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Composed at St. Ann's Warehouse

Jherek Bischoff’s two-night stand at St. Ann’s Warehouse in January was an intimate showcase for his eclectic brand of orchestral pop. The performance approximated the format of Bischoff’s record, Composed, which features an impressive, diverse roster of musicians. A few of the singers were onstage at St. Ann’s, including David Byrne, Nika Danilova, Sondre Lerche, Zac Pennington, and Mirah Zeitlyn, performing alongside the 19-member ensemble Contemporaneous, conducted by David Bloom and featuring percussionist Greg Saunier. Bischoff himself presided over the evening from his perch stage left, playing ukulele and electric bass.

Jherek Bischoff. Photo by Angel Ceballos.
Jherek Bischoff. Photo by Angel Ceballos.

Composed is a lush record that fits snugly in the orchestral pop tradition. The album brings to mind Van Dyke Parks and John Cale, but with Bischoff there is less of the former’s playfulness and less of the latter’s rootedness in rock. Bischoff’s work is more in line with that of contemporary musicians like Joanna Newsom or Beirut. And like Beirut, his use of varied instrumentation is key to the music. The classical orchestration Bischoff employs isn’t merely a fleshing-out of an original idea; it is the essence of the song.

The orchestra was warming up when I arrived for the second night’s performance. After a short instrumental—with Bischoff playing electric bass in a way I haven’t often seen, fairly strumming it at times, producing a rich resonant sound—Bischoff spoke to the audience, explaining the format for the program.

The first act consisted of songs from Composed, with each guest singer coming out in turn to perform the songs he or she sings on the record. After intermission, that format was repeated, only this time with the singers delivering their own material with accompaniment arranged by Bischoff. What was striking about the first half of the night was how the live performance seemed explicitly to reproduce the songs as heard on the album. It was more than the common case of a band playing live in more or less the same way they sound on the record; rather, there was a level of pretense to the show, as if the songs existed on the record in their definitive versions and a live performance could only hope to be an approximation. It was similar to the way that authors will read from their novels at a book release party—a mode of performance that assumes that real engagement with the work will happen later, in private.

Contributing to this feeling was the lack of acoustics in the space at St. Ann’s. The instruments in the orchestra were all miked, a mildly disorienting circumstance that reduced the immediacy of the players’ sound. It may seem a minor detail, but in a setting where the performers seemed committed to creating an intimate feeling, the quality of the sound introduced a certain distance. Because everything came out of the P.A., it was harder to match the sound of each instrument with the musician playing it. Even the sound of the orchestra warming up at the start of the night had a piped-in quality, as if while you were walking to your seat you were hearing the first few seconds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band instead of the actual musicians at the front of the room.

Not to say that the performances weren’t of a high caliber. David Byrne, as the first of the performers, set the tone for the evening with “Eyes,” a lilting, Harry Nilsson-esque piece, eased along by Bischoff’s buoyant bass and the stirring thump of a bass drum on each fourth beat. Mirah Zeitlyn and Sondre Lerche were equally memorable in renditions of songs appearing on Composed as they were in performing their own material. Contemporaneous played more than capably, especially considering the stylistic differences for each singer in the second half of the concert. As Bischoff said, responding when Lerche praised the ensemble for picking up on a quick change in one of his songs, “They’re a band, man.”

Still, though the deftness of the ensemble’s playing was enough to ensure a high level of quality for each individual performance, it couldn’t make the disruptive musical chairs format of the evening flow more smoothly. With Bischoff introducing each new singer to effusive applause from the audience, the night started to take on a high school talent show vibe. Composed itself is not a disjointed record; each track fits seamlessly into the whole, despite the rotating vocalists. The problem may have come from an attempt to be too faithful to this format live. Rather than a proper concert, the experience was akin to watching a group of highly talented musicians in the studio, with each brilliant moment followed by awkward downtime between takes.


Marshall Yarbrough

MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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