Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jherek Bischoff, Ambient Chamber Orchestra and the cistern

Jherek Bischoff, the Ambient Chamber Orchestra and the cistern.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture...” something my husband, Kurt, says from time to time, though it’s actually someone else’s quote. So if you’re trying to learn about ambient music, a brief trot through cyber links will quickly lead a person, amusingly enough, to learn of the French composer Erik Satie’s “furniture music” - so-named by Satie himself because it could as easily drift into the background of a dinner party as the furniture. Satie, according to the sites I visited, (check out is unanimously considered the originator of ambient music.
Last night I had the pleasure of performing with Jherek ( as a violist in the Ambient Chamber Orchestra at the Chapel Performance Space. I met Jherek pretty recently and ran into him not too long after at the Deep Listening Band’s phenomenal “Great Howl at Town Hall” where this iconic group, whose members include Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster, two personal musical heroes of mine, played a simply amazing show inspired by the extraordinary echo in the 2 million gallon now-empty water cistern underground at Fort Worden State Park. At 45 seconds, it is a crazy-long musical hang time.
The cistern, dubbed “Washington’s Official Instrument”, has become popular among recording artists as a great natural acoustic site. If you want to record there, you have to get a permit from the park - one paragraph of the application reads:
“The cistern is defined as a "confined space" by Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. It does not meet any of the safety requirements established by that agency. It does not have a "safe" access hatch, does not have a "safe" ladder, and to be legally correct the air quality (oxygen levels, etc.) must be tested before entry and then monitored during any occupation.”
And you have to have an above-ground contact person waiting with cell phone in hand at the opening in case of emergency!
Evidently, it is not only the long echo but also the way that sounds ping off of the pillars, reinforcing, reflecting and canceling out harmonies that provides a singularly remarkable musical environment.
Jherek got a residency at Fort Worden’s Centrum, the famous arts center, and was able to compose music in the cistern. The result was the music we presented last night.
I didn’t know that much detail about ambient music, except that my two sons are into electronic dance music, so I did a rather cursory investigation, aided in part by Wikipedia, and here is what I learned.
· Ambient music prioritizes instrumental timbres over vocals, or if it does use vocals, focuses on the quality and types of sounds produced rather than lyrics.
· Erik Satie and Claude Debussy were the forerunners of this music, as they busted apart older musical forms that were narrative in nature to create much more open and spacious forms.
· John Cage’s 4’33” is considered a seminal work as it encouraged listeners to open their ears to sounds in the present environment.
· Karlheinz Stockhausen’s early work with tape collages was a precursor to modern digital sampling.
· Bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd explored the studio capabilities of electronic music - distancing themselves from the dominance of lyrics and opening up the rich instrumental possibilities of rock music.
· Ambient musicians don’t like being conflated with New Age, which they consider bland and banal.
· Brian Eno’s “Airport Music” is big in the ambient world.
· Minimalist composers like Philip Glass and John Adams, though their music is not specifically ambient, inspired bands with their exploration of musical repetition over vast expanses of time.
· Everyone should check out the Velvet Underground. Also Tangerine Dream and Moby.
· Downtempo electronic dance music like house, progressive, techno, trance and psy-trance, hip hop, breakbeat and electronic dub are contemporary iterations of ambient music. I only have visibility to this music through my kids, who are big devotees (though they, I believe, have extremely specific tastes within these genres.)
Lastly, I really enjoyed seeing some listed examples of ambient music. Some I’ve already experienced, and some I’m looking forward to hearing for the first time.
Here’s my edited list:
Movie soundtracks:
Forbidden Planet
2001, a Space Odyssey
Clockwork Orange
Blade Runner
Donnie Darko
Lost in Translation
The Social Network
Erik Satie
John Cage
György Ligeti
Nine Inch Nails
NASA (Voyager recordings - “Symphonies of the Planets”)
Brian Eno
Anyway, the Chapel was packed and it was a beautiful show. Glad to have been part of it.


  1. Hi, Heather! What a fun blog.
    I have visited the "Cistern Chapel" and written about Stu and Pauline, among others who have recorded there, and it is truly an awe-inspiring space.
    To your list I might add Arvo Part, whose spare but gorgeous choral music seems to rise all on its own, like yeast in bread dough.
    Probably I'm too much of a traditionalist to follow you down the "ambient music" road very far. I think Cage was pulling everyone's leg with 4.33 (certainly attending a "performance" and listening to the audience's occasional nervous titters for four and a half minutes is not what I would call a high point in musical experience).
    But we all have our own tastes!
    One of my most fun experiences was a voyage in unusual, though not ambient, sounds -- participating in a UW School of Music homage to the Portsmouth Sinfonia, in which musicians perform the most famous classical excerpts on instruments, most often not their own instruments. (I'm a decent pianist but an incredibly bad cellist, so I joined the cello section. I especially remember our section "solos" in the Prelude to "Tristan und Isolde," and thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder where the top note of that sixth leap might be.") You've never heard such a delighted audience.
    Finally, the "dancing about architecture" quote: as a writer about music, I see this all the time. Frankly, I don't see why you couldn't dance about architecture; certainly there are great similarities in the "architecture" of human bodies created by a choreographer. But seriously, writing about music is no more challenging than writing about any other ephemeral subject. You have to make it real for the reader, in terms of analogy and common experience, and of course music writers are not always writing for the general public, but usually for people who share a common love for the art form and have certain basic knowledge already.
    Looking forward to more of your "dancing about architecture."
    Cheers, Melinda Bargreen

  2. Thanks, Melinda, for your nice comments! I am also a fan of Arvo Part, and look forward to listening to more of his choral music. I recently read Kyle Gann's "No Such
    Thing as Silence" (about 4'33") and found a lot to appreciate about the impact the piece and its conception had on 20th century thinking. A good read!

  3. Thanks for letting me know about your new blog. I'm looking forward to future posts. The first two were great!