Jherek Bischoff’s “Cistern” Is A Continental, Alchemical Journey

Posted on September 03, 2016, 12:59 pm
5 mins

The video for Jherek Bischoff’s “Cistern” has been a long time coming, and not just because Bischoff and the crew traversed the continent to create it. The song “Cistern” was composed years ago, but it didn’t get an official recording until the release of Bischoff’s latest album of the same title, released on July 15, 2016.

In August, he was the resident artist for Time Square’s Midnight Moment. From 11:57 to midnight, three-minute versions of videos from Cistern (the album). Thus, audiences in New York may have already seen “Cistern” (the video) on August 21 and 22, when it accompanied a live orchestral performance in Times Square streamed live through hundreds of wireless headphones for those who would stop and listen. As the performers were using special electronic instruments, they would seem silent to onlookers who did not put on headphones.

This play between sound and silence is a big part of Bischoff’s work. Bischoff loves playing with acoustics. (You can also hear this at work in Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, which Bischoff produced.) “Cistern” was composed to be played in an actual cistern with a 45-second reverb. The recording on the album was made in a church in Hudson, New York and the sound is not nearly as cavernous and prolonged as it has been in past live performances. (In the video gallery below there is a recording of just such a rendition at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle back in 2011, but still you can’t hear the reverb as strongly as one did in a live environment.)

“Cistern” becomes a very different song without that long, ambient reverb. Rather than leaving one awash in a swell of sound, the song’s cyclical nature becomes a defining characteristic. Cyclicality then becomes the framing feature of the video for “Cistern,” and it is duly gorgeous from the first frame to the last.

As “Cistern” opens, our sense of depth is confused, looking over a dune at a twilit sky. We don’t know the scale of what we are seeing, so when Bischoff rises slowly from the sand, he seems a titanic. And then, he walks…through beds of seaweed to salt flats to glacier caves to temperate rainforests to ashen mountainsides to red-rock desert. With every passing locale, his suit becomes more golden, starting from the bottom up. By the time he finally collapses beneath a Joshua Tree beneath a night sky, he is golden from crown to toe. The camera pans back up to the starry sky, which becomes wheels within wheels through a long-exposure.

The alchemical symbolism here is overt, a progression from prima materia to gold, eventually collapsing back into the earth again. I feel that anyone just listening to “Cistern” will develop this sense on his or her own, but the visual representations—SO beautifully shot—make it unmistakable.

Bischoff’s transformed character in “Cistern” is an everyman, and as the ocean was the cradle of multicellular life, the film’s opening vignette by/in the sea is apt. However, it is also specific to Bischoff’s personal biography. He was raised in a musical family on a sailboat until he was 18, and his connection to water and the sea remains central his work. Noise at the edge of silence, ambient sound punctuated by sharp bursts, a languid pace—all of these features in his compositions can be traced to his time on the water.

Check out some videos from Bischoff below, including work from his lyrical 2012 album Composed. The clip for “Cistern 1” begins with a snippet from the song “Attuna,” also on his latest album, Cistern. Purchase Cistern online, published by the The Leaf Label.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.