“It’s quite simple,” deadpans Canadian composer and free improvisor John Oswald, emitting the weary sigh of the plunderphonics copyright violator hounded by his own notoriety. “I love the music. In my mind, it’s certainly not an act of vandalism. The way I’ve been presenting plunderphonics in all cases is by fully attributing and crediting all the sources I use on the packaging. Well, that seems like foolhardy vandalism to me. A vandal wears a mask when he throws a brick through the window of McDonald’s. He doesn’t set himself up.”
Seated in a hotel breakfast bar in Nantes, France, the day after performing at the Oblique Lu Nights festival, John Oswald wants to talk music, even though he’s fully aware that his work tends to raise all sorts of extra-musical issues about copyright and ethics. Perpetrated against select icons of popular culture such as Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton and Jim Morrison, his plunderphonic music has been lauded as a great act of sonic vandalism aimed at dislodging mass culture’s colonisation of the sound environment. But to simplistically proclaim him as a cultural bulwark against the relentless bombardment of a monolithic global music industry is to seriously underestimate the full significance of his challenge. “I don’t think of it as an attempt to perpetrate any sort of damage,” he counters, “either to the artist’s reputation or to the music that I’m using. I’m just like some producer who wasn’t asked to work on somebody’s material but comes up with crazy ideas and tries to make it sound good.”
Oswald’s realisation of plunderphonics is less a Dadaist defilement of icons than a construction of music anew in the act of deconstructing it, and his most powerful creations shape a life independent of the parent pieces from which they were sample cloned. They are living, breathing proof of the power of plunderphonics. Placed in the hands of ‘untrained’ musicians like himself, plunderphonics liberates sound from ‘specialist’ composers, players and regulators. That certain interested parties music publishers, giant entertainment conglomerates have managed to legally suppress much of his work to date is in itself a testimony to plunderphonic music’s enormous potential.
Last year, Oswald prepared a stunning two CD set, called 69/96, anthologising and annotating most of his plunderphonic work of the last two decades. The set turns rock history on its head, rewriting the evolution of contemporary music from deep inside its most basic paradigms. The set starts with the sustained piano chord from the end of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” which is interrupted and restated again and again. From there it accelerates through the 20th century, with fantasy groupings coalescing in the ether. Free bassist Barre Phillips communes with Steve Lacy, Larry Dubin and Cecil Taylor in a free improvising group that beams its perfonners in from four different solo gigs. Three Bix Beiderbeckes conjure a reading of “In A Mist” that throbs in and out of sync, creating a delirious textural complexity: and Dolly Parton duets with her own lower pitched voice, which sounds strikingly male. “Is it possible that Ms Parton’s remarkable voice is actually the Alvinized (chipmunked) result of some unsung ghost Lieder crooning these songs at elegiac tempos which are then gender polarised to fit the tits?” speculates Oswald in his notes. “Speed and sex are again revealed as components intrinsic to the music business.”
Due to the results of earlier legal tussles, Oswald was legally prohibited from distributing 69/96 through his own label fony. However, the set has been ‘pirated’ by American copyright buccaneers Negativland, who are now disseminating it via their website. Although Oswald sees a connection between his work and that of Negativland and The Tape Beatles, he doesn’t feel he has anything in common with them other than the subjects of his plunderphonia. Indeed, The Tape Beatles’ allegiance to plagiarism actually works against his proposed system of accreditation. “When things come up like copyright issues, we have common ground,” he concedes. “But musically, other than admiring Negativland’s U2 record, which I like a lot, I don’t think I’m anymore connected to them than I am to Paul McCartney. McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” is one of my favourite pieces of music, a good example of something where there is a lot more going on than just the incredibly trite Iyric everybody defines it by.”
Perhaps he’s closer in spirit to the current vogue for ‘bootlegging’ mainstream pop by Kid606 and Girls On Top, who similarly reanimate exquisite corpses, casting them in fantasy musical collaborations not unlike those featured on the 69/96 set. Using sonic quotes for his building blocks, Oswald morphs, stretches and transforms them into hallucinogenic pieces where Elvis Presley jams with Cecil Taylor, and Tim Buckley drifts like a ghost through the Elektra vaults. Revealing the familiar in a different light, plunderphonics works both as a serious art statement and a pinpricking of the untouchable pomposity of pop stardom. It produces incisive cultural critique and, most importantly, great psychedelic music.
