Jherek Bischoff and the Rise of the New Composer

Our species seems wired for alarmism, especially among conservative individuals. An ignorance of history and a lack of perspective for the present combines to make people think all change is a sign of their downfall, even if what is being changed was not long ago suppressed and feared. One defining characteristic of true artists is that they are not paralyzed by these changes even when profoundly affected by them. Changes in technology and politics precipitate changes in society and taste, and this can devastate or deliver an artist. Some will carry on regardless of the changes, perhaps because they were and remain avant-garde; some will pioneer new media and lay the groundwork for generations of artists in that medium; others will find that public taste has finally shifted to appreciate their previously obscure work. Unfortunately, that last scenario generally occurs posthumously.

Jherek Bischoff

Bischoff at the Moore Performance. Photograph by Bruce Clayton Tom.

Change is inevitable and things that self-consciously attempt to meet the taste of the time are doomed to eventual mockery or an ironic appreciation at best, while things that truly respond to the time may become long-lived documents. Few people have the perspective and intuition required to understand the Zeitgeist, and among that pool very few cultivate their raw talents to produce a work of art that reveals it to others. Critics should be loath to proclaim any artist a champion of culture—and the public should suspicious of any critic who does, as the proclamation is often more venal than vatic—but here I want to proclaim that Jherek Bischoff is exemplary of a new sort of musician and composer who should thrive in new media through a genuine engagement with the audience and a strong voice, not a studio gimmick.

The road is by no means an easy one, even for talented artists such as Bischoff. The music industry has been in upheaval since its beginning. (It may be considered a form of upheaval in itself.) The extent to which recording technology has fundamentally changed how people think about music cannot be overstated, and this disruptive technology is the bedrock of the industry. Recorded music turned a century old shortly after MTV debuted with The Buggles’ aptly chosen anthem of change in the industry “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Three decades later, MTV infamously plays virtually no music videos at all.

The quality and quantity of recorded music may have changed immensely, and radio and video may have moved onto the internet, but the central paradigm shift—that music need not be live, can be portable—continues to assist and bedevil musicians. They can reach the ears of millions, but the ability to hear whatever one wants to hear whenever one wants to hear it diminishes the power and urgency of live performance, which is materially and spiritually vital to musicians. The studio artist has arisen—a creature often of dubious talents whose heavily produced work only truly exists in the recorded form, and whose big cash-in comes through concerts where the music is often secondary to the heavily produced visual spectacles they offer. If their talents are too flimsy to stand on their own, they at least have a machine to prop them up.

I see a giant mechanized suit of armor as an apt—however geeky—metaphor for pop music, the front line of the imperial music industry. It doesn’t matter how strong the pilot of the suit is. As long as they know how to fit properly within the confines of this suit, the machine does the heavy lifting, fires its lasers, projects its auto-tuned voice, etc. Occasionally, we are told the pilot has a lot of strength and talent on their own, that they are a real musician. This doesn’t matter because all we see and hear is the machine, and that is how they will be remembered. Unfortunately for them, the machine only has a few miles in it, a few rounds, and often they are soon out on their ass. Worse yet, they become has-beens. “You used to lift cars and shoot lasers. Now you’re playing in the ballroom at a Holiday Inn. Nice one.”

This is the pattern and the arsenal of the music industry, and it is not really slowing despite its lamentations against piracy and its consequent pressure on authorities to crack down on file-sharing to protect its territories. I and many others do not believe this tactic is realistic and it can have dire consequences for free speech—the very thing that real artists on the ground need most. Fortunately, disruptive technology may be providing new venues and answers to these problems that will render the music industry as we know it even more obsolete than the rusted suits it has left behind, rusting with sardonic grins.

Bischoff released his first album, Composed, in 2012. Bischoff is self-taught as a composer but grew up on a boat, playing music with his family, so his taste for sound is omnivorous and deep. Hence, like the work of many independent artists, it resists classification into any genre, and we should all resist trying to give it one, I think. The overall sound is symphonic, but it employs sounds and melodies that will be familiar to fans of pop music. It may thus surprise listeners that Bischoff wrote all the songs for ukulele and then arranged them for an orchestra.

Things didn’t get any less DIY for plucky, young Bischoff once the music was on the page. To achieve an orchestral sound without a full orchestra, he went to individual musicians and recorded them playing their parts multiple times to one microphone. When he had enough source material, he layered all of the parts, engineering and mastering the record himself. Songs were written and composed for specific singers (some being friends and collaborators, others being strangers), making the finished product a deeply personal labor of love for Bischoff and also for the musicians with whom he worked.

