Jim O’Rourke, Tonic, NYC- 9/26
NYC ROLL-TOP: The Composer In His Natural Habitat
I knew Jim O'Rourke was in the club. It made sense. I'd seen the
avant-garde composer/singer-songwriter/Sonic Youth member/Wilco collaborator
outside Tonic before the show, smoking cigarettes and looking hip/dorky in
his blazer and Converse All-Stars, his perpetually greasy-looking hair cut
short. And, besides, he was the only act on the bill for the midnight set.
So, yeah, it made sense that he was there. But, though ambient electronic
music filled the dim club, and throngs of people stood facing the low stage,
I still couldn't see the guy.
The platform was filled with Masada's gear – a couple of drum sets, Cyro
Baptista's percussion, scattered amplifiers, a chair with a bicycle helmet
on it – remnants of their three-night residency in the midst of saxophonist
John Zorn's month-long birthday celebration at the club. Yet, O'Rourke's
music trickled out of the PA, gentle and water-like. It was like watching a
ghost band. I stood on my tiptoes and peered over people's shoulders,
looking for O'Rourke. He had to be there somewhere, maybe sitting
unassuming in the front row with a laptop.
Then I saw him.
He was on the far left of the stage, tucked into the back corner,
illuminated by almost non-existent stage lights and the slight glow of his
laptop, which rested on the piano bench. O'Rourke himself stood hunched – bent, really, at almost 90 degrees – over the baby grand piano. What he was
actually doing was still up for question, but it was reassuring to
see him up there doing something. "Prepared piano," I suppose, is the
name for it — playing the inside of the piano by plucking the strings
manually or hitting them with hammers or dropping gyroscopes on 'em or
In O'Rourke's case, "whatever" meant (I think) plucking 'em with his fingers
and filtering the results through his laptop. The results didn't sound much
sound like piano, prepared or otherwise, but they sure were pretty. Drones
built atop each other, layering into a gradual wall of sound in a virtual
definition of electro-acoustic music. Ostensibly, O'Rourke was reproducing
"Cede," a 45-minute composition from his 1996 Terminal Pharmacy
record. But, really, it didn't matter.
Like with most electro-acoustic music, what was interesting was trying to
perceive the connection between what O'Rourke was doing on stage and what
was coming out of the speakers. Unlike a guitar player, who one can watch
playing solos and understand where the big squealy fills are coming from,
the cues for an electro-acoustic performer are different, though they are
cues nonetheless. A laptop glow and a blazer make one think of music in a
certain way, just as a strobe-lit smoke machine and spandex will.
Periodically, piercing bursts of noise would erupt, while O'Rourke continued
to work calmly inside the piano. At one point, a collage of voices, sounding
as if they'd been drawn from radio broadcasts, came from the speakers. Part
of the pleasure of electro-acoustic music is guessing (or understanding)
what the connection between the instrument and the sound is. It's an act of
imagination. Judging O'Rourke's music on that basis alone, his set was a
Midway through the set, the beatless music faded to silence and, for a
second, one could hear O'Rourke's plucking untreated. Then, a warm drone.
One could hear it build up slowly. As it did, people craned their heads to
watch O'Rourke work in the corner. It was like staring in the darkened bat
tank at the zoo (or stuffed in a diorama at the Museum of Natural History) – "Is that one over there? I think I see it!" – which lent a strange currency
to Edgar Varese's oft repeated quote, "the present day composer refuses to
die." It might be true. But that doesn't mean they haven't been confined to
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