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He's just such a nice guy. That's my first impression of Jim O'Rourke, and it's an abiding one. Some other people might concentrate on his reputation as the da Vinci of experimental music, pointing to the fact that although he's only 25, he's already released ten full albums, been involved in countless others, and worked with (take a deep breath) Henry Kaiser, Illusion of Safety, John Oswald, Christoph Heemann, John Duncan, Voice Crack, Eddie Prévost, Kazuyuki Null, Louis Moholo, Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, Hugh Davies, Keith Rowe and David Jackman, to name only a few. His albums to date cover the full gamut of his work with guitar improvisation, musique concréte, and composition for conventional acoustic groups. He's probably the only musician who records for labels like Extreme and Staalplaat to have been asked to compose for the Kronos Quartet and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. But all these seem to pale into insignificance when you see what a modest and generous guy he is.
O'Rourke's performing career began as a member of The Elvis Messiahs in 1987 in Chicago. According to Please Join Us magazine, the band performed a noisy, theatrical style of free improvisation, playing live regularly and appeared with such noteables as Nicolas Collins and Jack Wright. In 1988, O'Rourke disbanded The Elvis Messiahs and began working with Dan Burke's post-industrial beat combo, Illusion of Safety. O'Rourke has been involved in several of the band's recordings, and on their recent CDs such as Probe and Historical, his influence is particularly noticeable.
O'Rourke gained a degree in composition at DePaul University, a background that inevitably separates his work from the post-industrial groups with whom he's sometimes compared. He was over in London for a month in March, and I took the chance to ask him if this education had been important to him in introducing him to a wider variety of new music.
"I had been obsessive about trying to find new things since I was a kid. So there was no music I heard at school that I hadn't heard before - I don't mean that to be bragging. I'd say vice versa, there are composers the professors just didn't know about. They didn't know who was alive and working now. To them, music died at Stockhausen, that's as far as they went. Maybe Steve Reich, 'oh yeah, that minimalism thing'. Excuse me? Look at our calendar! That minimalist period is long gone and buried."
O'Rourke's education would seem to have had little influence on his musical work, as for the most part it was based firmly in the post-serialist tradition; here, music is written according to a strict set of rules and a student's work can be judged according to its adherence to those rules. As O'Rourke tells me, "they don't have to deal with taste at all ... they were just trying to mould you into becoming professors. Which is one of the reasons I went for the labels like Extreme in the first place, because I thought 'you're crazy, you're not even in touch any more'". Of course, in the arts and humanities world, it's part and parcel of academia not to be in touch. O'Rourke isn't reactionary enough to suggest that this education was a waste of time, acknowledging that all the time spent learning techniques like counterpoint was relevant to his musical work. He even points out that a new piece he's been working on deals on one level with certain madrigal forms. But most importantly, he says that it gave him an opportunity to have to argue, to have to think about what it was he really wanted to do.
He didn't just spend his time learning either, he taught some of the school's electronic music classes while he was there, and gave private guitar lessons. "Mostly I was teaching Metallica to the students. I didn't mind teaching Metallica. They had better guitar parts than Kiss! When I was growing up, Kiss was really big in the States, but I'd never heard them, I just knew what they looked like and they scared the shit out of me. 'If you ask for Gene Simmons' autograph, he sticks a spike through your arm!' Wooah! When I finally heard them ... that's Kiss?!"
Tamper, O'Rourke's set of three acoustic compositions released by Extreme, was a direct result of his time at music school.
"Noone else at school was interested in doing tape music, so the school was mine all the time. Tamper was recorded on 20-year old tape, because I couldn't afford to buy tape. My friend's dad was in The Flock, the original band before Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears, and he gave me all these old rehearsal tapes, which I recorded Tamper over.
"When I did Tamper, it was all about how acoustic instruments, like the piano, are so defined that people don't listen to their actual sound any more. They listen to a piano playing something as opposed to hearing 15 minutes of sound. I wanted to try to make acoustic instrumental pieces, but by mixing and miking it in such a way that the definitions of the instruments would be gone. One of the things that depresses me about that album is that no-one's ever come up to me and said, 'I can't hear the fucking oboes there, where are they?' Except for the first few minutes of the CD, where there's a low, low oscillator, it's just acoustic instruments. In the second piece, the first six minutes are just oboes, but there are no attacks or decays, because I'd have, say, eight oboe parts and I'd have mapped on a piece of graph paper where each attack occurred, so the things that sound like drones aren't - they're constant crossfadings. There's nothing on the entire record which last more than 10 or 20 seconds, but nobody ever says anything, which is one reason I'm so depressed about that record."
