As shifting arrangements of dots are moved across four sets of magnified staff lines projected onto the back wall of the music venue, and the unconventional notations slowly reveal themselves to be isolated fragments of a blown-up, halftone, TV guide cut-out of the face of Aunt Esther, the complex and comical sensibility of Jim O’Rourke comes into focus.The transposition of an old weekly listings clipping into the arrangement for a composition; the creative displacement of an icon from a popular ‘70s US sitcom into the rigours and free play of experimental music in a club in Tokyo, where memories of Sanford and Son are as good as non-existent; and the realisation that there is still so much to learn about and from the work of O’Rourke were characteristic of a surprising and wide-ranging showcase in June of this musician’s formidable talents.
Playing six consecutive nights in his current city of residence, and offering a rare opportunity to witness him revisiting material from the past, both solo and accompanied by a variety of groups, O’Rourke’s tireless approach to music was plain to see, and hear. Avoiding the commonplace ritual exhumation initiated by ATP’s Don’t Look Back series, the work history that O’Rourke presented stretched back to certain periods in which it is unlikely anyone in attendance would have seen him perform, and happily looked to the future too.
Appearing uneasy about returning to ground covered more than twenty years ago, O’Rourke’s replication of the style of his earlier interactions with a six-string launched the Six Days event. The opportunity to see the handiwork behind the type of prepared guitar playing that appears on Remove the Need revealed an array of interventions by O’Rourke that went beyond a checklist of tricks that has given even this non-normative use of the instrument a predictable traditionalism. Remote control interference and curious extra-circuitry adaptations sent screeches through the speakers, tempered by hand to muted emanations and, at times, a gorgeous ambient drift – the unstable discordances and the gentle melody of extended technique.
The shadow of O’Rourke’s younger self was literally cast during the second set of Day One, onto the side of a tent. Camped out indoors with only an EMS synthesizer for company, the crowd were left out in the wild, immersed in throbbing, babbling, brutal analog tones tearing through the monitors. Recent archival LP releases have provided a wider picture of O’Rourke’s explorations of synthesis which have been ongoing for many years, but the unexpected performance setup was a reminder of the non-academic trajectory of his research.
Day Two began with a version of the 1990 composition Mizu No Nai Umi, the original drone work played back and accompanied by several performers who moved around the floor space sounding various percussive, resonant objects. The clink of beer bottles and chime of crotales thickened the cloud of overtones. Screened at the same time, a looped and processed video clip of a commercial plane landing at sunset – a notoriously painstaking and expensive shot excerpted from Brian De Palma’s widely reviled film, The Bonfire of the Vanities – provided a visual complement to the music. The shifting colours and contrast of the golden image, already blurred by the warm air currents of the JFK runway, the pools of light and the deepening shadows, mirroring the nuance and microtonal movement in the shimmering sound. A ten-second shot extended to last thirty minutes, a cinematic drone of equal density.
Aunt Esther dates back to O’Rourke’s college days, and is emblematic of his challenges to the strictures of the Academy, the piece’s untypical notation interpreted by an ensemble of improvisers playfully switching classical snippets into free jazz fits and starts. No doubt a failure in the eyes of his tutor, the composition reflects both the discipline and humour which together defined much American and English experimental music after John Cage, a tendency seemingly forgotten by many dour contemporary experimentalists. As with much of O’Rourke’s strongest work, assumptions were gladly upended.
The young performers of String Quartet and Oscillators – Atsuko Hatano, Hiroki Chiba, Eriko Teshima and Masabumi Sekiguchi – might not often be tasked with sustaining tones for long durations, but their combined, concentrated bowing built a moving wall of pitches. Swapping the classical, romantic melodies usually associated with a string quartet for stacked harmonic rapture these players too showed themselves happy to dismantle expectations. Waves of acoustic frequencies swept over the buzzing of oscillators, stripped of extra-musical referents down to thick tone colours and textures. Like the work of American minimalists Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad, the result was physically captivating.