Oswald’s system of plunderphonics is a by-product of the various strategies he developed to enable a non musician like himself to compose music. He recalls, “When I was first doing these things I just felt that it was an interesting way of working and one that I seemed to have some sort of musical adeptness at. Really,” he insists, “it was my way of making normal music. When I was a kid I was attempting to figure out music but I was a singularly untalented musician, so I didn’t really have the choice of playing in a bar mitzvah band or an orchestra. Every time I would go to a music teacher I’d be asked not to come back. I pretty much had to sneak into various institutions of higher education to see what was happening. I never passed the auditions. I couldn’t even get in the high school band, I had to steal the instruments.”
The discovery of pre-existing recordings as a sound source liberated composition from the hold of the specialists. A powerful compositional tool was now within his reach. He says he scarcely gave a thought to the small matter of who owned the recordings, and he never intended plunderphonics to be an art-political platform for challenging copyright ownership, though he has since been forced to engage with the issue or be destroyed by it. For Oswald, the debates deflect people from hearing his work as music rather than as a thieves’ charter. “My game plan has always been to create stuff that justifies its existence by being intrinsically interesting as a listening experience whether or not its existence is currently practical,” he says. “So I perhaps naively assume that if an audience really wants it, the consumer environment will adapt an acquisition strategy.”
For Oswald, plunderphonics is before everything else a process for rigorously pursuing the internal logic of a piece of music, its tone and structure determined by the expressive characteristics encoded in his source samples. His Grateful Dead project, Grayfolded (1994-95), affirms his claim for plunderphonics as a musical pledge of faith. Grayfolded is his double CD plunderphonic take on The Grateful Dead’s signature tune “Dark Star” - his best known work by default, since it’s the only one readily available. Made after The Dead’s invitation to plunder their vaults, it’s also his most complete realisation of the plunderphonics concept. Running to some 100 minutes over two temporally defiant movements, disc one’s Transitive Axis is so seamless, it sounds uncannily like The Grateful Dead playing in real time and on transcendental form. Drawn from concert recordings spanning 25 years, it creates the extraordinary illusion of the group jamming with any number of incarnations of themselves inside the song’s identifiable albeit timestretched frame. The subtlety of Oswald’s timebending montages, dissolves and transpositions only becomes apparent when you consult the CD’s time maps, which detail the origins of its constituent parts.
“I was a bit surprised because Grayfolded was so critically successful in comparison to almost any other Grateful Dead disc,” Oswald says. “Both amongst half the Deadheads - the half who didn’t hate it - who likened it to the mind-altering capability of being at a really good Dead show, and amongst the general public, who have shown no interest in other Dead records. So I made a good record for a group who are notorious for making bad records but are nonetheless quite popular. This seemed like a calling card for more liaisons, but I guess either no one else wants to sound like The Grateful Dead - in’other words they assume that I’m a ‘one trick pony’ producer - or I just don’t get out enough to meet people.”
That the bulk of Oswald’s plunderphonics releases has been forced underground means his calling cards are hard to come by. His difficulties stem from the inclusion on his 1989 Plunderphonic disc of his Michael Jackson ‘tribute’, “dab,” credited to one ‘Alien Chasm Jock’. Maybe Sony just couldn’t see the funny side of hearing Jackson’s voice singing lines like “your butt is love,” in Oswald’s virtual remake. The drum machine kicks are derived from the phonemes in Jackson’s vocal; and for the breathtaking choral finale, Oswald processed a smear of Jackson singing the phrase “who’s bad” through 10,000 shifting loops of the entire song to create an infinitely deep pool of humming angelic feedback. The ‘tribute’ continued on the CD’s artwork, which essentially gives the singer’s Bad cover image a sexchange and turns his skin-colour white.
