Wandering the labyrinth of vitrines that is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, the curious traveler eventually comes upon the hall devoted to the microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian. Sculptures so small as to fit literally within the eye of a needle, messages inscribed by hand upon a human hair, each work is said to have been constructed micron by micron, particle by tiny particle, taking a year or more to complete.
Although generally accepted as among the most objectively "true" exhibits on view, this being the Museum of Jurassic Technology one is never far from the possibility that Hagop Sandaldjian and his oeuvre are persuasive illusions. Taken at face value, however, a Sandaldjian microminiature is as remarkable for the method of its making as it is as an end result. "Since even a pulse in his fingers could cause an accident," the wall text explains, "Sandaldjian ultimately learned to apply his decisive strokes only between heartbeats."
Jherek Bischoff's method in creating his new song cycle Composed is arguably Sandaldjianian. Recorded music, even music recorded "live," is an artificial construction in every case, and the music on Composed is particularly so. If there were wall text to accompany it, it would explain in hushed and scholarly terms how Bischoff has composed, arranged and orchestrated each piece on ukulele before recording the full orchestral version one instrument at a time on a laptop computer, mostly in the players' living rooms, each musician playing solo again and again until the requisite number of parts had been accumulated.
To listen to Composed is to hear no trace of the artifice of its synthetic gestation. Which is all to the good: although its construction has the hallmarks of a trick or a stunt, it does not sound like a trick or a stunt. It sounds like a collection of smartly eccentric songs with orchestra, as if it had been recorded with all of its players and singers together in the room. The illusion is pervasive and persuasive.
Composed draws from the well of intricate late '60s pop (Van Dyke Parks, early Harry Nilsson) and overlays it with orchestration that is forthrightly cinematic. A brief overture leads to "Eyes," a samba-laden romance co-written and suavely sung by David Byrne, all wrapped in the aura of some grand, lost John Barry 007 score. A similar widescreen elegance shines out from "The Nest"—which could easily pass as an unreleased track from Björk's Homogenic—while an operatic languor drifts through the barcarolle of "Counting" with Carla Bozulich. The non-singing portions of several songs, such as the woozy waltz at the front end of "Your Ghost" or its Weill-infused cousin interrupting "Young and Lovely," suggest Bischoff is comfortably protean, ready to shift himself in and out of perceived genres as it suits him.
Not every song succeeds: despite a fine middle section that evokes Alexander Nevsky as rescored by Philip Glass, the album-ending collaboration with Dawn McCarthy, "Insomnia, Death and the Sea," nearly collapses under its own portentousness. But that is a misstep born of ambition, and so can be forgiven. On the whole, Composed is a winning Little Experiment That Could.
Through an email exchange with the composer, I received a list [pdf] of the musicians and singers and the circumstances under which they were recorded. Many living rooms in Seattle were called in to service.
Post title allusion: Lawrence Wechsler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, which you should read, or reread, as the case may be. This post was based on an unsolicited (but enjoyed) review copy of Composed.