La boutique électroacoustique

Artistes John Oswald

John Oswald, artiste aux facettes multiples, incorpore presque toujours à ses productions un élément électroacoustique. Ses œuvres font partie du répertoire régulier du Kronos Quartet, du Culberg Ballet de Suède, du Ballet de Monaco, du Deutsche Opera Ballet Berlin, du Modern Quartet, du Penderecki Quartet. Parmi ses activités récentes figurent un cortège sonore à Brasilia; une œuvre chorégraphique pour vingt-deux chorégraphes (dont Bill T Jones, Margie Gillis et Holly Small); des commandes du Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon, du Change of Heart, de la SMCQ ainsi que du Dutch National Radio et de Radio-Canada.

Il vient de compléter une œuvre pour orchestre, piano robot et la voix chantée et désincarnée de Glenn Gould pour le Ballet national du Canada. Au cours des dernières années, il a créé une collection de portraits photographiques pour une série de Moving Stills. L’une de ses «plunderphonies» (collage audio-vidéo réalisé à partir d’œuvres existantes) sera présentée à la Hayward Gallery de Londres en mai 2000. Il réalise actuellement la bande sonore de Stress, un film projeté sur huit écrans de Bruce Mau qui sera présenté à Vienne, également en mai. Parmi ses productions récentes, on compte une création radiophonique pour quatre langues (brésilien, hollandais, anglais et allemand); l’écriture de l’animation et de la partition d’Homonymy (pour musique de chambre et cinéma); l’écriture d’une musique pour le film muet classique Metropolis; la production de la bande sonore du film gai porno Hustler White; ainsi que sa participation dans les films Un©ut de John Greyson et Sonic Outlaws de Craig Baldwin.

Le travail de John Oswald en est un de métamorphose, de détournement et d’éclectisme souvent réalisé à partir de matériaux existants. En 1990, son disque le plus célèbre, Plunderphonics (collage sonore réalisé à partir de musiques existantes) représentant Michael Jackson nu avec un corps de femme sur la pochette, a été détruit par les prudes de l’industrie discographique. Depuis, il a été édité chez Elektra, Avant, ReR Megacorp, Blast First, Swell et empreintes DIGITALes transformant les musiques et les interprétations de Stravinski, Metallica, James Brown, György Ligeti, Dolly Parton et plusieurs autres. Une rétrospective de ses Pluderphonics est actuellement en préparation. Le premier disque de sa production autour des Grateful Dead, Grayfolded, a été choisi comme la production internationale numéro un de la décennie par le Toronto Sun. La version complète de Grayfolded, terminée cette année, a été sélectionnée parmi les meilleures productions de l’année par Rolling Stone, New York Times et plusieurs autres. Cette même année, son disque de musique improvisée, Acoustics, a été le premier choix des critiques de la revue Coda.


John Oswald

Kitchener (Ontario, Canada), 1953

Résidence: Toronto (Ontario, Canada)

  • Compositeur
  • Interprète (saxophone)

Ensembles associés

Sur le web

John Oswald, 1999

Œuvres choisies

Parutions principales

Fony / FONY 82 / 2010
OHM / Avatar / AVTR 034 / 2004
Fony / FONY 68/92 / 2004
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0368 / 2003
  • Rupture de stock temporaire
Victo / VICTO 074/075/076 / 2001
Seeland / SEELAND 515 / 2000
Victo / VICTO 063 / 1998
Victo / VICTO 025 / 1994
Avant / AVAN 016 / 1993


Artistes divers
Sub Rosa / SR 300 / 2013
  • Rupture de stock temporaire
Artistes divers
Cambridge Street Records / CSR 0501 / 2005
Artistes divers
OHM / Avatar / AVTR 022 / 2001
Artistes divers
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 9604 / 1996


University of Alberta Press / UAP 9780888644749 / 2009
  • Hors-catalogue
Artistes divers
OHM / Avatar / AVTR 042 / 2007
  • Hors-catalogue
Dazibao / DAZ 01 / 2006
  • Hors-catalogue
Ashgate Publications / ASH 0754604268 / 2004
  • Hors-catalogue
Spool Music / SPL 116 / 2001
  • Épuisé
OHM / Avatar / OBZ 07 / 1997
  • Hors-catalogue
Incus / INCUS 26 / 1996
  • Hors-catalogue
Artistes divers
OHM / Avatar / AVTR 001 / 1995
  • Hors-catalogue
Artistes divers
ReR / Recommended Records / RER CMCD / 1991
  • Hors-catalogue
ReR / Recommended Records / RER JOCD / 1991
  • Hors-catalogue
Artistes divers
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 9004 / 1990
  • Réédité


