John Oswald creates new works from existing sonic materials. His Plunderphonic got him in trouble with the copyright police. (It also got him gigs with the Kronos Quartet and the Grateful Dead.)
On John Oswald's Plunderphonic CD, Dolly Parton's voice slows to that of an operatic tenor - aural sex change, the artist calls it. The bombast of Beethoven's Seventh blares like a bronco in the chute, Count Basie's "Corner Pocket" twists in a kaleidoscope of sound, fragments of James Brown's voice slip from Public Enemy recordings. And in the pièce de r/sistance, Michael Jackson squeaks out a version of "Bad" like a kid on nitrous.
I played the Canadian composer's work recently at a dinner party I threw for some friends, and eventually someone asked the crucial question: "Did he have permission to do this?"
Why should John Oswald have to get permission? Both the vinyl EP and the CD are clearly marked "Not For Sale." His work is the sketchbook of an inspired audio artist, a calling card intended to raise Oswald's profile by bringing the listener inside his head for a taste and showing off his mastery of offline editing.
But Michael Jackson, CBS Records, and the Canadian Recording Industry Association said his work is illegal, and Oswald found himself hiring an attorney, agreeing to a settlement, and giving up copies of his work.
John Oswald's instrument is technology - analog and digital editing. His "revised performances," created from existing works, often make wry commentaries on the content of the source material. He makes some interesting points about how we hear and listen to music. Oswald calls the genre that creates new works from existing sonic materials plunderphonics. The moniker comes from a paper he gave to the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto in 1985, titled "Plunderphonics, or audio piracy as a compositional prerogative."
Oswald scrupulously credits the creators of all the material used in his plunderphonic releases. He is not trying to slip anything past his listeners, nor is he hoping to profit from the inspiration of others. But in this day of digital samplers and tape recorders, "plagiarism" as a moral or legal concept is almost beside the point. A powerful idea is not going to crawl back down his brain stem just because of a chance encounter with some traditions about "intellectual property."
Oswald lists the sources of his work. Unfortunately, Oswald says, in aural media "there is no convention for putting quotation marks around something." By freely appropriating sound from the vast sea of information that surrounds us, and by taking pains to acknowledge that he is doing so, John Oswald is making explicit what is often ignored or obscured in the highly derivative world of mass-marketed culture.
The music industry traffics heavily in familiarity but values what it considers uniqueness: it's the nature of the game, if you're a recording artist, to come up with something that sounds enough like everything else to get the attention of a record company or radio programmer but is just different enough to be copyrighted.
It's perfectly OK, commercially speaking, to copy the guitar tone of a revered rock star or employ without alteration the factory-preset sounds in your electronic keyboard, or to raid wholesale the gestures and tonalities of a much-loved genre from the past. Everything old gets to be new again and again, as the Stray Cats, Harry Connick Jr., and any number of kids with granny glasses and Rickenbackers have demonstrated over and over and over.
But if your music too closely follows a sequence of notes, you can get into a heap of trouble. Fantasy Records once attempted to sue John Fogerty for plagiarizing himself - it claimed a song he recorded for Warner Bros. was a rip-off of a song he recorded with Creedence Clearwater for Fantasy. Heavyweight George Harrison couldn't summon enough legal horsepower to fend off the owners of The Chiffons, who beat up the Beatle in court for plagiarizing "He's So Fine" in his song "My Sweet Lord" a few years later.
The damnedest things are coming up for legal disposition these days. Astronomer Carl Sagan took issue with Apple Computer's use of his name as the code word for a project in development - and when they changed the name of the project to "butthead astronomer," he sent the lawyers around again, apparently seeking to defend his dignity. Onetime counterculture ironist par excellence Bob Dylan took offense when Apple used "Dylan" - again as an internal project designation, not even a commercial product. (Apple contends that the name derives from the phrase "dynamic language.")
Plunderphonics challenges how we listen to music. The inner sleeve of the EP features a long essay by British journalist David Toop, expounding on the pervasiveness and randomness of sound. Toop notes the lack (until very recently) of fossilized sound for study by audio archaeologists ("It is unlikely that the buzz of a mosquito will ever be found transfixed in perfection like a buried Chinese horseman") and asks some of the questions about ownership of sound that John Oswald has brought to the foreground.
When you buy music, Toop writes, you get "the privilege of ignoring the artist's intentions. You can take two copies of the same record, run through them with an electric drill, warp them on the stove, fill the grooves with fine sand and play them off-center and out of phase half-speed on twin turntables through a Fender Vibro Champ amplifier with the vibrato on maximum and the volume on 11."
"I started off as a listener," says Oswald, "but like most kids, I had a short attention span. I couldn't comprehend the structural pretenses of classical music: in the sonata form, the exposition and development would stretch on for several minutes, and by the time the recapitulation arrived, I would have capitulated."
Over time, Oswald made himself into an "active" listener. "I'd play 33-1/3 rpm LPs of classical music at 78 rpm, and - lo and behold - the structure would come into focus in an aural version of an overview." Listening to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at 78 rpm "gave it the edge I imagined it must have had to upset people in 1913." (Stravinsky's Paris première caused riots, which may have had more to do with the dance than the music.) "I'd listen to be-bop slow," Oswald says. "Charlie Parker would sound like a beluga whale, but I could begin to hear how he put a solo together. That's something a lot of jazz musicians have done. And quite often I found that I preferred listening to some pieces of music at speeds other than the ones they were intended to be played at.
"I was doing a kind of manipulative listening in fairly complex ways, and as my interactive listening habits grew more complex, I began to think of ways to preserve them for other people to hear."
Digital audio has opened up a world of possibilities for both musicians and attorneys. Samplers and digital-editing systems have given rise to new genres of derivative works. Composer Carl Stone, who creates exquisite music with computers and appropriated sounds, says, "We must distinguish between musical laziness and transforming a musical object using your own creativity. But there's absolutely no way you can put that into a statute."
Since the '80s, "sampling" has referred to taking small portions of existing recordings as building blocks for new works. The practice is controversial, both artistically and legally, and some have tried to devise a system for licensing samples so the originating artists can be paid for materials.
But what John Oswald does is not "sampling." Rather than incorporate fragments of other people's recordings in his compositions, Oswald usually works with a complete piece of source music.
Oswald has used a variety of tools and techniques, from archaic to futuristic: he varies the speed of a turntable; slices up analog tape; builds an "imaginary orchestra" in which each virtual musician plays only one note (klangfarbenprobe); builds a jazz quartet from four separate and unrelated solo performances; presents ambiguous information to a computer; loads fragments of the Beatles' "Birthday" into a sampling keyboard; instructs live musicians to play along with an Elvis Presley record, instructs other musicians to play along with those tracks, then wild-tracks the once-removed tracks on top of an edited version of the Presley cut without the intermediary material. And so on.
In 1989, Oswald collected his experiments and pressed a thousand copies of the Plunderphonic CD, which he distributed free of charge to radio stations, libraries, musicians, and critics. Plunderphonic asked the musical question, How can we be sure the "original" artist, whose wishes are sacrosanct, did not derive anything from any other source? Oswald's stunning cover montage for Plunderphonic grafted Michael Jackson's head and leather jacket onto an otherwise naked, Caucasian, shapely, young, female body.
According to Oswald's reading of US and Canadian copyright law, and some lawyers' interpretations, Oswald had thought that by not selling Plunderphonic he was legally in the clear. "I was fairly confident that what I was doing was not breaking the law, but I got a threatening letter from some record-industry lawyers saying that they considered what I was doing illegal," Oswald recalls.
Oswald found irony in Michael Jackson's action against him: Jackson has done his share of appropriating. Oswald says Jackson included, without attribution, more than a minute of the Cleveland Orchestra's 1961 recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the song "Will You Be There" on his Dangerous album.
"The credits to this song list Michael Jackson as the composer, the writer, and the rhythm and vocal arranger, but the track begins with a large segment of the Cleveland Orchestra recording, unaltered," Oswald complains. "It's even fairly hissy. There is nothing added to it until after it's finished, and Michael's song begins. Beethoven and his lyricist, Schiller, aren't mentioned. It's probably the longest example of directly sampled musical theft and plagiarism in pop music. Can anyone trust that 'Will You be There' really is Michael's song?"
Noting the "artistic alterations plastic surgeons have performed on the singer," Oswald asks, "Who owns Michael Jackson's face?" Would one of those surgeons sue Jackson over subsequent alterations? "Copyright protects against defacing one's creative endeavors, after all."
Notwithstanding his arguments, Oswald eventually engaged an attorney and agreed to a settlement: "I would give all the CDs I had remaining in my possession, and the master tapes for those CDs, to the association. They would destroy them in some way - which turned out to be crushing them - and I wouldn't make any more and I wouldn't distribute any more." These were analog attorneys, apparently: no one on the complainant side of the equation seems to know that, for all practical purposes, every copy still in circulation is an exact copy of the "master tape."