From the start, the legal case against Oswald was complicated by his insistence that Plunderphonic was not for sale, though it included a note encouraging not-for-profit home dubbing of the album. With no profits generated, it didn’t leave a lot for Sony’s lawyers to go after on behalf of their client. And though Oswald openly acknowledged that he had created the whole track from sampled Jackson material, Sony have yet to prove that he had done anything illegal. The legal stalemate leaves him at liberty to create these works, so long as he doesn’t distribute them. An unfortunate consequence of his legal struggles is how the reluctant Oswald has since been cast as an anti-corporate crusader. “I hadn’t really thought through what my obligations were in relation to this appropriation and transformation and I probably still haven’t,” he pleads. “I was making pieces, not thinking about how I could put it out. I mean, what happens when you make a record that has other people’s records on it? Are you supposed to call them up, does it matter?”
In Nantes the night before our interview, Oswald delivered a performance largely based on his 1993 Plexure album, which was released on John Zorn’s Avant label. As the most extreme realisation yet of his plunderphonics concept, he clearly didn’t come here to I make friends the easy way. It’s essentially a rapidfire assault of introductions snipped from reels of cheesy going-on sleazy 80s and 90s pop hits like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love.” Live, it doesn’t work so well. At times it passes in a disorientating blur, unimpeded by any significant tonal variation. The piece prompts the question as to whether Oswald thinks the speed of human perception will ever be fast enough to penetrate the dense layers of his plunderphonic creations.
“Oh yeah,” he perks up, enthusing, “that’s part and parcel with dealing with the recorded reproduction medium, the fact that things can be played again and again. Back in Beethoven’s days they tended to put repeats of the themes and all that stuff in, because it was quite likely that someone was only going to hear it once in their life. So you want to make sure they knew the theme before you started getting into more complex arrangements. It’s absolutely not necessary now, because you can just play a record over and over again. And you know the theme, so things can be more condensed.
“There were some complaints when we put out Plexure that it was only 18 minutes long,” he recalls, with a dry smile, “and they were complaining about the import price, which meant more than a dollar for their music per minute. Well, that was surprising because I thought there’s such an incredible degree of concentration here that you’re getting so much more stuff. You can listen to it again and again and discover new things. That’s one of the reasons I tended to concentrate these things, the process of making them gives me the opportunity to be somewhat complex and I’ll quite often follow that tendency. I think most of the pieces in the 69/96 set are fairly robust in that you can put it on as background music and it works. And a lot of them work in terms of scrutiny, getting out the aural magnifying glasses and checking it out.”
As the basis of his Nantes appearance, Oswald’s Plexure-derived set might have been less than thrilling, but elsewhere, his obsession with sonic sleight of hand has inspired more compelling performance pieces. He explores areas of disassociated sound in conceptual pieces like Pitch, where concerts are staged in absolute darkness, providing a heightened aural experience; and Swarm-Time, where he attempts to create the aural equivalent of a time-frozen photograph by endlessly folding a single sound event in on itself. “One thing I’m always interested in is the capacity for illusion,” Oswald admits. “The conventions of what happens on stage is something I come up against every time I get a commission to do a piece that I want to do for musicians,” He has developed many pieces for performance by live ensembles, despite his avowed antipathy towards the vagaries of live performance and the “weirdness of musicians,” ranging from compositions for modern dance and radio plays through some startling commissions for The Kronos Quartet. On “Spectre,” for instance, the Quartet start off playing a simple one note drone that is gradually augmented by thousands of recorded multiples. “At a certain point where things have multiplied a lot, they start playing with their bows just lifting off the strings until it becomes really obvious that they’re not playing anymore, just swirling around in the air a bit,” Oswald laughs. “It works really well when you kind of go - huh? Because it was pretty obvious at the start that they were actually playing. When I first saw it, it really felt like a dream of some kind of string performance, using this illusion. The other side of my compositional interests is time. For most of the stuff on the 69/96 box set, time is the major compositional element. Components in time. I’m always thinking about that.”
