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John Oswald

The appropriation of other people's music is nothing new, of course. It's surely been a part of music-making for as long as music has existed. What is a comparatively recent phenomenon is its sheer ubiquity; and the rise in opposition to it.

This issue's Hit The Floor column dissects Jungle, a music that simply couldn't exist without the ability to steal freely from other people's records. Throughout the eighties pop music has suffered what some would call a post-modern crisis. The technology involved has destroyed the illusion of authenticity that punk fought a rear-guard battle for. At the same time, when it's easier to sample and loop a drumbeat than to pay a drummer, the professional musicians whose involvement held back music from total metamorphosis into commodity seem increasingly redundant. Pop music is increasingly short of obvious ways to progress; more and more pop consists of minor modifications of musical veins that the 70s and 80s have already exhausted. The areas that pop observers see breaking away (techno, jungle, ambient) seem to owe their entire existence to hybrids of previous styles, or the results of sampling technology; an entire new style evolves simply by sampling the old rhythms and speeding them up.

Alongside the inexorable growth in sampling, the 80s saw a growth in copyright litigation. When the only way to appropriate music was to rewrite the melody or rhythm, copyright remained precarious. Theft was difficult to prove. Even while "sampling" remained limited to the use of tape, the lawyers seemed to remain uninterested, but when the digitisation of sound became convenient, things changed. A flurry of lawsuits soon established the principle that if you wanted to sample, you had to be prepared to pay. So far as pop was concerned, the only way to escape the net was to sample people who you knew wouldn't or couldn't sue; to disguise the theft, making the sample seem like something else, which for many people defeated the whole point; or just to keep a low profile, trusting in your low sales to ensure that nobody's lawyers came round to stamp on you.

Outside pop, the "low profile"; was a given. Nobody was really likely to be too upset if French musique concrète composer Luc Ferrari took the music of Stravinsky and Beethoven and blended them together on tape; there is after all a tradition in the classical world of writing variations on other people's work. But, inevitably, a low profile is a fragile thing; there's always the risk of slipping and achieving a higher profile than expected.

In person, Oswald comes across as slightly reserved. He's unfailingly polite and articulate, but he considers carefully what he says. At one point I make the mistake of labelling what he does as "sampling", a cue for him to explain precisely why he avoids the word himself, concerned that it confuses the debate on musical appropriation simply because it suggests very different things to different people.

Although he's best known for his plunderphonics material (the albums plunderphonic, Discosphere, Plexure and Gray Folded), Oswald's musical interests go much wider. When I interviewed him in late 1994, his ongoing projects included writing scores for a woodwind quartet and an orchestra (both of which quote from existing classical scores, although unlike his plunderphonic material, only the text, not the sound); two ballets; and a commission for Dutch radio, based on Brazilian music, the first part of which has been performed in Brasilia, played from loudspeakers mounted on three roving "sound cars". He has composed a third string quartet, Mach (for Kronos accompanied by thirteen death metal bands). His saxophone improvisation work is also becoming better known. Trying to find out where his diverse interests evolved from, I asked him about his early musical experiences.

"I came from a profoundly unmusical family. There was a violin that my father owned which he never played. He could whistle one or two tunes which I've never heard before or since, but I think he was just doing popular tunes which were way out of pitch. That's about as close as we were to being a musical family. I've been in various music schools both as a student and as a teacher, but it's very contentious as to whether I was there legally or not. Half the teachers always wanted to throw me out, the other half wanted me to stay. I never stayed very long so it never got to the point where I was actually thrown out."


It was while still a student that Oswald first became involved in both improvised and some sort of "plunderphonic" music.

"I was in a couple of bands during the sixties and the early seventies. One had a vaguely expressed goal to be the world's greatest rock'n'roll band. As of the first rehearsal, which had about sixteen musicians, it quickly descended into the sort of chaos that could also be described as improvisation. It never seemed to veer from that attitude at subsequent rehearsals.

"I managed to find a saxophone lying around that belonged to the school. I eventually stole it when they decided to sell all those instruments as scrap and refused to sell it to me intact. I had this stolen student saxophone, which I would play with the group but would never play otherwise. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I was suddenly confronted with how I sounded on the saxophone, because in the middle of this group's mayhem I couldn't tell what I was doing and what other people were doing. It was an odd way to practice. I did sit down in a room by myself with the saxophone, and thought it was strange but seemed worth pursuing. I was more pleased with the noises I was making on the saxophone than with the noises I was making on guitars or other instruments. It's a bit perverse, because I hate 99 out of 100 examples of saxophone music. There are very few people about who I could say that I enjoy their saxophone playing. I'd probably say that about my own saxophone playing too, but while I'm doing it I'm not listening to it in the same sort of way. So, I play a bit of saxophone, although it's really become a hobby."