Oswald was not required to retrieve the 700 copies of Plunderphonic that he had already distributed, and so this masterpiece is still readily available in the cassette underground - and every one of those CDs is capable of spawning hundreds more. People are hearing Plunderphonic and learning its lessons.
The subversive CD was a roaring success. Not only did it force important legal and moral issues into the public discourse, but it made Oswald's reputation. Elektra Records hired him to work his twisted magic on a few of the company's greatest records, as an adjunct to the label's 40th anniversary collection, Rubiyat, which featured covers of classic Elektra cuts by current Elektra acts - another form of plunder, albeit contractually permissible in most cases.
Oswald assembled five pieces, and the label pressed a stack of promo-only CDs. "O'Hell," the leadoff track, is a screamingly funny revision of The Doors' "Hello I Love You," with a bit of the Cure's cover of that song and some flourishes, gestures, and punctuation from some other Doors tracks - a loving caricature. But Elektra decided not to distribute the plunderphonic Rubiyat; apparently not all of the plundered artists, or their heirs and assigns, were clear enough on the concept or happy enough with the results.
The Kronos Quartet commissioned Oswald to create a piece for its 1993 album Short Stories. Oswald spent a day in the studio with the musicians, collecting a vocabulary of expressions. "I got Kronos to do very simple things - play open strings, glisses, transitions between notes, certain shapes over a period of time. We recorded for about 10 hours, with the whole group and individuals. Some things they played together, some solo."
Oswald took these samples home to Toronto and threw them into a digital editing system. The result, "Spectre," begins with a single cello; over its nearly six-minute course, instruments are added until at its peak there are 4,000 - all Kronos. Then it thins out again, tapering down to one last pluck of the cello.
Fellow Kronos composer (and producer) John Zorn commissioned Oswald to create Plexure for his Avant label, available in the US only as a Japanese import. It's a 20-minute riot of pounding pointillism that delivers up tiny but recognizable pieces of thousands of pop records.
"I took a different tack from the first two plunderphonics projects, which focused on one performer at a time," Oswald explains. "I decided that I was going to try to include everybody from pop music on one disc - which is an insane attempt, but I managed to collect about 5,000 different pieces from about a thousand performing groups or individuals." Oswald did not credit his multitude of sources on Plexure, opting in this case for a brightly evocative set of portmanteau artist credits: "Marianne Faith No Morrissey," "Sinead O'Connick Jr.," "R.E.M.T.V. Hammercamp," "Bing Stingspreen."
Plexure plays a game with tempo. Underlying its scattershot pop pastiche is "a pervasive and gradual acceleration," Oswald explains. "You could be tapping to the beat near the beginning, and then eventually encounter a psycho-physical dilemma as the music gradually becomes too fast for your foot. Because the acceleration is gradual, there's a tendency not to subdivide - in other words, to change gears. I've seen people get both feet going, and then their hands and fingers jump in, and by the end they're just vibrating. It's music for becoming a nervous wreck. How's that for an endorsement?"
Plexure is not just a parlor trick; it's a thoughtful attempt to demonstrate some observations about human perceptions. Oswald wanted to explore what he calls "the threshold of recognizability."
"When does something become a permissible plunderphone, or a syllable of music that you can recognize?" he asks. "I remember hearing these contests on the radio in which a dozen bits of songs would be played consecutively in the space of a few seconds, and the task would be to identify them - 'In order, please!' And suddenly, there are half a dozen callers with the correct answers. It's not like 'Name That Tune' - these bits are too short to indicate melody. These contests are amazing. All you need is a little clue. It's the sound of a particular drum and they way it's recorded that makes the difference. You need only hear the opening shot of 'Be My Baby' and the whole song rolls out in your mind.
"In Plexure, there are so many points of initiation that the sense of familiarity is confounding - your memory gets morphed. But there are potentially hours and hours of pop information encoded there, ready to be triggered."
Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, a fan of Plunderphonic, persuaded his bandmates to let Oswald into the band's archives to collect materials for an hour-long plunderphonic called Gray Folded. It encompasses 25 years of live performances of the Grateful Dead's improvisational mainstay, "Dark Star."
Consisting mostly of stereo tapes from live performances, plus a few solo instrumental and vocal passages from multitrack concert recordings, "Transitive Axis" (the first half of Gray Folded; the conclusion is in the works) is very definitely a John Oswald composition and not a composite performance. It's a Tralfamadorian recap of the entire history of "Dark Star," freely interposing and intertwining episodes from Grateful Dead performances. "It's not a performably possible version of 'Dark Star,'" Oswald notes. "You can't have three generations of Jerry Garcias live on stage together - but there's this illusion of it being the Grateful Dead playing in concert."
Oswald listened to more than a hundred performances of "Dark Star," which is not as boring as it might seem to the uninitiated. "Dark Star" is the merest structure of a song, which the Dead have used as a framework for insanely varied improvisational flights.
It was the perfect subject matter for Oswald's experiment, offering a vast range of possibilities with a consistent set of musical touchstones as anchor points. "There's always something that hadn't happened before in 'Dark Stars.' I focused on the things that made a particular performance noticeably different from all of the other performances. I knew fairly early on that I'd be trying to make this Dark Star that focused on the exceptions rather than the rules."
As the best of the real-time versions of "Dark Star" have done over the years, "Transitive Axis" turns some interesting corners and traverses a multifarious musical universe; it's an audio mural depicting the most challenging regions of the Grateful Dead's musical frontier. "I've made a very unorthodox Dark Star," says Oswald, "but I haven't tried to submerge the performances under a lot of technique. I've tried to let the performances still speak for themselves." Oswald is at work on the concluding installment of Gray Folded, to be titled "Mirror Ashes."
Oswald plays the saxophone, but only in improvisational settings. Henry Kaiser, a prolific and globally appropriative guitarist, has been collaborating with Oswald off and on for 20 years. "He's a genius," says Kaiser of Oswald, "my favorite North American improvising saxophonist. He really improvises! He plays original, fresh ideas that have never existed before. With less effort, he could play completely normally, but he chose the path of creating music of the moment with a new vocabulary. He plays new ideas every time he plays, whether it's solo or with somebody else. It's not what the market wants, but it is the essence of music."
Oswald says he has no formal training and no interest in playing "normally." "I like improvising with people as a way of talking. It's sort of like an idiot savant kind of thing: I don't know what I'm doing, but I can do it." Once a week he gets together with some friends in a basement to play entirely "improvised chamber music."
Do they ever record it? "No! Improvising is my hobby! I don't want to get my job involved in that!" His playing has been recorded, however: there's Improvised, a 1978 duo album with Henry Kaiser; Moose and Salmon, featuring Oswald and Kaiser with trumpeter Toshinori Kondo; and a cut of the 1994 CD by Canada's Hemispheres orchestra that features Oswald blowing his sax.
Oswald earns his living making more mundane music - until recently, most of it was "canned music for stage situations." Since the mid-'70s, he has created a number of tape pieces for dance (many of which have been collected on Discosphere, released by Cuneiform Records in 1991). He's also created a few television soundtracks, and in 1994, he did his first musical score for an animated cartoon.
Oswald's compositional method is diametrically opposed to real-time improvisation. "It's very rare for me to perform to tape, to do something in real time that's going to give me a real-time result. The editing together of material takes time. If you want to get a five-minute piece together, you might spend hours and hours doing that.
"That's exactly what happens with a painter. They might be trying to represent something that has some sort of sense of realism for somebody, but the process of getting to that point takes a lot of time. So I work, in that sense, more like a painter."
This artist doesn't just work in the audio realm. His favorite creation is Pitch, which he designed with Emile Morin. "It's a giant sensory deprivation tank for a perambulatory rather than reposed cerebranaut," he says. Pitch was erected in Quebec City in 1992 at Obscure, an arts and media facility that has since mutated into Medusa, a multimillion-dollar communications center. "They asked me to create a sound sculpture, but being a contrary sort of guy, I built something that didn't make any noise at all," Oswald says.
Having produced several works with the blessings of his sources, John Oswald seems to have escaped characterization as a copyright maverick and moved along his career as an innovative composer. He will continue to tweak the blue noses of intellectual-property reactionaries, but he'd rather make music than legal precedents.
When I asked how he would like to see the copyright laws adjusted to account for plunderphonics, he faxed me this reply: "As you know I'm not, nor do I desire to be, a lawyer. I think my job is to try to make things that are interesting and desirable enough that the mechanisms of their availability will be generally, eventually considered necessary.
"Or, to quote my Toy Weathercaster, Rick Sacks, 'I does art ... art am fine.'"
NEW ART AND MUSIC DO NOT COMMUNICATE AN INDIVIDUAL'S CONCEPTIONS IN ORDERED STRUCTURES, BUT THEY IMPLEMENT PROCESSES WHICH ARE, AS ARE OUR DAILY LIVES, OPPORTUNITIES FOR PERCEPTION (OBSERVATION AND LISTENING).
