Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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OSWALD, John

(b 30 May '53, probably in Berlin) Composer and musician based in Toronto, inventor of 'plunderphonics', cut-and-paste techniques which are part of the musical heritage of John Cage or Pierre Schaeffer. In the late '40s Schaeffer (1910--1995) evolved a technique which became known as musique concrte: instead of scoring compositions using staff notation, the composer worked directly on to a recording medium, juxtaposing sounds to jar or complement, to set off trains of ideas. With the advent of magnetic tape came new vistas of musical opportunity, while new loudspeaker technology affected Schaeffer's music, just as it revitalized the use of Lev Termen's theremin. Oswald founded the Mystery Tape Laboratory early '80s and put out a body of experimental work 'all in 30-minute chunks, two to a tape' in audio-cassette format. The more orthodox Alto Sax '80 was followed by Salmonmoose '80 (also on Mystery Tapes), a trio with guitarist Henry Kaiser, trumpet player Toshinori Kondo and Oswald on saxophone. Spoors '83 manipulated the words of author William S. Burroughs in an aural equivalent of Burroughs's cut- and-paste writing technique, interspersing the result with wildlife recordings. An EP version of the later, notorious Plunderphonic album, Plunderphonics, appeared in '86, the year he promulgated his artistic philosophy in article Plunderphonics, Or Audio Piracy As A Compositional Prerogative. Plunderphonic became a cause clbre in '89. It dismembered commercial recordings by classical, soul, jazz, country and popular acts including the Beatles, Count Basie, James Brown, Bing Crosby, Glenn Gould and Michael Jackson: the extant pieces retained enough contours to identify them providing the listener had at least a casual knowledge, but they were reconstructed with startling originality. Dolly Parton growled out 'The Great Pretender' after a sex change, and Michael Jackson's 'Bad' dubbed 'Dab' was not the stuff for a fragile, superstar ego (the cover artwork portrayed Jackson wearing period-stained panties). Oswald's material tested the limits of intellectual ownership and copyright, which needed to be done anyway for practical as well as philosophical reasons; CBS and Jackson complained to the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), which threatened Oswald with litigation as well as demanding the destruction of the Plunderphonic master tapes and all existing copies; radio stations and individuals refused to hand over copies in their possession and some 400 copies survived.

Elektra, then making preparations for 40th anniversary celebrations, commissioned Rubiyt '90, an authorized, plunderphonicized anthology featuring Elektra artists, to be released in tandem with their orthodox set of modern covers of old Elektra tracks. In an era of uncredited samples and suspicious minds, Oswald's first track ran foul of the Doors' lawyers, who insisted on full royalties for the entire dozen- plus songs contained therein. The alternative version of Rubiyt found itself relegated to radio promotion use only. Discosphere on ReR Megacorp/Cuneiform '91 was a series of compositions tailored for contemporary dance; 'Skindling Shads' ('89) incorporated the sounds of combustion, using a technique Oswald called 'swarms', a massive overlayering of a single sound source or noise, also featured on 'Dab' with its many-thousandfold overdubbing of Jackson, and 'Spectre' with its 1,001-string orchestra (commissioned by the Kronos Quartet for their Short Stories '93). Plexure on Avant '93, unlike the earlier offending material, was a commercial release, commissioned by John Zorn; it merged artists such as Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Public Enemy and U2 to create crossbred acts illustrated in 'morph names' like Jello Belafonte and Sinad O'Connick Jr. Oswald also worked on a more conventional project: Acoustics '94 on Victo incl. Kaiser, violinist Mari Kimura and guitarist Jim O'Rourke.

Oswald was approached by Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead '94 to create a project independent of the Dead (not financed by their charitable Rex Foundation). The result was an exploration of the possibilities of 'folding' (that is, halving a piece of music by computer to create a concentrated version, halving that and so on) and other digital techniques. 'Dark Star' was selected, a free-form composition at the heart of the Dead's extempore style; from a constellation of recorded versions in the Dead's library, Oswald sequenced new life, mixing and matching styles, having musicians duet with themselves from different eras, stretching and recycling themes. Transitive Axis '94 sold well and was critically acclaimed, resulting in a second volume called Mirror Ashes '95, collectively issued as Grayfolded '95 on Swell/Artefact. Oswald had reached a point where his work was being taken very seriously.