This self-criticism extends to most of the albums I ask him about, and after a while it begins to get almost irritating. I guess that if certain other musicians were as critical of their own work, it might help to remove some of the dross off the shelves out there ...
Most of O'Rourke's guitar recordings are documents of improvisations, and as a result he seems marginally more forgiving of them.
"The one with Null is really a special piece. It's not really an improvised recording because we had to do it through the mail. I'm not so sure about the live tracks on there. I left them on because Null really likes them and I really like him. But I can't listen to it, or the record with Henry [Kaiser], although I think it's probably an OK record. He played brilliantly, of course, and I wasn't a complete idiot.
"There are some forthcoming improv records that I'm really happy with. I did one with John Oswald, and Henry Kaiser, and violinist Mari Kimura, on Victo. Mari's a Japanese classical violinist, she's just phenomenal. Her ears are so quick, it's scary how quickly she processes information. I'm proud of that record. It's all acoustic, 2 acoustic guitars, John Oswald plays alto sax, he's an amazing player. He did a great album with Henry, 15 or 16 years ago."
Other forthcoming releases include one with the Swiss group Voice Crack, and a collaboration with Keith Rowe recorded while both were visiting H.N.A.S.'s Christoph Heemann in Germany. O'Rourke is only too well aware of how the improvising scene is very political, with the people you get to work with often depending on who you have worked with before. "Since I'm friends with Henry, that enters me into the John Zorn world whether I like it or not. Since I've known Derek [Bailey] for years, then it's kind of weird with Evan Parker ... There's more personal politics than in other music. You're dealing with your ego when you play. You're not just surrendering your ego to cooperate with the other musicians, you're always fighting for a certain aesthetic."
While in London, O'Rourke recorded an improvised music session for BBC Radio Three's Mixing It programme, with Derek Bailey, Vanessa Mackness and Eddie Prévost. Even though O'Rourke's value judgement of the results didn't go much beyond saying "it was OK", he seemd pleased with how it had turned out.
"I'd worked with all of them before. I've known Eddie and Derek for about five years now. I've played with Eddie a lot, even outside improvised music, on the Organum records. It was an interesting contrast, because aesthetically the kind of improvisation Derek is usually involved in is totally different to Eddie whose own group is more the post-Bailey improv school. So there was this contrast between the setting up of textures and this linear examination of material, which Derek was more interested in. I like doing it because Derek wouldn't usually have played with Eddie".
O'Rourke also took the opportunity to give a couple of live performances. A scheduled team-up with Conspiracy didn't take place, but he did guest with Put Put (who also feature the Jacques brothers from These Records), who on the night that I saw them delivered an intoxicated, mesmerising drone rock melange. Later in the month, he appeared on stage with Eddie Prévost and Michael Prime, the fill-in act separating a two-part set by Main. I imagine most of the audience had come to see the ex-indie rockers, but there's no doubt that it's the improv trio who got the most applause, mainly thanks to some inspired drumming by Prévost, aided by the sympathetic noise and drones from O'Rourke and Prime.
One of the main purposes of O'Rourke's time in London was to make a recording with Main's Robert Hampson. Calling themselves Indicate, their album Whelm will be released by Touch.
"It's not like Main at all. It's not so much like my records either. It's closest to the thing I did with Dan Burke, Probe, because of the kind of materials it works with, although structurally it's not the same. The way Dan works is that he just does what he likes. He doesn't do things from any aesthetic level. Robert and I have had a lot of arguments about aesthetics ... [Whelm] deals a lot more actively with form than, say, Probe did. It's mostly derived from field recordings, we took things out of recordings and put them through computers ... We've looked at the material and what it implies for the listener's expectations. We've utilised different ways of working against those expectations on every possible level. It's not a polarised thing where we do the things you'd expect and then we surprise you ... it deals with a broader spectrum than Probe does.
"I had as good a time working on it as I could. We got along quite well although we're definitely coming from different backgrounds. There were certain discussions that had to be had ■ I'm very interested in discussing things, I'm not really interested in compromise. I want to find out, whoever it is, why they want to do something, as opposed to saying 'they want to do that, I want to do this, let's find a compromise'. There was a dialogue".
