Jherek Bischoff’s Invisible Orchestra

Jherek Bischoff’s orchestra, without their instruments. | Photo by Hallie Santo

The instruments started disappearing in the evening, as the last rays of sunlight seeped into the room through the stained glass windows. Trumpets and trombones were blown away, while violins and violas crept out from under tucked chins. Yet the orchestra played on, feeling for invisible strings with their invisible bows, making the drums and xylophones resound as if by magic.

There were no ghosts at Seattle’s Good Shepherd Center that night, preying on this unsuspecting orchestra–only a man in black, leading the group with his unseen ukulele. Jherek Bischoff, the Emerald City’s own “pop polymath” (according to The New York Times), wound his way around chairs and cellos, plucking bows and drumsticks from the players’ hands, amassing an orchestra of hidden instruments. Over the course of the night, David Byrne’s disembodied voice would slip into the room every so often, singing about a pair of rapidly roaming eyes.

Three days before THE BOMBER JACKET joined Bischoff on the set of the video for his latest single, “Eyes,” we discussed the video’s concept over coffee on Capitol Hill. “The first time I sat inside of an orchestra completely changed my life,” he said. “Just sitting within it, seeing all the bows moving at the same time and everyone lifting their instruments at the same time… Even when you go to the symphony, you can’t take in its full beauty.”

Bischoff discusses choreography with the musicians. | Photo by Hallie Santo

The video for “Eyes” will serve as a reminder of where music comes from: the buzzing of lips on brass and the friction of a bow on strings. In New York, he filmed close-ups of Byrne’s throat as he sang, showcasing the powers of speech and song that we often take for granted. In Seattle, he invited local musicians to join him at the church to play his music while the camera focused on their fingers and mouths. Then, just for fun, his choreographer prompted them to make strange, obtuse movements. And about halfway through the shoot, he decided to take all their instruments away.

In fact, most of the instruments we hear on Bischoff’s latest album, Composed (Brassland), are imaginary. “There was only one violinist on the record,” Bischoff intimated. “She learned the part, and I would overdub it fifteen times so it would sound like the entire violin section of an orchestra.” He became a sound scavenger: loading up his backpack with the tools he needed, biking to each musician’s home, and turning living rooms into private recording studios. Even Bischoff, who has years of experience recording ambitious music, described his efforts as “insane.”

The end result is an album in the truest sense: a cohesive collection of songs with distinct personalities and incomparable voices. Bischoff hand-picked nearly a dozen vocalists whose voices complemented the songs he was composing. “I’m really attracted to a lot of the old producers who would…put an ensemble together and produce their visions,” he said. “I had all the voices in my mind, but I just didn’t think it would be possible to get David Byrne or Caetano Veloso. As soon as David agreed to do it, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to pursue everyone I had in mind for this project.’”

Bischoff and the orchestra perform “Eyes.” | Photo by Hallie Santo.

Bischoff’s ambition knows no bounds. This fall, he’ll be undertaking another kind of musical challenge: playing each of his upcoming tour dates with Amanda Palmer with a different string quartet. When asked how he plans to rehearse with each ensemble, Bischoff outlined a thorough plan of action. “I show up at 3 in the afternoon the day of the show,” he said, “and I send scores and mp3s ahead of time. We practice from four until 5:30, and then sound-check, and then hop onstage.”

Daunting though his task may be, Bischoff seems unfazed. “It’s really ambitious and crazy to try to put together quartets in every city,” he admits, “but I’ve already built such amazing communities in Seattle and New York, and the idea of building that community across the world is worth the work.”

The response to the casting call for the “Eyes” video proves that he’s on his way to building that community. Twenty musicians followed the man in black as he strummed his ukulele. Their conductor was also a composer, a songwriter, and a performer who can play at least ten instruments. He’s both committed to his vision and willing to hear what other voices have to say. And in the face of adversity, he’s always composed.

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