Distribution is the one aspect that Bischoff has not handled on his own, and this has been handled by UK-based The Leaf Label, but others like him have taken to the internet to handle even this part of their work with varying success. Bischoff has collaborated with Amanda Palmer, who famously—and infamously—self-financed a new album through pre-sales of recordings and performances via Kickstarter. The infamous part of the story is that Palmer did not anticipate how successful the campaign would be and had initially been working with musicians whose services were voluntary. When the campaign exceeded the goal by thousands of dollars shortly after it was unveiled, some members of the community lashed out against Palmer for not paying her musicians. Having exceeded her goal, Palmer was happily able to pay all musicians involved and her reputation was not tarnished, but the brouhaha was unpleasant.

Such a snafu for an independent artist is nothing compared to the dominant, oppressive studio model, which has often placed performers in a state of indentured servitude to pay for the marketing and production—and occasional payola—necessary to top the charts. In a fight for supremacy, this model commoditizes music rather than merely monetizing it in a sustainable way. It makes some performers untouchable idols (fleetingly) and disenfranchises others. Because the studios have infrastructures built expressly for this strategy, they must dismantle a bit before their methods can change. Independent artists may be more agile and collaborative, but they must be particularly ingenious—and lucky—if they expect to be heard above the herd, and above all they must be genuine and appreciative so that when snags (such as Palmer’s) inevitably occur, they can be sorted without one’s audience feeling betrayed.

Bischoff at the Frye

Bischoff plays ukulele with the full orchestra rehearsing at the Frye Museum. Photograph by Bruce Clayton Tom.

This is not a talent to be cultivated; it’s an empathy, a humility that is eschewed by fame-mongers, but Bischoff has in spades. There is an earnestness in all of his work, and it only becomes more apparent when he performs live. As with many great musicians and performers, the audience is not purchasing and passively observing a spectacle of ego, but rather invited into an active spirit of collaboration and community where hearing and seeing is a participatory act, not their obligation as consumers.

If this sounds schmaltzy to you, I suggest you do two things. First, ask yourself if it is not at least a little cynical to want art to achieve this sense of community no matter the circumstance, and if it is not more than a little sinister that so much of what one sees extols aspiration and achievement of self and self alone. Once that has been sufficiently pondered, the second point of reflection should be on art’s communal power. Certainly, practice and meditation may be done in perfect solitude, as art is above all a reconciliation with self and the world, not just other sentient beings. But central to art is a desire for communication and participation, and that has made art (especially music) central to human cultures since before recorded history.

If you think that the classical era was any different, think again. Our much hallowed classical orchestral music is not that old in the grand scheme and grew from new technology (instruments) and changing tastes (Hauskapelle and Hofkapelle and chamber music and masques, et al) stemming from political developments, most fickle. But it was consciously developed in Renaissances in multiple European cultures with a classical (Hellenistic and Humanistic) idea in mind; the musical works were allegorical representations of society—different personalities in different instruments, working in concert to create an ordered and beautiful whole.

Whole, but not entirely wholesome—the philosophy of the time still embraced a dogmatic stratification of society. Nor was it the only concept informing composition through those centuries. Sacred music took a different tack, using many human voices that unconsciously reflected an equality of spirit assembled to give praise to an ideal absolute. The divine Bach used mathematical perfection to turn multiple instruments into a praise of divine order. This is to say that there is no prescription for music to be handed down, but in common to all of this music and the music of Bischoff and other composers is that sense of collaboration, an appreciation of a whole (even if it is a single, unique performance), which transcends the individual ambition that defines most popular music. In its simplicity and heaving beats, much pop music most closely approximates war chants, but typically for an army of one. This goes beyond the lyrical or melodic content, as great music is often deeply personal. The difference is above all in the context and ethos of the performance.

Bischoff’s ability to unite artists new and familiar to create work that also sounds new and familiar to his audience is a great and much needed talent. Artists of his sort may not ever achieve the mammon of industry giants, and the work will occasionally be grueling, but ultimately it is fulfilling…and sustainable as long as the artist wants to work for his audience. Meanwhile, they are expanding the musical vocabulary and the use of different idioms in ways that unite disparate aesthetics

This is in itself a work of healing for us. Music may be an acid test for the fracture of communities and society as a whole. There is so much music and it is so inescapable that to follow it all is impossible. People will wed themselves to one genre or another. There are subcultures, and hierarchies, for if pop is the music of aspiration, there is also music preferred by those who consider themselves to have arrived—the music of achievement. If it accompanies a sneering disposition, it is leagues worse than any pop treacle could ever be, for it is consciously disdainful.

Bischoff’s deft ability to combine orchestral and pop aesthetics are not just the usual artistic marriage of sacred and profane. For people bombarded as we are with constant media frenetically shifting across genre and medium and attached to message after message, this sincere reconciliation of forms free of propaganda is a dose of sanity. People are all smiles when they leave Bischoff’s shows, and this is largely because of who Bischoff is in relation to his audience.