Oswald released an improvising album with Henry Kaiser and Toshinori Kondo in the 70s. A solo record planned for the Metalanguage label in 1980 didn't get beyond the test pressing stage, and it wasn't until recently that more recordings have become available. Recent releases include guest spots on an album by jazz orchestra Hemispheres, and on an album by Canadian improv collective, CCMC. Victo Records has released a recording featuring Oswald alongside Henry Kaiser, Jim O'Rourke and Mari Kimura.

"That's an interesting example, because I did have editorial control over that. For an improvised record, it's a strange document, perhaps to the extent of not really being a document at all, which is the same as the case with Moose and Salmon, which was the last ensemble improvised record I made with Henry Kaiser and Toshinori Kondo. It's not a document but an edited juxtaposition of fragments of performances. The Victo one's the same thing. The thing I had most fun doing was not so much editing stuff out, there wasn't a lot of material, this is a group that played for its first and only time in the studio and collected about one-and-a-half hours of material. But, setting up the record in such a way where the takes weren't pieces. The track indication points quite often happen in the middle of a particular take and then continue on into another take, where there's some sort of inconspicuous edit. So it messes up any sense of that being a document of a recording session."

Improvisation has remained a hobby for Oswald, who has concentrated his main work elsewhere. His interest in deconstructing and recontextualising other people's music again dates back to his student days.

"Although I didn't realise it at the time, the thing I was probably best at playing was the record player. In some of my earliest attempts to play social music, playing music with other people, I'd bring along a record player, because the only thing I did that actually sounded musical was dropping a needle on a record. That in no way prepared me for eventually hearing Grandmaster Flash, or anything like that, it was pretty rudimentary stuff. Also, when I was in high school, I somehow talked my way into getting jobs as a student radio station DJ. I had access to two turntables at once, I could play two things at once, which gave me a great deal of satisfaction."

Mystery Tapes

Oswald created his own "studio" or "label", calling it Mystery Labs. It released a series of cassettes, featuring improvisations, musique concrète (of a sort) and music that was eclectic, unclassifiable, and, crucially, unidentifiable. I asked him when he started these Mystery Tapes.

"Who says I started Mystery Tapes?"

I tried again. How did Mystery Tapes start?

"I have no idea. When you start asking questions about Mystery Tapes, I'm bound to be as obfuscating as possible. You can ask questions ..."

I asked him how the Tapes evolved.

"The interesting thing about Mystery Tapes is the opposite of what's interesting about Plunderphonics. We're not quoting recognisable sources so much as presenting stuff without any information about what the performers look like or whether they're dead or alive, or where they're from. You get what I've always thought of as a desert island music listening experience. I think I have to explain that term. You know you always had this thing about the ten discs you'll take to a desert island. I couldn't get a handle on that, but it seemed like everybody was always talking about going to desert islands and listening to music. If I eventually end up on a desert island, what kind of music listening experience do I want to have? OK, I'll take some records, but I don't want to take records that I know, and I don't want to be stuck with ten records for the rest of my life. What I would like is to have some sort of subscription service where somebody would send me records that would have the labels blanked out and be in blank covers. So, I would listen to them and I wouldn't have all this subtext going on all the time, about people saying these guys are great and these guys aren't, or these are guys, and these are women, all that stuff would be gone.

"Mystery Tapes is still active. There are some Mystery Tapes that seem not to have evolved to their ultimate version. It's not as active as it was before, where it was like a developmental computer software, with versions coming out quite regularly. Some of the Mystery Tapes have settled down, they seem to be finished, they're still available. A couple of others still need various revisions, more research involved in doing what they're trying to do."

For some present-day listeners, Oswald seemed to appear from nowhere when he released the Plunderphonic album in 1989, but it was only one manifestation of a long-held interest in taking recordings of other people and treating them as the raw material for new music.

