Sunday, May 3, 2009


When I hear the word plunderphonics, I think of John Oswald wearing a horned Viking helmet, pillaging and plundering small villages. To many people, this is what he is doing musically. Oswald takes existing songs, many times from popular music, and rearranges snippets of them into his own works. The result is a jumble of sounds, though as opposed to much early tape music where the sound sources are rarely discernable, Oswald’s sources are very often obvious and unified in the theme of the work. This compositional technique is interesting in that it allows the composer to make statements about the original song or artist, from which he has gotten into some trouble, but it also makes a very strong statement about what music is today and its relationship to changing technology.

In her entry, Kristina makes some very interesting observations about Oswald’s plunderphonics, including possible hidden meanings behind them. In one example, she cites Oswald’s work “Pretender,” the song originally recorded by The Platters and subsequently recorded by countless others, including Dolly Parton. In listening, to the work, I certainly felt the same strangeness Kristina describes. To hear the voice of a woman with “an extremely exaggerated hourglass figure” transform into that of a man felt just plain wrong. It is hard to say what Oswald meant by this work, and although it may be a little far-fetched, I couldn’t help but become a little bit of a hopeful conspiracy theorist when Kristina tells us that maybe Dolly Parton “is actually a he who has conned the world into believing he is a buxom woman with a chipmunked version of his original voice”. Hey it worked for the guys who did The Chipmunks, why not for Dolly (or maybe Donny?) Parton. I think it was possibly just this sense of uneasiness with the industry that Oswald may have been trying to instill.

While composition is the arrangement of sounds, it was Oswald’s choice of sounds to arrange that got him into hot water with the record industry. Oswald’s place in time is the root of his style and in the problems he faced. He began creating his style in the 1960s, aided by the new mass-marketing of popular music. The 1970s however, birthed opposition to his style with laws put in place to more strongly protect copyrights of recorded music. Kristina mentions that one of the most infamous cases of opposition to plunderphonics was the threat of lawsuit from a record company over Oswald’s use of the Michael Jackson song “Bad” (which Oswald titled “Dab”). While the argument that someone profiting from the reworking of another’s song may hold some water, I found it very interesting, through further investigation, to find that Oswald had released the recording on a cassette tape that was distributed for free. Oswald did comply with the record company and destroyed the remaining copies, but I don’t see how any harm could be done if he was not making any money. It is unfortunate that financial and legal issues can choke musical creativity in this way.

Kristina makes the argument in her conclusion that Plunderphonics should not be included in the canon, mainly due to the difficulty involved in recreating the music. She says, “There is little that translates to live performance, leaving a performer to essentially push the play button on the CD.” I disagree, as I do not feel that the ease with which a piece can be performed in a traditionalistic manner should contribute to the piece’s quality or importance in the development of music. In his presentation to the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in 1985, Oswald stated that “Musical instruments produce sounds. Composers produce music. Musical instruments reproduce music. Tape recorders, radios, disc players, etc., reproduce sound. A device such as a wind-up music box produces sound and reproduces music. A phonograph in the hands of a hip hop/scratch artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced - the record player becomes a musical instrument. A sampler, in essence a recording, transforming instrument, is simultaneously a documenting device and a creative device, in effect reducing a distinction manifested by copyright,” and goes on to say that “The distinction between sound producers and sound reproducers is easily blurred, and has been a conceivable area of musical pursuit at least since John Cage's use of radios in the Forties.” I agree with Oswald in these regards. There is simply too much gray area to decide whether a CD player is any less of an instrument than a piano, and whether John Oswald is any less of a musician than Michael Jackson- certainly too much gray area for copyright law to get involved. I don’t believe Plunderphonics should be included in the canon as I do not believe it directly influenced later styles, as I see hip-hop and other sample-based music forms to be influenced by earlier electronic and tape music composers. However, it is certainly a style worth studying for enjoyment and for its statement against established music industry norms.

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