Courtesy John Oswald
For honourable service in the field(s) of: music sampling, copyright infringement and celebrity comeuppance
“Mash-ups” – the illicit practice of taking two or more previously recorded songs and, well, mashing them together – became an online fixation around 2001. John Oswald, however, predated the vogue by more than a decade. Although the Toronto-born saxophonist and composer had some success in avant jazz during the ’70s and ’80s, it was the Plunderphonic EP (1989) that made him (in)famous. A breathtaking criminal act that dared to combine the music of such disparate artists as Dolly Parton, Metallica, Captain Beefheart, Franz Liszt and Public Enemy, Plunderphonic was an affront to copyright; it was also a crucial contribution to modern music. Oswald pressed 1,000 copies, distributing many to radio stations, libraries and other musicians. Unlike the current raft of mash-up artists, who live for nothing more than the heady thrill of juxtaposition, Oswald’s experimentation had an artistic aim. His argument was that all music filches from other sources, citing Michael Jackson’s 1992 hit Will You Be There, which contains an uncredited sample of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 1961 recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Oswald’s chicanery wasn’t limited to sound: witness the Plunderphonic cover art, which splices a nude white woman’s body onto Jackson’s leather-jacketed pose from Bad. That sort of creative Machiavellianism tends to get noticed, especially by humourless record companies and their attorneys. After tangling with Jackson’s handlers, Oswald agreed to relinquish the remaining copies of Plunderphonic. Instead of consigning him to obscurity, the episode won him a legion of admirers. Record label Elektra invited Oswald to pillage its estimable catalogue (which includes artists like The Doors and The Cure), for their 40th-anniversary release, Rubaiyat. (Regrettably, many Elektra artists hated the results and the label never released Oswald’s portion). The Grateful Dead also came calling; the result was Gray Folded (1996), in which Oswald reconfigured The Dead’s Dark Star, a long-time live favourite. Though no less challenging than his plunderphonic provocations, recent albums like Bloor (2001) and Aparanthesi (2003) have drawn on more organic textures (pianos, violins). Oswald’s work is still devoted to discord; it’s just that his sound sources are less familiar.Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBC.ca.
Good selection. I remember hearing the "Black and Brown" track from Plunderphonic one night on Brave New Waves and thinking Oswald was either insane or genius and probably both. I'd always hoped to find a copy of Plunderphonic but I guess it wont happen now I know the story. "Black and Brown" did what every rap and hip-hop artist of the day was doing: Sampling James Brown. Oswald just dared to do it all at once.
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