The joy that Bischoff feels and exudes is apparent to anyone who has seen him perform or rehearse. Prior to his recent concert at The Moore Theater, he held rehearsals in The Frye Museum as part of their ongoing exhibit Moment Magnitude. Because of the way he recorded the album, it was his first time hearing these songs performed live by a full ensemble and he was visibly moved. Those looking for a self-absorbed starlet or a brooding poète maudit found nothing of the sort. Bischoff’s tall stature belies his unassuming gentility and humility, a shyness that he has only recently begun to conquer in his performances. These unexpected qualities are precisely what enable Bischoff (and company) to march to a different beat, for it will be accessibility that wins the day for 21st century artists.

Singers SoKo and Mirah Zeitlyn

Singers SoKo and Mirah Zeitlyn dance with a young art lover during rehearsals at The Frye. Photography by Bruce Clayton Tom.

There will be new challenges and old challenges, some more obvious than others. The peril of accessibility is that audiences (and fanatics) can demand too much from artists, inspiring aloofness or cynicism over time. More immediate means of feedback can be both inspiring and degrading, no matter how committed an artist might be to his or her vision. Expectations will need to shift for both artists and audiences, just as they are shifting in markets and politics. Germane to market shifts, the studio model has an outdated formula that measures success in sales, but genuine artists have always viewed their success performance by performance, piece by piece. Some are sustained through austerity by a general hope that they are appreciated and understood—or at least will be appreciated and understood by future generations. Others simply live to perform, for the joy of creation and nothing more, and they devote their lives to the practice of their arts. Still, a modest income is necessary to sustain the artists’ practice, especially for artist’s such as Bischoff and Amanda Palmer, who wish to fairly compensate their collaborators.

Crowd sourcing and creative adaptations of record models will need to be developed for artists’s to thrive, as more and more people balk at purchasing albums. I spoke with Jason Webley after the Moore Theater performance. Webley famously began as a busker in Seattle. He is only 38, but over his career, he has seen firsthand the shifts in how music is perceived and who is purchasing it.

Webley made an interesting assertion that the power of music in defining one’s life seems to taper off for most people past their adolescence. This makes sense to me and should make sense to those who agree with my general assertions about pop music. The simplicity and aspirational aspects of much pop music are categorically adolescent in spirit—undeveloped, self-centered, vaguely striving for a connection, a place in the world. Adolescence is dangerous, and I can speak from experience that some pop tracks—however trite they may now seem—were necessary at the time. When one is starving in the desert, one doesn’t turn down junk food, and I was a young queer in a conservative, Christian household in the suburbs of Atlanta—less a city than a festering, philistine wound. Some of that music was truly lifesaving.

We can say that music is at once old and forever young, but the world of recorded music is in its adolescence just as we are technologically adolescent as a species. We are faced with high levels of abstraction and explicit communication constantly. In musical terms, such a mix would be melody and lyric, but what we really face is cacophony and a proliferation into pure noise more sterile to the mind than silence. Making music is hard enough, but making music and being heard in this environment is utterly harrowing.

Someone working in Bischoff’s idiom takes time to mature. His work is very impressive, but Bischoff himself will admit that he is only at the beginning of his career as a composer. Classical composers before him also broke boundaries by incorporating folk music and unorthodox elements into their work, sometimes scandalizing the audience. Today’s audience is much harder to scandalize, but they also don’t have much of an attention span. For pop musicians, the expectation is more for an identifiable gimmick or pattern rather than a fully developed outlook or perspective—a personality that is revealed through the music. Some of Bischoff’s instrumental work better reveals this original spirit than the works of Composed, but at moments one can hear that they sprung from the same mind and these two sides to his work will likely become more powerfully linked over time.

These are intellectual concerns. For Bischoff and other new composers rising from the ranks, the practical concerns may remain more pressing and may even provide the constant pressure to work through these other matters unconsciously. Because of the prohibitive costs of instruments, training, and staging, orchestral music remains an idiom that will need to be largely supported and funded by well-monied individuals. Bischoff circumvented this issue for the recording of the album, but to tour would require much more capital. It was thanks to local support from The Frye and The Moore and other foundations that his live performance was possible at all.

It is interesting to note, too, that orchestral excursions by pop artists were the sign of a maturation (or perhaps a mere diversion) for the performers. Bischoff is part of a class of young performers whose careers may be defined by this collaborative work, beginning where more seasoned performers end. None of this is to say that Bischoff is a lone genius working in his field. We will see others. Furthermore, we will not see him or the the others drag the world kicking and screaming to a place of maturity where such collaborative, communal musical experiences again become our expectation versus panoptic mob scenes. The new composers are not the leaders of this change, but rather an indication of it happening in and around us, a maturation from adolescent cynicism, a change for the better already in progress.