Jim O’Rourke - Shutting Down Here Music Album Reviews

The experimental polymath looks back on key musical influences in a 34-minute piece that seamlessly melds noise and melody into one of his most personal recordings yet.

In 1990, Jim O’Rourke visited the studio of the Groupe de recherches musicales (INA GRM) in Paris. The experience was monumental for the guitarist, budding composer, and 21-year-old college student. Back at DePaul University in Chicago, O’Rourke’s teachers, he once told an interviewer, “were just trying to mold you into becoming professors.” In Paris, he was meeting his heroes, radical luminaries of the mid-century avant-garde, particularly the concentric genres of musique concrète and acousmatic music.
O’Rourke’s latest, Shutting Down Here, is billed as his return to INA GRM 30 years after he made his first pilgrimage. This narrative might seem like a bit of sentimental marketing boilerplate, but his 34-minute piece slots brilliantly into the history of the French studio, which pioneered the musical uses of field recordings and noise, along with the notion that compositions could exist only as recordings, as opposed to pieces meant to be performed in concert on traditional instruments. For O’Rourke, who rarely plays live, and whose pedigree as a composer is rivaled by his crackerjack sound design and engineering—he mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Ys, to name a couple of touchstones—the GRM philosophy fits well. Importantly, though, he pushes back against the studio’s orthodoxy by employing instrumental collaborators and ensuring the sources of his found sounds are recognizable. Shutting Down Here melds noise and melodic ideas so seamlessly that the piece works as both tape music and as contemporary orchestration, reminiscent of John Adams’ similarly audiophiliac The Dharma at Big Sur.

This isn’t O’Rourke’s first venture into the symphonic—or acousmatic—sphere. A spiritual sister to Shutting Down Here, his 1995 album Terminal Pharmacy balanced bracing car sounds with delicate instances of cello and woodwind. Shutting Down Here has a similarly mammoth dynamic range: It tempts you to crank up the volume to hear the swelling harmonics that begin the record, then turn it down again when a door slams. There are spectral piano chords, courtesy of Eiko Ishibashi, and a bit of trumpet in the last 10 minutes, played by Elvind Lonning. Yet in consummate musique concrète fashion, O’Rourke treats these orchestral elements like a computer musician layering blocks of sound, not a composer writing for the various pieces of an ensemble.

During the decades since his first visit to INA GRM, O’Rourke has worked on hundreds of albums that span rock, folk, classical, and, most thrillingly, the gaping maws between these varied styles. He’s turned ambient music into a journal-like daily practice with his prolific Steamroom series. He played rock star in the early ’00s, helping Sonic Youth scale peaks of both accessibility and audacity during his five years as a member of the band. Shutting Down Here, with its moments of moving consonance, gives the impression of a polymath coming full circle, approaching a very early passion with honed skill. The result feels personal and even direct, both strange words to hang on O’Rourke. Whenever we’ve expected the musician to embody these qualities—for example, on his excellent Drag City-released songwriter albums—he subverted our expectations with his famously evasive sense of humor and bleak worldview. His detractors have sometimes taken umbrage with O’Rourke’s slipperiness, as though the trait were invariably a pose, rather than a reflection of the musician’s character.

Shutting Down Here is further proof that wordless abstraction is O’Rourke’s way of being candid. His album is almost memoiristic, even though it eschews the literal for the heady crafts of recording and arrangement. Revisiting a studio that captured his imagination as a very young man, he chips away at his wit and irony to reveal a feelingful core. Yet Shutting Down Here never sacrifices the knotty complications that make his work far weightier than a mere genre study. This is a personal record, after all, and knotty might just be a big, welcome part of who Jim O’Rourke is.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Jim O’Rourke - Shutting Down Here Music Album Reviews Jim O’Rourke - Shutting Down Here Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Friday, August 21, 2020 Rating: 5

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