(JOHN CAGE ON THE INFLUENCE OF MARSHALL MCLUHAN ON HIS MUSIC (KOSTELANETZ 1971)
Sounds like a dive downwards as a sped up tape slows rapidly to settle into a recognisable, slightly high-pitched Dolly Parton. It continues to slow down, but more gradually now. The instruments thicken and their timbres stretch and grow richer. Details unheard at the right speed suddenly cut across the sound. Dolly is changing sex, she's a man already; the backing has become hallucinatory and strange. The grain of the song is opened up and the ear, seduced by detail, lets a throng of surprising associations and ideas fall in behind it. The same thing is suddenly very different. Who would have expected this extraordinary composition to have been buried in a generic country song, one thousand times heard already and one thousand times copied and forgotten?
So I hear John Oswald's version of Dolly Parton's version of The Great Pretender, effectively a recording of Oswald playing Parton's single once through, transformed via varispeed media (first a high speed cassette duplicator, then an infinitely variable speed turntable, finally a hand-controlled reel-to-reel tape - all seamlessly edited together). Apart from the economy of this single procedure of controlled deceleration, which is, as it were, played by Oswald, no modifications have been made to the original recording. However, although the source is plainly fixed and given, the choice, treatment and reading of this source are all highly conscious products of Oswald's own intention and skill. So much so indeed that it is easy to argue that the piece, although 'only' Parton's record, undoubtedly forms, in Oswald's version, a self-standing composition with its own structure and logic - both of which are profoundly different from those of the original. Oswald's Pretender would still work for a listener who had never heard the Parton version, and in a way the Parton version never could. Though the Parton version is, of course, given - along with and against the plundered version. What Oswald has created - created because the result of his work is something startlingly new - is a powerful, aesthetic, significant, polysemic but highly focused and enjoyable sound artefact; both a source of direct listening pleasure and (for our purposes) a persuasive case for the validity and eloquence of its means.
John Oswald's Pretender and other pieces - all originated from existing copyright recordings but employing radically different techniques - were included on an EP and later a CD, Plunderphonic (Oswald 1988). Both were given away free to radio stations and the press. None was sold. The liner note reads: 'This disc may be reproduced but neither it, nor any reproductions of it are to be bought or sold. Copies are available only to public access and broadcast organisations, including libraries, radio or periodicals.' The 12" EP, consisting of four pieces - Pretender (Parson), Don't (Presley), Spring (Stravinsky), Pocket (Basie) - was made between 1979 and 1988 and released in May 1988, with some support from the Arts Council of Canada. The CD, containing these and 20 other pieces was realised between 1979-89 and released on October 31st 1989 and was financed entirely by Oswald himself. Between Christmas Eve 1989 and the end of January 1990 all distribution ceased and all extant copies were destroyed. Of all the plundered artists it was Michael Jackson who pursued the CD to destruction. Curiously Jackson's own plundering, for instance the one minute and six seconds of The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra's recording of Beethoven's Ninth which opens Jackson's Will you be there? on the CD Dangerous, for which Jackson claims no less than six credits, including composer copyright (adding plagiarism to sound piracy), seems to have escaped his notice.Necessity and choice (continued)
In 1980 I wrote that 'From the moment of the first recording, the actual performances of musicians on the one hand, and all possible sound on the other, had become the proper matter of music creation.' (Cutler 1991). I failed, however, to underline the consequence that 'all sound' has to include other people's already recorded work; and that when all sound is just raw material, then recorded sound is always raw - even when it is cooked. This omission I wish now in part to redress.
Although recording offered all audible sound as material for musical organisation, art music composers were slow to exploit it, and remain so today. One reason is that the inherited paradigms though which art music continues to identify itself have not escaped their roots in notation, a system of mediation which determines both what musical material is available and what possible forms of organisation can be applied to it. The determination of material and organisation follows from the character of notation as a discontinuous system of instructions developed to model visually what we know as melody, harmony and rhythm represented by, and limited to, arrangements of fixed tones (quantised, mostly 12 to an octave) and fixed durations (of notes and silences). Notation does not merely quantise the material, reducing it to simple units but, constrained by writability, readability and playability, is able to encompass only a very limited degree of complexity within those units. In fact the whole edifice of western art music can be said, after a fashion, to be constructed upon and through notation1 which, amongst other things, creates 'the composer' who is thus constitutionally bound to it.
No wonder then that recording technology continues to cause such consternation. On the one hand it offers control of musical parameters beyond even the wildest dreams of the most radical mid-20th century composer; on the other it terminally threatens the deepest roots of the inherited art music paradigm, replacing notation with the direct transcription of performances and rendering the clear distinction between performance and composition null.
Perhaps this accounts for the curious relationship between the art music world and the new technology which has, from the start, been equivocal or at least highly qualified (Edgard Varese notably excepted). And it is why the story I shall have to tell is so full of tentative high art experiments that seem to die without issue and why, although many creative innovations in the new medium were indeed made on the fringes of high art, their adoption and subsequent extension has come typically through other, less ideologically intimidated (or less paradigmatically confused?) musical genres. Old art music paradigms and new technology are simply not able to fit together2.
For art music then, recording is inherently problematic - and surely plunderphonics is recording's most troublesome child, breaking taboos art music hadn't even imagined. For instance, while plagiarism was already strictly off limits (flaunting non-negotiable rules concerning originality, individuality and property rights), plunderphonics was proposing routinely to appropriate as its raw material not merely other people's tunes or styles but finished recordings of them! It offered a medium in which, far from art music's essential creation ex nihilo, the origination, guidance and confirmation of a sound object may be carried through by listening alone.
The new medium proposes, the old paradigms recoil. Yet I want to argue that it is precisely in this forbidden zone that much of what is genuinely new in the creative potential of new technology resides. In other words, the moral and legal boundaries which currently constitute important determinants in claims for musical legitimacy, impede and restrain some of the most exciting possibilities in the changed circumstances of the age of recording. History to date is clear on such conflicts: the old paradigms will give way. The question is - to what?
One of the conditions of a new art form is that it produce a metalanguage, a theory through which it can adequately be described. A new musical form will need such a theory. My sense is that Oswald's Plunderphonic has brought at last into sharp relief many of the critical questions around which such a theory can be raised. For by coining the name, Oswald has identified and consolidated a musical practice which until now has been without focus. And like all such namings, it seems naturally to apply retrospectively, creating its own archaeology, precursors and origins.Originality
Of all the processes and productions which have emerged from the new medium of recording, plunderphonics is the most consciously self-reflexive; it begins and ends only with recordings, with the already played. Thus, as I have remarked above, it cannot help but challenge our current understanding of originality, individuality and property rights. To the extent that sound recording as a medium negates that of notation and echoes in a transformed form that of biological memory, this should not be so surprising3. In ritual and folk musics, for instance, originality as we understand it would be a misunderstanding - or a transgression - since proper performance is repetition. Where personal contributions are made or expected, these must remain within clearly prescribed limits and iterate sanctioned and traditional forms.
Such musics have no place for genius, individuality or originality as we know them or for the institution of intellectual property. Yet these were precisely the concepts and values central to the formation of the discourse that identified the musical, intellectual and political revolution that lay the basis for what we now know as the classical tradition. Indeed they were held as marks of its superiority over earlier forms. Thus, far from describing hubris or transgression, originality and the individual voice became central criteria of value for a music whose future was to be marked by the restless and challenging pursuit of progress and innovation. Writing became essential, and not only for transmission. A score was an individual's signature on a work. It also made unequivocal the author's claim to the legal ownership of a sound blueprint. 'Blueprint' because a score is mute and others have to give it body, sound, and meaning. Moreover, notation established the difference and immortality of a work in the abstract, irrespective of its performance.Copyright
The arrival of recording, however, made each performance of a score as permanent and fixed as the score itself. Copyright was no longer so simple4. When John Coltrane records (1961) My Favourite Things (Coltrane 1961), a great percentage of which contains no sequence of notes found in the written score, the assigning of the composing rights to Rogers and Hammerstein hardly recognises the compositional work of Coltrane, Garrison, Tyner and Jones. A percentage can now be granted for an 'arrangement' but this doesn't satisfy the creative input of such performers either. Likewise, when a collective improvisation is registered under the name, as often still occurs, of a bandleader, nothing is expressed by this except the power relations pertaining in the group. Only if it is registered in the names of all the participants, are collective creative energies honoured - and historically, it took decades to get copyright bodies to recognise such 'unscored' works, and their status is still anomalous and poorly rated5. Still, this is an improvement: until the mid 1970s, in order to claim a composer's copyright for an improvised or studio originated work, one had to produce some kind of score constructed from the record - a topsy-turvy practice in which the music created the composer. And to earn a royalty on a piece which started and ended with a copyright tune but had fifteen minutes of free improvising in the middle, a title or titles had to be given for the improvised parts or all the money would go to the author of the bookending melody. In other words, the response of copyright authorities to the new realities of recording was to cobble together piecemeal compromises in the hope that, between the copyrights held in the composition and the patent rights granted over a specific recording, most questions of assignment could be adjudicated - and violations identified and punished. No one wanted to address the fact that recording technology had called not merely the mechanics but the adequacy of the prevailing concept of copyright into question. It was Oswald, with the release of his not-for-sale EP and then CD who, by naming, theorising and defending the use of 'macrosamples' and 'electroquotes', finally forced the issue. It was not so much that the principles and processes involved were without precedent but rather that through Oswald they were at last brought together in a focused and fully conscious form.