"In the early seventies I was working quite a bit with William Burroughs' voice and texts. Doing audio equivalents of his descriptions of cut-up techniques, although our aesthetics seem to be exactly opposite. When I was working on the Burroughs stuff I didn't think I was making literature, and I didn't think I was making sound poetry. I thought I was doing musical composition, about rhythm. That seems like early plunderphonics to me. He gave me permission to do it, but I asked him after the fact and it was a really scary proposition, because I realised in asking him that if he said no then I would feel obliged not to disseminate it further. I think I was prepared to do that, but it made me feel uncomfortable."

Another example of Oswald's seventies recordings is called Power, which has finally seen the light of day on a CD accompanying the Canadian Musicworks magazine, and which loops Led Zeppelin riffs and rhythms behind a cut-up recordings of a preacher. It's the earliest example of musical (rather than just vocal) plunderphonics by Oswald that the public have yet heard. I suggest to him that Power is a lot less ambiguous than his later music; in fact, although it was originally recorded in 1975, it's musically not a million miles away from what Negativland have done more recently...

"There's quite a bit of editing there. It has also been edited down a bit, I finally abandoned it when it was about six minutes long, and I've chopped out further redundancies and compacted it to about 3-and-a-half minutes. The reason I didn't follow through was that I was uncomfortable with the redundancy. There's something that I dislike about a looping voice, which we hear so often, the James Brown screech etc. I really like voices that go on and on, natural conversation, and various perversions of natural conversation. Both things were going on in Power; the evolving monologue of the preacher and this reiterated word 'power', which seemed to be a necessary element but was one I was very uncomfortable with. It has a pretty simple rhythmic structure, there was quite a bit of editing of the music track, but not the sort of editing that tries to subvert the rhythmic structure of the original, which I sometimes do."


A lot of Oswald's work from the 1980s, soundtracks to dance pieces, is compiled on the excellent ReR album, Discosphere. This provides a very varied cross-section of Oswald's music, which is much more diverse than anyone familiar with only his plunderphonic pieces might guess. There are musique concrète pieces like Skindling Shades and Amina, where natural sounds (fires burning, water trickling, gases escaping etc) are manipulated to highly expressive effect. The latter is reminiscent of musique concrète composer Luc Ferrari, as is Fence, which uses sounds from children's playgrounds amongst other things, and which has a great deal of "dramatic" content. There are pieces that sample vocal fragments and use them to create bizarre rhythms. One of these, Love 1, almost sounds like something from Jean-Michel Jarre's Zoolook. One of the longest, The Case of Death, was inspired by a choreographer's reading of talking books, and applies the cut-up technique with consummate skill to mystery novel narration. Another track, Prey, combines chorussed vocal elements with tentative singing and is unusually accessible by Oswald's standards, not to mention simply beautiful.

There are several plunderphonic pieces too, taking fifties dance music (Angle), TV theme tunes (Field) and modifying them in various ways, sometimes blending gently, sometimes by abrupt cut-ups. Several pieces feature what Oswald calls "swarms", the multiple overdubbing of a single sound source a very large number of times, here using "heat noise", whispers, and bells. The same technique was used on his piece for the Kronos Quartet, Spectre, where a terrifically dense number of strings sound simultaneously.

"The choreographers would ask me to do these pieces, and I'd first of all think, well, does the choreography need music at all? Sometimes, as an attempt to fulfill my commission, I would suggest you don't need any music at all, these dancers look really great in silence. That's usually an extreme choice, because it's exactly the same thing as saying this dance doesn't need any costumes at all, you know, you should really dance this naked.

"Any time I wanted a particular sound for something and realised that the particular sound was something that already existed in somebody else's piece of music, I thought, well, if this is the best example of it, I could do something else, but what I'm really just doing is paraphrasing or making a facsimile. I shouldn't compromise, I should just stick the best thing in there. I would make a piece for a choreographer, and as an example for rehearsal, take that guitar-chord thing from the beginning of The Beatles' Revolution and do an infinite loop of it. I had the intention of replacing that with another guitar player. I brought Henry Kaiser into the studio, and we'd sit around trying to imitate the timbral quality of that guitar, it was easy to get the rhythmic feel of it. We got a facsimile of it, and it was pretty good and it had its own little interesting characteristics, but in the end I liked the other one better. I might have liked it better, the John Lennon version, because it had precedence, things are in a sense your roots, that you've heard for a long time, they're difficult to supersede. Cover versions of popular songs are very perverse things. So I would keep the John Lennon thing, and then I'd think, well, it seems like the sort of thing you could get in trouble for doing, well John Lennon got killed, and I was in no position to ask him for his permission. And the people I knew were working for him, imagine trying to call them up and trying to get permission for a no-money project? So, I was doing all this stuff but I didn't have any sense of it being easily available to other people."


