Jherek Bischoff’s “Composed” Comes Alive

JherekBischoffWhen Jherek Bischoff dubbed his 2012 recording Composed, he was being accurate. But only minimally so.

Saying Bischoff’s music is “composed” is like saying that the Sistine Chapel is “painted” or Grand Central Station is “decorated” – it is a pretty inadequate description. And calling his intricate, detailed songs “pop” doesn’t help much, either.

But based on Wednesday night’s performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO (the second is tonight), however you describe it, Bischoff’s music is well worth hearing.

Performed by a half dozen guest vocalists that included local lights David Byrne and Sondre Lerche, with Bischoff himself on bass and ukelele and David Bloom conducting a 14-piece orchestra, Bischoff’s DIY chamber pop was by turns ingratiating and challenging, but most often a pleasing combination of the two.

The Seattle-based composer wrote the songs on ukelele – not a typical composing tool – and then painstakingly overdubbed all the parts on his laptop, one track at a time, using musician friends around his home base of Seattle to flesh out his vision. This is the sort of thing that, while certainly technically possible – and hardly a new idea – suggests a careful, even stilted, result.

While Bischoff’s “studio” recording certainly stands on its own, the road from laptop to concert hall is fraught with pitfalls both technical and energetic. Making such a Frankenstein’s monster of multi-tracking work digitally is one thing; letting it resonate on the stage is another matter entirely.

But performed live by the young, 14-piece orchestra Contemporaneous, and conducted energetically and precisely by Bloom, the nine songs that comprise Composed came alive Wednesday night, their spectacular crescendos, surprising harmonies and various rhythmic styles erupting out of the intricate constructions of Bischoff’s laptop and filling St. Ann’s cavernous space with joyous invention.

One was “Blossom,” which began as a ballad of sorts and then builds into a riffy, staggering beast worthy of latter-day King Crimson. Others are lush evocations of Latin orchestras, while still others recall neo-Brechtian art song. All are unified by Bischoff’s singular melodic and yes, compositional, vision.

Part of the reason it held together live was Bischoff’s own ukelele playing, which was subtle and not at all what one might expect from that instrument, and certainly not as the base for his extravagant constructions. But rather than strumming it lightly like a singer might, or picking it virtuosically as Jake Shimabukuro does, Bischoff employed a unique finger-picking style that set a rhythm and a mood which the orchestra (driven in part by drummer Greg Saunier of Deerhoof) then built on.

Despite its laptop auteur genesis, Wednesday night’s concert was framed as a two-part collaboration between composer and guest vocalists. The first half was a full rendering of the nine songs comprising Composed, and the second half featured two original songs by each of the guest vocalists, arranged in collaboration with Bischoff. Some songs, like Byrne’s, were familiar, others were not, and the quality of those performances ranged from dazzling to adequate to…challenged.

Some, such as the usually-dependable Lerche and Mirah Zeitlyn, struggled with pitch issues, especially on Bischoff’s material, which was less familiar, or comfortable, than their own; they did better with their originals. Byrne, the big name, and the first and last to perform, handled Bischoff’s material, especially “Eyes” (see video below) well enough, but really brought it home with performances of his own recent “Strange Overtones,” with its familiar-yet-surprising chord changes and indelible chorus. His performance showed that there is no substitute for decades of stage experience.

But the revelation of the night, aside from Bischoff’s compositions themselves, and the orchestra’s delightful presentation of them, were the two performances by singer Zac Pennington, Bischoff’s erstwhile partner in the Portland-based band Parenthetical Girls.

Pennington, a slight, androgynous presence with outsized charisma, seemed born to the stage, and tackled his version of Bischoff’s “Young & Lovely” with panache and a casual stage skill that put the other singers in the shade. Perhaps it was his experience with Bischoff’s music – he did, after all, write the lyrics – that gave him the edge. But in any case, his performance (with a wobbly falsetto assist by Sam Mickens) left at least one audience member hungering for more.

We got more of Pennington in the second half, when he did two more Parenthetical Girls songs, “Sympathy for Spastics” and “Final Girls.” While others merely sang – or as did Nika Danilova, stalked the staged and emoted in familiar rockish fashion – Pennington simply owned the stage with theatrical flair and precision – and little strain in his voice. I am curious to see how he holds down an entire concert himself. I have little doubt that he can.

Bischoff himself, dressed in a smart grey suit, white shirt and tie, his hair a stiff but stylish pompadour, was an awkward MC for his own work; his hundreds of hours alone at the multitrack showed in his halting introductions. This is a man born to obsess over tracking rather than to guide an evening’s entertainment.

But with Pennington and Byrne onboard for star power, and the orchestra as well-conducted as Contemporaneous was, Bischoff’s material was in good hands. The evening’s concluding ovation was as enthusiastic as it was warranted. Here’s to a NYC visit from Parenthetical Girls very soon.

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