Monday, September 14, 2009

Jim O'Rourke's new recording and ideas regarding context


Once Insider, Now Outsider, and Liking It
by Ben Ratliff
Published: September 2, 2009

Singer, composer, producer Jim O'Rourke, now living in Japan. Most interesting part of the story:

That, and working on “The Visitor,” released this week by Drag City. It’s a nearly orchestral, fully instrumental album, his first in eight years. He made it alone in his home studio — except for the piano tracks, which he recorded in a rented rehearsal space — so it takes its place alongside the small number of other high-level pop records made completely or mostly by one person, including Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything?” and Stevie Wonder’s “Music of My Mind.” Mr. O’Rourke gives the sense that its gingerly dynamics were dictated by thin walls and respect for his neighbors.

“The Visitor” is so easy on the ears that it disguises its density. “There are parts where there are almost 200 tracks of instruments, but I didn’t want it to sound difficult,” he said. “I didn’t want itto be virtuosic.”

Consisting of one 32-minute track, “The Visitor” took three years to make, including a year to mix. Mr. O’Rourke had exhausted his savings, and for one of those years, he said, he was prevented from earning an income in Japan because he didn’t have a work visa. (It finally came through early last year.) He lived off royalties from his past albums, some of which have sold upward of 50,000 copies in America.

“The Visitor” runs through chapters of folk, chamber-pop, progressive rock and jazz bucolia, and it’s crazily broad: a Leo Kottke fan might like it, a Pat Metheny fan might like it, a Morton Feldman fan might like it. As the piece moves along, holding together with its long-form logic, it can be difficult to discern that most of the music relates back to the album’s simple opening chords and theme. That theme develops through different rhythms and arrangements for an array of instruments — piano, pedal-steel guitar, organ, cello, banjo, clarinet — some of which he learned how to play for the purposes of this record.

The trombone, for example, which comes in after about 20 minutes, took six months of practice before Mr. O’Rourke could play the lines he’d written for it in a perfect take. (He kept a no-edit rule.) The trombone is mixed low, but it’s the loudest instrument he used; when he was ready to record it, he waited until his next-door neighbor left for her grocery run.

Mr. O’Rourke’s production style is precise and dry; he creates a sound picture in which tiny sonic details matter. But where his Drag City records are concerned, everything matters: the pacing, the length, the sound, the cover images. For this reason he won’t allow “The Visitor,” or any of his albums, to be sold as downloads, on iTunes or anywhere else. He’s taking a stand against the sound quality of MP3s; he’s also taking a stand in favor of artists being able to control the medium and reception of their work.

“You can no longer use context as part of your work,” he said, glumly, “because it doesn’t matter what you do, somebody’s going to change the context of it. The confusion of creativity, making something, with this Internet idea of democratization ...” he trailed off, disgusted. “It sounds like old-man stuff, but I think it’s disastrous for the possibilities of any art form.”

His record company approves, perhaps a reflection of his being one of Drag City’s best-selling artists. “Frankly I’m really pleased about it,” said Rian Murphy, the label’s director of sales. “It may affect the way we’re able to promote it, and it may affect the wider range of listeners that come to get the record — if they can’t point and click to it — but it’s good to have someone standing up for that.”

Read the full story HERE.

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