Cistern, the latest release from composer Jherek Bischoff is a truly sensory experience.

The album's slow, reverb-heavy production conjures a sense of cavernous spaces, with the sedate string arrangements sustained longer than you'd think possible and percussion echoing around the listener. The album's sound, and indeed it's title, is indebted to a two-million-gallon cement tanker found at Fort Worden, Washington.

Wanting to know more about how Bischoff discovered such a uniquely inspiring acoustic space, I spoke to the composer about the cistern, the album that came from it and his early life on the sea.

Your latest album, Cistern, was inspired by the aural qualities two-million-gallon tank of the same name in Fort Worden. Can you tell me more about how you came to discover this tank and why you were playing music in it?

I was living somewhat nearby and had actually done a couple of residencies about 15 years ago at Fort Worden with a very different project. During those other residencies, people kept mentioning this magical space, but at the time, we were not able to go in it. I then discovered a record by Deep Listening Band that was recorded in the space back in 1988. Hearing that and other recordings that friends of mine had made there made it a destination I knew I had to make it to one day. When I was mixing my record Composed, I was able to do another residency at Fort Warden and I made a point of spending a few days improvising in the cistern. I certainly didn't know how much of an impact the space was going to have on me!

I'm trying to imagine what it must be like to play in a space like that - I think even though it sounds huge I'd find it quite claustrophobic, maybe even suffocating. What was your experience of the tank the first time you went down?

Well, you are right in some ways. I quickly realised it was not going to be a comfortable experience recording there. It is pitch black for one. The only light was from my laptop screen and a manhole that is at one side of this huge space. My girlfriend was with me and she came down at the beginning and quickly decided to spend the rest of the 3 days above ground. I had also recently seen the movie The Descent that has these creepy dreadlocked predators who can see in the pitch black and like to kill spelunkers, so I kept thinking one was stalking me! After the first day of being in the space, I realised nothing was trying to kill me.

Another thing that I found instantly jaw-dropping was that any sound you make, whether it be shuffling your foot or hitting the space bar to record, you had to wait 45 seconds for the reverb from that sound to dissipate. So when I was trying to record, sometimes I would have to stand there in silence for 2 minutes for the room to settle before I could begin recording. Again after the first day, I kind of relaxed and really got into that waiting. It gave you time to think and I found that clearer ideas would pop into my head.

One of the most interesting experiences was actually after the first time being down in that space for a long period of time and completely acclimating to it, and then climbing up the ladder, out of the manhole and on to the grass in the middle of a meadow, having zero reverb out in the wide open! Suddenly the wide open world sounded claustrophobic. It was like putting your head in a pillow and talking. It also felt a little like when I would get land sick.

Sometimes after traveling long distances in the ocean, you acclimate to the rise and fall of the ocean swell. Then when you suddenly walk onto stable land, your body thinks it's moving but it's not, and you get land sick instead of sea sick! Like in Water World when Kevin Costner wants to leave the land that they spent the whole movie hunting for because "it don't move right".

My understanding is that whilst you improvised within the tank, you didn't record there - recording actually took place at Future-Past studios. How did you ensure that you retained the aural quality you discovered at the tank in Fort Worden?

While the cistern was absolutely the inspiration for the record, that amount of reverb was too much for some of the tunes that I composed. Some of the tunes I wrote while down in the cistern and some were written at home. That didn't directly correlate with which tunes would have the "mega verb" and which ones wouldn't. The whole experience of slowing things down to bring out the qualities of that space was used as the basis for all of the compositions. Certain tunes like 'Closer to Closure' or 'Automatism' have too much rhythm to be able to use that kind of reverb and because the album was recorded live in one room, I couldn't put a ton of reverb on one thing without it being on everything. So, on tunes like 'The Sea's Son' I was able to really try to make it as much like the cistern as possible by using several different reverbs. For the others, they worked somewhere between the reverb of the cistern, and the reverb of the wonderful room at Future-Past.

Whilst the tank was the biggest influence, were their other artists or style of music that had an influence on this record?

For sure. Brian Eno's Discreet Music, William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops and Es' Kaikkeuden Kauneus Ja Käsittämättömyys to name a few. I love ambient music but find that most of it is done with electronics, so I thought it could be cool to do my take on ambient music but only using orchestral instruments. Cistern isn't fully an ambient record obviously -- I am too attracted to rhythm and melody for it to be fully ambient -- but it's as ambient as I can be!