Fony / FONY 82 / 2010
OHM / Avatar / AVTR 034 / 2004
Fony / FONY 68/92 / 2004
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0368 / 2003
  • Rupture de stock temporaire
Seeland / SEELAND 515 / 2000
Avant / AVAN 016 / 1993

La presse en parle

A Time to Hear for Here — John Oswald’s Sound Installation at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Spirit House

Kelvin Browne, Musicworks, no 98, 1 juin 2007

[Article Summary] John Oswald’s circadian sound installation, a time to hear for here, is a permanent installation in the Spirit House in the new Daniel Libeskind Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum, which opened in June, 2007. The Spirit House is criss-crossed on five levels by bridges that join the galleries on either side traversing an empty harp-shaped void. From these bridges, visitors hear the audio installation. Some sounds can be heard only in a specific location, others are audible from many places. Oswald creates a mobile sculpture of sounds — the timings of sound moments and their combinations are fluid. A sidebar by Anne Bourne discusses Oswald’s artistic process, the contributions of project co-ordinator Laurel McDonald, and the voicing of Qui, a twenty-four part canon that occurs once a day as part of the soundscape. Each of the parts is sung in a different language, representing the diversity of the world cultures existing in Canada.

… an experience like nothing else in the world…

Chronophotic, cinéma del l’immobile / moving stills

Neural, 29 décembre 2006

Time-based media art is a generic label applied to all the arts involving time as one of the mandatory coordinates to experience the works. John Oswald involves time at the very center of his own work, making it the hidden fulcrum of the reality he interprets, slowing down or accelerating his own concept of 'reality'. In Chronophotic [Arc d’apparition; Whisperfield] there's an altered immobility reflected in the continuos almost perceptible changes that very slowly add persons to a sort of group picture, shifting, also slowly their dressed/naked image. The nakedness and the being dressed can be seen as two faces of the same reality, the public/private, the official/intimate, the endlessly alterable/the given one. The avoid misunderstandings, the work is not voyeuristic at all, showing human bodies of all ages in their most natural and neutral shape. Furthermore it simply seem to question our conventional daily perspective and the time we spend observing and relating to other humans. It's an ancestral species' issue: dealing with our own essence and our own temporal and instinctually mutual recognition.

The avoid misunderstandings, the work is not voyeuristic at all, showing human bodies of all ages in their most natural and neutral shape.