In the mid-80s Oswald's interest in musical appropriation led to him writing several articles on the subject. One consisted in effect of a series of plunderphonic recipes; ideas for ways to take other people's music and transform it, even simple things like playing records at different speeds. In this respect, Oswald's philosophy is that of the consumer who has had enough of passive consumption. His desire is to take the music that he likes and make it better, remove the parts he doesn't like (in his plunderphonic music Oswald does all he can to eliminate repetition, to reduce the music to its bare essentials), and emphasise the parts he does.

In 1986 he presented a paper to a Canadian group of electro-acoustic composers, titled Plunderphonics: Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative, which has since been reprinted in several other places. This argued that not only was the use of other people's music to produce your own legally acceptable, but that it also had a long tradition in classical and popular music. Oswald went further, and suggested that for anyone who wanted to respond to a media environment that was saturated with lowest-common-denominator music, the only way forward was to impose your own preferences directly onto the very substance of that environment. Thus was plunderphonics born: music that "sampled" other people's sounds not just as an occasional tip of the hat (as was common in hip-hop), but as it's entire basis, and which relied upon familiarity with the music borrowed in order to subvert that familiarity.

"There was some interest in these articles, and I had these various audio examples that seemed to illustrate the points I was making very nicely. People were quite curious about them so I went to the trouble of making a vinyl EP of four pieces, and then the plunderphonic CD, both of which were distributed for free as a way to get these things heard."

Given the nature of both the music he used, and the album's cover, several people have wondered how Oswald could have gone ahead without expecting serious trouble.

"I tried to protect myself from any sort of disagreement with the legal community. I knew that there was the potential to get some sort of flak from, probably, the Michael Jackson camp, based on knowing that they seemed to be very aggressively litigious people. So when it got around to choosing a cover concept, I had various sketches and collages and things. My favourite was the one with Michael Jackson as a naked white woman. Various people said, you'd better not use that one, because you know what Michael does, he sues everybody. Or, you'd better not use that one because of the naked woman. I think 'politically correct' hadn't become a word at that time, but it was that sort of feeling. It continued to be my favourite choice, and also a good visual illustration of a type of plunderphonics. So, I hadn't made compromises anywhere else, I didn't have to, I wasn't working for a record company, I wasn't making a purchasable product, so I expected I didn't have to arrange for the rights to use samples. It seemed like a good idea not to start compromising on the cover."

Oswald smiles as he absurdly understates what happened next.

"The cover did get noticed. It did get me into a brief set of legal discussions, and a quick and tidy legal settlement."

I asked him why he chose to pick on Michael Jackson, and not just any other pop singer.

"The definition I'd set up for plunderphonic was music that was recognisable in some way, and the transformation of that music. I think the most successful examples use music that is the most recognisable. It's more delightful to me to have these pop figures, and by pop I also include Beethoven, as the working materials. There are things that work as plunderphonics for me, I've got a tape based on Edgard Varese's Poeme Electronique, and had the same sort of experience of having changed round something that's very familiar to me, and there are examples on plunderphonic of stuff like that: Anton Webern, and Ligeti, and Cecil Taylor, and Captain Beefheart. But the ones that were most interesting to me were things like Bing Crosby, where you'd play it for somebody who had no great knowledge of all sorts of other things that were happening in the twentieth century outside of the pop mainstream, they'd have some sort of reaction based on that thing that's recognisable within it. The thing that's very nice in a way is that I think there is a bridge between things that are often ghettoised as being extreme twentieth-century avant garde techniques and pop music. The two things can coexist."


Since the issue of Plunderphonic, Oswald has been commissioned on several occasions to do to various back catalogues what he had done to all of pop music. Elektra released a CD of plunderphonic works based around their own label; Blast First's back catalogue was the subject of two other plunderphonic pieces; and the Grateful Dead asked Oswald to put together two CDs of work using their voluminous archives of live recordings. Only John Zorn's Avant label had the courage to commission an entire new album of music that, as on Plunderphonic, treats all of popular music as its playground. The result, Plexure, was released in 1993.

