Academic Archive Volume IV: 50 x Sampling

Academic Archive Volume IV: John Oswald Plundered
Assembled by Joe Allen
September 24, 2002
Thanks again for taking the time to consider my inquiry. The body of the article is
composed entirely of quotes attributed to you, and my commentary appears in the
footnotes. Part of my purpose will be to inform the readership of the nature of
your work and theories. Since your compositions and writings raise such issues as
originality, the public domain, citation/credit, and active consumerism, the very
form of my piece might add to the discussion. While this might seem like a quick
and easy gimmick, I have pursued collage writing for some time now. Writers and
theorists such as the anthropologist Michael Taussig, South American historian
Eduardo Galeano (especially his three-part Memory of Fire series), AfricanAmerican novelist Nathaniel Mackey, and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin have
significantly influenced my thinking and writing. The demands your work places
on the listener has caused me to consider this format.
Oswald’s Theory:2
“All popular music (and all folk music by definition) exists in the public domain,
essentially if not legally. Listening to pop music isn’t a matter of choice. Asked for or
not, we’re bombarded by it. . . . Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate, how
does one not become a passive recipient” (e).
I asked Oswald, “What do you think of someone assembling an article about you solely
of quotes attributed to you?” He replied, “Sounds familiar.”
(a) an interview conducted by Norman Igma contained within the 69/96 retrospective box
set (1999) -- (b) the 69/96 liner notes also include John Oswald’s “Revolutions and
Mister Dolly Parton: a vortex of androgyny” originally published in the British magazine
Collusion (1981), (c) the plunderphonics EP liner notes, and previously published
conversations with Igma including (d) “Taking sampling Fifty Times the Expected” -originally published in Musicworks Magazine (1990) and reprinted in Negativland’s Fair
Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (Seeland 1995);
(e) John Oswald’s article “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional
Prerogative” contained within the anthology The Cassette Mythos (Autonomedia 1990);
(f) John Oswald’s article “Creatigality” contained within the anthology Sounding Off!:
Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution (Autonomedia 1995);
(g) plunderphonics CD liner notes (1989);
(h) an interview conducted by Brian Duguid (1994);
(i) an interview conducted by Joe Allen (2002).
“As a listener my own preference is the option to experiment. My listening system has a
mixer instead of a receiver, an infinitely-variable-speed turntable, filters, reverse
capability, and a pair of ears” (e).
“any playback media
speed control
overlapping and folding
time travel” (i).
“In order to achieve some sort of respectability, electroquoting must follow the literary
example of reference and citation” (a).
“So I went down to the record store and bought the CDs and made new songs from them.
. . . In its purest sense plunderphonic pieces are made from resources familiar to and
available to everybody . . . You don’t need special access to source materials to do what I
do” (a). 3
“I tend to prefer to distill out the redundancy in music. Seventy percent of your average
pop song is redundant repetition. . . . if you’re listening carefully, it can be a bit tedious”
Oswald and Copyright Law:
“There are fewer copies of the plunderphonics CD in existence in the world than a single
record store would sell of a major hit record in a week, but nonetheless the implications
of these few hundred disks are unpredictable -- it might effect the market (d). 4
This quote refers to Oswald’s elektrax CD-EP (1990), a recording commissioned by the
Electra record group. Oswald was given full access to their archives but instead chose to
sample readily available recordings.
On Halloween in 1989, Canadian recording artist John Oswald began distributing his
CD plunderphonics free of charge to libraries, radio stations, the press, and the sampled
artists themselves--not their lawyers, managers, record labels, etc. The 1000 pressed CDs
contained an explicit warning: NOT-FOR-SALE. Oswald composed each of his songs
entirely of samples, often from a single source song or one artist or group. His liner notes
clearly referenced his sources, and he also encouraged the practice of dubbing his
recording to further disseminate his work.
Brian Robertson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, first
heard news of the collage of Michael Jackson as a naked woman on the plunderphonics
cover. After hearing the recording, he thought he heard identifiable samples of Michael
Jackson in one song. “Dab” is composed entirely of samples from Jackson’s “Bad,” as
the liner notes stated. First the CD pressing plant was questioned, and then the CRIA
began asking him to cease distribution of plunderphonics claiming it violated Canadian
copyright law. Oswald had calculated that the Jackson camp wouldn’t be interested in
“This disc [plunderphonics CD] may be reproduced but neither it, nor any reproduction
of it are to be bought or sold. Copies are available only to public access and broadcast
organizations, including libraries, radio or periodicals” (g).
