O’Rourke (About)

Jim O’Rourke
Old News #8

Some of you may be more familiar with Jim O’Rourke’s work than I am. His name and his fingers – with which he proddeth many pies – have been quite ubiquitous since the early nineties. Discogs can attest to that, as can many a back issue of The Wire, or indeed this here publication what you hold in your screen, I should think. Be that as it may, this is the first Jim O’Rourke I’ve ever knowingly listened to. It might seem a funny place in some ways to start with, then, this double LP being one in a series of archive recordings, rarities, unreleased stuff and the like. However, this reissue is in the main part of one of the younger Mr O’Rourke’s first CD albums, Disengage, although presented simply and generically as number eight in this Mego-curated series (the packaging for which, it should be noted, is quite swell and surely formatted to look pleasant as a complete edition by its devious designers). So it seems this is pretty much starting at the beginning – which, it should be noted, can work sometimes, or so I have been led to believe.

We have, in our sumptuously packaged, graven grooves four pieces, one per side of sticky black vinyl. Three parts ‘Mere’ followed by a refreshing chaser of ‘Merely’.

Initial investigations seem to reveal a curious mix of steely alienation, lukewarm, beating ambience without being ambient. A sound touching on the cold drifts of a cloudbank of post-industrial fumes. Mercurial ebbs and shifts within a subliminal onward glide or inexorable undertow of momentum. An unheimlich phasing of indistinct scenes and moods, all witnessed at a remove, some coming nearer to impinging emotionally, some simply there and antiseptic, like a deserted hospital ward.

So, Mere – Smear, microscope slide, a glide between glass plates, afloat on sterile liquid, Vaseline laminations – Mir – Peace – a Space Station – artificial sustained atmosphere, microgravity, (Apollo) ambience – from peace to ill at ease – seasick – Meer – Das Meer – O’Rourke would of course go on in a couple of years to produce Faust’s ‘Comeback’ album Rien – La Mer, Foghorns – although no Debussy, for that we look to Philip Corner and his gamelan whilst twisting back round to Debussy’s orchestrations of Satie (more on which will be forthcoming, just watch this space) – More dreams of Exxon Valdez glinting on the surface of the oily grooves, Charles’ Ives alpenhorn echoing across an empty harbour or our wintry pond (see Ed’s review of PGA November 17th) visited again in tetherless phantasm, slipped away once again to affectless digital oscillation, lent a surface impurity through vinyl but still – disengaged. More? Four sides of it, but no Pink Floyd, only fluorescent pink ink on blue. Merely? Unprocessed, constituent elements more recognisable, roiling timps, oil drums and static rotation below the waterline.

Here the samples hang on a sagging washing line stretched between the academy (although having been in peril for so long it is perhaps in a new phase of respectability) and ambience, stained by the steam of cooling towers, an electronic interzone flotation tank. Instrumentalists are credited, the mycophilic Michael Prime contributes radio, for example, there is cello, trombone, voice (apparently four vocal performers, somewhere). For the most part these ingredients are carefully extracted in tiny slivers and processed into seamless loops in digital space, massed in fog patches of tone which swell, wheeze and collapse through a variety of moods, some mournful and lugubrious, one – the first section of Mere. Pt. 1 – almost glimpsing a universe next door of beatific ambient glow – thence to dissipate into inscrutable texture or uneasy quiescences of glassy DX synth drone. An exploration of abstract null-spaces and large colour-fields in various rainbow shades of greyscale. A stasis in a 3D hologram waterscape, rush into it and find it was all a mirage, though not exactly insubstantial.

Jim played his cards rather close to his chest at this point, I feel, presenting a music of negation – removing authorial touches, the young O’Rourke somewhere behind the whirring sound-carrier like a spectral Oz in hiding in a Turquoise City, obscuring gesture and individual distinction from the instrumental parts, glossing over overt suggestions of specific emotional responses; a music that paradoxically also negates empty space, that throbs with a steady subliminal momentum and always maintains fluid levels in the soundpool of disembodied sources. Despite this impulse for camouflage one gets the sense of an authorial personality behind things, an author who however is reticent about making definite statements and happier hiding behind pretexts of process, obscured as they themselves might well be. Perhaps this can be ascribed to the relative youth of the composer; a sly air of ‘well here it is, make of it what you will’, or ‘mere’ it is, merely, might also be discernable, equally so in its inclusion as another part of this uniformly glossed Old News series 1.

As an exercise in deconstructing and arranging acoustic sounds in drones without any particularly overt programmatic schema revealed, and certainly in terms of when it was made it has an oblique interest. If certain palette choices and techniques have become more familiar over the intervening 22 – 23 years that shouldn’t necessarily detract from the music. To listen in historical context probably helps in that respect. It is drones, is more long form and more abstract while still being notably electronic than much electronic music of the time, but uses what could loosely deemed electro-acoustic means to achieve that electronic status whilst mostly refusing resolved melody or mood, setting it a little apart from much industrial soundscaping on the one hand and synthetic ambience on the other. Fans of The Hafler Trio, Illusion of Safety, Staalplaat, Korm Plastics etc. things of the era may want to investigate – which isn’t to say it’s only of historical interest. It may, or may not be, essential or fascinating or mind-blowing, or none of the above, or something else, but undoubtedly there’s a lot of content in there, however reticent, inscrutable or blurred at the edges, and there’s a hell of a lot more to unpack than many current drone or electronic releases I’ve listened to or reviewed. It’s also probably more ambitious – structurally it is still rather sui generis, whether you can pick them out individually or not all the time those contributions and sound sources from other instrumentalists and musicians contribute shades and dimensions, and whether he’s deigning to show his face or not, there’s a distinctive although maybe still nascent authorial voice lurking in amongst the ostensibly de-personalised tones. An early footnote in long career and something of a curiosity with added historical cache, then 2.



  1. I find some obscure significance (pun always intended) that a few years later O’Rourke released another self-deprecatingly titled record in Insignificance.
  2. But not ‘Merely’. And we like footnotes here, they appeal to the part of the music fan that shelters the spirit of the collector and the searcher-after of obscure cultural lore and artefact; the spirit that hopes for a revelation from the past that transforms the present, scrambles the possible timelines, that opens mental doors to new utopian listening vistas; and of course let’s not forget there’s the fact it’s part of a nifty looking series… Old News can still be good news.

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