The immediate result was disproportionate industry pressure, threats and the forcible withdrawal from circulation and destruction of all extant copies. This despite the fact that the CD in question was arguably an original work (in the old paradigmatic sense), was not for sale (thereby not exploiting other people's copyrights for gain) and was released precisely to raise the very questions which its suppression underlined but immediately stifled. Nevertheless, the genie was out of the bottle.
The fact is that, considered as raw material, a recorded sound is technically indiscriminate of source. All recorded sound, as recorded sound, is information of the same quality. A recording of a recording is just a recording. No more, no less. We have to start here. Only then can we begin to examine, as with photomontage (which takes as its strength of meaning the fact that a photograph of a photograph is - a photograph) how the message of the medium is qualified by a communicative intent that distorts its limits. Judgements about what is plagiarism and what is quotation, what is legitimate use and what, in fact if not law, is public domain material, cannot be answered by recourse to legislation derived from technologies that are unable even to comprehend such questions. When 'the same thing' is so different that it constitutes a new thing, it isn't 'the same thing' anymore - even if, like Oswald's hearing of the Dolly Parton record, it manifestly is the 'same thing' and no other. The key to this apparent paradox lies in the protean self-reflexivity of recording technology, allied with its elision of the acts of production and reproduction - both of which characteristics are incompatible with the old models, centred on notation, from which our current thinking derives, and which commercial copyright laws continue to reflect.
Thus plunderphonics as a practice radically undermines three of the central pillars of the art music paradigm: originality - it deals only with copies, individuality - it speaks only with the voice of others; and copyright - the breaching of which is a condition of its very existence.Recording history: the gramophone
As an attribute unique to recording, the history of plunderphonics is in part the history of the self-realisation of the recording process; its coming, so to speak, to consciousness6. Sound recording began with experiments in acoustics and the discovery that different pitches and timbres of sound could be rendered visible, most notably in 1865 by Leon Scott de Martinville attaching a stylus to a membrane, causing the membrane to vibrate with a sound and allowing it to engrave its track on a glass cylinder coated with lampblack moving at a fixed speed. Such experiments were conducted only to convert otherwise invisible, transient sound into a 'writing' (phono-graph means 'voice-writer'), a fixed visible form that would allow it to be seen and studied. It was some ten years before it occurred to anyone that by simply reversing the process, the sound thus written might be recovered. And it wasn't until the late 1870s that the first, purely mechanical phonograph was constructed, without clear purpose, speculatively appearing as a novelty item, talking doll mechanism and 'dictaphone'. The music gramophone really started to take hold after the electrification of the whole process in 1926, but the breakthrough for the record as a producing (as opposed to reproducing) medium, came only in 1948 in the studios of French Radio with the birth of musique concrète. There were no technological advances to explain this breakthrough, only a thinking advance; the chance interpenetrations of time, place and problematic.
The first concrète pieces, performed at the Concert de Bruits in Paris by engineer/composer Pierre Schaeffer, were made by manipulating gramophone records in real time, employing techniques embedded in their physical form: varying the speed, reversing the direction of spin, making 'closed grooves' to create repeated ostinati etc.. Within two years the radio station, in the face of resistance from Schaeffer, had reequipped the studio with tape recorders; and Schaeffer, now head of the Groupe de musique concrète, continued to develop the same aesthetic of sound organisation and to extend the transformational procedures learned through turntable manipulations with the vastly more flexible resources of magnetic tape. Other composers began to experiment with disc manipulation around the same time, including Tristam Cary in London and Mauricio Kagel in Buenos Aires. Tape had completely displaced direct-to-disc recording by 1950 and the studio that was to become an instrument was the tape studio. Disc experiments seemed merely to have become a primitive forerunner to tape work. It is curious that, in spite of the intimacy of record and recording, the first commercially available musique concrète on disc was not released until 1956.Tape
Where the gramophone was an acoustic instrument, the magnetic recorder, also invented at the end of the nineteenth century, was always electrical. The gramophone, however, had numerous initial advantages: it was easier to amplify (the energy of the recoverable signal was greater to start with), and as soon as Emile Berliner replaced the cylinder with the disc and developed a process to press copies from a single master (1895), records were easy to mass produce. Wire - and then tape - were both much more difficult. For these and other reasons, tape was not regularly employed in music until after the Second World War, when German improvements in recording and playback quality and in stable magnetic tape technology were generally adopted throughout the world. Within five years tape had become standard in all professional recording applications.
The vinyl disc meanwhile held its place as the principle commercial playback medium and thus the ubiquitous public source of recorded sound. This division between the professionally productive and socially reproductive media was to have important consequences, since it was on the gramophone record that music appeared in its public, most evocative form; and when resonant cultural fragments began to be taken into living sound art, it was naturally from records, from the 'real' artefacts that bricoleurs would draw. But before we get to this part of the story, I want to take a quick look at plundering precedents in some other fields.History/Plunder
From early in the twentieth century conditions existed that one would expect to have encouraged sound plundering experiments as a matter of course. First, the fact of sound recording itself, its existence, its provision of a medium which offers the sonic simulacrum of an actual sound event in a permanent and alienable form. Moreover, in principle, a sound recording, like a photograph, is merely surface. It has no depths, reveals no process and is no palimpsest. It's just there; always the first, always a copy. It has no aura, nor any connection to a present source. And with its special claims toward objectivity and transparency, the tongue of a recording is always eloquently forked and thus already placed firmly in the realm of art7.
Secondly, montage, collage, borrowing, bricolage have been endemic in the visual arts since at least the turn of the century. The importation of readymade fragments into original works was a staple of cubism (newspaper, label samples, advertising etc.) futurism and early soviet art. Dada took this much further (Kurt Schwitters above all and the photomontagists) and as early as 1914 Marcel Duchamp had exhibited his bottle rack, a work in which, for the first time, a complete unmodified object was simply imported whole into an 'art space'. Yet strangely it waited 25 years for John Cage in his Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939) to bring a gramophone record into a public performance as an instrument - and he still only used test tones and the effect of speed changes.
Having said this, I recently learned that at a Dada event in 1920 Stephan Wolpe used eight gramophones to play records at widely different speeds simultaneously - a true precedent, but without consequences; and of course Ottorino Respighi did call for a gramophone recording of a nightingale in his 1924 Pina di Roma - a technicality this, but imaginative none the less (though a bird call would have sufficed). Moreover, Darius Milhaud (from 1922), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus (1923) and Edgard Varese (1936) had all experimented with disc manipulation, but none eventually employed them in a final work. Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch did produce three recorded 'studies' (Grammophonmusik, 1929-30), but these have been lost, so it is difficult to say much about them except that, judging from the absence of offspring, their influence was clearly small8. More prescient, because the medium was more flexible, were sound constructions made by filmmakers in the late 1920s and 1930s, using techniques developed for film, such as splicing and montaging, and working directly onto optical film soundtrack - for instance, in Germany, Walter Ruttman's Weekend and Fritz Walter Bischoff's lost sound symphony, Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball; and, in Russia, constructivist experiments including G. V. Alexandrov's A Sentimental Romance and Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm. There had also been some pieces of film music which featured 'various treatments of sounds' - probably created with discs before being transferred to celluloid - by such composers as Yves Baudrier, Arthur Honnegger and Maurice Jaubert (Davies 1994).
The ideas were around, but isolated in special project applications. And strangely, optical recording techniques developed for film in the 1920s, although endowed with many of the attributes of magnetic tape, simply never crossed ever into the purely musical domain - despite Edgard Varese's visionary proposal in 1940 for an optical sound studio in Hollywood - a proposal which, needless to say, was ignored.
With so many precedents in the world of the visual arts and the long availability of the means of direct importation and plunder, it does seem surprising that it took so long for there to be similar developments in the world of music. And when, at last, the first clear intimations of the two principle elements crucial to plunderphonic practice did arrive, they arrived in two very different spheres, each surrounded by its own quite separate publicity and theory. The key works were Pierre Schaeffer's early experiments with radio sound archive discs (e.g. Etude aux tourniquets, 1948) and John Cage's unequivocal importation of readymade material into his Imaginary Landscape No.4 (1951) for twelve radios - where all the sounds, voices and music were plundered whole, and at random, from the ionosphere. In 1955, Imaginary Landscape No. 5 specified as sound material forty-two gramophone records. Thus, although Schaeffer used prerecorded materials, these were 'concrete' sounds, not already recorded compositions; while Cage made his construction out of 'copyright' works, although this fact was purely incidental to the intention of the piece.
