Super-prolific Chicago guitar improviser, keyboardist, tape manipulator, composer and producer Jim O’Rourke is most conveniently identified in rock terms as a core member of, first, Gastr del Sol and more recently Sonic Youth, but he has also recorded solo, served in Red Krayola, written for the Kronos Quartet, produced Faust, collaborated with Henry Kaiser and K.K. Null and done numerous other projects. The admitted workaholic, who operates just as comfortably in the low fringes of underground skronk as well as more technique-conscious realms and experimental processes, also forms and records transient groups of likeminded adventurers as a matter of ongoing creative habit.
O’Rourke started out, like many other experimenters, making home tapes and sending them to people whose work he admired. Some of them took notice, and he began working with renowned avant-garde composers and players at a relatively young age. O’Rourke’s aesthetic is definable, even though the quantity and range of his releases militates against that.
Some Kind of Pagan unveils O’Rourke’s skill at expanding the potential of the electric guitar without pedals or processors. Bombastic to pretty, the solemn gonging and deep ringing sounds, tempered with squeaking and scratching, are remarkably difficult to identify as guitar. But beyond that realm, O’Rourke also plays with found sounds, tape — and the patience of his audience. Scend makes audio atmospheres from field recordings of nature and water, a playground and trucks. Both of the album’s long pieces build from absolute quiet to occasional peaks of volume. There’s so much space that it blurs the line between listening to his piece and to the ambient noise of the space in which you hear it-and that may be part of his point.
Tamper moves into more classical territory, at least in terms of instrumentation. The album meshes strings, winds and voice into what’s become the dark landscape of O’Rourke’s music. In moving subtly from stark quiet to loud, visceral masses of sound, the pieces take on — in some sense — the role of very slow-moving horror movie background music.
Released as a three-inch CD, Rules of Reduction is an engaging seventeen-minute musique concrète piece which returns to the ideas used in Scend, only more concise and sophisticated. Part of a series of film-like sound tableaux, O’Rourke’s entry is a mesh of city street noise augmented by saxophone, piano and waves of circus- like accordion, interspersed by faint, placid interludes which include gull sounds and soft piano. Lovely, and not jarring except when it means to be.
Remove the Need is a quartet of unaccompanied live improvs, one of them a half-hour long, recorded in Chicago and Zurich. Using carefully controlled feedback and some sort of bowing technique to produce his primary sounds, the guitarist never audibly strikes a string; the edgy but not unpleasant music drifts and tolls in thin, narrow and high streams of uninterrupted tone that undulate slowly, like the dramatic accompaniment to a tense psychological thriller in which nothing ever happens.
Created over the course of two years, Terminal Pharmacy‘s two pieces, “Cede” and “Terminal Pharmacy,” invert the typical modern process of endless addition: the former, which credits a clarinetist, a bass trombonist and drummer John McEntire (it’s unstated and indiscernible what O’Rourke’s instrumental role, if any, is), is instead the final result of reduction, as it shifts between subliminal and nearly inaudible. Gentle rattles, footsteps and the sounds of a car door opening occasionally break the near- silence of wavery sustained notes far off in the distance, but that’s about all that happens for the first 25 minutes. (A few things transpire in the quarter-hour that follows, but not enough to change the overall sensation of staring at a blank screen waiting for the movie to begin.) The suspicion of fakery is not dissipated by the deadpan put-on of O’Rourke’s liner notes: “Finding out what the material ‘meant’ in a more articulated way required going over it again and again, until it was exhausted (cf. Grand Funk Railroad’s own theatre of eternal music, ‘I’m Your Captain’).” The shorter “Terminal Pharmacy” employs a half- dozen cellists, two accordionists and four flute players to make some atonal scrapy, honky noises, but again not enough occurs to encourage the feeling that a piece of music is actually being performed.
O’Rourke’s collaborative improvisational recordings can blur together; the differences between them depend entirely on his choice of partner. For instance, Henry Kaiser’s frenetic proficiency is nicely dulled in their collaboration. The best and most accessible pieces on Tomorrow Knows Where You Live overlay both players to produce the sound of eight classical guitarists delicately fingering all at once. On other tracks, O’Rourke contributes his usual ethereal tonescapes with shuddering bits.
On the other hand, Kazuyuki K. Null of Japan’s Zeni Geva dominates New Kind of Water. His forceful guitar wringing rides right over O’Rourke’s, churning and gurgling in what is, much like the title, an angular, chopped, rocky version of the sounds of water.
The more recent Slow Motion strikes a better balance. O’Rourke and Swiss percussionist Günter Müller both have an intricate sense of construction that starts where jazz (even free jazz) ends. Müller never really gets around to hitting his drums — he more often brushes, rubs, vibrates and creates squeaks with his entire kit. O’Rourke counters with an echoey sound space that envelops Müller’s miniatures; overall the pieces resemble a big, clanky digestive system of strings and metal.
Brise-Glace brings O’Rourke together with bassist Darin Gray of St. Louis’ Dazzling Killmen, free-minded drummer Thymme Jones of Cheer-Accident and Illusion of Safety, guitarist Dylan Posa (Cheer-Accident, the Flying Luttenbachers) and such guests as Kaiser and David Grubbs. Engineered by Steve Albini, When in Vanitas… consists of five loosely structured instrumentals that make essential use of 60-cycle hum, ebbing and flowing in sparely strummed tangles that are often little more than meandering doodles but occasionally (the percussion-shaped and distortion-riddled “Restrained From Do and Will Not (Leave),” for instance) light on to something more substantial.
Yona-Kit, with Gray, Jones and singer/guitarist K. K. Null, is a tauter, ruggedly played song-rock proposition also recorded by Albini, who achieves a more characteristically raw sound here than on the Brise-Glace disc. Nonchalantly aggressive with Null’s typical nods to both Big Black and Foetus, songs like the vituperative “Franken-Bitch,” the walloping “Skeleton King,” the intricate “Disembody” (which sets an alternately slow/fast beat under a nagging, busy guitar lick) and “Slice of Life,” a maddeningly repetitive 23-minute instrumental, scratch at the eardrums like a rabid cat fighting for its life before the tranquilizers knock it over.
O’Rourke played and recorded with Illusion of Safety early in his career; the relationship eventually ebbed to the point where the group would merely mix in samples of his guitar improvisations. Organum (David Jackman) has used his work in this way as well. O’Rourke eventually recorded Use, a DAT tape meant not as an actual album but as sampling fodder for other musicians.
O’Rourke has recorded with — for starters — Tatsu Aoki, Trance, Eddie Prevost, Untitled, Smog, Mats Gustafsson, the Elvis Messiahs, Mimir, Philip Gelb and Robert Hampson of Main (as Indicate). He’s also produced or remixed pieces for Oval, Tortoise, Labradford, Main, U.S. Maple, Melt Banana and This Heat.