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Cistern is the second album by prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist and composer Jherek Bischoff. Gloriously cinematic, these modern orchestral recordings pull at the heartstrings. It comes hot on the heels of Strung Out In Heaven, a moving string quartet tribute to David Bowie, conceived with Amanda Palmer and featuring the significant talents of Anna Calvi, John Cameron Mitchell and Neil Gaiman.

A prolific and divergent collaborator, working with the likes of David Byrne, The Kronos Quartet, Caetano Veloso, Xiu Xiu and Australian star Missy Higgins, the real Bischoff can be difficult to pin down, but Cistern is an intensely personal work. It is intrinsically linked to the space in which it was conceived, born from time spent improvising in an empty, two-million-gallon underground water tank. The environs forced Bischoff to slow down, to reflect, to draw on his childhood growing up on a sailing boat—an unexpected journey of rediscovery, from the city back to the Pacific Ocean via the cistern.   

Bischoff first discovered the cistern while mixing his previous album, Composed, at Fort Worden, an old army base in Washington state. Intrigued by rumors of a 45-second reverb and Pauline Oliveros’s 1989 Deep Listening album (which was recorded in the same space), his adventurous spirit drew him to this subterranean world to explore the acoustic possibilities. Hooking his computer and bass amp up to his car battery, armed with an arsenal of instruments, he descended into the darkness.

“I spent three days in the cistern improvising, one day by myself, and two days with a couple friends I invited,” explains Bischoff. “They were fascinating days of music-making. I found it so interesting how much the space itself seemed to tell us how to play, in essence becoming a collaborator. Things certainly worked best when we slowed down and gave the room time to sing.” 

Practical implications thwarted plans to record a chamber orchestra in the cistern, not least the lack of adequate oxygen. Instead, the record was realized in Future-Past Studios in Hudson, NY, a converted 19th-Century church. Enlisting the New York-based Contemporaneous Ensemble and using the church’s reverberant spaces, Bischoff set about recreating the immersive sound world of Cistern. Broad vistas are painted in cerulean tones on “Headless” and the meditative “Attuna,” while “The Wolf” offers a glimpse into murky depths. The album builds to the climactic title track, one of the first to come from those early improvisations: “Cistern” is majestic, huge in scope and utterly devastating. 

Fittingly, the journey ends on “The Sea’s Son,” where the pace is slowed and buoyed on swelling strings, and the lines between Bischoff as musician, collaborator, composer, arranger and producer vanish on the horizon. It is here that he is most at home. It took an empty water tank to inspire his return to the sea.

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