John Oswald (composer)

John Oswald (composer)

Infobox musical artist
Name = John Oswald

Img_capt =
Background =
Born = birth date and age|1953|5|30
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Years_active = 1960s – present
URL = []

John Oswald (born May 30, 1953 in Kitchener, Ontario) is a Canadian composer, saxophonist, media artist, and dancer. His best known project is "Plunderphonics", the practice of making new music out of previously existing recordings (see sound collage and musical montage).


Oswald coined the term "plunderphonics" to describe his craft in a paper called [ "Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative"] which he presented at the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto in 1985. Inspired by William S. Burroughs' cut-up technique, Oswald had been devising plunderphonic-style compositions since the late '60s. In an interview with Norman Igma following the release of the Plunderphonics EP in 1988, he described the concept as follows:

"A plunderphone is a recognizable sonic quote, using the actual sound of something familiar which has already been recorded. Whistling a bar of "Density 21.5" is a traditional musical quote. Taking Madonna singing "Like a Virgin" and rerecording it backwards or slower is plunderphonics, as long as you can reasonably recognize the source. The plundering has to be blatant though. There's a lot of samplepocketing, parroting, plagiarism and tune thievery going on these days which is not what we're doing."

Plunderphonics is related to but distinct from sampling used in genres such as hip-hop in that the sampled material is typically the only sound used and there is no attempt to conceal or obfuscate that the material is being borrowed. Additionally, these samples are usually uncleared with the original artists, which has lead to legal issues over copyright infringement.


His 1975 track "Power" married frenetic Led Zeppelin guitars to the impassioned exhortations of a Southern US evangelist years before hip hop discovered the potency of the same (and related) ingredients. Similarly, his 1990 track "Vane", which pitted two different versions of the song "You're So Vain" (the Carly Simon original and a cover by Faster Pussycat) against each other, was a blueprint for the contemporary pop subgenre, 'glitch pop' or 'mashup (music)'.

In 1980, Oswald founded the Mystery Tapes Laboratory, which created unnamed, unattributed works on cassette, described on the [| plunderphonics website] as "little boxes of sonifericity specifically formulated for the curious listener. Available in your choice of aural flavors: subliminal, blasted, excerpted, repeatpeateatattttttedly, these cinemaphonically-concocted aggregates of trés different but exquisitely manifest, unprecedentedly varied festerings of audio quality fine magnetic cassette tapes are the best of whatever you've been listening for". Oswald continues to be Director of Research at Mystery Tapes.

His greatest source of controversy was the 1988 release of the Plunderphonics EP, which he distributed to the press and to radio stations. It contained four plundered tracks: "Don't" by Elvis Presley, "Pocket" by Count Basie, "Pretender" featured Dolly Parton singing "The Great Pretender" but progressively slowed down so that she sounds like a man by the end, and "Spring", a version of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. In 1989, Oswald released an expanded version of the Plunderphonics album containing twenty-five tracks, each using material from a different artist. In 1990, notice was given to Oswald by the Canadian Recording Industry Association on behalf of several of their clients (notably Michael Jackson, whose song "Bad" had been cut up, layered, and rearranged as "Dab") that all undistributed copies of Plunderphonics be destroyed under threat of legal action. An excerpt from a [ press release] on the [ plunderphonics website] is repeated below:

"I wasn't selling the disc in the stores, so I let listeners tape it off the radio for free," explains Oswald, who paid for the production and manufacture of the CD out of his own pocket. He receives no royalties or financial compensation for airplay. Brian Robertson, president of CRIA says, ``What this demonstrates is the vulnerability of the recording industry to new technology...All we see is just another example of theft."

"Oswald received notice from CRIA's lawyers demanding that he cease distributing Plunderphonic as of Xmas eve '89. "They insisted I quit playing Santa Claus," Oswald observes."

In 1993 Oswald released "Plexure". Arguably his most ambitious composition to date, it attempted to microsample the history of CD music up to that point (1982 - 1992) in a 20 minute collage of bewildering complexity. The ambition of this piece would later be recalled by the British bootlegger Osymyso, whose "Intro-Inspection" captured the pop-junkie feel of "Plexure". Osymyso, who at the time was unaware of Oswald's work, used the same structure of an accelerando (putting his source material in an order from the slowest tempo to the fastest), to link a few bars each of 100 songs, creating a simpler sound than the thousands of overlapping and morphing pop "electroquotations" in "Plexure".

