Jim O’Rourke: Best that you do this for me

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Over the last twenty-five-plus years, the ensemble Apartment House has amassed a formidable repertoire of new and rediscovered music, much of it recorded on the Another Timbre label. I’ve been listening to their release of Jim O’Rourke’s string trio Best that you do this for me, composed for the ensemble and recorded late last year, on and off during the past few weeks, mentally wrestling with needless doubts. It makes me wonder, in turn, if I’m thinking too much about it, or too easily pleased by it, falsely believing that there is more to it than meets the ear. Whatever intellectual or sensual attitude I take, after hearing it again I always come away satisfied that its frail, simple outline contains a maturely conceived and executed musical plenitude.

A year ago, I heard a concert of Apartment House playing a selection of old and new works by O’Rourke. It was an impressive concert and I found the newer works particularly charming, so it was an initially disturbing surprise to hear Best that you do this for me. It seemed like a regression, to the unadorned earlier works in the concert programme: too easy, too conveniently minimal. It’s a flexible score, made of segments in which each musician softly bows a harmonic on muted strings and hums along, or sings, or whistles. One event per segment. Timing is unspecified but tends to be slow. Apartment House play here for about an hour. Haven’t we all heard something like this before? No, as it turns out; we haven’t.

For a start, O’Rourke has created an open score of elegant simplicity and eloquence, inviting a wide range of possibilities in content and continuity while maintaining a clearly defined form. The three string instruments may enter freely, allowing variations in phrasing and texture that remove the episodic structure of the score. The voices, untrained and trying to match or harmonise the instruments, add further colouration through their inexactness, compounding the sounds the way that electronic signal processing might, but in ways that cannot help but recall connotations of profound fragility. The three musicians (Mira Benjamin, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) are essential in making this work so effective here, showing the type of deep understanding and respect for a score that allows them to puruse it in ways that enlarge upon the music in ways the composer may have not forseen.

Right from the start, the musicians combine to make a strange warbling effect of gentle, uneven bowing and humming interfering with a faintly wavering harmonic. Each successive phrase adds to this otherworldly atmosphere. Changes in bowing become a major element in the piece’s progress, adding tension, complications and resolutions as they go. Pauses emerge from the score and between the musicians. There are dramatic turns, spaced at roughly even intervals. O’Rourke cites Martin Smolka as the inspiration for added vocalising, but for me it strongly recalled Morton Feldman’s Five Pianos, another work that finds poetic excess in straitened technique. Far from a regression, Best that you do this for me shows a distillation of O’Rourke’s recent compositional approaches into a single coherent, contemplative moment.