Jim O’Rourke developed his interests in music and film early on. He’d learned how to play the guitar by age six and discovered Frank Zappa and Jean-Luc Godard when he was a self-described “teenage loner on the northwest side,” living in a working-class, decidedly nonintellectual household. “I didn’t listen to much traditional rock or pop,” he recalls. “And I gravitated toward experimental structuralist films. I was dead set against commercialism in the arts. I still don’t like music for entertainment’s sake.” In the liner notes of Zappa’s first album he came across the names Varese, Xenakis, and Stockhausen. “For the next year or so I checked out all the books about them and was immersed in their music,” he says. Soon he was assembling his own taped music.
Without quite knowing it, O’Rourke was following in the footsteps of practitioners of musique concrete, a postwar electronic idiom in which real sounds were recorded, then manipulated and juxtaposed. He was infatuated with “pure” sounds, “stripped of all points of reference, all contextual framework,” but lately he’s come to believe that collected sounds need to make some sense. “I’m really interested in why a musical language works.
“When I was studying at DePaul,” the 26-year-old performer and composer says, “a professor kept stressing the importance of pitch relationships, the kind of mathematical abstractions pioneered by Milton Babbitt. He regarded orchestration as frosting, but that’s wrong. Stravinsky’s music, for example, thrives on orchestral colors and spontaneity. I don’t think he even thought about placing one pitch relative to another. He was interested in communication, so am I. I resisted the mechanical reduction of music.”
O’Rourke’s most recent CD–his ninth–has a lengthy piece called “Cede” that represents the culmination of a two-year experiment. “I began by recording the sounds in a room,” he explains, “then I played the tape back into the room while recording the sounds again. After eight months of iterations, certain frequencies got eradicated and others accentuated.” The result is a sequence of spooky hums and drones enlivened at times by unexpected moans and screeches. “Most people listening to it get pretty depressed,” O’Rourke says gleefully, “which I was hoping for. The piece has communicated.”
O’Rourke first caught the attention of European musicians. In 1990, while he was still in college, he sent sample tapes to Derek Bailey, a like-minded guitarist, and Bailey put him in touch with fellow improvisers in Switzerland and Germany. “The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Zurich to play with percussionist Gunter Muller and the group Voice Crack,” he says. “It was awesome.” Several transatlantic shuttles later, O’Rourke has become a favored performer on the European vanguard circuit. Even in his hometown O’Rourke is now gaining a reputation for his gigs at the HotHouse with Gene Coleman and other local new-music enthusiasts.
During one of his stays in Zurich O’Rourke met Canadian director and cinematographer Peter Mettler, who had just finished the rough cut of a documentary, Picture of Light, that chronicled an expedition to the northeast corner of Manitoba, where his team photographed the northern lights. “He told me he’d heard some of my old music mix and thought I’d be able to supply the appropriate tone,” O’Rourke says. “He didn’t want anything evocative or any musical gestures that would detract from the images. Of course I said yes. Designing sound for a film had been on my mind for a long time.”
O’Rourke’s unobtrusive yet eerie high-tech sound track for Picture of Light reinforces the otherworldliness of Mettler’s arduous enterprise and metaphysical quest. O’Rourke is more or less happy with his work, but “right now scoring for film is a sideline. I’m too busy producing CDs.” He’s working on a couple of projects for alternative labels, for a pittance. “I suppose I live a hand-to-mouth existence,” he muses. “Heck, I just moved out of my folks’ home last week. But this is the way I want it. Do real good, honest work. I don’t plan my career. . . . And I firmly believe that composing shouldn’t be an ivory-tower careerist move. It’s a social responsibility.”
Picture of Light will be screened Sunday at 7 PM at the Film Center, Columbus Drive and Jackson. Both Mettler and O’Rourke will be on hand to discuss their work, then O’Rourke will perform (on an accordion) with an ad hoc band. Admission is $5 for the film or the performance, and $8 for both. Call 443-3733 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.