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Originally published in N D 17 (1992)
by Rob Forman

Having performed with Derek Bailey, Henry Kaiser, K.K. Null, and Louis Moholo in the field of guitar improvisation, collaborated with David Jackman (Organum), Christoph Heeman (H.N.A.S.), Syllyk, and Illusion of Safety in the studio, released a number of solo recordings, and composed for the Kronos Quartet and The Rova Saxophone Quartet, one could assume that Jim O’Rourke has been around a while, a veteran so to speak. Yet he is only 23, and only now coming into his own as a composer and acting as a major influence on so many experimental disciplines. Though it is not really his age that makes him so impressive, even if “he is distressingly young and talented” as described in a recent issue of Variant magazine, but his ability to create vital music in so many disciplines and all coming quite naturally to him. He is a compulsive musician, constantly composing, in demand in Europe at experimental festivals, and travelling about to work with other musicians, which certainly accounts for all the above activity described, but so far there is certainly no sacrifice of quality to quantity. There is little doubt to many observers that he will be one of the most important composers of the 90s. I interviewed Jim in his hometown of Chicago in September of ‘92.
You had mentioned that for you making music was essentially a personal process, could you expand on that and why "experimental" forms of music are best suited for you.
I kind of make distinctions about why people play and make music. First, you have people that do so for entertainment, it’s something they like and can do and may even provide a career. When I was in orchestra in college people enjoyed to play their instrument but the music to them really didn’t matter personally. Then their are people who make music for “artistic” reasons, for lack of a better word, for personal growth or to communicate to others. For me, I want things out there, but while I’m composing it’s therapy, a purging and when it‘s done I don’t care about them, even listen to them, now it’s time for other people to see what they get out of it.
Not to mention the people who make music to be hip or make a scene. So when did the need to compose come about?
It wasn’t till high school that I started to compose on paper, but when I was pretty young I had played with tape recorders, and in 6th grade I had a group with a friend and his brother and I would just kick the amp a lot and get the spring reverb going. So back then I was into sound as racket instead of chords although unaware of what it meant.
What about being influenced at that time by weird recordings?
I was first interested in experimental film, mainly because even Bu˝uel and Cocteau would be in basic reference books, whereas the information concerning avant-garde music was just not as accessible, but I just cross referenced into the music side. And then I heard Zappa’s Freak Out, and the huge list of composers which I cross referenced with. But Xenakis’ electro-acoustic album was the real zinger, when I was around eleven.
The Xenakis, at that age, must of been hard to grasp though?
At first, I just had no reference for it, but on a gut level I liked it. Certainly on an intellectual level no, but in early High School I read Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music and it was just so clear and concise about the philosophies and theories of these musics that it really started to open things up. Which inspired me to compose more formally.
In college you were a composition major, the natural path would be go academic.
It’s not natural though. The only option was to go on for your masters, then teach, and then maybe the students will play some of your pieces, and then maybe you’ll get a “reputation.”A system that’s been around for decades, and Professors just didn’t see other options, it wasn’t a part of their history. Why should I write a score, wait around for people to get their act together and still play it wrong, maybe get a performance and that’s it. What’s the point? Unless you’re Boulez, you’ll never get a decent performance, just because it costs a fortune to do. It’s so much easier to work direct in the studio on every level.
Well that’s your biggest advantage, being involved on all the levels of experimental music; free improv, what I call the high-brow industrial labels, and being into collecting (recordings) all these sound gives you amazing resources.
It has a lot to do with the politics and social status of things, the type of labels and crowds I’m involved with aren’t considered legitimate.
Well the whole academic scene is a legitimization process.
Only by them, that’s the foundation of compositional teaching, they have the upper hand. If I’m asked to compose a serialist piece, which has certain rules and that’s fine, but it’s concrete, the professor can say “This is wrong, This is right” etc... but when it comes to taste who should say? I remember doing a piece and the professor said “This is wrong,” and I said “Why?” “Well this is an octave,” “So?" “Octaves refer to tonality,” “So?” “This is supposed to be an atonal piece,” “ No, it’s a piece of music, and I’m not going to stick it into a historical archetype." I mean, the great pieces of serialist music, weren’t intended to be “Great Stringent Serialist Pieces.” Nono, Xenakis stringent serialists? Come on. But who knows the stringent serialist academic compositions? By that standard Xenakis and Charles Dodge are equals, technically, but who would you rather listen to?
But the system isn’t the end, it’s the music.