Composition in real time is yet another arrow to Oswald’s bow and he has a parallel career on what he terms his ‘hobby instrument’, the alto saxophone. Despite working alongside the likes of American pianist and experimental film maker Michael Snow in the CCMC ensemble, avant guitarists Jim O’Rourke and Henry Kaiser, John Zorn and bassist Dominic Duval, Oswald’s angular, guttural throat work owes more to the British Improv tradition. On the surface, his excursions in free improvisation seem to take the polar opposite approach to his plunderphonic activities. “It seems like that to me too,” Oswald nods, “although I do think they are connected. For that sense of being inside, playing improvised music is extremely informative and influential on what happens when I’m composing. Because I’m not working in real time, I only have a normal musical experience of a piece when I’m listening back to what I’ve been formulating. So most of the work is done in a non-musical way, moving towards a goal of something that’s going to be listenable. Being able to have a sense of three minutes of music lasting three minutes is really important to get a handle on what I’m doing in this non-real-time process. So those two very different activities influence and feed off each other.”
John Oswald’s claim that he’s never given the copyrigh issue much thought can appear somewhat disingenuous in light of his extensive writings on the subject. For one, he thoroughly examines the subject in an incisive lecture delivered in 1985, called PIunderphonics Or Audio Piracy As A Compositional Prerogative. In the lecture’s text, he proposes composer James Tenney’s 1961 cut and taped collage of Elvis Presley’s “BIue Suede Shoes“ - Collage 1 - as a good test case for examining whether rudimentary plunderphonic appropriation can stay within the boundaries of legally defined copyright. “Tenney took an everyday music and allowed us to hear it differently,” Oswald writes. “At the same time, all that was inherently Elvis radically influenced our perception of Jim’s piece.” Tenney’s piece also fulfils a criterion inherent in 17th century poet John Milton’s assertion that plagiarism of a work only occurs “if it is not bettered by the borrower,” Oswald argues, going on to elucidate the american legal concepts of ‘fair use’ and ‘fair dealing’ at provide various legally protected contexts for appropriation. Fair use covers instances where appropriations are used illustratively, critically or with intent to parody - as in Tenney’s piece and much of Oswald’s own work. Fair dealing ensures protection “against any usage that might adversely affect the economic viability” of the original source. The legals a bit more personal on the subject of the vague oral rights related to copyright, which are designed to protect the ‘uniqueness’ of the artist’s soundworld, and event it being harmed by sloppy unofficial recordings that might hurt the artist’s reputation. Oswald brings a section of the Canadian copyright act that appears defend Tenney’s and, by extension, his own working practices. It reads: “That an artist who does not retain the copyright in a work may use certain materials used to produce that work to produce a subsequent work, without infringing copyright in the earlier work, if the subsequent work taken as a whole does not repeat the in design of the previous work,” But then Oswald’s sure makes the thrilling leap from defending himself the courtroom to proposing appropriation as a form resistance against the noisily marketed, copyright protected musics colonising public and private spaces. The hit parade promenades the aural floats of pop on blip display,” he writes. “As curious tourists should not be able to take our own snapshots through the wild rather than be restricted to the official souvenir postcards and programmes? All popular music - and all music by definition - essentially, if not legally, exists in a public domain. Listening to pop music isn’t a matter of choice. Asked for or not, we’re bombarded by in its most insidious state, filtered to an incessant s line, it seeps through apartment walls and out of heads of walkpeople. Although people in general are making more noise than ever before, fewer people are making more of the total noise; specifically, in music, those with megawatt PAs, triple platinum sales and heavy rotation. Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate, how does one not become a passive recipient?”
Enabling individuals to reappropriate their heavily polluted sound environment, plunderphonics effectively combats the increasingly one-way transmission of culture. In this sense, it can be seen as a restoration of folk’s oral tradition, treating the sound environment as a common stock of sonic building blocks, which anyone can take and evolve new variations from, much as folk singers used to freely mine a common lode of orally passed down lines. “Still, for me that folk music thing doesn’t seem to stick,” Oswald argues. “The best example of the folk thing, particularly when it was on a street level, was rap music of the 70s where they were using turntables and boomboxes and making edit tapes and mixtapes and using these instruments to make fairly direct communication. They were played in public situations and there was that troubadour kind of element. That’s a folk music thing but it doesn’t stick in my own mind because I seem to be too much of a recluse to be part of any folk tradition.”
