In 2009, the self-taught composer Jherek Bischoff had just turned 30 and was writing his first solo album. "I just hear, specifically, who will be singing or who will be playing what, and then I try to make it happen," he says. He sent David Byrne a track he imagined Byrne's voice on, never really expecting a reply. "He called me the next day. It was insane." The resulting album was Composed, featuring not only the Talking Heads frontman but also Mirah and Caetano Veloso—and it was elegant, theatrical, and immediately impressive to those on both sides of the pop/classical divide.
Music has always been a part of Bischoff's life. His father studied with John Cage and had a recording studio in their house. That is, when they lived in a house. When Bischoff was 14, the family set sail from Bainbridge Island on a two-and-a-half-year trip to Central America and beyond, which had the Bischoff family playing music with the locals whenever they could.
In grade school, he played saxophone and tuba, but it wasn't until a long winter spent with a bass guitar in 7th grade that he started to play an instrument seriously. He played bass in a school production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He took jazz choir classes. He formed ska and punk bands. He tried college but it didn't take, although he stuck with playing music in the Dead Science and the Degenerate Art Ensemble for more than a decade.
His unusual upbringing and his constant collaborating with musicians from Xiu Xiu to Amanda Palmer formed the basis of his musical self-education. Arranging and composing happened almost by accident. "I would record and produce for friends. People started asking for things like orchestral sounds or string pieces... To save time, I just decided to learn how to write that out."
These days, he stays busy with high-profile performances and commissions from all over the place, including, most recently, Kronos Quartet and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. But he's still that guy who taught himself how to write sheet music. "Right now, I'm working on eight songs for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and it's due in a few days, and I'm still just like, 'Wait, do I write a sharp or a flat there?' I'm still oblivious to this stuff," he laughs. "But luckily I'm surrounded by people who are typically cool with that." EMILY NOKES
PHOTO BY DAVID BELISLE
Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney don't really answer questions so much as question them back. Asked about the decisions that have led them to become so utterly unclassifiable as musicians, Kenney says, "Both of us are the kind of people who don't put a lot of weight on decision making. We're kind of more people who tend to want to see what's going to open up."
They are on the phone from New York. She has just finished a performance where the audience included the Dalai Lama. He's doing a stand at the Village Vanguard with Bill Frisell. When that's done, they'll head on a European tour.
On second thought, Kenney says—"To keep learning. That has been a pretty big choice."
"Rather than becoming a fetish of yourself, or a parody of yourself," Kang adds.
Kang and Kenney could be viewed as the Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Seattle's music scene. They share a life and a musical partnership that resonates with a strange harmoniousness. Together they've created some of the most sublime music of the last decade, on albums such as Aestuarium and The Face of the Earth. They make abstruse sounds from ancient and modern foreign cultures alluring.
As a vocalist, Kenney has a stunning range, from gentle, melismatic plainsong to demonic gutturalness. She is a savant of Persian composition, and it is always important to her to mention the name of her ongoing teacher: Ostad Hossein Omoumi. She's worked with metal bands Wolves in the Throne Room and Sunn O))), minimalist composer Lou Harrison, avant-rock legends Sun City Girls, and Gamelan Pacifica. Her earliest vocal inspiration was her mother, who sang "for pleasure, listening to our emotional needs," and at age 2, Kenney delivered her first song: the Kentucky Fried Chicken jingle. To this day, her clear voice can transform even dumb words into a transfixing moment in time.
Kang is renowned for being able to adapt to almost any sonic situation. His main instrument is viola, but he plays violin, tuba, and erhu, and in addition to 11 albums under his own name, Kang has been part of releases by artists in pop (Beck, the Decemberists), alternative/avant rock (Animal Collective, Alvarius B.), doom metal, and jazz. He can wring maximal emotion from the most severe droneological means and minuscule gestures.
Diving into studying not only music but philosophy and Chinese medicine and spirituality together, they are deliberately trying to make the indescribable. DAVE SEGAL AND JEN GRAVES
Katie Kate's first album, 2011's Flatland, was made literally in her closet. The 26-year-old rapper and beat maker is cool, confident, and classically trained, and it comes through in her music: She's hardheaded. She taunts. She can hold her own.
Born Katie Finn, she grew up (feeling suffocated) in a tiny town in upstate New York. Everything changed when she was accepted to Cornish College of the Arts after high school—her first choice, but one she thought she had no chance of getting. "Looking at the other options for colleges with music programs, they were so stiff—they made you pick one thing, and that's what you were stuck with for the rest of your life. So I could have been an orchestral flutist or a music teacher at some high school upstate," she explains. "Those were the options." During an audition for one such stuffy East Coast university, the director asked why she wanted to attend. Feeling miserable and out of place, she blurted out "I DON'T" and had her dad come pick her up. After her unexpected "CONGRATULATIONS" card arrived from Cornish, Kate felt delivered.
A natural, it seems, at all things musical, Kate flourished in Seattle and in the decidedly nonstiff environment of Cornish, beginning her studies in classical flute and later earning her degree in classical piano, all the while teaching herself production, making beats, and honing her rap skills. "I was always interested in hiphop," she says. "In high school, I rapped as a joke, but then I came to understand that it was something I could actually do."
Kate's newest and best album—currently unnamed and unreleased—weaves tenacious rhythm and majestic pop hooks around her versatile voice. One song admits that she's terrified and needs to remind herself to be brave, another finds her feeling like the last of a near-extinct animal, and yet another has her wishing for her own planet. It's an eclectic, out-there, fully impressive avant-pop album that doesn't sound like anything else. EMILY NOKES
See these artists in conversation with Emily Nokes at the Frye on July 24; strangertickets.com
Photos by Kelly O