like superficial pastiche, passing through various genres and styles (including a few covers) without much musical or historical foundation. Waltzes, grandiose Arvo Pärt–style string quartets, The X-Files theme, Eminem, and even lounge music all seemed right at home for Bischoff. The worst offender was “Kule Kule,” a stripped down version of Bischoff’s orchestral remix of the Konono No°1 original; their wonderfully distorted polyphonies and complex polyrhythms were reduced to repeated violin lines and drums that veered too close to “darkest Africa” drums.

The second half worked much better than the first, as it consisted mainly of arrangements of songs from Bischoff’s guests. At the risk of sounding like a homer, one of the best parts of the show was Bischoff’s arrangements of “The Maker” and “Leading to Death,” two songs by Poliça that featured Channy Leaneagh. Two things struck me during these songs. First, I never realized how Icelandic Leaneagh sounds (coming as she did directly after Ólöf Arnalds). Second, Bischoff’s string-heavy arrangement gave Leaneagh’s voice a completely different shading. Although stripped of their original percussion, the songs had their power re-channeled through Leaneagh’s voice.

The other great part of the show were the songs by Ólöf Arnalds. The visible joy and pleasure she got from being on-stage and playing these songs seemed much, much more genuine than Bischoff’s. She broke out in laughter at one point during her song “Sudden Elevation” because she was, in her words, “overwhelmed” at the musical experience she was creating. (Earlier, Bischoff gleefully said playing with these assembled guests, especially the members of the SPCO, was “like driving a Ferrari.”) And what made me even more of a fan of hers was that she took an extended amount of time to thank a woman at the Fitz for running out to get her manuscript paper.

The vast majority of the crowd, however, seemed to enjoy both halves equally and were firmly in the palm of Bischoff’s hand. In a rarity for a non-hip-hop Minnesota concert, they even participated, providing bass line support for “Eyes,” the song he co-wrote with David Byrne. Bischoff soaked up every ounce of it, dispensing gratitude to an almost unreal degree.

Yet despite the gratitude and praise, I left reminded of how ideas of musical border crossing and genre blurring are founded upon stable conceptions of what is being crossed, in this case, “classical” and “pop” music. While other shows in the Liquid Music series, such as last year’s performances by Jace Clayton, created something that sounded new and innovative from these worlds, in the end, Bischoff’s original music ended up much more derivative, more surface, perhaps too composed, rooted less in experimentation and more in a bag of compositional idioms.