Essential New Music: Jim O’Rourke’s “Shutting Down Here”

When Jim O’Rourke first visited the French institution known as the Groupe de Recherches Musicales 30 years ago, it was a young man’s act of fandom. He was already trying to make electro-acoustic music that emulated the methods and aesthetics that the GRM supported. He had also figured out that the instructors where he was going to college in Chicago had nothing to teach him about electronic music. So, he went to Paris for a visit and found himself being treated with kindness by a host of musique concrète pioneers. 

While O’Rourke would go on to become an artist whose work transcends genre, the rigorous attention to the quality of sounds and the reasons for deploying them that is evidenced by the composers associated with that institution became part of his aesthetic. So, when the GRM commissioned him to make this piece of music, which has become the first in a series of LPs that showcase new work that has been made and or played there, it was a chance to repay a cosmic debt. It was also gave a home to something he had already been working on for quite some time; some of the sounds on Shutting Down Here are 25 years old. 

Like so much of the music it honors, this 34-minute long piece is quite abstract. It contains sounds that have been processed until you can’t tell where they came from pushing against quite recognizable snatches of chamber strings, squelchy electronics and late-night trumpet and piano melodies. While Shutting Down Here contains sounds and gestures that might appear on one of his pop records for Drag City or the long-form music he releases through his Steamroom Bandcamp page, they’re never there for long. And while the music is in constant flux, it’s also supremely uncluttered; one suspects that a lot of the time O’Rourke devoted to this piece was spent on taking things out. It’s like a moving collage in which the elements materialize and vanish. They’re in constant motion, paced like a film in which each image, dissolve or edit imparts meaning, but is also so rich to behold that you don’t need to know what any of that meant to the director in order to dig it yourself.

—Bill Meyer