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Zen Sounds 050: Jim O'Rourke
Revisiting the experimental godfather's seminal album »I'm Happy, and I'm Singing, and a 1,2,3,4« (2001)
I’m writing these lines from our empty apartment in Berlin. It seems like I’ve finally overcome a heavy COVID-19 infection that kept me in high fever for days on end. We’re leaving the city for at least the next six months, fully settling into country life for the warmer season.
I mean, we’ve been living a reclusive life in Berlin for years, which is very much possible. But the reasons for living in the city have one by one evaporated. There’s no need to go to an office anymore. We haven’t gone to a club in years. We rarely eat out. Concerts haven’t been the same. Our friends are grown people, who’d rather stay home with their kids than go out to a bar, and to be honest, we’d rather stay home with our dog. And how often do I really get to visit an art museum – maybe once a year? It feels like the right time to leave this place.
These past days, my last ones in Berlin for a while, I’ve been re-visiting one of Jim O’Rourke’s classic albums. In an extensive interview that Joshua Minsoo Kim conducted for Tone Glow, the experimental music don explained why he moved to Japan a decade ago:
»It’s completely unlike what you’re used to, and if you wanna run away, it’s the perfect place to go. I love living here. I’m alone. No one bothers me. Especially now, now that I’ve removed myself from the major cities. You can disappear really easily here.«
(Editions Mego, 2001)
I’m probably not telling you anything new by stating that Jim O’Rourke is a genius. After all, you’re subscribing to a newsletter on experimental music, so it’s very likely that you know some if not a lot of his music, probably even love it deeply and have been immersing yourself in it for years.
For those of you who still need a short introduction – the 54-year old maestro is a child of the 1990’s Chicago improv and post-rock scene, he’s played in Sonic Youth and in Gastr Del Sol, he’s produced records by Wilco and Smog and Stereolab and Joanna Newsom, and he’s released a string of influential solo albums for independent label Drag City. He left Chicago for New York at the turn of the century, and for the past decade he’s been living in Japan with his spouse, the musician Eiko Ishabashi, making records and watching »Law & Order«.
In the aforementioned Tone Glow interview, O’Rourke touches upon many of his early music influences, from Eberhard Weber albums on ECM to dark 1980’s British post-industrial and weird German avant-garde bands like Strafe Für Rebellion. He’s always been an avid record collector, even though he’s cut down on his collection heavily since moving to Japan, and he’s been inviting us into his vinyl archives through his monthly NTS show since 2022.
I remember Olivia Block once telling a story in The Wire about moving to Chicago in the late 1990’s and trying to get in contact with the local improv scene. She placed an ad in a free alternative paper and listed »Toniutti« as one of her main influences, so one night O’Rourke called her from a session asking if she was actually referring to Giancarlo or Massimo Toniutti, before inviting her over to the studio. (The Toniutti brothers are electro-acoustic composers and sound artists from Italy that have been active since the early 1980’s.)
O’Rourke has amassed a huge discography over the decades, but this week, I’ve been revisiting one of his most beloved albums. A few weeks ago, the UK electronic music producer Patten recommended it in Shawn Reynaldo’s First Floor newsletter. By the way, this is my 50th issue of Zen Sounds, and the album in question has been released on Editions Mego, the experimental Vienna label co-founded by the late Peter Rehberg, under catalogue number 50.
»I’m Happy, and I’m Singing, and 1,2,3,4« is often called O’Rourke’s »laptop album«. It has also been included at #28 on a Pitchfork list of »the 50 best IDM albums of all time«. To be honest, I have no idea how he technically made it. All I know is he recorded those three movements in New York, Osaka and Tokyo, between 1997 and 1999. In essence, it’s a 40 minute stretch of serious electronic music™, as O’Rourke has obviously produced it on a computer, but you might also call it a live electro-acoustic suite, halfway between a composition and an improvisation.
Editions Mego released a re-issue version of the album on Bandcamp that includes three more tracks written and recorded in the same period. While O’Rourke obviously greenlighted that bonus material to be released with his seminal album, I have been focusing on the three songs that made up the original record.
The first track »I’m Happy« dives right into the heart of the matter. Chirpy, glitchy synths start swirling around each other and within less than two minutes, the music creates this undeniable pull, similar to some of those pulsating Steve Reich pieces. It might have been influenced by some of the heady electronic music from that era – Oval or Fennesz come to mind – but I bet you’ve never heard anything quite like it before. The last one and a half minutes consist of nothing but dark drones. The chattering sine waves have been muted; they’re still running but the noise is clearly overpowering them.
»And I’m Singing« starts on a much more light note; it’s full of sprawling field recordings and Fennesz-y guitar tones. It reminds me of certain early Krautrock and Kosmische records that went down the more electronic leaning side of the genre, like Harmonia or Neu! but sent through some really weird guitar amps. It’s the most conventionally beautiful moment on the album, even though it’s not conventional at all. At a little over eight minutes, it’s the shortest piece here, reminding us how moments of beauty often tend to be rather short in retrospect. Again, the song ends on two minutes of drones, skips and noises, while the guitars are dwindling into the background.
Now as if all of this wasn’t pretty damn good already, this is where the album gets truly magical. Clocking in at over 21 minutes, »And a 1,2,3,4« is by far the longest out of the three tracks on the album, but if you ask me, it could well be extended into infinity. In their warped ambience, these delicate string manipulations remind me of some of William Basinski’s most heart-wrenching work. The composition sounds like a broken requiem, written on a dying Macbook. In the last two minutes, it sounds like the machine finally had it.
Contrary to many reviewers of the past, I don’t think the main achievement of this album is that it made computers sound human. A computer is an instrument, after all, just like any »analog« instrument. You can play a guitar with the emotionless rigor of a robot, and you can insert a lot of human emotions into a computer or a digital synthesizer. These are old discussions that belong into the past; maybe they were important when the album first came out, but I don’t think anyone cares at this point, and that’s fine with me.
What’s more astonishing, listening to this album 22 years after its first release, is the absolute timelessness of these recordings. Sure, the glitchy aesthetic might point to that clicks’n’cuts era of late 1990’s electronic music, but still, the record could’ve been produced at absolutely any point in time since then. It seems deeply influenced by decades of outsider music, without wearing its influences on its sleeve, but it surely adds to a canon first outlined in the classic Nurse With Wound list.
Listening to the album has proven a safe haven for me this past week, trying to recover from that nasty virus infection. It’s definitely not your regular type of ambient bliss, and it’s also not suited well for background listening – but if you spend some dedicated time with it, it’s one of the most rewarding albums I’ve ever discovered.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze