Born in 1969 in Chicago, IL. Education: Bachelor of arts degree in music composition, DePaul University, 1991. Addresses: Record company--Drag City, P.O. Box 476867, Chicago, IL 60647; Booking--Flower Booking, 4237 N. St. Louis, Suite 2R, Chicago, IL 60618 Phone: (312) 455-1015.

In 2000, Jim O'Rourke seemed to be everywhere and able to do anything. Though on the scene since the 1990s and applauded by an enthusiastic and growing group of fans who knew him as a member of groups such as Gastr Del Sol, Brise Glace, and Illusion of Safety, his album Eureka introduced him to a broader audience. He was a star producer, working with groups like Sonic Youth, and was performing with the world's leading musicians, from Eugene Chadbourne to Derek Bailey and John Fahey. O'Rourke was also commissioned to compose works for the Kronos Quartet and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet.

"O'Rourke has emerged as one of America's most respected and revered players based on the scope and inventiveness of his work," Richard Martin wrote in Willamette Week.The range of O'Rourke's work includes early experiments with manipulation of acoustic instruments on tape, rock bands, musique concrète, new improvised music, and work as both singer and songwriter. O'Rourke has also been a critical success at just about every kind of music he has attempted, and as a result, has created new connections. "His work has found equal truck with experimental jazz and noise fanatics, chill room denizens, and bedroom experimentalists, and has had the resultant effect of cross-pollinating many otherwise isolated compositional communities," wrote Sean Cooper of All Music Guide.

O'Rourke started playing guitar as a six year old, but switched to bass in high school because the band already had a guitarist. While growing up, he actively sought out music that was new and different, especially modern classical music. In fact, when he enrolled in the music department at Chicago's DePaul University, his familiarity with contemporary composers far outstripped that of his professors. O'Rourke felt that his teachers didn't really care about music; it was just the raw material of their professional careers. "They don't have to deal with taste at all, they were just trying to mold you into becoming professors," O'Rourke told Brian Duguid in an interview available at the Hyperreal website. His experiences with academic musicians in part would later drive O'Rourke to make his first recordings for "noise" labels such as Extreme and Staalplaat.

Respect for Influences

O'Rourke continues to closely follow work being done by contemporary composers, citing John Oswald, Bernard Günter, Gerhard Schtebler, Helmut Lachemann, and Salvatore Sciarrino as modern composers he finds particularly exciting. Among the most important influences on his music, however, he counts such diverse figures as Miles Davis, songwriter Van Dykes Parks, pianist Cecil Taylor, composer Morton Feldman, and the rock band Red Krayola. Despite his own success, O'Rourke still feels nerves occasionally around the musicians he admires. "Just three months ago, I had a piece premiered the same night as a piece by Luc Ferrari," he told Duguid. "This guy's a complete hero to me.... I can't tell you how much I absolutely worship, kiss the ground, anything! He's the greatest living composer on earth! If it wasn't for him, I don't know what I'd be doing."

Like most college students, during his first years at DePaul University, O'Rourke felt pressure to acquire a marketable skill. "When I was starting school, my parents knocked into my head that I had to do something so that I could get a job. So I was like, 'Okay, I'd better be a classical bass player, because I can get a job,'" he explained to Aaron Burgess of Hit It or Quit It online. "And, more and more, I saw that [my fellow students] did not give a f*** about what they were playing at all. About half the people who were in orchestra went to music school because they could, or played violin in orchestra because they can. I couldn't relate to that--and, slowly but surely, it sent me on a path of constantly questioning why people do things."

O'Rourke's constant questions apparently led to frequent disagreements with his professors. Despite his unpleasant take on academic music, O'Rourke acknowledges that he profited from some of his courses. O'Rourke taught some classes in electronic music himself while at college as well as giving private guitar lessons. In 1991, he graduated from DePaul University with a bachelor's degree in music composition.

Composed Works for First Releases

Following graduation, O'Rourke assembled the works that would later become his first record releases, reconstructions on tape of the sounds of acoustic instruments. "I wanted to try to make acoustic instrumental pieces, but by mixing and miking it in such a way that the definitions of the instruments would be gone," O'Rourke explained to Duguid. The pieces were composed at an eight-track tape machine at DePaul. Much of the "composition," according to O'Rourke, was achieved by the way he placed each instrument in the stereo mix. "Otherwise they are normal scored pieces," he told Browbeat online.

