Thursday, May 1, 2008

John Oswald - Plunderphonics

Entry 1

From the first note of John Oswald's Plunderphonics 69/96, I knew this music could speak to me. It begins with the one of the most recognizable chords in all of popular music—the final E major triad of the Beatles' “A Day In the Life.” Using a MIDI keyboard, Oswald transposes, stacks, and distorts this iconic moment of rock history and transform it into a new work of art. This is the fundamental statement of Plunderphonics.

John Oswald began his “plunderphonics” experiments in the late 1960s. By this time electronic music had been around for almost twenty years, and composers got sounds from two sources: simple synthesized sounds and sounds the composer recorded themselves. Oswald found a new source of material, though—his own record collection. He began taking the copyrighted recordings of other artists, cutting it into small pieces, and reordering or otherwise transforming these sounds. This form of cutting (or “chopping”) other's music into fragments became known as sampling. Years later, this technique would form the basis of hip-hop music, but Oswald's music has more in common with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt than Run DMC and Snoop Dogg. The recordings on the two-disc collection include most of his plunderphonic works produced between 1969 and 1996.

Oswald's blatant disregard for copyright laws eventually got him into trouble. In an attempt to avoid prosecution, he never sold any of this music. It was always given away or passed from friend to friend through copies. Nonetheless, he was threatened with legal action from Michael Jackson after his 1989 Plunderphonics album (not to be confused with the larger Plunderphonics 69/96 set that I listened to) was released. As a result, Oswald destroyed all the copies he had of the album. This music brings up some difficult questions about the protection of intellectual property, but that is beyond the scope of this journal. The genius of this music speaks for itself.

The samples used on these CDs come from a diverse collection of sources, from The Beatles to Dolly Parton to an Evangelist preacher to Count Basie to Igor Stravinsky to Claude Debussy. Despite this material being used illegally, Oswald makes no attempt to hide its source. In fact, he draws on the listeners' knowledge of the source material to set up expectations and create surprises. While listening to the CDs I found that my level enjoyment of each track (there are sixty-two in all) depended heavily upon my knowledge of the original work. Tracks that utilized music I was already familiar with were usually much more enjoyable than those taken from music I had not heard. There is great deal of humor in this music. Oswald often sets up an exception for where the music normally goes but then thwarts that expectation by going in a sudden new direction. Thankfully, I am familiar with a great deal of musical styles and genres, both popular and relatively obscure.

The track “O'Hell” shows Oswald the listener's prior knowledge of the material to keep interest. This track samples thirteen different songs by The Doors. There is no layering of sounds, Oswald just juxtaposes short clips straight from the band's original recordings. At times, he jumps between samples from several different songs in less than a second, creating a confusing swirl. The pulse remains fairly constant, but the frequent jumps make the beat jump in a jarring motion. I have heard all of those songs in their entirety hundreds of times. At other times, he cleverly switches the order of samples from the same song to create surprising new lines, like when he uses words from the song “Hello, I Love You” to create the new line “You love me.” Because I have heard all of the songs in their entirety hundreds of times, I am often anticipating what will happen next and being surprised when he switches to a different sample that I am also familiar with, and the cycle of anticipation and surprise starts over again.
Another piece in which Oswald plays with the listener's expectations is “Pocket.” This track uses samples from a Count Basie big band recording. Basie was known for his swinging blues numbers that built slowly by adding instrumental layers over a number of choruses. The Plunderphonics recording maintains Basie's sly swinging style but constantly keeps the listener guessing as to what will happen next. Like in “O'Hell,” it surprises us with quick jump cuts from one beat to the next, but at other times gives the impression of a broken record—sticking on and looping a short melodic fragment in almost minimalistic fashion. As the fragment repeats over and over, one wonders when it will end and what could possibly follow when it does. Basie's blues charts are iconic, but Oswald has broken the work down in wonderfully chaotic, yet coherent ways. By using real samples, he kept the coolness and swing of the original, but broke it free of regular four bar phrases and twelve bar choruses.

Not all of Plunderphonics' samples come from popular genres. Many of the tracks feature samples from classical recordings. On the track “Z24,” Oswald uses the famous segment of Richard Strauss' epic Also Sprach Zarathustra. This piece has been recorded by hundreds of orchestras, and here he takes a large number of them and plays them simultaneously without adjusting the pitch or tempo. This effect is almost unnoticeable at first, but it becomes strikingly obvious when the timpani enter. The slight differences in the timpanists' tempi and rhythms create a cacophonous cloud of drums. As the second phrase starts, the different tempi cause a type of stretching effect as the next line begins while the previous chords hang over ominously. Once again, Oswald takes a piece of music already known and loved by millions of people and recontextualizes it. He does not alter the original piece, but by layering numerous orchestras he allows the listener to hear the piece in a slightly different way. Normally, I find it hard to separate the sounds of this piece from the visual images of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but when I listen to the Plunderphonics version, I am forced to think about large groups of human beings in tuxedos.

It is not easy to say if these works deserve to be a part of the Classical Canon, and this, in fact, brings up more questions. Until the twentieth century music had to be played by an individual, but recording technology has allowed for a piece to be heard that could not possibly be performed by humans with acoustic instruments. All of the works in the Canon were excepted to be performed by an orchestra or chamber group, so how do electronic works, like these Plunderphonics works fit into this set? Is it based on how often they are programmed on new music concerts? On record sales? Due to the trickiness of copyright law, these measures are inapplicable to Plunderphonics. Does this music really fit in the Canon anyway? The abstract, thought-provoking, and sometimes random-sounding ways in which sounds are arranged share a lot with electronic music and the field of avant-garde experimentalism. And many of the works, like “Z24” are sampled from popular classical pieces, but tracks based on rock and pop recordings, like “O'Hell,” would probably not appeal to listeners not already accustomed to the originals because they would not feel the sense of anticipation and surprise. 

Perhaps Plunderphonics should be viewed as popular music. History has shown that the idea of sampling has not caught at all in the classical world, but has created a whole new genre in the form of hip-hop. (Is John Oswald the father of rap?) His idea of cutting two songs together into one had a direct offspring in the 1990s in the form of the internet driven genre of the “mash-up.” In my opinion, the works on Plunderphonics 69/96 fit better into an Avant-garde or Popular Music Canon, than the traditional Classical Canon. Still, I would label this music as “essential listening” for any lover music in all its diverse forms.

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