But at the University the system is the end and that is the only way they can judge you, as a student not as a person. Even though they know it’s BS. I’m not asking for a special waiver from being shoved into these forms, everyone deserves one. I’m paying him to lecture to me about the wonders of Babbitt, I don’t care about Babbitt. I found the music in the post-industrial scene, or whatever, to be more interesting, because it’s more musical and less stringent, and the people more approachable. New World and CRI would never release my stuff, but Extreme will. The downside is that people identify labels with types of music, compare it to other stuff on that label which is unfair for everyone, but it’s released and everyone is happy. More so, the people that buy Extreme stuff will probably be more appreciative of it than the so called academic label followers. If a person is into the Dead Kennedy’s or cello concertos, I don’t care.
Hard to avoid label identity though, New Albion, Public Bath, and K all conjure up certain styles.
Academic labels have that too. Babbitt is always saying that no one wants to listen to his music, but his attitude is that I am a composer and people owe it to me to listen. People listen to music because they like it not because of it’s lineage. They listen to pieces and composers because it entertains them not because they follow a tradition, and no one is owed someone’s listening attention. Maybe Babbitt’s problem is that he is focusing on the wrong audience. Right, how many academes get off to Pierre Henry? He is a legitimate, historical, highbrow French composer, but his biggest listeners, at least in this country, are probably academically non trained folks in their 20s and 30s who just dig the freaked out sounds and that is totally legitimate. And that’s probably my biggest audience too, but I still have the academic door open to me, and now I’m called an elitist if I pursue it. “He’s been on Extreme, he’s played with KK Null, where does he get off getting pieces played by the Kronos?” Because I can.
Well you are probably one of the first to have all the options.
If everything I can compose gets out with the standards I see fit, who can argue. Why is the "legit" route better or worse than the “Post-industrial route?” It’s all point of reference. When I tour, I’m called a composer in some countries, and free-improv guitarist in others, and it’s what they would rather hear.
From the other side weren’t some hometapers accusing you of selling out, even to non elite labels like Extreme?
It’s a joke. First, a cassette is an inferior reproducing medium than vinyl or CDs. Why should I stay with an inferior medium when I don’t have too? My early stuff was on cassette, great, but now I’ve sold out? It’s so reactionary. I’m making the music I want to make, with better reproduction, and getting paid a little. What a sell-out.
It seems to me the compromise would come to the music, by pledging allegiance to the boys club of the cassette underground.
I’m a musician not a hometaper. Hometapeing is great, but why should it be so limiting? Or so definitive? I get badmouthed, to my face, but I work my ass off. Look at Dan Burke of IOS , he works a full-time job and then stays up all night working on his music, who’s got time for badmouthing?
I have a hard time imagining these folks would actually turn down Extreme if they offered them a release.
It’s humorous that it’s as if any of this music is that commercial anyway.
Proof enough that your not a hometaper is your collaborative work on guitar with Henry Kaiser, Derek Bailey, and so forth. Could you talk about your experiences with these musicians and what sort of learning process it has been.
Personally I’ve I always seen two kinds of improvisers, people who react moment to moment, and people who play more detached, who have add overall architecture to the setting. I tend to be more structural, thinking about the overall piece, trying to frame other peoples playing. Not in a complimentary sense, because in free improv the structure is being created anyway, but using the evolving structure as information for further development. So depending on who I’m playing with depends a lot on how I play. With KK Null, his style is so ultra high energy, and mine is not, so I try to put his intensity in different contexts. And with Kaiser his structural forms are so advanced, he is sort of tones down his West Coast/Bay Area tendencies, where as I let my guard down more. Bailey I’m really frightened of, so for me it’s cerebral, I’m listening to exactly what he is playing: pitch, rhythm, and trying to analyze it, and then resubmitting that information through my filters. But like with Eddie Prévost and David Jackman, we already know what we want, so it is very textural and relaxed. But what you learn is that your forced into new situations, and sometimes you fail but if you adjust and succeed you can learn something knew. I do that to myself too. On the last tour I purposely left all the equipment I was comfortable with at home because I would rely on them, and brought unfamiliar stuff and only used it when I performed, which really forces the situation. It’s similar in the studio when your collaborating too. It all crosses over.
You have a lot of different areas that overlap. Do you think you are finding a path, or identity?
Every piece I do I learn from, and the written stuff, the studio stuff and the guitar work are all related. It may be more apparent to me because I’m doing it , but that is how I see it.
Do you think you are contributing anything?
There are specific reasons why I make a piece of music for myself, but I hope that I can get the listener to find some level of introspection. When I do a piece I’m trying to work through something, a disgust or whatever, not that I’m an “angry young man.” I mean I like records, I want them, it’s a guilty pleasure. I want people to hear them.
When we talked on the phone earlier, you had said about the Dom release The Ground Below Our Heads, that you hate that piece now.
Right, I absolutely abhor it.
