John Oswald’s Plunderphonics are the sound of our age. His “compositions” give the impressions of scanning through a radio to find the best song or a cd skipping while getting bumped around or walking into best buy when there are multiple radios or tvs on at once. Of course the music is much more than these associations. By taking recordings of the twentieth-century as raw musical material Oswald creates his own unique compositions that have a feeling that is distinct from the sources. The most remarkable thing about Plunderphonics is when the listener already knows the source material the new reproduction is a bizzare jolt and as as Monalescu put it “subverts expectation.”
The first moment my mind was tricked and my expectations destroyed was in the song “Power” which turns out to be one of Oswalds first attempts at plunderphonics from 1975. The sources are a Led Zeppelin tune and a monologue of an evangelist preacher. I am familiar with both Zeppelin and the usual rants of preachers. For one this combination is quite an ironic contradiction. The “devil’s music” and “god’s word” together at last. Contrary to the goals of many musicians, Oswald claimed that he was “trying to create an uncomfortable situation which would lack a tailor-made audience. “ The other tubulent facet of “Power” that all the riffs and drum grooves are rearranged. While the timbre is unquestionably Led Zeppelin, the tune is no longer the one they wrote. Nor is the sermon that accompanies the song the one the preacher originally gave. What I gather from this plunderphonic is that it matters little whose side your on, but rather how much “power” you feel.
In a similarly powerful vein is the plunderphonic “2net” which is used to be Metallica and Queen. Again Oswald has used the original tracks as tones to build a new composition with. While it may seem as though this genre is unique to recorded and produced music, this track leads my mind to wonder why a band could not try to reproduce this live. It would not sound exactly like this, but why not make it ones own in a live analog format?
Perhaps one of the biggest controversies of plunderphonics is that it questions what original music is and where we draw copyright lines. While “Vane” is clearly a Carly Simon tune that has been altered, at no point to we hear the whole refrain or any coherent part of the song in length. Small fragments are used here and there. Oswald likes to create the sound of a skipping cd with this track. It has a nice effect that gives a sense of timelessness. So, if the new song does not have a discerenable melody that the old one contained is it subject to copyright infringement? I would argue that is does not. If one person writes a book and get a copyright for it. That means that another person cannot write a book with the same plot and the same words(In the same order). What Oswald is doing is creating new plots and usings words that are rearranged from the sources. Okay, there may be some gray area.
Another of my favorite songs of this collection of Plunderphonics is the “Brazillianaires Theme.” The source is a Joao Gilberto tune. Cleverly, Oswald has taken short snippets and created new melodies and chord progressions that sounds nothing like the original. This is followed by another Brazilian tune that has crazy drums tracks added. It sounds like Elvin Jones sitting in with Astrud Gilberto at a late night jam session in the fourth dimension. This type of flow between tracks is something that Oswald takes very seriously. He is constantly changing the songs that he has already constructed so that they lead better in sequence.
It seems as though Oswald uses a different method of composition and reproduction with evey track. This variety in remixing is incredibly stimulating. There is no doubt that this is art and a form that should be studied and explored. Like Monalescu pointed out, this type of reconstruction has it’s roots in western art music. It something that composers have been already been doing for hundreds of years. The difference is that now we have music that is recorded exactly as the composer desired it. Oswalds Plunderphonics question what composition is and what is subject to copyright law. His work also opens up new methods of creation and variation that I hope artists continue to plunder.
Cutler, Chris. “Plunderphonics.” Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music: A Continuing
Symposium. New York, NY: Schirmer Books 1996.
Holm-Hudson, Kevin. “Quotation and Context: Sampling and John Oswald’s Plunderphonics.”
Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 7, (1997), pp. 17-25.
Oswald, John. Plunderphonics. CD; Interview by Norman Igma.