Oswald is the future of music

Udo Kasemets, Musicworks, no 89, 1 juin 2004

“Perhaps the earliest sound O remembers noticing was the summer cicada. Later there was a dilemma — was the cicada biological or electrical? Where did it come from?” O is none other than John Oswald, and this quote appears early on in An Aparathentic Bio, an autobiographical memoir included in the package containing a compact disc featuring a most extraordinary, imaginative, and intelligent work of sonic art. (Indeed, I could continue with a whole series of alliterative i-words to describe the qualities of the CD: inspired, inquisitive, intimate, inviting, involving, illuminating, informing, and on and on.) When I call it a package, I don’t mean it’s packaging in the commercial sense. Sure, it has an appealing cover design. But that, too, is part of the completeness of the whole presentation. Not only is there one of Oswald’s inimitable (another i-word) photo-images on the exterior of the slide-in case, but there are also hidden images inside the cover tube. The autobiographical notes are printed on the hard covers that protect the CD. And a folded three quarters of a meter-long sheet carries, in small print, two columns of text on each side of an interview where John Oswald discusses in great detail the making and contents of the recording. Nothing of the above is window- dressing. Oswald’s work is never compartmentalized. Every aspect of research, preparation, realization, and presentation is part of a whole. So, when he writes about O’s curiosity about the cicada; or how O explored the innards of a transistor radio to understand its secrets; or how O experimented with the variable speeds of a phonograph and of reel-to-reel tape recorders; Oswald suggests to the reader that intimate involvement (yes, the i-words) with the reality of sounds and their sources is the foundation of any true musical experience. He invites (i-word!) the reader to enter into O’s world, where what appears to be simple and mundane will eventually emerge as intricate (another i-word) and even quite miraculous. Mind you, the music on the CD can be enjoyed without knowing anything about its maker and makings. Its sounds are organized so sensitively, elegantly, and competently, that their pure physicality draws the listener into the soundscape, and holds her or him there until the almost inaudible fadeout which brings both of the pieces on the disc to a close. Any attempt to describe the pieces in the framework of a brief review is doomed to failure. The parting points for the pieces are the most elementary tunings known to anybody with even the most cursory interest in sonic reality. The first Aparanthesi is based on the frequency 440 Hz — the fundamental tuning tone (named ‘A’) of the Western musical system. For the second aporanthesi Oswald chose the North American electrical standard, 60 Hz as its tuning base. As a plain sine tone, or a piano or cello sound (the only two “conventional” instruments employed), their choice may appear utterly mundane. But the commonality disappears when Oswald exploits the numerous variables underwhich these materials can be exhibited. For instance, there is a delicate but definite difference between hearing the piano range’s eight As as struck on the keyboard, and as they are modulated from a single-source A. Oswald describes one of his processes where the eighty-eight keys of a piano are all tuned to one A (“which sounds like a three-inch long guitar”). By “pitching up” or “pitching down” each of the eighty-eight keys one can imagine a “virtual” grand piano that can grow from its initial length of just ten inches to a monster of over one hundred feet. Not only does Oswald tune the sine, piano, and cello tones to the basic pitch (or its multiples) of the piece, but he does the same with the sounds of thunder, birds, foghorns, and cattle. But it is not just the choice of the sounds — synthetic, instrumental, and of nature — that makes listening to the two Aparanthesi such a special experience; it is also John Oswald’s ability to handle the fadings in and out, the blendings and unblendings, and the spacings and timings of the various materials and their combinations with exquisite taste and acoustic sensitivity. In other words, it is the supreme artistry of John Oswald that gives Aparanthesi its uniquely special quality. I suggested earlier that listening to this CD is thoroughly enjoyable even without reading any of the texts included in the package. (By the way, the package is bilingual: An Aparathentic Bio is in French, the interview in English. Nevertheless, much is to be gained by taking time and with O’s formative years and his personality through his own words. It is not an autobiography like most. It is not about “Look what I have achieved”; it is about “Look — everything, even the smallest, the simplest, is interesting.” And the three-meters-long transcript of the descriptive interview provides a wonderful guide to the listener on how to become an informed partner of a musical process from its genesis in the researcher’s mind to the final consummation in the listener’s ear. Every serious music student should spend hours (and days) with Aparanthesi. Elsewhere in this issue of Musicworks I suggest that we are at the end of an era of musical development in Western culture, and that a new era is in the primal stage of its making. If the clarity of mind, intellectual discipline, and aural sensitivity that went into the process of the production of Aparanthesi is an indication of the direction music of the twenty-first century will take, the future is bright.

… a most extraordinary, imaginative, and intelligent work of sonic art.

Prix du Gouverneur général

Réjean Beaucage, La Scena Musicale, no 9:7, 1 avril 2004

L’édition 2004 de la remise des Prix du Gouverneur général en arts visuels et en arts médiatiques a soulevé des remous alors que deux des prix, d’une valeur de 15 000$ chacun, ont été remis à des artistes connus, entre autres, pour leurs travaux sur la musique (ou le son): John Oswald et Istvan Kantor (alias Monty Cantsin). Artiste anarchiste se qualifiant de «néoiste», Kantor est connu pour des performances d’une grande violence où la vidéo, la musique électronique et les bruits en direct convergent dans une esthétique de la destruction. Ses performances, réalisées avec le MachineSexActionGroup, ont été présentées maintes fois à Montréal et Toronto. L’artiste a connu plusieurs fois des démêlés avec la justice, notamment en 1991, alors qu’il avait aspergé un mur du Musée des beaux-arts du Canada de son sang, tachant au passage une œuvre de Picasso (le lauréat serait depuis cet incident interdit de séjour au Musée…).