Robert Hampson isn't the only person with a rock background that O'Rourke has worked with. One such collaborator is Bastro's Dave Grubbs, who O'Rourke works with under the name of Gastr del Sol.
"We just did an album for Drag City, and I got $1500 to record it, which I know is nothing for a rock record. It's literally a cross between Tamper and post-Derek Bailey, John Fahey-type guitar playing. There are songs but all the guitar parts are dissonant, and all of a sudden this big chamber group will kick in and just stay there for fifteen minutes on this one texture. Drag City decided to do it, and Touch'n'Go for some sick reason approved spending money on me to record it for them. And they're not very happy at all with the result! It's not a rock record. It may hopefully happen again ■ I was really happy with it. There's this rock band on the album, but for some reason they never get to play rock music, it's always threatening to go there."
This is far from all. O'Rourke's role as a guitar guerilla in a rock'n'roll world goes further. He is playing in the legendary Red Crayola (thanks to Dave Grubb's association with Red Crayola's Mayo Thompson), who have been making music since 1967 and who's 1981 album Kangaroo? has been described as "like Brecht out of Vivian Stanshall". He also has his own "rock" project, Brise-Glace, recording for Touch'n'Go / Skin Graft. Their album is based around a core group of Chicago musicians, but will also feature Henry Kaiser and Christoph Heemann. He also tells me that he's been asked to play in K.K. Null's progressive rock band, starting this June: "It should be fun. I hope there's lots of Farfisa organ, there's lots on the Brise-Glace record, I love Farfisa organ." O'Rourke also toured with Codeine, opening for them with a sound mix on their tour with the Flaming Lips. "I had a great time. I would do it again right now, go on a big rock'n'roll tour. It's all so funny, the scale of it is so ridiculous. I'm just so used to having to lose money to record an album, not being paid a cent for what I do. To see these bands having hundreds of people there, and getting the label sending them money to allow them to eat, having no costs and still getting paid to do what's basically a fun job. It knocks me out, it's so amazingly funny."
O'Rourke seems very aware of how the context that his music is heard in is very important. He points out that the Gastr del Sol record as released by Touch'n'Go is a very different thing to what it would be if released by Touch. I gather that his concern for this context is leading him to question the association he's had with post-industrial and noise labels he's had recently (Charnel House, Extreme, Staalplaat etc), which he once viewed as a radical alternative to his classically-trained background. I was a little surprised at just how concerned he was.
"I will probably never release anything on a label like that again. At first I mostly did it because I knew 'legitimate' labels would never touch my stuff. Also, I think it was a real mistake to put out some of those earlier albums because really quickly everyone wanted to put out a record by me, and it was so fast. Still, I had this feeling that nobody would ever want to release something of my mine, and if I turned something down I'd never get asked again. This was a big fear of mine for about two years. I was only about 21 when everyone started approaching me, and it's not a bragging thing, but I just feel like property, everybody wants a piece of me. It really gets me down. Everywhere I go someone finds out I'm in town, I get a call every ten minutes 'come play with me, come record with me' ..."
I muttered "come do an interview ..."
"It's not that! I just don't like the context of these labels any more. I'm coming from a different tradition than these other people. I grew up playing improvised music, listening to classical music, studying composition. I'm not saying this is any better, it's just where I'm coming from. I did feel that things like the Hafler Trio were better than all the shit coming out on say, C.R.I. [Composers' Recordings Inc.] I mean, John Duncan, Hafler Trio, this stuff blows your shit away completely. That's why I felt that's where I belonged. Now I feel that the Hafler Trio don't belong in that context either. I don't think John Duncan does. It's not so much that I've been disappointed by the labels, because some of them have been very nice to me. I just don't want to be related to blood-sucking neo-Nazis and things like that because it affects how people listen to what you do ... I don't mind having stuff on those labels but my pieces will probably be released in other contexts from now on."
Later, after I flip my tape over and take a break to get some more coffee, Jim reconsiders.
"It's not that I never want to work for these labels again. I still want to do hopefully good work in that context. I just think a lot of these labels don't understand ... I guess they're used to people in that field doing something because they enjoy it, because it's better than watching TV. I will do things again for, say, Staalplaat. I have nothing bad to say about them, or Charnel House."
I wonder aloud about how he viewed his music for the Kronos Quartet being seen in the context that a major classical label provides.