“There’s that potential in my work to deal with it but I don’t think I’m the person to encourage that,” he continues. “If I’ve advanced on any front that deals with the way the corporate situation works, then it’s been totally inadvertent. I haven’t taken any active stance or tried in any way to undermine it. In fact I would quite possibly wear a Nike emblem on my forehead if they paid me enough money. I feel like me being co-opted would have a happy ending. More interesting things would be produced.”
Still, contemporary copyright law’s ever strengthening hold is squeezing Oswald further towards the margins. “I think we all know how the field keeps getting smaller thanks to copyright,” he confesses. “I always like to refer to this piece of speculative fiction by Spider Robertson, which takes place some time in the future, where these copyright extensions I’m talking about become so extended that they go on until infinity. In this alternate reality, if somebody is the owner of something, they’re always the owner of it. As a result, at some point in the future it becomes impossible to make any sort of original music, because people have exhausted those few remaining melodic configurations by using computers to search for all the combinations. - “If we don’t open things up to allowing people to transform the past - as we’re all inevitably doing when we do the things we do - then eventually we’re going to run into a wall.”
There are precedents for Oswald’s stance on copyright. “I live in a different age from the one that Charles Ives did,” he says, “but he’s an exemplary composer in this respect, in that he never copyrighted his own work and never accepted any sort of remuneration for it. When some of his stuff got published in the late 40s, his publisher said, ‘We should send you some money’. He just redirected the money to other young composers. He also lived in a time where there was no public quandary about re-use of existing music in music. He could quote contemporary popular songs freely. We can still do that freely but there’s always that potential that you’re going to run into some legal hassle down the road.”
But perhaps composers would still be confined to scrabbling for church or court patronage, if the introduction of copyright hadn’t established a principle of ownership that ensured they got paid for their work.
Free market freedom might come with other restraints but what would Oswald suggest in its place? Maybe artists shouid get a proper job to subsidise their art activities.
“I don’t know what to replace it with,” he shrugs. “It’s interesting you ask that question because I’ve never thought about it. We should get back to what I first said. l simply love the music,” A few days after our meeting, Oswald further reiterates his stance in an email update: “I had faded (which isn’t normal) near the end by the time you asked for my solution to copyright,” he wrote. “If I had been feeling more articulate I would have said that I don’t have anything to say on the subject.”
As a child, Oswald was undoubtedly precocious. By the time he was ten he had worked out how to manhandle his record deck to put it to more expressive use. “I was a bit of a manipulative DJ in the late 60s,” he recalls. “I started out playing with radios before I got my first tape recorder. l was in this funny band I concocted where I was playing records at the wrong speed and I had a trumpet player, two bongo players and me. l hadn’t heard of anyone using radios and record players as instruments, but we all had them. Obviously the potential was there for them to be played in all sorts of different ways,” Oswald uses a beautiful quote by trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell, taken from the sleevenotes to his Aka/Darbari/Java album (1983), to describe the sort of musical microstructures that opened up to him through experiments with vinyl, exposing “sonic texture like the Mona Lisa which, in close-up, reveals itself to be made up of tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal.” Indeed, Hassell’s description of the potential of a new collage based music which would facilitate “remarkable sight-hearing excursions to a place which doesn’t exist but should,” uncannily anticipates Oswald’s plunderphonics, where false facts mingle with real ones. For the young Oswald, vinyl records became gateways into protean soundworlds, accessible via speed shifts, juxtaposition of sounds and actual physical manipulation. He continues, “I meet a lot of people who at a young age start taking pieces of equipment apart and putting them back together again so that it turns out to do something different or at least they know how it works. My way of taking things apart was to break them, so I tended to work within the limitations of what was built into the thing. Sometimes there are options outwith standard procedure in those manufactured devices, so your average turntable back in the 1960s played four speeds, in most cases with no variation, but you could play 33 rpm records at 16, 45 or 78. You would hear different things and you could also make funny sounds by moving the records. And those sounds still seem quite funny every time I hear them.”