John Oswald, s’il est moins intempestif, n’en a pas moins eu lui aussi maille à partir avec la justice, qui le forçait en 1990 à détruire tous les enregistrements disponibles de son œuvre Plunderphonics («pillage sonore»), faite à partir de bribes d’œuvres existantes et que l’artiste distribuait gratuitement. Ses premières œuvres ont déclenché un débat sur la propriété (le copyright) qui dure toujours et à propos duquel le musicien Chris Cutler a un jour déclaré: «Si la créativité est un champ, alors le copyright est une clôture». Loin d’être un vulgaire plagiaire, John Oswald, qui est par ailleurs aussi un saxophoniste de haut calibre, fait preuve depuis toujours d’une imagination débordante dans l’élaboration d’un corpus d’œuvres multiformes et extrêmement personnelles.

… fait preuve depuis toujours d’une imagination débordante dans l’élaboration d’un corpus d’œuvres multiformes et extrêmement personnelles.

Prix du Gouverneur général 2004

Martin Arnold, Conseil des arts du Canada, 3 mars 2004

Il est heureux que le Gouverneur général reconnaisse les réalisations en «arts médiatiques». On ne pouvait trouver de vocable plus absolu que «média» pour désigner l’art si frénétiquement éclectique et si particulier de John Oswald. En anglais, «medium» devient «media» au pluriel; «media» renvoie ainsi à plus d’un «medium». Au sens propre, le mot anglais «medium» signifie un moyen, n’importe lequel, d’effectuer ou de transmettre quelque chose, n’importe quoi. Le mot français médium représente un terme poétiquement approprié pour John Oswald, car il dérive d’un mot latin qui signifie «celui du milieu». Or, Oswald se jette en plein milieu ou, plus précisément, dans de très nombreux milieux. Sa vorace imagination créatrice règne dans les interstices des catégories culturelles traditionnelles. L’objectif de cet état d’entre-deux n’est toutefois pas de créer des œuvres en dehors — ou séparées — des activités habituelles de ces catégories. Au contraire, l’art d’Oswald se veut radicalement inclusif. À ce sujet, il dit: «Je reconnais surtout les catégories comme des distinctions traditionnelles, qui permettent de jeter des ponts de manière originale.» Dans une récente entrevue, il confiait: «On me dit parfois que telle ou telle chose que j’ai faite semble glisser dans les fissures des catégories. Je n’aime pas beaucoup cette idée. Je crois que les ponts que j’essaie de bâtir ont pour but d’enjamber ces fissures.»

Alors, que fait John Oswald? Des plunderphonics, des bandes mystère, des rascali klepitoire, de la lutte artistique, des œuvres de tonie, des spinvolver et autres chronophotics, pour ne nommer que quelques-unes de ses activités. Ces noms et catégories lui appartiennent évidemment et n’illustrent ici que les exemples les plus éloquents de sa manière de jouer avec les catégories. Oswald s’est aussi décrit comme un artiste du son. Toutefois, la danse, la photographie, la performance et les nouveaux médias deviennent tous chez lui des moyens d’expression artistique empreints d’un éclectisme défiant les catégories. Oswald explique ainsi sa démarche:

Après réflexion, j’estime que l’existence de catégories distinctes en art, surtout de catégories irrationnelles, agit comme un stimulus dans plusieurs de mes activités. Ce peut être, par exemple, une réponse à une commande. Si quelqu’un me demande un opéra, je me demande immédiatement: «Qu’est-ce qu’un opéra?» J’ai bien mes propres catégories pour la plupart des choses, car il est difficile de parler de quoi que ce soit si l’on n’est pas prêt à faire des distinctions. Toutefois, je ne veux pas couler ces catégories dans le béton, parce que je crois avant tout qu’il est plus profitable d’investir dans la remise en question de mes propres distinctions. C’est là considérer les catégories comme un processus plutôt que comme un réceptacle.

Pouvait-on s’attendre à un autre discours de la part d’un artiste ayant affirmé que la radio transistor a été son premier instrument.

L’écoute — ou mieux encore, l’observation, dans tous les sens du mot —, en tant que pratique créatrice menant à l’intervention active et à l’expérimentation, se situe au cœur de toutes les œuvres de John Oswald. On l’imagine bien jouant de la radio: découpant les styles musicaux et les déclarations parlées pour leur permettre de se moduler mutuellement alors que la syntonisation demeure entre les stations, maniant les incursions simultanées du monde des bruits de friture radiophonique toujours fluctuants.