"In Plexure, the source material is all from the compact disc era from 1982 to 1992. The material all starts from the absolutely most popular newly created music of that time, working its way down. So I did research on the various chart-toppers in various countries in the Western pop world. I tried to get as many examples of that stuff as possible. I went into record stores or radio stations to get the materials. 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. It was both impractical to list all the sources in the traditional plunderphonic sort of way, and I think for other reasons that can just be left unsaid, it was impractical to do that."

Plexure is a genuine plagiaristic masterpiece, showing a much more mature, more subtle approach than plunderphonic. If anything, the switch from deconstructing single songs to building an independent musical piece results in something that's less inclined to spend too long on a single idea. The entire album only lasts 19-and-a-half minutes, with the lengthiest tracks only just breaking the two-minute barrier, but there's more "action" here than on some people's double CDs. The best sections sound like gleeful improvisations on other people's tiniest throwaway vocal or instrumental moments, but as well as the channel-hopping cut-up which takes up most of the disc there are moments of genuinely overwhelming structured chaos and intensity. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the cut-up material sounds perversely accessible, whether from an MTV or Radio 1 perspective, reflecting the whole pop area's increasingly information-dense nature back at itself. As Plexure amply demonstrates, when there's so much information coming at you, the overall result becomes remarkably meaningless.

"I was really interested in this threshold of recognisability. I think I got the idea from those contests they have on pop radio, where they'll say, 'OK I'm going to play ten songs for you right now, here they are, boom boom boom, if you can recognise all ten songs you will win a trip to somewhere-or-other'. They can be pretty fast, less than a bar of a record, and they get away with having the opening drumbeat of one track, the opening single guitar chord of another thing, so let's say they're each quarter of a second long. Somebody out there can recognise them. Everyone finds there's music that as soon as it sounds, even before there's any sense of the melody, before the guitar has even had time to ring, you know what it is. I found that really interesting, that there could be so much information packed in such a little bit of time. Let's say the thing is turned off at that point. Sometimes you just start hearing the rest of the song.

"Plexure really just focusses on that threshold of recognisability, and when you juxtapose it with a whole pile of other things like that, it starts to get confusing. When something's recognisable but something else has distracted you to almost recognising something else. Ideally, for the average listener, you wouldn't be able to put your finger on anything in Plexure and say 'I know what that is', but you'd have this perhaps disturbing sense the whole time that there's a lot of stuff in there that you've heard before. I was very unsuccessful with one listener in that respect, Jim O'Rourke, who managed to recognise three hundred and forty sources, which is more than I can recognise, and I know what's on there! He says he doesn't even listen to any of that stuff!"

Oswald willingly admits that what happened to Plunderphonic has affected the kind of work of a similar nature that he is able to do. Plexure uses a far greater number of artists, but none are credited, and because of the way the samples are mixed together, and their brevity, it's a lot less easy to identify them. After all, even if you don't have the liner notes to hand, you know who the source is for Dab, the Michael Jackson track on Plunderphonic, because the identity of the source is an important part of the musical context.

"It's a practical consideration of fulfilling the invitation for the commission, which came from John Zorn. It was a commission for a plunderphonic record, and I was happy to continue working in that vein, but for his company, which wanted to sell records, it seemed liked the only practical and compromise-avoiding solution was to pursue this thing I was working on anyway, the recognisability factor."

Not all of Oswald's plunderphonic work relies on digital cut-ups that are fractions of a second long. The basic process adapts to suit the music it's being applied to. His piece, Z, a fifteen second version of Naked City's Torture Garden album, which Oswald describes as the "trailer", takes the frenetic pace of that band's thrash-jazz and follows it to a logical conclusion. Similarly, when commissioned by the Grateful Dead to create a work drawing on their recordings of their live appearances, the approach was completely different. He decided to base the first CD of Gray Folded on the group's most famous song, Dark Star.

"The big thing is duration. The big effect on me, responding to the material I had, and wanting to do something 'better', was in this case to make the material longer, rather than shorter. The information density has still gone up. There are a lot more notes in any hour than in the original, there are far more changing relationships, a lot less repetition of riffs. But nonetheless, it's a longer version of Dark Star than any they've ever performed, and this is the opposite of what I've usually done. I usually find some way of condensing the other person's material to what I think of as being a duration more worthy of the material."

Contact: Mystery Labs, Box 727, Station P, Toronto M5S 2Z1, Canada.

Interview © September 1994 by Brian Duguid