Apartment House plays Jim O’Rourke

Sunday 9 February 2020

Jim O’Rourke’s music for small string ensembles (with electronics). I’ve been waiting for this one; an intriguing and almost unknown aspect of his music, brought to light by Apartment House. Two new works made up the second half of the gig: Anton Lukoszevieze gave the first UK airing of the solo cello piece Book of Rounds, followed by the premiere of a new version of 12 Dollars is Alot [sic] made specially for Apartment House. The two works shared the quality of being charming without stooping to be ingratiating. (O’Rourke cites Hans Otte as an inspiration.) While the music flowed smoothly, there was a restlessness that underpinned it all as it moved from one idea to another, never staying in one place for long. The picaresque structure suggested a collage, but without evident cultural references of quotation or the demonstrative freakishness of John Zorn’s collaged compositions. We’re talking more Merz than Pop Art here. Each piece largely resisted the threat of falling into shapelessness thanks to O’Rourke’s control over his materials: certain effects would be introduced, return for a while and then disappear, producing a sense of progress. Thinking back, I suspect the harmonic material was subjected to variation and recapitulation, to add structural support. 12 Dollars is Alot, arranged here for string sextet, added electronics in small but significant ways, only occasionally reminding you of there presence in ways that thickened the plot. Lukoszevieze and Apartment House handled the deceptively tricky passages well, to make each piece consistently satisfying.

The first half of the gig was taken up by a much older work: String Quartet and Oscillators I and II are a pair of 23-minute panels separated, in this case, by a resonant silence. The work was composed in 1990 as a rebuke to O’Rourke’s professors, who didn’t believe that Scesli really existed. He can’t remember if it ever got played at the time; if it were, I wonder what technology was used and how well it, and the players, coped. The apmplified quartet play long, interwoven tones which are fed through a ring modulator. The combination of bowed string and modulating electronic tones produce changes in pitch and timbre that can range from subtle to drastic. Each large block of sound shared a certain similarity with the overtone-laden drones of Phill Niblock or La Monte Young, sharing the latter’s preference for some coarse-grained rumble to disrupt the harmonics, but distinguished again by that restlessness. Things were complicated by programming the oscillators to change every time a player changed pitch. Any pretence to minimalism was dispelled by the ever-changing interactions between string and electronics, subject to a process that was unfathomable. Wild combinations came and went, of frenzied and serene, ringing and clattering, buzzing and sighing – and sometimes things just conked out for a bit. It didn’t matter; the unmasked playing by the quartet made a striking contrast when the modulation kicked in again. Played any louder and it would have been an overwhelming experience, less perceivable as a composition in its own right. I don’t think anyone would have minded it louder.