Son jeu de radio préfigure sans doute ses plunderphonics. Ce terme est devenu assez courant au sein de la grande culture populaire; on l’attribue même à des œuvres n’ayant rien à voir avec Oswald. Dans la presse musicale alternative, on l’utilise souvent pour désigner la musique faite à partir d’enregistrements tirés de musiques d’autres personnes. La grande popularité de ce terme s’explique par le phénomène de l’omniprésence des échantillons musicaux dans les appropriations de type collage de la culture disc-jockey/emcee en général. L’œuvre d’Oswald a toujours alimenté avec force les débats qui entourent ce genre de composition musicale, qu’il s’agisse de la question des mythes, de l’originalité dans la création, de la propriété intellectuelle et du droit d’auteur, ou de la politique de différenciation entre les œuvres d’art. La contribution d’Oswald à ces débats d’importance ne peut sous-estimée.

Depuis le début des années 1990, les enregistrements plunderphonics d’Oswald ont été vendus à plus de 100 000 exemplaires dans le monde. Il a fait la couverture du magazine britannique The Wire, et nombre de ses enregistrements ont été classés parmi les dix meilleurs albums de l’année dans des publications telles que Rolling Stone, The New York Times et Spin.

Oswald est une sorte d’alchimiste (son studio s’appelle mLab, avec un «m» pour mystère). On ne peut pas vraiment dire qu’il utilise la musique des autres; on devrait plutôt dire qu’il la transmute en changeant sa nature et sa forme. L’évocation métaphorique de l’alchimie s’effrite quelque peu si l’on examine la transmutation chez Oswald, car contrairement à l’alchimiste qui, en transformant le plomb, rend le métal transformé méconnaissable, Oswald, lui, espère que l’audi-teur reconnaîtra ce qu’il a pillé pour développer ses plunderphonics. Pourtant, en parvenant à insérer des références culturelles implicites dans son matériau source, les transmutations n’en deviennent que plus profondément étranges et magnifiques. Par exemple, sa récente compilation rétrospective de plunderphonics débute par une plage de 56 secondes, btls, qui s’ouvre sur le célèbre accord final de l’album des Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. John Oswald décrit ainsi cette expérience musicale:

L’accord original en mi majeur avait été créé, selon le producteur George Martin, en mettant 5 personnes, ou 10 mains, ou dans ce cas 60 doigts, sur 3 pianos, qui ont tous joué simultanément le même accord… C’est la première chose que l’on entend, ce dernier accord. Ensuite, vous entendez à nouveau l’accord, mais un demi-ton plus haut, comme si les 60 doigts, tels des crabes, s’étaient déplacés d’un pas vers la droite du piano. La véracité de cette illusion auditive est très importante pour moi. George Martin, John, Paul, Ringo et Mal ont pu produire presque exactement ce son en faisant ce que je viens de décrire dans le studio en 1967. Une troisième itération de l’accord exigerait 60 doigts de plus… Maintenant que, comme auditeur, vous saisissez probablement comment fonctionnent la transformation et l’accumulation, nous ajouterons un nouvel élément, soit l’ouverture de l’accord de guitare ré7 avec la 4suspendue de A Hard Day’s Night.

L’art de John Oswald se révèle original, particulier, personnel et d’une étrange intimité. Cependant, l’intimité ne se situe pas entre «Oswald offrant une œuvre» et «nous la recevant» (l’idée d’un auteur tentant d’autoriser un sens correct ou d’avancer une réception escomptée paraît ici merveilleusement absente, ou d’une incohérence multiple). L’intimité réside avant tout dans la symbiose entre la relation précaire, souvent fragile, d’éléments qui habitent chaque pièce et le déploiement désordonné d’associations personnelles qui débordent de la relation du spectateur/auditeur avec le matériau source et avec toute résonance biaisée dont il se souvient.