It has nothing to do with me any more, it’s not me. By the time I finish a piece... I said this to Dan once, listening to your own music is like looking at your own vomit, because that is what it is, if you make music for personal reasons. It sounds sick, but once you’ve purged something you don’t want to reflect on it again. People get confused when I say I hate my music because it’s not on an aesthetic level that I hate it. The piece is a marker of time. Ten years from now I’ll probably working a lot slower, but at my age a lot of things happen in a short time frame.
Ten years from now will you be able to listen to these pieces with a bit more distance?
If any thing it will be nostalgic, like looking at old photos. I listened to Tamper recently because I was making a tape for someone, and I thought “It’s okay, but it has tons of problems.” Even though it is recently released, the piece to me, is almost three years old, there are some things I’d like to fix.
But you can’t rewrite your pieces all the time.
Right. But I do throw away a lot of music, stuff that could get released but it just didn’t work.
Tell me about the composition for The Kronos Quartet.
Basically, some people told them who I was and they contacted me and said write a piece. But a very small percentage of what is submitted to them is played.
If they did decide to perform or record it though, it would be sort of the ultimate slap to the academic world.
Coming in through the back door, definitely.
Any other compositions of that nature?
Some stuff for the Rova Sax Quartet, but I really don’t pursue commissions cause I hate writing scores, although it has its interesting aspects.
And potentially some money to be made. I guess you don’t mess with grants?
Oh, I try as much as I can, I spend a lot of time on paperwork. I mean, I know the arguments against them. Henry refuses any kind of grant money which I understand, but it’s there, someone is going to get it anyway. I’m going to make the music I want with or without it.
But one can argue that it sort of affects things.
It can, you have to be careful on the type of grants. Some are just no strings attached, they don’t care.
Then there are the folks who get grants and don’t care about their music.
Definitely, but I give them credit for getting off their asses to get the money cause it’s not easy. Although once you start getting them it’s cronieville.
You have worked with some amazing musicians, who would you like to work with you haven’t?
Van Dyke Parks, more to just pick his brain. Keiji Haino, although now that Zorn has gotten a hold of him, Evan Parker very much, but that is touchy cause he and Derek are at odds and I sort of came in with Derek’s crowd. There is a lot of people I’d like to meet: Feldman, Scelsi, but they’re dead. Probably it’s better that I hadn’t.
You have been able to play in Europe a bit, is that due to who you’ve played with?
Initially. It helped having IOS as a connection as far labels and booking agents identifying me, but it seems now it because of what I’m doing.
What is your connection to IOS right now?
For me, they are kind of like my garage band, it’s what I do for fun. It’s Dan’s band, it’s his music. I enjoy doing it, I don’t mean to say they are a garage band, it’s just how I approach it. His whole approach, even politically is different. IOS is very confrontational: here’s the world, look at it. Where my politics is more allegorical. I think Inside Agitator and Scend are equally political records, but in completely different ways.
You have quite an impressive library of music, crossing the whole gamut of experimental sounds. Who are some of the more influential composers for you?
I always find the word influence odd, because it implies something against your will. I think certain things strike you, that touches something already inside your aesthetic. To answer your question though, Morton Feldman, Scelsi, Luc Ferrari, Luigi Nono. Feldman and Scelsi as far as how I can use sound and Feldman as far as pitch and rhythm as sound. Ferrari as sound allegorically. Dumitrescu I just really enjoy. The classic improvisers; AMM, Derek Bailey. The New York school I can’t get into too much. Cecil Taylor for Americans, he’s where it’s at.
Talk about him a little bit.
I got into him fairly early on, I like the architecture of his stuff, the combination of written and improvised. He really taught me how to process information, how the group listens to each other, it’s not imitating. He throws stuff out there, they all grab it and then process it their own way, and then give it back. His stuff is precise once you get a feel for it, it just peels back.
The most recordings I can see you have are by Taylor and Feldman.
Everything by Feldman, including bad performances, and every Taylor except for a couple I’m not interested in. As far as the “industrial side,” The Hafler Trio are the best. I consider Organum really more Audio Art, they got lumped into the industrial thing even though David Jackman has worked with AMM and the Scratch Orchestra.
Because of the labels they were released on...
Right, but he’s one of the best in any category. For rock music I listen to This Heat. The first album is one of the all time great recordings.
Why do you think This Heat reaches into so many people?
For me it’s the sound of the band, the feeling of each number. I don’t know if it was intended or just the situation, but the unity of that album through color and intensity, spatially how it sounds. It’s an art icon.
Is that why you like Van Dyke Park’s Song Cycle so much?
Every single note counts, and every instrument is in it’s own place in space. It’s my favorite album, there is something new to find in it every time I listen to it, and I listen to it a lot.
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