Plunderphonics

From Academic Kids

Plunderphonics is a term originally coined by John Oswald in 1985 for an essay entitled Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative. It has since been applied to any music made by taking one or more existing audio recordings and altering them in some way to make a new composition. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that the sounds making up the composition have been "borrowed" in this way, and sometimes the sounds may be taken from very familiar sources. Plunderphonics can be considered a form of sound collage.

Although the concept of plunderphonics is seemingly broad, in practice there are many common themes used in what is normally called plunderphonic music. This includes heavy sampling of educational videos of the 1950's, news reports, radio shows, or anything with trained vocal announcers. It should be noted that Oswald's contributions to this genre rarely used these materials, the exception being his rap-like 1975 track Power.

The process of Sampling other sources is found in various genres (notably hip-hop), but in plunderphonic works the sampled material is often the only sound used. These samples are usually uncleared, and sometimes result in legal action being taken due to copyright infringement (some plunderphonic artists use their work to protest about what they consider to be overly-restrictive copyright laws). Many plunderphonic artists claim their use of other artists' materials falls under the fair use doctrine.

The name was first used for a recording as the title of an EP release by John Oswald. Oswald's original use of the word was to indicate a piece which was created from samples of a single artist and no other material. Influenced by William S. Burroughs' cut-up technique, he began making plunderphonic recordings in the 1970s. In 1988 he distributed copies of the Plunderphonics EP to the press and to radio stations. It contained four recordings: "Don't" was an edited version of an Elvis Presley record; "Pocket" was based on a Count Basie track; "Pretender" featured Dolly Parton singing "The Great Pretender" but progressively slowed down so that she sounds like a man; and "Spring" was an edited version of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, shuffled around and with different parts played on top of one another.

In 1989, a greatly expanded version of Plunderphonics with twenty-five tracks was released — as on the EP, each track took material by just one artist, and included reworked material by both popular musicians like The Beatles, and classical works, such as Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Like the EP, it was never put on sale. A central idea behind the record was that the fact that all the sounds were "stolen" should be quite blatant. The packaging contained sources for all samples used, but authorisation for them to be used on the record was neither sought nor given. All undistributed copies of Plunderphonics were destroyed after a threat of legal action from the Canadian Recording Industry Association on behalf of several of their clients (notably Michael Jackson, whose "Bad" had been chopped into tiny pieces and rearranged as "Dab") who alleged copyright abuses.


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All the tracks from the plunderphonic CD are available for free download from links found at the plunderphonics.com website.

Later works by Oswald, such as Plexure, which lasts just twenty minutes but is claimed to contain around one thousand very short samples of pop music stitched together, are not strictly speaking "plunderphonic" according to Oswald's original conception (he himself used the term megaplundermorphonemiclonic for Plexure), but the term "plunderphonic" is used today in a looser sense to indicate any music completely — or almost completely — made up of samples. 69 plunderphonics 96 is a compilation of Oswald's work, including tracks from the original plunderphonic CD.

Another important early purveyor of what can be described as plunderphonics were Negativland. While Oswald used easily recognisable and familiar sources, Negativland's sources were sometimes more obscure. 1983's A Big 10–8 Place, for instance, is made up of recordings of people talking on the radio. Their next album, Escape From Noise, like most of their later records, also makes extensive use of spoken-word samples, often to make particular political points. Their most famous release, "The Letter U and the Numeral 2" featured an extended rant from radio DJ Casey Kasem and extensively sampled U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", which resulted in a lawsuit being brought by U2.

Oswald and Negativland both made their collages by cutting up magnetic tape (or later using digital technology), but a number of DJs have also produced plunderphonic work using turntables (and in fact, "digging" for samples plays a large part in DJ culture). Christian Marclay is a turntablist who has been using other people's records as the sole source of his music making since the late 1970s. He often treats the records in unusual ways — for example, he has physically cut up a number of records and stuck them together, making both a visual and aural collage. Sometimes a number of spoken-word or lounge music records bought from thrift stores are mashed together to make a track, but his More Encores album cuts up tracks by the likes of Maria Callas and Louis Armstrong in a way similar to Oswald's work on Plunderphonics. Marclay's experimental approach has been taken up by the likes of Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck and Martin Tétreault (although sometimes the records used are heavily disguised and unrecognisable, meaning the results cannot properly be called plunderphonics). Other DJs have worked in a more mainstream style: DJ Food (Kaleidoscope, for example) and DJ Shadow (Entroducing, for example) have both made albums consisting entirely of material plundered from other records.

The Bran Flakes and People Like Us have both used thrift-store (or charity shop) records to create their music. Vicki Bennett of People Like Us has extended the plunderphonic ideal to video, creating films to accompany her music by plundering the resources of the Prelinger Archives, the online part of the collection of film archivist Rick Prelinger [1] (http://www.archive.org/movies/prelinger.php).

Another approach is to take two very different records and play them simultaneously. An early example of this is the Evolution Control Committee's Whipped Cream Mixes (1994), which laid the vocals from Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause" over Herb Alpert's "Bittersweet Samba." This gave rise to the so-called "bastard pop" or "mash-up" phenomenon where an a cappella version of one song is mixed on top of a purely instrumental version of another. Soulwax and Richard X have both produced records along these lines.

There are also a number of web-based plunderphonics projects. The Droplift Project created a compilation CD of plunderphonic works which was then "droplifted" into record stores (this involved slipping copies of the record onto the shelves without knowledge of the store — a sort of reverse stealing). Dictionaraoke took audio clips from online dictionaries and stitched them together so they recited the words of various popular songs while instrumental versions of the music (often in MIDI renderings) played along.

Although the term plunderphonics tends to be applied only to music made since the 1980s and Oswald's coinage of it, there are several examples of earlier music made along similar lines. Notably, Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan's 1956 single "The Flying Saucer", features Goodman as a radio reporter covering an alien invasion interspersed with samples from a number of contemporary records. The Residents' "Beyond The Valley Of A Day In The Life" is made up of excerpts from Beatles records. A number of club DJs through the 1970s re-edited the records they played, and although this often consisted of nothing more than extending the record by adding a chorus or two, this too could be considered a form of plunderphonics.

Some classical composers have exercised a kind of plunderphonia on written, rather than recorded, music. Perhaps the best known example is the third movement of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, which is entirely made up from quotes of other composers and writers. Alfred Schnittke and Mauricio Kagel have also made extensive use of earlier composers' works. Earlier composers who often plundered the music of others include Charles Ives (who often quoted folk songs and hymns in his works) and Ferruccio Busoni (a movement from his 1909 piano suite An die Jugend includes a prelude and a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach played simultaneously). During the '90's Oswald composed many such scores for classical musicians which he classified with the term Rascali Klepitoire.

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