It wasn't until 1961 that an unequivocal exposition of plunderphonic techniques arrived in James Tenney's celebrated Collage No.1 (Blue Suede) (Tenney 1992), a manipulation of Elvis Presley's hit record Blue Suede Shoes. The gauntlet was down; Tenney had picked up a 'non art', lowbrow work and turned it into 'art'; not as with scored music by writing variations on a popular air, but simply by subjecting a gramophone record to various physical and electrical procedures.
Still no copyright difficulties.To refer or not to refer
Now, it can easily be argued that performances with - and recordings which comprise - ready-made sounds, including other people's completed works, reflect a concern endemic in twentieth-century art with art media in and of themselves, apart from all representational attributes. This can take the form, for instance, of an insistence that all that is imitation can be stripped away, leaving only sensual and essential forms with no external referents; or a belief that all semiotic systems consist of nothing but referentiality - signalled by the addition, as it were, of imaginary inverted commas to everything. But it is only a loss of faith, or illusion, or nerve, that stands between this century's younger belief in 'pure' languages and today's acceptance of the 'endless play of signification'. Moreover, plunderphonics can be linked, historically and theoretically, to both perceptions. Thus a recording may be considered as no more than the anonymous carrier of a 'pure' - which is to say a non-referential - sound; or it may be an instance of a text that cannot exist without reference. In the first way, as Michel Chion's 'ten commandments for an art of fixed sounds' makes clear, the composer 'distinguishes completely sounds from their sonic source ... he has done with mourning the presence of the cause.' (Chion 1991 p. 22). Here the goal is to 'purify' the sound, to strip it of its origin and memories (though it may well be that that same erased origin remains still to haunt it). In the second way, the recording - for instance a sample - may be no more than a fragment, a knowing self reference, a version, and may be used to point at this very quality in itself.
As a found (or stolen) object, a sound is no more than available - for articulation, fragmentation, reorigination; it may be given the form of pure 'acousmatics' or made an instance of the availability and interchangeability - the flatness - of a recording, its origin not so much erased as rendered infinitely relative. These applications, of course, do not exhaust it: as a pirated cultural artefact, a found object, as debris from the sonic environment, a plundered sound also holds out an invitation to be used because of its cause and because of all the associations and cultural apparatus that surround it. And surely, what has been done with 'captured' visual images (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein) - or with directly imported objects (Duchamp, the mutilated poster works of Harris, Rotella, De la Villegle and others) - all of which depend upon their actuality and provenance (as readymades) - can equally be done with captured 'images' of sound.
Plundered sound carries, above all, the unique ability not just to refer but to be, it offers not just a new means but a new meaning. It is this dual character that confuses the debates about originality which so vex it.High and Low
Popular musics got off to a slow start with sound piracy. Nevertheless they soon proved far more able to explore its inherent possibilities than art musics, which even after fifty years of sporadic experiment remained unable rigorously so to do. It is interesting perhaps that Tenney, who made the most radical essay into unashamed plunder, chose popular music as his primary source. In a later piece, Viet Flakes, from 1967 (Tenney 1993), he mixed pop, classical and Asian traditional musics together and in so doing drew attention to another significant facet of the life of music on gramophone records, namely that, in the same way that they conceal and level their sources, records as objects make no distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture, 'art' and 'pop.'9A record makes all musics equally accessible - in every sense. No special clothes are needed, no expensive tickets need be bought, no travel is necessary, one need belong to no special interest or social group, nor be in a special place at a special time. Indeed, from the moment recordings existed, a new kind of 'past' and 'present' were born - both immediately available on demand. Time and space are homogenised in the home loudspeaker or the headphone and the pop CD costs the same as the classical CD and probably comes from the same shop. All commodities are equal.
For young musicians growing up in the electric recording age, immersed in this shoreless sea of available sound, electronics, Maltese folk music, bebop, rhythm and blues, show tunes, film soundtracks and the latest top ten hit were all equally on tap. Tastes, interests, studies could be nourished at the pace and following the desire of the listener. Sounds, techniques and styles could flit across genres as fast as you could change a record, tune a dial or analyse and imitate what you heard. A kind of sound intoxication arose. Certainly it was the ideas and applications encountered in recorded music of all types which led a significant fringe of the teenage generation of the late 1960s into experiments with sound, stylistic bricolage, importations, the use of noise, electronics, 'inappropriate' instruments and - crucially - recording techniques10. The influence of art music and especially the work of Varese, Schaeffer, Stockhausen and others cannot be overestimated in this context and, more than anything, it would be the crossplay between high and low art that would feature increasingly as a vital factor in the development of much innovative music. In plunderphonics too, the leakages - or maybe simply synchronicities - between productions in what were once easily demarcated as belonging in high or low art discourses, are blatant. Indeed, in more and more applications, the distinction is meaningless and impossible to draw.
But there are simpler reasons for the special affinity between low art and plundering. For instance, although the first plunder pieces (viz. the early concrète and the Cage works mentioned) belonged firmly in the art camp, blatant plundering nevertheless remained fairly off limits there, precluded essentially by the non-negotiable concern with originality and peer status - and also with the craft aspect of creating from scratch: originating out of a 'creative centre' rather than 'just messing about with other people's work'. The world of low art had few such scruples: indeed, in a profound sense plundering was endemic to it - in the 'folk' practices of copying and covering for instance (few people played original compositions), or in the use of public domain forms and genres as vessels for expressive variation (the blues form, sets of standard chord progressions and so on). The twentieth-century art kind of originality and novelty simply was not an issue here. Moreover, in the 'hands on', low expectation, terra nova world of rock, musicians were happy to make fools of themselves 'rediscovering America' the hard way.
What I find especially instructive was how, in a sound world principally mediated by recording, high and low art worlds increasingly appropriated from one another. And how problems that were glossed over when art was art and there was no genre confusion (like Tenney's appropriation of copyright, but lowbrow, recordings) suddenly threatened to become dangerously problematic when genres blurred and both plunder and original began to operate in the same disputed (art/commercial) space.Low art takes a hand
Rock precedents for pure studio tapework come from Frank Zappa, with his decidedly Varese-esque concrete pieces on the albums Absolutely Free, Lumpy Gravy and Only In It For The Money, all made in 1967 - Only In It For The Money also contains an unequivocally plundered Surf music extract- and The Beatles' pure tapework on Tomorrow Never Knows from the 1966 album Revolver. Revolution No 9 on The White Album is also full of plundered radio material. In the early 1960s radios were ubiquitous in the high art world and in some intermediary groups such as AMM and Faust (in the latter, on their second UK tour, guest member Uli Trepte played 'Space Box' - a shortwave radio and effects - as his main instrument).
Such examples - taken in combination with, firstly, the increasing independence, confidence and self-consciousness of some rock musicians; secondly, a generation of musicians coming out of art schools; furthermore, the mass availability of ever cheaper home recording equipment; and, finally, a climate of experiment and plenitude - made straightforward plunder inevitable. This promise was first substantially filled by The Residents. Their second released album, Third Reich and Roll (1975), a highly self-reflexive commentary on rock culture and hit records, curiously employed a technique analogous to that used by Stockhausen in 1970 for his Beethoven Anniversary recording, Opus 1970, which had nothing to do with influence and everything to do with the medium. What Stockhausen had done was to prepare tapes of fragments of Beethoven's music which ran continuously throughout the performance of the piece. Each player could open and shut his own loudspeaker at will and was instantaneously to 'develop' what he heard instrumentally (condense, extend, transpose, modulate, synchronise, imitate, distort). To different ends The Residents followed a similar procedure: instead of Beethoven, they copied well known pop songs to one track of a four-track tape to which they then played along (transposed, modulated, distorted, commented on, intensified), thus building up tracks. Though they subsequently erased most of the source material, you can often, as with Opus 1970, still hear the plundered originals breaking through.
In 1977 it was The Residents again who produced the first unequivocal 100% plunder to come out of pop, following in the high art footsteps of James Tenney's Presley-based Collage No.1, and the later, more successful 1975 work Omaggio a Jerry Lee Lewis by American composer Richard Trythall (plundered from various recordings of Lewis's Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On). Trythall comments: 'Like the table or newspaper in a cubist painting, the familiar musical object served the listener as an orientation point within a maze of new material... the studio manipulations... carried the source material into new, unexpected areas, while maintaining its past associations' (programme note on ReR CMCD). The Residents' work was a 7 inch single titled Beyond The Valley Of A Day In The Life and subtitled 'The Residents Play The Beatles/The Beatles Play The Residents'. It came packaged as an art object in a numbered, limited edition and hand-silkscreened cover, but was sold to - and known by - a rock public. One side of this single was a cover version of The Beatles song Flying. The other was pure plunderphonics. This whole side was assembled from extracts dubbed off Beatles records, looped, multitracked, composed with razor blades and tape. It is an ingenious construction, and remains a landmark.Sampling and scratching
Although there were some notable experiments and a few successful productions, tape and disc technologies made plundering difficult and time consuming and thus suitable only for specific applications. What brought plundering to the centre of mass consumption low art music was a new technology that made sound piracy so easy that it didn't make sense not to do it. This development was digital sampling, launched affordably by Ensoniq in the mid-1980s. Digital sampling is a purely electronic digital recording system which takes samples or 'vertical slices' of sound and converts them into binary information, into data, which tells a sound producing system how to reconstruct, rather than reproduce it. Instantly.