“It’s quite natural,” he proposes, “you have a limited number of records and you get bored with hearing them the same way each time, so you start to fiddle around with them. Of course, in retrospect, l could see that people like Stockhausen and Cage were doing this sort of thing. High Fidelity magazine tended to have interviews with people like Stockhausen and I’d find some records of that kind of stuff and guess or read about tape manipulation and start doing that kind of stuff.”
The first piece of transformative sound to blow open the young Oswald’s ears was Luciano Berio’s Thema Omaggio A Joyce, where the composer transformed Cathy Berberian’s readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses into rhythmic, onomatopoeic lines, whose fractured logic mirrored Joyce’s own. Fittingly, however, one of Oswald’s earliest appropriations was the voice of plagiarism’s high priest, William S Burroughs, for a 1974 piece called Burrows. Its ten studies toyed with bizarre aural palindromes lifted from the Call Me Burroughs album on ESP-Disk. Despite an attempt to shoehorn it into the 69/96 box as a pre-track, Burrows has yet to show up on any Oswald release. “In retrospect, I can see that we have very different ways of working,” he remarks. “Burroughs’s search for the random aspect of juxtaposition and cut-ups was completely contrary to my attempt to control the cut-up effect and make very careful choices as to which words go together.”
Oswald’s first Plunderphonic release was a vinyl EP in 1988 that featured inventions based on re-assigning Dolly Parton’s sex, matching Elvis with a wildly improvising backing group and mutating the orchestras of Igor Stravinsky and Count Basie. “I didn’t approach the artists before I made that EP,” Oswald confesses. “They might’ve said no. I do the work and worry about the practicalities afterwards. If they refuse me permission, I then feel that I’m obligated not to play this for anyone. But I really like playing this for people, so to ensure the maximum degree of self preservation I wouldn’t ask permission. Now I’ve started to think that it wasn’t even a good idea or a necessary thing to ask them. There’s this tendency with almost anyone who looks at a photograph of themselves to say, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible photo, I don’t want anyone to see that’, whereas everyone else has a much more moderate opinion. And I think this is why producers exist, to have somebody outside of the artist’s contribution. So, as I’m the uninvited producer there isn’t that dialogue going on, and in some ways I’m in the best position of just calling the shots so as to make the quality of the music a priority.”
Oswald’s one experience of going legit and accepting a plunderphonics commission only confirmed his preference for playing lone wolf on the edge of the herd. In 1990, Elektra opened their vaults to him in order to produce Selektrax, the five track plunderphonic EP that features some of his most memorable work, It includes his haunting Tim Buckley, chorale “Anon,” the hard-rocking Doors fantasia “O’Hell,” and a hilarious MC5 rallying cry “Mother.” “They said I could use outtakes or whatever,” Oswald relates, “but it just seemed to me to be like dirty laundry and garbage. The things I like to deal with are the recordings that we know, so they didn’t have to send me anything. I just went down to the store and bought a Doors CD. I didn’t want or need any special access to the valuables of the record company,” However, Elektra had failed to get sample clearances from the estate of Jim Morrison and others involved. The CD was swiftly withdrawn, but not before a few copies got out to DJs. A pity, because Oswald’s exemplary Doors track, “O’Hell,” exaggerates and intensifies the group’s characteristic elements, while introducing breakneck tempo changes and grimy guitar bursts as form-destroying as anything by contemporary Japanese groups like Ruins or Boredoms. Here, the plunderphonic process resurrects The Doors as unlikely avatars of everything rock should have sounded like but didn’t. “I go forth on the assumption that people will recognise something, and somewhere between them remembering and the recognition of the transformation lies a really useful musical tool,” Oswald reiterates. “That doesn’t immediately bring up copyright questions and all that stuff. It is quotation and I’ve made extra effort to make the quotations clear on the box set. And as for the anagrams, they take a little deciphering but people are named,” When its morphed hybrid popstar images and daft anagram credits, such as Dame Conic Cannon and Sir Jim Moron, get buried under copyright and legal issues, it’s easy to forget that Oswald’s plunderphonics can be side-splittingly funny. “So I’ve heard,” he smirks, 4 disappearing through the door. “So I’ve heard.”