The musician's instrumental piece "Calder Walk" was commissioned for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York.



Implied Density and Mystic Frogs: Jim O’Rourke on Composing Sounds for Alexander Calder

Installation view of “Calder: Hypermobility.”


On the long list of pleasures to be gleaned from “Calder: Hypermobility” at the Whitney Museum in New York is a sound work composed especially for the occasion by the inimitable musician Jim O’Rourke. It is only a little more than 13 minutes in length, but it abounds with ideas—quiet, patient, deferential, eccentric, playful, shape-shifting, majestic ideas.

Such is the stock-in-trade of an elusive figure who has loomed large in the interconnected worlds of experimental music and art rock for decades. He started garnering attention as a principal figure in and producer for indie bands in the 1990s like Gastr del Sol, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, and others, but his tendencies have ranged far and wide into extended electronic drones, noisy improvisation, and a singular strain of stately composition that draws on old folk and new-classical forms.

That last one is the province, more or less, of “Calder Walk,” a brief but bountiful piece commissioned by the Whitney to aid in perambulations around the show. It can be heard on the museum’s website and audio-tour offerings, and a related playlist of music that inspired it can be channeled on Spotify, with tracks by Ragnar Grippe, Bill Dixon, Luc Ferrari, the Necks, Loren Connors, and Wim Mertens.

Jim O’Rourke.


Those who follow O’Rourke compulsively (as those who like him tend to do) will know those names from the oracular musings of an artist whose knowledge of music and aural esoterica is vast—as is his engagement with at least certain varieties of art.

“My parents are both from Ireland and I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, and they said if I saved enough money for the hydrofoil I could go to London,” O’Rourke said via Skype from Japan, where he has lived for ten years after long stints in Chicago and New York. “I got to see a Calder show in high school, but in London I saw more Calder and, for the first time, Jean Tinguely, who was hugely influential on me at the time.”

O’Rourke had already developed an early liking for the movement and meter in English free-improvised music and avant-garde composers such as Edgar Varèse. “But seeing the work of Tinguely and Calder, I actually physically felt a rhythmic connection,” O’Rourke said. “All the rhythmic relations and the way the density pushes and pulls is all in relation to one pulse. In something like Captain Beefheart, that pulse is the pulse in the music, but with Calder it’s the center of gravity. One thing I really liked about Calder is that you know the center is there—you don’t necessarily see it in some of his works, but it’s there and it’s implied by the relation of everything else. That has been a big influence on me.”

Thinking about rhythmic structure in music has been elemental to O’Rourke’s process ever since. “In one of the books of Morton Feldman’s letters,” O’Rourke said of the storied composer, “he talks about how Stockhausen came up to him and complimented a piece of his and the space within it. This is when Stockhausen was doing Momente (1962–69) and pieces where he was obsessed with time structures. He was looking for a way for music to be nonlinear and thinking in terms of being able to go backward and forward, which other forms can do easily, especially film. Music isn’t really able to do that outside of referring to melodic lines or harmony, but Stockhausen was trying, and he said to Feldman, ‘Your piece did that brilliantly—how did you do it?’ Feldman said, ‘I don’t push sounds around’—meaning he doesn’t shove things into preconceived rhythms and preconceived ideas. You can see that basic concept while looking at Calder’s sculptures.”

Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor.

“Calder Walk” draws on a mix of piano, trumpet, guitar (acoustic and pedal steel), drums, double bass, and field recordings, resulting in a piece that is dynamic and light, with a sense of flitting about or orbiting around something ineffable, with a slight wobble on its axis from time to time. From within O’Rourke’s own oeuvre, it sounds most like parts of his all-instrumental, through-composed 2009 album The Visitor, but it stands out on its own too.

As for the parameters he set, O’Rourke said, “I wanted the center of gravity to be implied as opposed to being present. It’s there, but there’s nothing playing directly in relation to it, nothing playing directly in relationship to the pulse. There should be a sort of implied density, but it’s more in the spaces between—in the silence—as opposed to where the instruments actually come in.”

The commission for the piece came from Jay Sanders, who curated the Calder show before leaving his post at the Whitney to become the executive director and chief curator of Artists Space. The lineup of players consists of O’Rourke on guitars and bass, Eiko Ishibashi on piano, Eivind Nordset Lønning on trumpet, and Joe Talia on drums.

Also: frogs. “They’re from where I live, actually,” O’Rourke said of recordings of amphibians that figure in parts of the piece. “It happened to be frog season in Japan, and all the rice fields at night are filled with just the greatest sounds on Earth. Go out and listen to a frog field. The same thing is happening: one rhythmic figure starts over there to the right and then another one to the left, then one 100 yards away and another a foot in front of you. You know they’re all related somehow. You don’t know how, but you can sense that they’re related. I love it.”

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