Jim O’Rourke should be the poster child for music in the internet age. At a glance, his long and broad discography screams eclectic, that most internet of tired critical buzzwords. O’Rourke has seemingly done it all: long-form tape compositions, computer music, solo experimental guitar, free improv blow-outs, minimalism-influenced Americana, heavily arranged pop tunes and more. Then there’s Old News, the vinyl-only Editions Mego sub-label, which picks up on yet another online meme, the archive. The series, now on its fourth installment, releases (and in this case, re-releases) recordings from O’Rourke’s extensive back catalog, with a focus on tape and electronic works.
But closer examination would show that O’Rourke’s music isn’t actually all that eclectic. It’s diverse, sure, but it hardly feels grab-bag in that iTunes-shuffle sort of way. Instead, an O’Rourke record, regardless of how successful it is, feels purposeful. One can hear O’Rourke’s desire to get inside a particular form and take it somewhere unexpected, not to mention that he actually only seems really interested in a handful of forms to begin with. If anything, O’Rourke’s music feels very much pre-internet.
Take Mere, the long-form work featured on this edition of Old News. Within each of the piece’s three parts, there’s a real focus on transitions, a sense of gradual, hard-won transformation. Transitions are crucial to all of what O’Rourke does. In an interview he gave upon release of The Visitor in 2009, he said as much: “My general way of working is usually to set up a problem for myself, and then the question for me is ‘How do I solve this problem?’ Whether that be musically, or getting from this to that, or just ‘What the hell is the point of this?’”
On the internet, however, transitions are all about one thing: speed. Hyperlinks aren’t something to be mulled over. We think nothing of jumping from one subject to another and back again — or of never returning to the original subject at all. But over 40 minutes of Mere, speed is never an issue. Everything is gradual. Side 1 does a crawling fade-in. Likewise, the close of the piece does a sunset-dissolve into silence.
As with the pieces featured on Tamper, all attention is on the slow, swirling shift of timbres, not on the instruments themselves. Ideas appear in the mix but take ages to fully emerge. Nothing is abrupt, but nor is the piece static. The sound sources are mostly acoustic (cello, bass trombone, voices and shortwave) but O’Rourke subtly combines and overlaps them into an alien language of overtones, dissonance, throbbing LFO and more. He evokes everything from organs and glass harmonicas to sine waves and choral passages.
Despite its eye-wink of title, the Old News series has consistently delivered surprises, of which #8 might be the finest yet. Its slowness, its refusal to be pinned down or to reference other works is refreshing. It’s a reminder that some things are worth waiting for, that we should revisit the past for what we can learn, not just for what you can take (because there is a difference). But most of all, Old News #8 is important because it does not give up its secrets easily. You have to work for them, have to spend time with them. All too often these days, those feel like lost arts.
By Matthew Wuethrich