For years, Jherek Bischoff has played in indie-rock bands, including Amanda Palmer's Grand Theft Orchestra. But on his new album, Composed, he found himself moving away from a rock sound and writing his own orchestral arrangements.
"I started recording my bands and my friends' bands, and we kept getting more and more ambitious," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So we would add a violin here and a cello there and just kept building these layers and layers of sound and, finally, at one point, I muted the actual rock-band elements of the recording and heard this kind of orchestral thing happening and I went, 'Wow, that's strange. I didn't intend to do that.'"
While the sound on the album is that of a full orchestra, Bischoff didn't have the budget to hire many players, so he would ask his musician friends to record parts multiple times.
"I knew that I could make a really convincing version of an orchestra by layering each musician with themselves, just recording them over and over and over again until we had the sound of a real orchestra," he says. "I would just ride my bike over to the violin player's house and put some sheet music in front of her, and have her record each part about nine times and build the sound of a full ensemble. And when I was done with that, then I would bike ride over to the oboe player's house and have her record, and then just worked my way through the entire orchestra, just recording each individual in their own living rooms."
Guest artists on Composed include David Byrne, Caetano Veloso and Nels Cline. Bischoff's album is unusual, but so is his personal history. He grew up on a sailboat and took a sabbatical from high school as a teenager to sail around Central America with his family — including his father, a musician who played in an avant-garde rock band in the '70s.
On how he celebrated his 30th birthday
"Right around my 30th birthday was when I kind of came up with this realization that I had started making orchestral music, and so I got about 35 of my friends together and rented out Town Hall in Seattle and just tried for the first time to do an orchestral show. And it was the most satisfying musical experience I had had up until then."
On why he composes on ukulele
"The biggest reason is that it's super-portable and I can take it anywhere, and also a realization that I came to recently was that... well, bass is my main instrument. And ukulele and bass both have four strings and, to me, I really come from — orchestrally, I guess — I come from more of a soundtrack background. And whenever I think about soundtracks, I think about big lush strings and that big Hollywood sound of the soaring violins and things like that. And so when I compose most of the time, it's very string-oriented. There's not a ton of brass and woodwinds and things like that. But I realized that the cello, the viola and then the two violin sections, you can kind of think of each ukulele string as an instrument section. And so when you're playing these, you're limited to four note chords, and therefore it kind of lays out a neat harmonic structure for you really naturally to write for strings."
On sailing around Central America as a teenager with his musical family
"We, as a family, kind of made a family band, and we would set up our instruments on top of the boat, because we couldn't all fit down below on the boat. And sometimes we would have little concerts where everyone would take their little inflatable raft and tie up to the side of our boat with little hors d'oeuvres and cocktails and stuff like that, and then we would perform some music and we would invite whatever other boats were around to come and join us. And so we had these kind of crazy concerts where there's 30 rafts just kind of anchored out in the middle of a bay, and we would play whatever tunes people knew. None of our family were really that keen on singing or anything, so we were always looking for people that just happened to have an acoustic guitar on their boat and sang and things like that, and we would be back them up. A lot of Jimmy Buffett songs, of course."
On how scenes in Ang Lee's Life of Pi reminded him of his experiences on the ocean
"That movie was incredible in some of its imagery. ... I don't know if the director spent time on the ocean or not, but some of that imagery was so close to things that I personally experienced, it was unbelievable. One time, I was helping a friend sail from Mexico to Hawaii, and I was out in the middle of the ocean, and suddenly the ocean went completely still and there was no clouds in the sky — which is actually kind of rare for out in the middle of the ocean. And the wind totally stopped and the ocean was perfectly glassy and, at one point, the stars were a perfect mirror image with the sea. And all of a sudden, I completely lost my sense of direction and which way was up and which way was down, and I felt like I was floating in space because it was just stars completely surrounding me."
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