John Bischoff is a composer celebrated for his work at the cutting edge of live computer music, explorations that can be traced back all the way to the late 1970s and his experiments with his first KIM-1. Audio Combine, the recent New World Records release of Bischoff pieces spanning 2004-2011, is an undeniable reminder that, though his roots run deep, his music hasn’t been anchored.
As a recorded document, Audio Combine is one of those discs well suited to the “dark room/good headphones” listening experience, each track representing an opportunity to get lost inside a foreign landscape. Bischoff’s live performance of the music was recorded at The Mills College Concert Hall and mixed by Philip Perkins, in collaboration with the composer. Due to the unique way Perkins staged the recording—via three microphones placed around the hall in addition to Bischoff’s direct feed—there is much to feel aurally compelled to “look” at in the sonic field.
To begin with, the title track plays a teasing game of Whac-A-Mole using a host of delicate sounds—most memorably the plucked pitches of a music box—which slide into view with a gauzy grace before slipping quickly around the next corner and out of earshot. Sidewalk Chatter is a bit more glitch and crackle, while Local Color is built around the ring of struck metallic tones and the wavering and decay of pitches. In all of the aforementioned cases, the music is careful in its development; never overcrowded with sound or a blurry chaos of ideas. Bischoff remains patient, not afraid to punctuate with silence. There is air left in the room for reflection and exploration. It’s a framework taken to its sparest extreme (and, frankly, most Lynchian eeriness) in Decay Trace. Perhaps because of that, it also proved to be a personal favorite. This restraint is then somewhat shrugged off for the final track, Surface Effect, when the combine goes into hyperdrive, all breakers thrown, and luxuriates in the sum of the sounds that have been generated in the course of the hour-long disc.
As might be expected when dealing with such non-traditional sound creation and construction, there is a great deal of interesting background to be explored beyond the recordings themselves, information thoroughly outlined in the liner notes penned by Ed Osborn. Though his behind the curtain insights definitely provide illuminating added value, it’s also worth noting that they also aren’t strictly necessary. Bischoff’s music is not a sterile sonic experiment reporting its results, but a kind of conversation between man, machine, and the surrounding environment. The method is intriguing, but the resulting sound world is really all that matters.
NMBx FLASHBACK: The last time I caught up with John Bischoff, New World Records had just released The League of Automatic Music Composers, 1978–1983. Bischoff, a co-founding League member, stopped by to chat about what made-at-home computer music involved before the invention of the laptop. You can listen to our conversation here: