Beside the LED glow of the NYPD’s Times Square kiosk, in a penned-in plot of concrete between the 24-hour Starbucks and the Hard Rock Cafe, 200 people wander about with glowing blue headphones over their skulls, fiddling with the knobs behind their right ears, trying to find an empty fold-out chair.
It’s 11.30pm on a Sunday and the majority of this crowd didn’t come to Midtown Manhattan to see Jherek Bischoff and his “Silent Orchestra”. But stand still long enough in Times Square and you become a tourist attraction. So now intrigued tourists wander past the hip-high metal gates, taking selfies with the small crowd in shot, adding another image to their American Vacation on iCloud.
It’s a strange spectacle, all this among the shameless commercial chaos of Times Square. Tonight is essentially an orchestral silent disco: Bischoff and his pared-down chamber orchestra, using only electric instruments, play tracks from his new album, Cistern; the sound comes through headphones alone; the rest of Times Square, out of eyeshot, has no idea they’re there.
“You’re not allowed to make loud noises in Times Square after 11,” says Bischoff into a microphone, his voice also solely in the headphones, interrupting the sirens and lorry horns of the city outside. “Which I find hilarious.”
From there, Bischoff and the selected members of Contemporaneous – the New York-based orchestra that recorded the album with him – recreate one of this year’s most forcefully analogue albums through electronics. The once-warm clarinet of ‘Closer To Closure’ becomes synth-like, an affect from a late ’80s sci-fi show; the high, pendulous violins of ‘Headless’ that swirled around on record are thinner, now monophonic. It’s uncanny in the truest sense, an impression of an impression of what Bischoff first heard when he wrote the album.
But then, what Bischoff heard when he wrote the album is practically impossible to reproduce, least of all here. Three years ago, the Seattle-born artist visited an empty two-million-gallon cistern at a military base in Washington state. At first, he figured he’d play around with the acoustics, but he stayed for days. There was a 45-second reverb delay down there, enough for him to play a note on his bass and think for an unnatural amount of time about the next harmony, the right note to complement the echo. Before long, he’d brought a menagerie of instruments and a couple of collaborators down there to improvise with him.
And then, after a little while, he had Cistern, his third solo record. It follows string-quartet tributes to David Bowie and Prine he’s released this year, as well as a performance at the Bowie Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in July. It’s a unique piece of music, swelling and contracting around Bischoff’s glacial hooks. It’s modern classical, probably, though that hardly gets to the heart of the sound. The chamber orchestra builds and breaks; the violins do the job of the bass guitar; the bass does the job of the lead; piano is timpani. It’s a record that uses time as a collaborator, just as Bischoff used 2012’s Composed to collaborate with his friends. It is a unique record.
And it’s the opposite of Times Square.
During the last song in Bischoff’s Silent Orchestra set, at 11.57, 40 of the square’s huge advertising screens cut out and show Bischoff alone in the wilderness. It’s part of Times Square Arts’s programme Midnight Moment. The imposing TV screen that plays a 24-hour loop of Fox News’s Sean Hannity saying the words “fair and balanced” now shows the artist, dressed in a suit and bow tie, wandering through the wilderness. The screen above the Hard Rock Cafe – seconds ago advertising the new ScHoolboy Q record – now shows Bischoff painted gold, falling to the floor, unable to keep going through the greenery and hills.
And as Cistern‘s stunning title track squeezes through the headphones, Bischoff looks up in awe. His video is snaking up a skyscraper, repeated up into the dim-lit midnight.
A few days before this performance, we spoke with Bischoff about the making of the album and the way his upbringing has affected his music.
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