At a fast enough sampling rate the detailed contours of a sound can be so minutely traced that playback quality is compatible with any analogue recording system. The revolutionary power associated with a digital system is that the sound when stored consists of information in a form that can be transformed, edited or rewritten electronically, without 'doing' anything to any actual analogue recording but only to a code. This really is a kind of a writing. When it is stored, modified or reproduced, no grooves, magnetised traces or any other contiguous imprint link the sound to its means of storage (by imprint I mean as when an object is pressed into soft wax and leaves its analogue trace). It is stored rather as discrete data, which act as instructions for the eventual reconstruction of a sound (as a visual object when electronically scanned is translated only into a binary code). Digital sampling allows any recorded sound to be linked to a keyboard or to a Midi trigger and, using electronic tools (computer software), to be stretched, visualised on screen as waveforms and rewritten or edited with keys or a light pencil. All and any parameters can be modified and any existing electronic processing applied. Only at the end of all these processes will an audible sound be recreated. This may then be listened to and, if it is not what is wanted, reworked until it is and only then saved. It means that a work like Cage's four minute long Williams Mix (the first tape collage made in America) which took a year to cut together, could now be programmed and executed quite quickly using only a domestic computer.
The mass application is even more basic. It simply puts any sound it records - or which has been recorded and stored as software - on a normal keyboard, pitched according to the key touched. The user can record, model and assign to the keys any sounds at all. At last here is a musical instrument which is a recording device and a performing instrument - whose voice is simply the control and modulation of recordings. How could this technology not give the green light to plundering? It was so simple. No expertise was needed, just a user friendly keyboard, some stuff to sample (records and CDs are easy - and right there at home), and plenty of time to try things out. Producing could be no more than critical consuming; an empirical activity of Pick'n'Mix. Nor was that all. Sampling was introduced into a musical climate where in low art plundering was already deeply established in the form of 'scratching' - which in its turn echoed in a radically sophisticated form the disc manipulation techniques innovated in high culture by Hindemith and Koch, Milhaud, Varese, Honegger, Kagel, Cary, Schaeffer et al, but now guided by a wholly different aesthetic.From scratch
The term 'scratching' was coined to describe the practice of the realtime manipulation of 12 inch discs on highly adapted turntables. It grew up in US discos where DJs began to programme the records they played, running them together, cutting one into another on beat and in key, superimposing, crossfading and so on. Soon this developed to the point where a good DJ could play records as an accompanying or soloing instrument, along with a rhythm box, other tracks or singing. New and extended techniques emerged - for instance the rhythmic slipping of a disc to and fro rapidly by hand on a low friction mat to create rhythms and cross rhythms - alongside old Concrete techniques: controlled speed alterations and sillons fermés riffs.
Two manual decks and a rhythm box is all you need. Get a bunch of good rhythm records, choose your favourite parts and groove along with the rhythm machine. Using your hands, scratch the record by repeating the grooves you dig so much. Fade one record into the other and keep that rhythm box going. Now start talking and singing over the record with your own microphone. Now you're making your own music out of other people's records. That's what scratching is. (McLaren (1982)).
It was only after scratching had become fashionable in the mid-1970s in radical black disco music that it moved back toward art applications, adopted quite brilliantly by Christian Marclay. Marclay used all the above techniques and more, incorporating also an idea of Milan Knizac's, who had been experimenting since 1963 with deliberately mutilated discs, particularly composite discs comprising segments of different records glued together. Of course everything Marclay does (like Knizac) is 100% plundered, but on some recordings he too, like John Oswald on his seminal Plunderphonic recordings, creates works which, echoing Tenney and Trythall, concentrate on a single artist, thus producing a work which is about an artist and made only from that artist's sonic simulacrum. Listen, for instance, to the Maria Callas and Jimi Hendrix tracks on the 10 inch EP More Encores (subtitled 'Christian Marclay plays with the records of Louis Armstrong, Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, John Cage, Maria Callas, Frederic Chopin, Martin Denney, Arthur Ferrante & Louis Teicher, Fred Frith, Jimi Hendrix, Christian Marclay, Johann Strauss, John Zorn').
Marclay rose to prominence as a member of the early 1980s New York scene, on the experimental fringe of what was still thought of unequivocally as low art. He emerged from the context of disco and scratching, not concrète or other artworld experiments with discs (though they were part of his personal history). His cultural status (like the status of certain other alumni of the New York school such as John Zorn) slowly shifted, from low to high, via gallery installations and visual works and through the release of records such as Record Without A Cover (1985), which has only one playable side (the other has titles and text pressed into it) and comes unwrapped with the instruction: 'Do not store in a protective package'. Or the 1987 grooveless LP, packaged in a black suede pouch and released in a limited and signed edition of 50 by Ecart Editions. Marclay's work appears as a late flowering of an attenuated and, even at its height, marginal high art form, reinvented and reinvigorated by low art creativity. It traces the radical inter-penetrations of low and high art in the levelling age of sound recording; the swing between high art experiment, low art creativity and high art reappropriation, as the two approach one another until, at their fringes, they become indistinguishable. This aesthetic levelling is a property of the medium and this indistinguishability signals not a collapse but the coming into being of a new aesthetic form.Oswald plays records
Curiously, the apotheosis of the record as an instrument - as the raw material of a new creation - occurred just as the gramophone record itself was becoming obsolete and when a new technology that would surpass the wildest ambitions of any scratcher, acousmaticist, tape composer or sound organiser was sweeping all earlier record/playback production systems before it. Sampling, far from destroying disc manipulation, seems to have breathed new life into it. Turntable techniques live on in live House and Techno. Marclay goes from strength to strength, more credits for 'turntables' appear on divers CDs and younger players like Otomo Yoshihide are emerging with an even more organic and intimate relation to the record/player as an expressive instrument11.
It is almost as if sampling had recreated the gramophone record as a craft instrument, an analogue, expressive voice, made authentic by nostalgia. Obsolescence empowers a new mythology for the old phonograph, completing the circle from passive repeater to creative producer, from dead mechanism to expressive voice, from the death of performance to its guarantee. It is precisely the authenticity of the 12 inch disc that keeps it in manufacture; it has become anachronistically indispensable.Disc-Tape-Disc
Applications of a new technology to art are often first inspired by existing art paradigms, frequently simplifying or developing existing procedures. Then new ideas emerge that more directly engage the technology for itself. These arise as a product of use, accident, experiment or cross fertilisation - but always through hands-on interaction. New applications then feed back again into new uses of the old technologies and so on. For a long time such dynamic inter-penetrations can drive aspects of both. Painting and film, for instance, have just such a productive history. A similar process could be traced in the tension between recording and performance. A particularly obvious example of this is the way that hard cuts and edits made with tape for musical effect inspire played "edits" - brilliantly exemplified in the work of John Zorn. This process can be traced more broadly, and more profoundly, in the growth and refinement of the new sound aesthetic itself, which from its origins in the crisis in art music at the turn of the century through to contemporary practices in many fields, is characterised by the dynamic interactions between fluid and fixed media. New instrumental techniques inform, and are informed by, new recording techniques. Each refines a shared sonic language, sets problems, makes propositions. Each takes a certain measure of itself from the other, both living and dead: "Records are ... dead" as Christian Marclay carefully points out12.More dead than quick
What is essential - and new - is that by far the largest part of the music that we hear is recorded music, live music making up only a small percentage of our total listening. Moreover, recording is now the primary medium through which musical ideas and inspiration spread (this says nothing about quality, it is merely a quantitative fact). For example, one of the gravitational centres of improvisation - which is in every respect the antithesis of fixed sound or notated music - is its relation to recorded sound, including recordings of itself or of other improvisations. This performance-recording loop winds through the rise of jazz as a mass culture music, through rock experiments and on to the most abstract noise productions of today. Whatever living music does, chances are that the results will be recorded - and this will be their immortality. In the new situation, it is only what is not recorded that belongs to its participants while what is recorded is placed inevitably in the public domain.
Moreover, as noted earlier, recorded music leaves its genre community and enters the universe of recordings. As such the mutual interactions between composers, performers and recordings refer back to sound and structure and not to particular music communities. Leakage, seepage, adoption, osmosis, abstraction, contagion: these describe the life of sound work today. They account for the general aesthetic convergence at the fringes of genres once mutually exclusive - and across the gulf of high and low art. There is a whole range of sound work now about which it simply makes no sense to speak in terms of high or low, art or popular, indeed where the two interpenetrate so deeply that to attempt to discriminate between them is to fail to understand the sound revolution which has been effected through the medium of sound recording.