There's a fascinating contrast throughout the record between light and dark sonics, which almost give the record a sense of opening up and closing in - in fact the album feels like it moves between these states a couple of times. Was this something you considered as you composed and recorded the album?

Not really, no, but now that you mention it I see what you mean. I absolutely love dark music. Sometimes my own music reflects that, but lately there has been a joy coming through in my tunes. I am in a pretty lovely place in my life but haven't always been. I typically write from a very insular place; I write how I feel. I don't typically write reflecting on world issues, etc. otherwise, man, I would be writing some dark stuff... So, I think some days I was feeling good and some days I may have been feeling more dark. I also wrote the record over a pretty long period of time so I tried to keep it as cohesive as possible, but whenever that happens, the sound of the record is harder to keep all together as one thought or feeling.

You've said that the speed the tank forced you to play at made you reminisce about your childhood growing up on a sailboat. Can you tell me a bit more about the particular moments and memories this brought back?

Yes! Very specifically actually! The first time I heard 'The Sea's Son' played by an orchestra, I was standing out in front of the stage with my eyes closed, and a lost memory seeped in.

There was a night when I was sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Hawaii. I was on a night watch by myself in the middle of the night. The stars out in the middle of the ocean are typically covered by little puffy trade wind clouds, but when those clouds aren't there, you see the most brilliant stars you have ever seen. On that night, the clouds went away and the wind disappeared and the swell completely died out. There was a moment when I was sitting there when all of a sudden it became so still that the magnificent stars reflected in the water so perfectly, I could not see the horizon and I suddenly felt like I was in outer space. I lost my equilibrium completely and did not know if I was up or down. I felt like I was just flying in space. It was one of the most magical things I have ever experienced and for whatever reason, I forgot about it. I didn't even talk to the people I was sailing with about it the next day. It just kind of settled deep inside of me and resurfaced when I heard the song.

Was there anything that you worked on during the composition and recording of this album that ultimately didn't make the cut?

I am always writing music. Everyday I am working on something, sometimes just in my head or singing into my iPhone, or sometimes it is working on composition in a super focused manner. I am in a cool place in my career where I can feel free to write whatever music comes to mind and then I can put that tune into a project. Sometimes something that I am working on that starts as an orchestral tune, ends up being some kind of electro pop song for a band that I work with. Sometimes a pop song turns into a song on Cistern. I can just put stuff into folders and know that it will find a cool home eventually. That is a great thing because as soon as you stifle your creativity, it becomes harder and harder to write. So I just wrote and wrote and eventually had enough tunes for Cistern.

You also worked on a tribute to David Bowie earlier this year called Strung Out In Heaven. How did this project come about?

My friend and long-time collaborator Amanda Palmer and I were on the phone the day after Bowie passed away, and we were trying to talk about this song we were working on together, but we just kept talking about Bowie. Every time we would start talking about the project it would just come back to Bowie. We brought up the idea of doing a Bowie tune and that quickly turned into doing an EP, and it just felt like the best way to grieve. I was absolutely floored by how much his passing hit me. I didn't really grow up with his music, but I experienced an overwhelming sense of what the world had just lost. A real artist.

So, we decided to make the EP in a week and I thought it would be best to do it just with a string quartet. It would ensure that the tunes would not sound like the originals (I am not a big fan of covers that sound like the originals) and I had a day to do each arrangement. Also, string quartet is just a timeless and extremely versatile medium. It was an intense week. I recorded the quartet and sent the tracks to Amanda who was in Santa Fe at the time, and she recorded the vocals there. We also sent tracks to Anna Calvi who recorded in London, and John Cameron Mitchell who recorded his vocal on his phone in his closet. They all sent the tracks back to me, I mixed and mastered it in a day, and it was out the next day.

It was such a wonderful experience. I felt like we gave it our all, and it turned my sadness into absolute awe and positivity. Arranging his tunes and digging deep into his music in such a microscopic way gave me so much more appreciation for him and his work.

It was an extremely long process releasing Cistern: from being in the actual cistern, to recording, doing the artwork and working with the label, etc...six years! The Bowie EP, on the other hand, was funded by Amanda's Patreon, and we were able to start work on the album the day after we decided to do it. By the following week, it was in people's ears. Not your typical album cycle. It was thrilling.

Jherek Bischoff plays Le Guess Who? Festival, Utrecht on Friday November 11th. Cistern is out now via the Leaf Label; check it out below.