From 1993-1996, Oswald worked on and released "Grayfolded", a 2-Disc set commissioned by the Greatful Dead consisting of pieces created from over 100 performances of the song "Dark Star". Oswald initially created and released disc 1, "Transitive Axis", which contains a 59 minute 59 second work in 9 movements. Feeling that there was more territory to explore, Oswald worked on disc 2, Mirror Ashes, which is a composition in "6*" movements. Once both discs were complete they were packaged together with extensive liner notes and a "visual time map" of the sources used in the compositions. "Grayfolded" was selected the #1 international recording of the decade by the "Toronto Sun".

In addition to his extensive work in "plunderphonics", Oswald is also involved with music, as a composer and improviser. His compositions for orchestra often do include electronic elements, such as "Concerto for Wired Conductor and Orchestra" (?), but has also composed for acoustic ensembles, such as "Acupuncture" (1991). Oswald improvises with the saxophone. Oswald is also actively involved in dance, as a composer for dance works, as a collaborator with choreographers, and as an active Contact Improviser.

Oswald founded the record label "fony", which produced the retrospective box set "69 plunderphonics 96" (a.k.a. Plunderphonics 69/96) and reissued "Grayfolded". The label also rereleased "Plexure" and released "Aparanthesi", a work which uses the single note A in an experiment with timbre, dynamics, and layering, on CD in 2003.

In 2004, Oswald was one of six artists to win the annual Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, as awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts [] .


*"If creativity is a field, copyright is the fence"
*"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". []


*"Burrows" (1974-75)
*"Power" (1975)
*"Improvised" (1978)
*"Moose and Salmon" (Music Gallery, 1979)
*"Alto Sax" (Metalanguage, 1981)
*"Plunderphonics EP" (1988)
*"Plunderphonic CD" (1989)
*"Electrax" (1991)
*"Discophere" (1991)
*"Acoustics" (1993) - with Henry Kaiser, Jim O'Rourke, and Mari Kimura
*"Plexure" (1993)
*"Grayfolded" (1994) - a two cd mix of over 100 versions of the Grateful Dead song "Dark Star"
*"Parcours scénographique" (1997)
*"aCCoMpliCes" with CCMC (Victo, VICTO 063, 1998)
*"69plunderphonics96" (a.k.a. Plunderphonics 69/96) (Box set) (2000)
*"Complicité" (2001) - with Paul Plimley, Marilyn Crispell and Cecil Taylor
*"Bloor" (2001) - with David Prentice and Dominic Duval
*"Dearness" (2002) - with Anne Bourne and Fred Frith
*"Aparanthesi" (empreintes DIGITALes, IMED 0368, 2003)
*"Arc d’apparition" (DVD) and "Whisperfield" (CD) (2004)
*"Number Nine" with Michael Keith and Roger Turner (Emanem 4129, 2005)

List of Works

* "aparanthesi A" (2000-03)
* "aparanthesi B" (2000-03)
* "Bell Speeds" (1983, 90)
* "Blur (Bolton Chili Overdire); 1 Moment, 2 Wow, 3 Nest"
* "Burrows" (1974-75)
* "Compact (R.E.M.T.V. Hammercamp); 1 Phase, 2 Snap"
* "Cyfer (Depeche Mould)"
* "from Burrows: silence to say" (1974)
* "Grayfolded" (1995)
* "Homonymy" (1998), flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, percussion, violin, cello, doublebass and video tape
* "Mad Mod (Jello Bellafonte)"
* "Manifold (Bing Stingspreen); 1 Philosophy, 2 Phase"
* "Massive (Ozzie Osmond); 1 Hazzard, 2 Warning, 3 Treacherous"
* "Ohmigone" (2001)
* "Open (Bo No Ma); 1 Suck, 2 Rip"
* "Ridge" (2001)
* "Skindling Shadés" (1987)
* "Spectre" (1990)
* "Temperature (Beastie Shop Beach); 1 Tempus Amoré (Hyper Love Time), 2 Tempo Pact"
* "Un paysage (Ouverture)" (1996)
* "Urge (Marianne Faith No Morrisey); 1 Slow, 2 Slice, 3 Blink"
* "Velocity (Aretha Vanilli); 1 Tremendous, 2 Tremulous"
* "Worse (Anthrax Squeeze Factory)"
* "Zoom (Sinead O'Connick Jr); 1 Alone, 2 Gogh"

ee also

* Anti-copyright
* Plunderphonics
*Cut-Up Technique


* [] - Oswald's record label FONY
* []
* []
* [] - commercial art gallery representing Oswald
* []
* [ The Canadian Music Centre]
* []

External links

* [ Bio from the plunderphonics site]
* [ Radio Feature] The Some Assembly Required Interview with John Oswald (2001)

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