Plunderphonics addresses precisely this realm of the recorded. It treats of the point where both public domain and contemporary sound world meet the transformational and organisational aspects of recording technology; where listening and production, criticism and creation elide. It is also where copyright law from another age can't follow where - as Oswald himself remarked - 'If creativity is a field, copyright is the fence'13.Pop eats itself
I want now to look at some of the many applications of plundering beyond those of directly referential or self-reflexive intent like those of Tenney, Trythall, The Residents, Oswald and Marclay.
First, and most obvious, is the widespread plundering of records for samples that are recycled on Hip Hop, House and Techno records in particular, but increasingly on pop records in general. This means that drum parts, bass parts (often loops of a particular bar), horn parts, all manner of details (James Brown whoops etc.) will be dubbed off records and built up layer by layer into a new piece. This is essentially the same procedure as that adopted by The Residents in their Beatles piece, except that nowadays the range and power of electronic treatments is far greater than before and the results achieved of far greater technical complexity. Rhythms and tempi can be adjusted and synchronised, pitches altered, dynamic shape rewritten and so on. Selections sampled may be traceable or untraceable, it need not matter. Reference is not the aim so much as a kind of creative consumerism, a bricolage assembly from parts. Rather than start with instruments or a score, you start with a large record and CD collection and then copy, manipulate and laminate.
Moral and copyright arguments rage around this. Following several copyright infringement cases, bigger studios employ someone to note all samples and to register and credit all composers, artists and original recording owners. 'Sampling licences' are negotiated and paid for. This is hugely time consuming and slightly ridiculous and really not an option for amateurs and small fish. Oswald's Plexure, for instance, has so many tiny cuts and samples on it that, not only are their identities impossible to register by listening, but compiling credit data would be like assembling a telephone directory for a medium sized town. Finding, applying, accounting and paying the 4000-plus copyright and patent holders would likewise be a full time occupation, effectively impossible. Therefore such works simply could not exist. We have to address the question whether this is what we really want.
For now I am more interested in the way pop really starts to eat itself. Here together are cannibalism, laziness and the feeling that everything has already been originated, so that it is enough now endlessly to reinterpret and rearrange it all. The old idea of originality in production gives way to another (if to one at all) of originality in consumption, in hearing.Cassiber
Other applications use plundered parts principally as sound elements which relate in a constitutive or alienated way to the syntax of a piece. They may or may not carry referential weight, this being only one optional attribute which the user may choose to employ. The Anglo-German group Cassiber (comprising Chris Cutler, Heiner Goebbels and Christoph Anders) uses just such techniques in which samples act both as structure and as fragments of cultural debris. Cassiber creates complexities; no piece is reducible to a score, a set of instructions, a formula. Simultaneity and superimposed viewpoints are characteristic of much of the work - as is the tension between invention and passion on the one hand and 'dead' materials on the other.
When the group was formed, singer Christoph Anders worked with a table stacked with prepared cassettes, each containing loops or raw extracts taken from all manner of musics (on one Cassiber piece, there might be fragments of Schubert, Schoenberg, The Shangri-La's, Maria Callas and Them). The invention of the sampler put in his hands a similar facility, except with more material and infinitely greater transformational power, all accessible immediately on a normal keyboard. It means that, in a way impossible - though desired - before, they can be played. They can be as unstable as any performed musical part - and as discontinuous. Cassiber's use of familiar fragments, though these are often recognisable - and thus clearly referential - doesn't depend on this quality which is accepted merely as a possible aspect - but rather on their musical role within the piece. Where House and Rap use samples to reinforce what is familiar, Goebbels and Anders use them to make the familiar strange, dislocated, more like debris - but (and this is the key) as structural rather than decorative debris. It is an affect only plundered materials can deliver14.The Issue
What is the issue? Is it whether sound can be copyrighted or snatches of a performance? If so, where do we draw the line - at length or recognisability? Or does mass produced, mass disseminated music have a kind of folk status? Is it so ubiquitous and so involuntary (you have to be immersed in it much of your waking time) that it falls legitimately into the category of 'public domain'? Since violent action (destruction of works, legal prohibition, litigation and distraint) have been applied by one side of the argument, these are questions we cannot avoid.
A BRIEF REVIEW OF APPLICATIONSA: There It Is
There are cases such as that of Cage, in Imaginary Landscapes 2 and 4, where materials are all derived directly from records or radio and subjected to various manipulations. Though there are copyright implications, the practice implies that music picked randomly 'out of the air' is simply there. Most of Cage's work is more a kind of listening than of producing.B: Partial Importations
An example of partial importation is My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (Byrne and Eno) and the work of Italians Roberto Musci and Giovanni Venosta. In both cases recordings of ethnic music are used as important voices, the rest of the material being constructed around them. The same might be done with whale songs, sound effects records and so on; I detect political implications in the absence of copyright problems on such recordings. At least, it is far from obvious to me why an appeal to public domain status should be any more or less valid for 'ethnic' music than it is for most pop - or any other recorded music.C: Total Importation
This might rather be thought of as interpretation or re-hearing of existing recordings. Here we are in the territory of Tenney, Trythall, The Residents, Marclay and quintessentially, of plunderphonic pioneer John Oswald. Existing recordings are not randomly or instrumentally incorporated so much as they become the simultaneous subject and object of a creative work. Current copyright law is unable to distinguish between a plagiarised and a new work in such cases, since its concerns are still drawn from old pen and paper paradigms. In the visual arts Duchamp with readymades, Warhol with soupcans and brillo boxes, Lichtenstein with cartoons and Sherry Levine with re-photographed 'famous' photographs are only some of the many who have, one way or another, broached the primary artistic question of 'originality', which Oswald too can't help but raise.D: Sources Irrelevant
This is where recognition of parts plundered is not necessary or important. There is no self-reflexivity involved; sound may be drawn as if 'out of nothing', bent to new purposes or simply used as raw material. Also within this category falls the whole mundane universe of sampling or stealing 'sounds': drum sounds (not parts), guitar chords, riffs, vocal interjections etc., sometimes creatively used but more often simply a way of saving time and money. Why spend hours creating or copying a sound when you can snatch it straight off a CD and get it into your own sampler-sequencer?E: Sources Untraceable
These are manipulations which take the sounds plundered and stretch and treat them so radically that it is impossible to divine their source at all. Techniques like this are used in electronic, concrete, acousmatic, radiophonic, film and other abstract sound productions. Within this use lies a whole universe of viewpoints. For instance, the positive exploration of new worlds of sound and new possibilities of aestheticisation - or the idea that there is no need to originate any more, since what is already there offers such endless possibilities - or the expression of an implied helplessness in the face of contemporary conditions, namely, everything that can be done has been done and we can only rearrange the pieces. This is a field where what may seem to be quite similar procedures may express such wildly different understandings as a hopeless tinkering amidst the ruins or a celebration of the infinitude of the infinitesimal.
Several currents run together here. There is the technological aspect: plundering is impossible in the absence of sound recording. There is the cultural aspect: since the turn of the century the importation of readymade materials into artworks has been a common practice, and one which has accumulated eloquence and significance. The re-seeing or re-hearing of familiar material is a well established practice and, in high art at least, accusations of plagiarism are seldom raised. More to the point, the two-way traffic between high and low art (each borrowing and quoting from the other) has proceeded apace. Today it is often impossible to draw a clear line between them - witness certain advertisements, Philip Glass, Jeff Koons, New York subway graffiti.
It seems inevitable that in such a climate the applications of a recording technology that gives instant playback, transposition and processing facilities will not be intimidated by the old proscriptions of plagiarism or the ideal of originality. What is lacking now is a discourse under which the new practices can be discussed and adjudicated. The old values and paradigms of property and copyright, skill, originality, harmonic logic, design and so forth are simply not adequate to the task. Until we are able to give a good account of what is being done, how to think and speak about it, it will remain impossible to adjudicate between legitimate and illegitimate works and applications. Meanwhile outrages such as that perpetrated on John Oswald will continue unchecked.
