Jherek Bischoff makes something new by mixing classical and rock music

Jherek Bischoff and SPCO musicians
Jherek Bischoff rehearsing with musicians from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Oct. 16, 2013.
Photo credit: Kate Nordstrum

Jherek Bischoff didn't set out to become an orchestral composer. He's a rock and roller who backed into orchestral business almost by accident.

But to his fans he represents the future of classical music.

On Friday Bischoff brings his unique blend of rock and classical music to the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, where he will perform with musicians from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Channy Leaneagh, lead singer for the popular local band Polica.

Until about five years ago, Bischoff imagined that he'd have a future in the concert all. But after working as a producer with friends' rock bands, the possibility dawned on him. They kept pushing the limits, adding cellos, violins, and other instruments into the mix.

"Each time we'd record we'd get a little more ambitious," he recalled. "So finally one time I muted the rock band and it was a whole orchestra happening -- and I thought, 'Oh man, that's kind of exciting. I could maybe kind of do this.'"

Of course, composing orchestral music is one thing. Having it performed is a much bigger challenge.

But Bischoff, who grew up on a boat his parents sailed around South America, was used to solving problems. When he decided to make an album, he used what he had at hand -- a bike, a microphone and a laptop.

He used the bike to visit various musician friends. He gave them parts to play and recorded them -- some times over and over -- so he could later layer the recordings to create an orchestral sound.

"You know I would bike over to the violin player's house and have her record it 15 times or something like that," Bischoff said. "She got the short end of the stick on this recording. I think there's nine tracks on the record. She probably played hundreds and hundreds of violin tracks on that record."

The project allowed Bischoff to collaborate with others, and also exercise the self-admitted control freak side of his personality. Although he sang on some of the tracks, he had always imagined certain other voices on some of the songs -- specifically those of singers David Byrne Caetano Veloso, a Brazilian musical hero.

Through a mixture of luck and string-pulling both ended up on "Composed," the finished recording. With its cross-genre appeal the finished album attracted a lot of attention. Some say Bischoff's music has forged the elusive link between rock and classical music, long sought as a way of lowering the average age of concert hall audiences.

Bischoff said too often orchestras have been used to add "fluff" to rock records. He prefers to see the orchestra as the band, and get it rocking -- a result he calls "orchestral pop."

"That's a carefully thought-out couple of words, because it's definitely not classical music," he said. "You know, it's not pop music. But it's pop music in its structure."

"Composed" has led to another set of onstage collaborations such as the show on Friday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul. As part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music series, Bischoff will appear with SPCO musicians, and a number of invited guests. They include drummer Greg Saunier from the band Deerhoof, Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche, Icelandic singer Olaf Arnalds and Leaneagh. Each will perform songs from "Composed" and orchestral arrangements of their own material written by Bischoff.

"So an audience gets to see them sing one of my tunes and then they get to see them do their own music in a completely different context," Bischoff said.

That's also part of Bischoff's collaborative process. He wants to play music with and for people as opposed to at them. That, he hopes, will help fill the concert hall seats.

If You Go:

WHERE: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E Exchange St., St. Paul, MN 55101
WHEN: Friday, October 18th at 8:00 p.m.
More information here

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.