"I don't know so much if it's subversion. I don't think the fact that Kronos record Zorn is any more bizarre than a group in the 1920s playing Bartok, or Charles Ives in 1930. Whether or not Zorn or Elliott [Sharp] will be a Charles Ives in the future I don't know, although John Oswald certainly will. I can state that unequivocally. His work will stand many levels of analysis ... You see, I'm not interested in subversion that's like banging a hammer against a wall, that really doesn't draw attention to what you're doing. The things I like most, like Van Dyke Parks, work within a context and have the appearance of that, but if you look past the appearance, you find that it's actually dealing with how it achieves that appearance. That's what I'm interested in, which is what I hopefully did with the Brise-Glace record, it toys with what it means to be making a "rock" record. I'm not saying that's anything new, there's a strong tradition of doing that; This Heat, Can, Faust. There isn't such a strong American tradition, except for Red Crayola, who I really admire because they deal with linguistics so strongly.
"I liked Paul Schütze's New Maps From Hell because it was Miles Davis, basically. The first track is really Agartha-ish, and I'm really into Miles Davis, another one of my heroes. I have nothing but fond memories of his 68-74 period, and Cecil Taylor, another real big formative thing for me, especially the whole aspect of processing information ... He sits in a place that I really admire. Most of these things that I really like have little or nothing to do with what I'm doing, aesthetically: Cecil Taylor, Van Dyke Parks, Scott Walker. The closest things for me would be Luc Ferrari. And Morton Feldman."
To some extent, the names O'Rourke drops are names from the past, obvious candidates whose achievements have been recognised by their place in musical history. As I found when I interviewed Glenn Branca, you begin to wonder how aware these artists are of all the great music being created around them today. Jim quickly sets my mind at rest.
"I think John Oswald is brilliant. In Germany, there's Bernard Günter, he has a CD out on Selektion [Un Peu de Neige Salie], there's never been anything like it. He's the first person to make good computer music. It's aesthetically very similar to Morton Feldman's music, but it's computer music, which of course doesn't seem to make sense. I like Gerhard Schtebler and Helmut Lachenmann, two composers from Germany, they're great. There's a brilliant Italian composer, Salvatore Sciarrino. His stuff that deals more with textures is what I'm more interested in than his over-the-top-type pieces."
Good. It's nice to know that Jim has his finger sufficiently on the pulse that he can come up with plenty of names that I've never heard of (and consequently probably spelled wrong!) I ask him if there is anyone he'd particularly like to work with.
"You know, I'm so fucking spoiled! It's terrible to say, but I've played or worked with almost everybody I grew up worshipping. Just three months ago I had a piece premiered the same night as a piece by Luc Ferrari. This guy's a complete hero to me. I was just so fucking scared - I can't tell you how much I absolutely worship, kiss the ground, anything! He's the greatest living composer on earth! If it wasn't for him, I don't know what I'd be doing."
Apart from the continuing improvising work, O'Rourke's other musical output has slowed dramatically in the last few years, although enough of his music has been released over the last few years to make him seem very prolific.
"I've been working on a new piece for about eight months, which is going to come out on These Records, on a CD with The Hafler Trio and Zoviet France. It's a tape piece in a similar vein to Rules of Reduction, but it doesn't deal with field recordings very much at all. It's going back to sounds that were on some of my earlier records, reaching for the abstract. One of the main reasons I was doing these musique concrete pieces is because I like dealing with what the narrative content of a sound is. When you're dealing with an abstract sound you're not dealing at a direct associative level. So this new piece is derived from shortwave and reconstructions of the sounds in shortwave, so things start separating - there are easily identifiable shortwave sounds and then these things come out of it, then disappear. I spent a lot of time recreating the shortwave sounds. I actually don't hate this piece, which is a first."
In the past, O'Rourke has expressed his dislike of abstract music, so I was puzzled to see that he was almost embracing it on this new work.
"Except for this new piece, I haven't done any processing at all. The guitar albums have the reverb on the amp, but I don't use any delays, I don't use these standard rack effects. I used a little on the new piece to get some out-of-phase effects, in order to get some of the channels to wrap around a bit, but nothing like the Asmus Tietchens school of processing a sound until you don't know what a sound is any more. It just doesn't interest me."
I discussed O'Rourke's Rules of Reduction with him in some detail. It's one of the pieces he seems happiest with, and the way he thinks about it is relevant to most of his music. It took about six months to make, using recordings made in France, and used O'Rourke's newly-acquired 8-track recorder.