APPENDIX 1.A note on proportion
Current copyright law differs from country to country, but in general follows international accords. It certainly allows 'fair use' which would include parody, quotation and reference, though these may need to be argued and defended. This is a minefield in which only lawyers profit. So where The Beatles had to pay up for quoting In The Mood at the end of All You Need Is Love, and Oswald had his work destroyed, Two Live Crew's parody of Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman got off free as 'fair use'. Or take Negativland's parody of U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (1991). This was also recalled and destroyed after Island Records sued the group and its record company, identifying illegally stolen samples as one of the main causes. But Negativland are famous precisely for their tapework and cut-up techniques, as well as their sharp fragmenting and commenting on the media debris by which we are all, like it or not, daily assaulted. This piece was funny, as well as telling and not commercial - in all these respects unlike the record by Two Live Crew. It and the group and the record company all got hammered (all copies recalled and destroyed, $25,000 fine and other financial penalties, assignation of Negativland's rights to Island records). Now compare the case of disco mixers DNA who made a techno manipulation of Susanne Vega's song Tom's Diner, released it on an independent label, sold a few thousand copies and then, when Vega's record company heard it, were offered not a crippling lawsuit but a deal for an 'official' release. Questions of works unstarted, or only circulating privately, or of a climate where ideas and opportunities are simply abandoned - all for fear of copyright difficulties - are not even broached here. There is no proportion because there is no clarity. The rethinking of copyright law is long overdue. Recording has been with us now for more than 100 years.APPENDIX 2.Everyday sample and plunder
I have restricted myself above to artworld precedents and applications of plunderphones but, of course, sampling and 'electroquotation' have long been endemic to the production of rap and other popular musics. In 1994 I interviewed freelance studio engineer Bob Drake about his work with Ice T. and other rap artists. He described what was then standard practice. Since then, the technology has been radically updated and is even easier to use; indeed composing with other people's work has now been thoroughly integrated into instrument design and studio practice.
A typical group's producer has a machine like a linn/akai mpc60, which has 12 pads like a drum machine, lots of memory for sequencing, and most important, it's a huge sampler too. This person spends time at home with their huge record collection finding suitable bits to build a new song with. Usually they'll start with a drum loop, perhaps from a james brown record - 1, 2 maybe 4 bars. Then a loop with a bass line (maybe with drums on too) say from the zapp band - 1 or 2 bars. Horn section from an earth, wind and fire album, electric piano from some incredibly obscure funk album, add a few more drum loops to fatten it up and give it a rolling, driving feel. Some percussion, tambourine, hi-hat samples. A lot of producers have their own 'signature' hi-hat and tambourines which they use on all their stuff and won't tell anyone where they sampled them from; if you recognise it you're a true fanatic scholar of all the old records. The 808 kick drum is a major part of the sound, the 'boom'. It comes from the roland tr 808 drum machine if you turn the decay on the bass drum all the way up. Very few people actually own an 808, but there are plenty of samples around. You can also make a good boom by sampling an oscillator, somewhere between 60-100 hertz and adding a regular kick drum sample to it. The sound is so deep it can be way up in the mix like it's supposed to be and not get in the way of anything else.
So all these loops and sounds are put on different pads on the mpc60 and sequenced into a song form. Before it's actually a song, with breaks, choruses and so on, the whole big rolling piles of samples and loops is called a 'beat'. But to arrive at this, getting all the loops and samples - most of which were originally in different tempi - to play in perfect synch with one another, is a whole job in itself. They all have to be synched up with the metronome in the sequencer. Drummers speeding up and slowing down with the four bars of a sample, horn sections slightly behind or ahead of the beat - all the natural human 'imperfections' - sometimes make it necessary to break a loop into two or four separate segments, shortening or lengthening each to get it 'in time'. All these loops have little idiosyncrasies, people talking, band/audience members shouting, stuff going on in the background, scratches and pops from the old vinyl, all of which add up and contribute to the overall end sound.
When it's been shaped into a song, it's all printed on the multitrack, each sample and loop on its own track and the 'live' parts are added: maybe a bass guitar, wah-wah guitar, sax. Then the vocals and scratches. The scratches are added by the dj, the guy with the turntable and crates full of old records. The dj is almost like a soloist and spaces are left in the song structure for scratching, the same way a rock band leaves a space for a guitar solo and for fills and flavouring throughout the song. They're really good at knowing just where to get the right little phrases and sounds which somehow relate to the lyrics of the song, often rearranging the words of an old song, or piecing lines from several songs together to make them say what they want for the new song. A really great dj is unbelievable and fun to watch and listen to: real performers.' (Cutler 1994 p. 13)
Chion, Michel (1991), L'Art des sons fixés, Fontaine: Editions Metamkine/Nota Bene/Sono-Concept.
Cutler, Chris (1991), 'Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms', III (i), File Under Popular, London: ReR Megacorp (revised edition).
Cutler, Chris (1994), 'sampling notes: in the studio', unfiled: Music Under New Technology (ReR/Recommended Sourcebook 0401) pp. 13-14.
Davies, Hugh (1994), 'A History of Sampling', unfiled: Music Under New Technology (ReR/Recommended Sourcebook 0401) pp. 5-12.
Kostelanetz, Richard (ed.) (1971), John Cage, London: Allen Lane/Penguin.
McLaren, Malcolm (1982), B-Bu-Buffalo Gals (sleeve note), Charisma: MALC12.
Not mentioned but critical:
Oswald, John (1986) Plunderphonics, ot audio piracy as a compositional preogative. Musicworks 34.
Cassiber (1990), A Face We All Know, ReR: CCD 1989.
Coltrane, John (1961), My Favourite Things, Atlantic:
Eno, Brian and Byrne, David (1994), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, EG: EGCD 48.
Marclay, Christian (1988), More Encores. (EP) No Man's Land: NML 8816.
Musci, Roberto and Venosta, Giovanni (1990), Messages and Portraits, ReR: MVCD1.
Negativland (1991) U2, SST CD 272 (destroyed).
Oswald, John (1988/1998), Plunderphonics (EP), released by John Oswald; Plunderphonic (CD) (1989), as previous (destroyed); Discosphere (CD) (1991), ReR: JOCD; Plexure (CD) (1993), Avant: AVAN 16.
The Residents (1974/1987), The Beatles Play The Residents/The Residents Play The Beatles, (7" single), Ralph Records (1974); (CD reissue Third Reich'n Roll bonus track), (1987) East Side Digital: ESD 80032.
Schaeffer, Pierre (1990), L'oeuvre musicale intégrale, INA/GRM: C1006-1009.
Stockhausen, Karlheinz (1970), Opus 1970, Deutsche Grammophon (LP): 139 461.
Tenney, James (1992), Collage No1 (Blue Suede), 'Selected Works' (CD), Artifact: FP001, (1993), Viet Flakes, MusicWorks: MW56.
Trythall, Richard (1971), Ommagio a Gerry Lee Lewis, CRI (LP) (1977): SD 302; ReR (CD): CMCD 1980.
Yoshihide, Otomo [Ground Zero] (1986), Revolutionary Pekinese Opera, ReR: GZ1.
1. As I have argued in 'Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms', section II (i), in Cutler (1991). return to text
2. There were sporadic experiments, as we shall see, and notably Varese grasped the nettle early. Pierre Schaeffer made the radical proposal, but precisely from his work as an engineer, and not emerging out of the art music tradition. A few followed - Stockhausen, Berio, Nono and others - and new schools formed which in part or whole abandoned mediating notation (concrete, electronic, acousmatic, electroacoustic musics, for example), but these too tried to retain, so far as was possible, the old status and values for their creators, merely replacing the score with direct personal manipulation, and continuing to make the same claims to originality, personal ownership, creation ex nihilo, etc. John Cage was an interesting exception: his originality and individuality were claimed precisely in their negation.return to text
3. For the full argument of this claim see 'Necessity and Choice in Musical Forms', section III (ii), in Cutler (1991).return to text
4. The first Copyright Act in England was passed in 1709. The current Act dates from 1988 and includes rights of the author to remuneration for all public performances (including broadcasts, jukeboxes, muzak, fairground rides, concerts, discotheques, film, TV and so on) as well as for recordings of all kinds. The recording is copyrighted separately from the composition, so that every individual recording of a composition also has an owner.return to text
5. Most copyright bodies still discriminate between works which earn a lot by the minute ('serious' composed works) and those which earn a little (pop music, for instance and improvised-compositions). Criteria for making such decisions vary, reflecting the prejudices of the day.return to text
6. Which is to say, where it raises questions that reflect upon its own identity.return to text
7. And through its documentary authenticity also in the realm of the political, as the purity of the retouched photograph and doctored tape attest.return to text
8. Hugh Davies recently brought to my attention a report from a 1993 conference in Berlin where it was reported that in the mid-1980s Hindemith's discs had been offered to the director of a German musicological institute. He refused them after which they were almost certainly destroyed.return to text
9. I shall treat the quotation marks as read from here on.return to text
10. See Cutler (1991) chapters on The Residents, Necessity and Choice, Progressive Music in the UK.return to text
11. Hear, for instance, his 'Ground Zero' recording Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (Yoshihide 1986).return to text
12. From an interview with J. Dean Kuipers Ear magazine (1993).return to text
13. From the Plunderphonic CD booklet.return to text
14. For example Start the show from the CD A face we all know (Cassiber 1990).return to text
This essay was first published in in MusicWorks 60 (Fall 1994), then in two parts in Resonance 3.2 and 4.1 and in translation in Bologna as an independent booklet by Angelica (1997). It has been anthologised in Classic Essays on 20th Century Music (ed Kostelantz and Darby), Schirmer Books, NY. (1996) and in Music, Electronic media and Culture (ed Simon Emmerson), Ashgate Press, London (2000) and has aslo appeared translated into Japanese and Polish.return to text