The mechanical process of composition was a seat-of-the-pants operation. "No one else at school was interested in doing tape music, so the school was mine all the time," O'Rourke told Duguid. "Tamperwas recorded on 20-year-old tape because I couldn't afford to buy tape. My friend's dad was in The Flock, the original band before Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, and he gave me all these old rehearsal tapes, which I recorded Tamper over." O'Rourke didn't have enough musicians that he trusted to perform the piece, so he overdubbed each part in individually, a process that was time consuming and exhausting. The result, though, in the words of Andrew O'Connor at the CKMS-FM website, is an album of "beautiful electro-acoustic compositions."

In under four years after graduating from DePaul, O'Rourke had released ten albums and had played on numerous others. He formed his first performing group in 1987 while still at DePaul. It was called the Elvis Messiahs, a loud, flashy band that played free improv. The Elvis Messiahs lasted about a year before O'Rourke disbanded them and joined Illusion of Safety, a post-industrial beat combo founded by Dan Burke. O'Rourke played on various recordings by the band, most notably Probe and Historical.

O'Rourke has also performed frequently with the world's most respected improvisers, such as guitarists Derek Bailey and Henry Kaiser, drummer Eddie Prévost, saxophonist Mats Gustafson, and the group Organum. Some of his work with K.K. Null took place, in good post-modern fashion--by mail. Null sent tapes of his guitar playing to O'Rourke, who taped his own playing on top. Does he prefer collaborations? "Yeah, 'cause then I don't hate [the results]. If it's my thing, I hate it. If it's someone else's, then I can live with it," O'Rourke told Browbeat.

O'Rourke has done work he is satisfied with, however. One example is the Rules of ReductionEP released in 1993. The record was constructed over a period of six months from tapes O'Rourke made while in France. "To me what's important about Rules of Reductionis that recording carries with it certain information besides just aural information. What does it mean for a car to be there with a group of saxophones?" he explained to Duguid. "It's not just about liking the sounds, because I don't like the sounds of a lot of these things. They're there because of what they mean in the context of the other sounds, not because I like them." The cutting and splicing gives the record a natural affinity to film--O'Rourke claims to be even more interested in film than music--and he believes it works like a film, that is it possesses narrative flow, because of the way he edited the record. Another O'Rourke record, Bad Timing, is rooted even more explicitly in the world of the movies. Bad Timing takes its title and inspiration from a controversial film by Nicholas Roeg, a director O'Rourke admires. He spent a year working out the material for the album, letting it mature before recording anything. "I don't make records that reflect my interest," he told Martin, "until I really feel like I've found a place that's really me, not just imitating someone else."

Won Recognition with Gastr Del Sol

O'Rourke won his first real recognition as a member of the band Gastr Del Sol. Martin called the group's 1996 release Camafleur, "an album of art-pop songs riddled with unorthodox instrumentation, mind-boggling song constructions and repetitive vocal phrasings worthy of a Gertrude Stein novel." It was also the first record on which O'Rourke sang the song "Mouth Canyon." The piece was not intended for release--according to O'Rourke it was to have been just a demo to help another singer learn the song.

O'Rourke must have found singing a little sympatico at least, because he sings throughout his 1999 hit Eureka. He did it partly, he later said, for the challenge. But he was satisfied with the results, which have reminded some listeners of the songwriting-recording of the middle and late 1960s, in particular Brian Wilson and Van Dykes Park. "It was really tough, because you can be a real idiot when you write lyrics," he told Burgess. "I need to wait until I'm doing something that's an honest statement from me to the people who are going to be kind enough to pick up the record--because they're trusting me, and I don't want to be dishonest to them."

O'Rourke is one of the hardest working people in music, touring constantly, teaming up with other musicians for albums and concerts, and producing more and more records for other artists. But O'Rourke's interests go well beyond music; he is an active filmmaker and painter. "I've made films, but I'm not one of these people who thinks that because people like my music they'll like my films," he told Duguid. "I've made about ten films over the past ten years, and I do paintings and everything, but I would never show them to anybody until I think I've done something that's me, in that medium."

When O'Rourke does finally exhibit his other creative efforts, however, expect them to resemble his music in some important respects. He will strive to undermine established traditions and upset his audience's expectations.

by Gerald E. Brennan

Jim O'Rourke's Career

Formed Elvis Messiahs, 1987; joined Illusion of Safety, 1988; released Tamper, 1995; joined Gastr Del Sol, 1994; left Gastr Del Sol, 1997; member of Brise Glace, 1993-97; released Eureka, 1999; produced Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts and Flowers, 2000.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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