"To me what's important about Rules of Reduction is that recording carries with it certain information besides just aural information. What does it mean for a car to be there with a group of saxophones? I'm coming out of the whole French school of thought. Actually, perhaps it's the Brechtian mode of thought where it's the meaning behind something that is what's important. Using field recordings on a record is only an act of representation. What does it mean? It's not just about liking the sounds, because I don't like the sounds of a lot of these things. They're there because of what they mean in the context of the other sounds, not because I like them. On pieces like Scend, Scan (which I think is a failure), Rules of Reduction, my new piece, almost everything is on there because it was needed.
"Rules of Reduction is mostly for me about how musique concréte is one of the few genres that's so inexorably tied to a certain school of thought, the French school of thought. As an American growing up, listening to and being interested in musique concrete, I had no actual history, nothing to relate to aesthetically. There's no American history of musique concrete. American and French aesthetics are not the same. So I had to deal with the question of a medium where the signifiers are so tightly tied to one way of thinking. How could I deal with that formally? So the piece really deals with what the expectations of musique concrete are. Luc Ferrari's really the only composer of the original French musique concrete school who started dealing with what the sounds meant. The others wanted to avoid that, to take the sounds and move them into the abstract. "Rules of Reduction sounds French, but what happens within the piece is very anti-French. I got into really big trouble when they premiered it in Paris. In France there's 'l'image', the idea of taking the sounds and removing them out of everyday reality into some sort of fantasy. Every single time in my piece that the sounds try to do that, I counteract it. Like when the saxophones come out of the car horn, which is a classic musique concréte technique, I completely cut it cold. The piece eventually gives up, with this piano crap at the end. Every time there's a sense of reverie and nostalgia, another common thing in musique concréte, it never gets there, it's just a series of dead ends.
"Aesthetically it's very non-French, but with musique concréte you can't help but sound French, that's the history of it, you can't deny it. It shapes how people will perceive it.
"The dialogue ... I know most people don't know French, but I didn't want to put a translation in, because it separates it in time, you know what they're going to say before you hear it. The dialogue has very purposeful puns ... the kind of narrative events that always have a tendency to happen in musique concréte pieces with text. The section with what sounds like a riot has these workers protesting the closing down of a plant. The police come in and try to quieten it down. The police bring in a marching band, and they keep saying, 'bring it in, bring it in', and then this ship comes in, it's totally ludicrous, a surrealist thing, which is something that's not usually done in most musique concrete. Then at the end there's this section where it transports you to this beautiful land, and everybody's converging and there's the band playing. And there's this guy who comes up and starts hassling these two women, sexually harrassing them. No matter how many times there's supposed to be this transcendent thing, I hopefully do something to reverse it."
Rules of Reduction, like much of O'Rourke's work, contains frequent contrasts between near-silence and extreme loudness, huge and sudden dynamic shifts. Essentially very simple, they are nonetheless surprisingly rare in modern music.
"For a while, I did it mostly for the contrast, because you're forced to listen differently. It's mostly from my interest in film, which is maybe even stronger than my interest in music, in how the medium communicates. You can control the perception of time through editing, which is why I like Nic Roeg so much. Rules of Reduction is so much about the editing. You have the possibility there, dynamics is just another way of getting information across. It's there for a purpose, hopefully to make a person listen in to a sound. I don't think silence is something separate from the music you can weave into it and weave back out. The album I just did with Robert Hampson, at the end of it there's really long track which ends with an electricity sound, for an incredibly long time, and then there's an incredibly long silence, and Robert wanted to end it there. But if you put even just two seconds here at the very end, it makes the last fifteen minutes become something completely different. It deals with how you perceive it. Dynamics is part of that, you have to listen in to it, the listener is changed. I'm not so into it for shock value, like Dan Burke [Illusion of Safety] likes."
As Jim suggests, his interest in this kind of music has a lot in common with the kind of film-making he's interested in, and he cites Roeg and Bunuel as examples, as well as Jacques Tati, Michael Snow and Dusan Makayevich. He has also just completed a soundtrack to Peter Mettler's film Picture of Light, and the two may work together on a further project based on the music in the film, a music and text CD. "I've made films, but I'm not one of these people who thinks that because people like my music they'll like my films. I've made about ten films over the past ten yearts, and I do paintings and everything, but I would never show them to anybody until I think I've done something that's me, in that medium. Hopefully, pieces like Rules of Reduction are dealing with the same sorts of questions as I would in film."
Interview by Brian Duguid 1995