An Oswaldian Glossary:
“Musical language has an extensive repertoire of punctuation devices but nothing
equivalent to literature’s quotation marks” (e).
“Plunderphonics is a term I’ve coined to cover counter-covert world of converted sound
and retrofitted music, where collective melodic memories of the familiar are minced and
rehabilitated to a new life” (f).
“A plunderphone is a recognizable sound quote . . . the derivation must maintain a
substantial degree of its original character” (a). 5
“A major ingredient in perceiving any plunderphonic piece is the recognizability of the
source in the transformation” (a).
Anticipating Hip Hop:
“Did you know that I played turntable in a band back in 1964?” (a). “. . . the only thing I
did that actually sounded musical was dropping a needle on a record” (h).
“Thomas Edison’s professed aim was to make his phonograph ‘the greatest musical
instrument in the world’ . . . It is doubtful that Edison envisioned the scratch techniques
of the descendants of Grandmaster Flash . . .” (f).
“Also, when I was in high school, I somehow talked my way into getting jobs as a
student radio station DJ” (h). “The main attraction for me was access to two turntables
and reel-to-reel tape playback, which all could be listened to simultaneously. We went
through most of our record collection on-air, looking for propitious juxtapositions” (a).
“Bach organ fugues and heavy metal bands for instance.” (i)
“Grandmaster Flash doesn’t need a servo-synch motor. His fingers can find the tempo
bothering with someone “giving away a handful of free CDs” (d). After consulting
lawyers, he gave CRIA the remaining copies and master tapes for destruction.
Oswald then took his story to the press, advertising CRIA’s phone number in
hope that they would receive a backlash from their what he believed to be censorship.
Not suprisingly, a number of magazines from around the world picked up his story, and
many wanted a copy of plunderphonics.
Chris Cutler discusses what he terms the total importation of Oswald’s sampling
technique, “Existing recordings are not randomly or instrumentally incorporated so much
as they become the simultaneous subject and object of the creative work”
(“Plunderphonics” Sounding Off! 81).
that’s right in the groove. On record he plays records combining otherwise unrelated
tracks” (b).
“I was also playing singers at the wrong speed, but I had not yet found a Dolly Parton”
Track 2 on 69/966: “Power:”7 “A combination of a radio preacher and those famous
Satanists, Led Zeppelin . . . . [and] the repeating motif of the word ‘power’ . . . [which] is
now the whole basis for hip hop sampling and looping” (a). 8
Track 6 on 69/96 “Vane:” 9 “The two arrangements were more or less in tune and in the
same key, but they were very different tempi, and the wonky rhythms that result from
going back and forth between the two versions is, I think, the endearing characteristic of
this particular plunderphonic. . . . There’s also a very course kind of gender switching in
the line ‘you had me seven years ago . . .’ which is alternating words sung by Carly and
the Faster Pussycat singer. . . . The components are still individually intact and
recognizable, but there’s an androgenic affect” (a).
Tracks 9, 12 on 69/96 “Angle” and Ebb:” “. . . loops of a rhythmic group of sounds can
repeat exactly, or change a little, or change a lot. It has been suggested that these tracks
are early precursors to the looping rhythm styles, jungle, et al” (a).
Tracks 24 and 25 on 69/96 “Black” and “Brown:” “’Black’ and ‘Brown’ are one
continuous James Brown fest” (a). “’Brown’ is an unfocused mediation between the guy
who’s been sampled the most and those active in parasitic creativity” (a).
“I haven't listened to enough of that stuff [hip hop] to have much of an idea of what may
or may not have percolated (or developed independently). Every once in a while I hear
something in passing on the radio like that track which Madonna sings on called Don't
(not to be confused with my track Dont on which Elvis Presley sings) which has a
crudely chopped and reiterated acoustic guitar which reminded me of the reiterative
acoustic guitar on my track Vane ('90, featuring Carly Simon vs. Faster Pussycat) which
reminds me of time-shuffle programming (as opposed to the lock-synch of traditional
tape-metaphor multitracking and dub mixes) found all over the place in the past ten years,
from Megadeth to Beck” (i).
“. . . a common dance floor DJ technique -- gradually speed the beat until everybody
sweats. In Plexure this effect is extended to its extremities. Within the pervasive shape of
The 69/96 box set was released in 1999 and is available at
“Power” recorded in 1975 predates all hip hop recordings yet anticipates DJ sound
collages: repetition mixed with narrative.
Oswald has referred to “Power” as “somewhat” (a) the first hip hop song.