It was instructive to programme the performances of Bad Timing and Happy Days back to back on Day Three, since they illustrate two ways of exploring a single musical connection, that between the folk and blues influenced concert guitar style of John Fahey and the massive drones of Conrad and Niblock. The brass fanfare of Bad Timing was sadly absent – the album performed by O’Rourke and his regular band, with Sudoh Toshiaki on bass, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums and Eiko Ishibashi on piano – but shorn of its joyous tooting horns, the signature melodies of the album were driven home with more percussive punch.
Repeatedly plucking two acoustic guitar strings against a rising storm of hurdy gurdy, whose blasting tones lent a pleasurably oppressive weight to the air, O'Rourke's performance of Happy Days was almost scuppered by a broken string at the very end of the piece. Though evidently unintended, the hiccup seemed to be a necessary structuring element of the performance, as if O’Rourke was meant to go on unceasingly, aching and exhausted until the string could bear the tension no longer.
The blisters were allowed a chance to heal on Day Four, as O’Rourke conducted Big Band and Tapes, for a group which included firebrand saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kazutoki Umezu, flanking the composer on either side and bolstered by Yuji Katsui on violin, Daisuke Takaoka on tuba, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums, Todd Nicholson on double bass, Shinpei Ruike on trumpet and Yasuyuki Takahashi on trombone. The uncertainty was clear on the faces of some of the musicians, a little perturbed by the idiosyncrasies of O’Rourke’s score. Nevertheless the exertion and musical prowess of all the performers was compelling. The intermittent blare and solo flights into the edges were riveting and unpredictable, though the overall conceptual framework of the music remained somewhat obscure. Still, with this much raging force the audience knew what a real Salvation Army band could sound like.
A new Jazz Trio kicked off Day Five with a monstrous version of ‘Back Woods Song’ by Gateway, the effortless saunter of the original being ignited by O’Rourke’s guitar shredding, the electronic manipulations of Hiroki Chiba’s double bass and the exploratory thump and clatter of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto’s percussion. All of O’Rourke’s stylistic predecessors may be readily acknowledged but there are few guitarists who could marry the modes of John Abercrombie, Ray Russell and Tisziji Munoz in one sitting with baffling ease.Another trio, Kafka’s Snore played a thirty-five-minute set unfurling a single improvised piece. Beautifully paced, emerging from Eiko Ishibashi’s sparse piano motif, allowing quietude much duration within an elegiac melody, and elaborated by Yamamoto’s intelligent reassessments behind the kit, and the steadily amassed tones, chords and timbres of O’Rourke’s electric guitar and synth, the dynamic steadily moved on into a fiery rock spree to close out the evening.
A packed house on Day Six eagerly awaited renditions of O’Rourke’s pop songs. Tracks from each of the 'Roeg' albums that feature singing were played, as well as selections from the Halfway to a Threeway EP and the second Loose Fur record. Having performed with a regular band in Japan for some time – for song performances; in improvisational contexts; in various combinations with other musicians – O’Rourke’s music benefited from the familiarity, elasticity and invention that such extensive group playing across these contexts can encourage. With the addition of pedal steel player Ren Takada, unfortunately not involved in the earlier Bad Timing performance, it sounded powerful and assured in the club space; O’Rourke’s rarely heard vocals much fuller and louder than on record, and the sight of his fretboard navigations a further confirmation of the unassuming complexity of his Drag City albums.
The first album by Kafka's Snore, Okite will be released by Felicity Records in January 2014 (an EP is already available for download at kafkasibiki.bandcamp.com). For more information: http://1fct.net/archives/7492
Nine albums of mostly unreleased music by Jim O'Rourke, including the String Quartet and Oscillators performance from the Six Days event can be downloaded now at steamroom.bandcamp.com
More photographs of the Six Days event taken by Ujin Matsuo, can be found on the Super Deluxe Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/super-deluxe/