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.

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.