“Vane” might be my favorite track, a back and forth interweaving of Carly Simon’s
“You so Vain” and Faster Pussycat’s version.
the piece, which is a collage of about a thousand pop tunes, roughly organized in an
accelerating trajectory, each quickly morphing into the next” (a). 10
Oswald finds a Dolly Parton:
Track 21 on 69/96 “Pretender:” “’Pretender’ (based on the ‘The Great Pretender’ written
by Buck Ram) takes a leisurely tour of the intermediate areas of Ms. Parton’s
masculinity” (c). “Dolly Parton transposed down a fourth (i.e. from 45rpm to 33 1/3rpm)
becomes a handsome tenor, slightly more elegiac. Does this aural sex change trivialize
Ms. Parton’s work or rather, does it provide some of us with an opportunity for
appreciation and a new reason to buy her records?” (f). 11
“The last chorus features Dolly singing a duet with himself. This is the 45 rpm and 33 1/3
rpm vocals in perfect sync. Normally the slower version would take about 25% longer to
sound. I cut the tail of each phoneme so that the onset of the next phoneme would line up
with the faster version. This works surprisingly well” (a).
Oswald’s Technoculture:
“Any performance potential found in an appliance is often exploited” (e).12
“any playback media
speed control
overlapping and folding
time travel” (i).
“The Lenco with the speed control which infinitely variable between 12 and 80 rpm’s is
the greatest of turntables. I can’t help but race through the possibilities of any particular
disc, accelerating and gliding through various twists and turns, hurrying past redundancy
and slowing into a particularly tricky passage” (b).
“The very fast part at the beginning was created on a vacuum-controlled bin loop” (a).
Plexure was released in 1993 on Avant. The liner notes include an approximate
transcription of the sampled words. The resulting lyrics convey a recognizable pop-music
sensibility which purposefully deifies the dislocated and seemingly arbitrary combination
of found sounds.
“Pretender” was partially played on a Lenco Bogen turntable with a variable speed
control range between 12 and 80 rpms.
Oswald’s studio manipulations include: tape splicing reel to reel tape, transformation
and accumulation, time-stretching, time-compression, speech fragmentation,
technologically induced androgyny, decelerando, and alpharate switching in a stereo
Sounds Familiar
“The major ingredient in perceiving any plunderphonic piece is the recognizability of the
source in the transformation. For Plexure we were experimenting with the threshold of
that recognition” (a). “The intention in the structure was to keep everything on the
threshold of recognisability, partly because of the vast number of sources on the record,
several thousand different songs being electro-quoted” (h).
““The public domain is like a vast national park without a guard to stop wanton looting,
without a guide for a lost traveler, and in fact, without clearly defined roads or even
borders to stop the helpless visitor from being sued for trespass by private abutting
owners” (e).13
Oswald’s Coda: “i just keep doing things”:
“If, as ‘information wants to be free,’ then -- art conspires to be free” (i).
“. . . I can’t imagine discouraging any listeners from fooling around with my
arrangements if it helps their listening experience” (a).14
“If creativity is a field, copyright is the fence” (f).
“Fair use's ancestral neighbor 'the public domain' is featured in the current U.S. Supreme
Court battle Eldred v. Ashcroft, which is the first major challenge to the expansion of
copyright. i tend not to foresee anything, I just keep doing things” (i).15
“I'm here
Oswald lifts this quote from This Music of Business.
Oswald: “Only one i can think to remember mentioning is The Wild Why (2002, on the
Kid606 label), Wobbly's indirect homage to the tape album Kissing Jesus in the Dark
(from the early-mid-80's).”
The Supreme Court is hearing the case Eldred v. Ashcroft in the 2002 session which
challenges the 1998 law that extended most copyright terms from 50 to 70 years after the
death of the author or artist and 95 for years for copyrights held by corporations. Giant
media corporations lobbied for the extension to protect their interests -- for Disney,
Mickey Mouse was set to enter the public domain in 2003. Congress has extended
copyright terms repeatedly in the last 40 years. Eric Eldred, who initially filed the suit,
publishes an online archive of classic literature. No matter what the court rules, the
debate over the scope of public domain will have unprecedented visibility and
ramifications, especially for technology and the Internet. According to Lawrence Lessig,
a Stanford Law School professor who represents the plaintiffs in Eldred v. Ashcroft,
"Before the Internet, a creator's ability to put new works out there all depended on
commercial publications, because only they could afford the cost. But at this stage, it
becomes important to establish the principle that the public domain is here and meant to
be perpetually fed by works passing into it after a limited copyright protection" (qtd. in
Amy Harmon’s article “Case Could Shift Balance in Debate on Public Domain”
published in the New York Times February 20, 2002).