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.'"
There are currently serious problems on most newer computer platforms with playback of the 2nd CD of the plunderphonics Cd/book set published by Seeland on behalf of FONY.
– The same CD continues to play fine on all the stand-alone players we’ve tested, including DVD & BluRay players.
The intricate notes of the package booklet are co-ordinated to a track numbering of 27 to 60 for that disc.
– We have several hundred packages from our last pressing that we would like to distribute in a form that everybody can play, and at the same time appreciate the intricacies that are part of the design.
So we’re going to add a 3rd disc to the package which is essentially the 2nd disc with normal track numbering, along with a card with a chart showing how the track numbers correspond with the notes and indexing in the booklet.
This 3rd disc fits securely into one of the 2 digipak trays along with the existing disc. this increases the weight of the package by 15 grams (half an ounce) and so should have a negligible effect on shipping costs.
— We’re sorry for the resulting fuss, but happy that your extra efforts to check out the problem have led us to discover how pervasive it has become in recent years. because we received so few complaints, and have not kept up with how the computer companies have revised their music playback software, we were not aware of how many listeners are affected by the current situation. we have sold close to 10,000 of these packages over the past 13 years, and we have had less than half a dozen complaints.
— Most people who are interested in our projects enjoy the complexities that we design into them, so perhaps that interest and curiosity has led some of them to find alternate playback solutions.
— The availability of on-line streaming and digital downloads of individual tracks on ITunes, eMusic, Spotify, is a convenient option, but we do not recommend downloading the entire set, it is neither cost-effective nor complete, because none of the services mentioned have included the accompanying 48-page booklet in any form. It features 37,000 words of interviews and essays, and is ‘lavishly illustrated with full color collages”.
a brief history:
The Sony \ Phillips Redbook of rules for how CDs and CD players should interact includes some seldom-used features, such as sub-track indexing; which manufacturers of cheap players would sometimes ignore. One Redbook approved feature is to have a CD have track sequences that don’t begin with 'track 1'. The purpose of this is to allow multivolume sets to have consecutive numbering through the set, so, for example, in the case of a talking book, the tracks could correspond with the chapter numbers of the book.
At FONY we’ve often used some of the arcane aspects of allowable CD programming to make a more interesting package.
69plunderphonics96 was released in April of 2001, about the same time Apple released iTunes in System 9.
Because this was our first use of consecutive-disc-numbering, prior to our release we had tested the discs in several players, and all seemed well.
After our release we became aware that the 2nd disc would not play properly in this new iTunes thing— Consequently in a subsequent repressing of the package we added the line about Apple computers in the booklet.
About the same time Apple, who we had contacted about the problem, released a new version of iTunes in the new OSX, and this player read our 2nd disc just fine.
We’ve discovered in retrospect that perhaps with the switch in Macs to the Intel chip in 2006 iTunes began to have A bit of difficulty again reading the 2nd disc (wrong track #s) and the problem has only gotten worse in the more recent versions that we’ve been able to test.
Also, at some point Windows players have begun to have problems playing back the discs.
Even though many computers no longer have CD disc drives, this is a problem which we have decided to address.
If you are absolutely unable to play your old copy of the tunes disc please cantact us : sales at pfony.com
Director of Research