Jim O’Rourke

Interview by Lasse Marhaug September 2021

When was the first time you heard music that went beyond the two-channel stereo field?

It most likely would have been going to see Wings or Jethro Tull or something like that, haha. The first time I properly heard “multi channel” music was when I went to GRM in 1990 and was lucky enough to be there when there was a diffusion with Pierre Schaeffer. I can’t think of when I would have had an opportunity before that.

You studied music in Chicago in the late 80s, was diffusion/acousmatic music part of the program there? I know you recorded music there (like "Long Night"), but did you have teachers who taught electronic music?

There was no electronic music curiculum at all. In my senior year they added an electronic music class which I would end up doing the demonstrations as I was the only person, including the teacher, who had ever used the equipment.

What was that?

It was a 1/4” 8-track, a DX-7, which I was actually doing part time work programming for some of the musicians at school, and a Mac SE which had sound hack, which had TurboSynth which I used a lot then. I really wanted to go to the institute of sonology, but I got a small scholarship to DePaul from the fund set up by the band Chicago, I think from playing in my high school jazz band. “Long Night” was actually recorded at the University of the Art Institute, which had a 1/2” 8 track, a Emu Modular, and a DAT machine. There were over night blocks that student I'd could sign up for, and my friend who went there would sign up, let me in, and I would work there til early morning, when no one would see me leave.

Do you have a multi-channel set-up in your studio to work on? Seems like several of us work on a stereo system and then figure out in our heads how it will work on a multi-channel rig. A bit like writing out a score in a way, only that the performers are speakers and not musicians.

No, I have always worked in stereo, mostly because I also worked as an engineer recording and mixing “normal” music, and I am still a firm believer in what you can do with two channels. I have never actually been able to hear any of the multichannel things I made in multichannel!

I read you saying that you don't really believe in creativity or self-expression, or that you don't really push for it, that it's a byproduct of working with solving musical tasks that you set yourself, it takes care of itself. Isn't making music in a way a form of study – that you're trying to learn something about sound/music, and how it affects you? I feel that the older I get for every one new thing I figure out two new questions/mysteries will occur, which makes the process slower as I keep working – at least on the mental level – I'll spent time thinking about things that I would just intuitively do in five minutes when I was younger. I also find growing older I get more focused on process rather than effect.

I think that is all true, also working in near solitude also changes things, where the line of study and learning and making blur even more.

How do you go about making a piece like “Machina Sopora”?

Making and gathering a lot of materials, hopefully somewhat as the result of studies, and allowing time and distance to bring connections between them that I wouldn’t naturally see. Time is a big part of it, if possible i’d like to forget making the parts completely, losing any connection that may have been formed in making them. I always like to say, it’s important to hide the work. For something this large, you could even say bulky, you have even more formal challenges, even though the possibilities have been multiplied as well. In the end it’s all a balancing act.

Do you use a lot of older material in your pieces? You seem less concerned about your recordings representing where you are "right now" as some artists are, more than it being a report/document at the end of a process, and whatever time it took to get there doesn't matter.

Old things pop up now and then, but usually only for specific reasons, or for referential reasons. I loved seeing pictures of GRM studios where someone would keep reels of tape as a library of sounds, so I do the same on hard drives, since about 20 or so years ago, so they do have a way of popping their heads up again.

There's one aspect of multi-channel works that's a bit problematic for me - the sweet spot. That there is an ideal place where it sounds the best - and it's usually taken by the playback engineer or artist. I saw Pauline Oliveros in a church, and the music was great, but since it was an old church there were narrow wooden benches, and the place was packed, I couldn't move, and the PA was quite loud, so I basically just heard one channel. It got me thinking that perhaps for a performance like that there should be no seating, or at least set up so that people can wander around.

I definitely agree, the greatest multi-channel performance I ever saw was Marianne Amacher in Zurich in 1995 or so, and you could walk around freely. Of course Amacher’s music is more of an installation, but it was really remarkable. That said, the next best multi channel performance I saw was Massimo Tonniutti at GRM, and he was using a stereo sound source!

For me the best multi-channel thing I saw was Folke Rabe do "What??" at Fylking in Stockholm, a few years before he passed. It was just four channels, it wasn't loud, but the music went EVERYWHERE. You released this piece on CD 25 years ago on your Dexter's Cigar label, which is how I first heard it. Did you ever hear Rabe do the piece?

Oh, I’m jealous, hahaha. No, I never got to see him perform it, sadly. In 1990, I was at Henry Kaiser’s house, helping him reorganize his record collection, he pulled out Mr. Rabe’s record and said “You probably like this…”, haha. I already had two copies…

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