Récemment, Oswald s’est concentré sur les arts visuels. Ce nouvel intérêt demeure cependant cohérent avec ses autres pratiques artistiques et dérive naturellement de ses expériences de plunderphonics. Ses manipulations informatiques de musique existante et sa prise de conscience des possibilités dans le monde du traitement numérique des images découlent naturellement de son intérêt croissant pour l’utilisation de l’ordinateur dans la création artistique. (De la radio transistor au découpage, au montage avec touche d’enregistrement, à la bande à plusieurs pistes, aux échantillonnages et à l’ordinateur, il s’agit là d’une évolution remarquable.) Certaines de ses premières images ont été des amalgames de caractéristiques de vedettes pop: Prince a été mélangé avec Annie Lennox, Elvis avec Paul McCartney, et ainsi de suite. À première vue, ces images semblent bien être analogues à ses procédés de plunderphonics, soit une combinaison-transformation de matériaux reconnaissables dans leurs nouveaux formats hybrides. Il y a cependant une différence significative: si la reconnaissance d’une vedette pop se rattache à une construction publique et commerciale, celle d’une chanson populaire est très différente. C’est quelque chose d’intime, qui appartient à l’auditeur, car chaque chanson crée des références précises, immuables, à une époque de la vie de l’auditeur. Oswald a toujours affirmé que ses plunderphonics n’avaient jamais été de la parodie, de la critique péjorative ou des juxtapositions surréelles. Il avoue s’être particulièrement intéressé à trouver des manières nouvelles d’écouter la musique qu’il aime en créant de nouvelles relations intimes.

Ses dernières œuvres visuelles, ses chronophotics (le temps plus la lumière), proposent un même niveau d’intimité sur le plan de l’expérience visuelle. Pour ces créations, Oswald prend des photos numériques de sujets, d’abord habillés puis nus, qui adoptent plus ou moins la même pose. Ensuite, il combine numériquement ces images pour constituer une vidéo ou une image projetée par vidéo, qui semble montrer une foule regardant l’observateur. À la projection, la composition de la foule change, car quelques personnes s’estompent tandis que d’autres apparaissent lentement et, au même moment, les vêtements de certains sujets disparaissent ou apparaissent. Ce qui fluctue devant les yeux de l’observateur est donc une communauté de relations physiques et sociales. Il est à noter que l’œuvre a été créée en réunissant des images de membres de la communauté à laquelle l’œuvre a été présentée. Le fait qu’Oswald ait pris des photos des participants avec et sans leurs vêtements est aussi important. Leur nudité évoque, encore une fois, autre chose que la simple représentation de leur intimité. Lorsqu’on choisit de se faire photographier sans vêtements, et qu’on accepte que la photo soit montrée, on s’engage dans une relation très particulière et, pour la plupart des gens, assez rare avec la prise de photo, avec le photographe et avec l’observateur potentiel. En même temps, ce choix met en relief la particularité des vêtements portés. Oswald, qui a travaillé en danse expérimentale pendant près de 30 ans, montre, d’une certaine façon, une conscience propre à ce domaine.

Tant dans les plunderphonics que dans l’ensemble de l’œuvre d’Oswald, le travail de l’artiste ne porte pas simplement sur les relations intimes, il cherche aussi à découvrir des relations intimes qui soient nouvelles, étranges et merveilleuses.


Établi à Toronto, Martin Arnold est musicien (plus précisément compositeur et improvisateur).


Sa vorace imagination créatrice règne dans les interstices des catégories culturelles traditionnelles.


David Keenan, The Wire, no 219, 1 avril 2002

“It’s quite simple,” deadpans Canadian composer and free improvisor John Oswald, emitting the weary sigh of the plunderphonics copyright violator hounded by his own notoriety. “I love the music. In my mind, it’s certainly not an act of vandalism. The way I’ve been presenting plunderphonics in all cases is by fully attributing and crediting all the sources I use on the packaging. Well, that seems like foolhardy vandalism to me. A vandal wears a mask when he throws a brick through the window of McDonald’s. He doesn’t set himself up.”

Seated in a hotel breakfast bar in Nantes, France, the day after performing at the Oblique Lu Nights festival, John Oswald wants to talk music, even though he’s fully aware that his work tends to raise all sorts of extra-musical issues about copyright and ethics. Perpetrated against select icons of popular culture such as Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton and Jim Morrison, his plunderphonic music has been lauded as a great act of sonic vandalism aimed at dislodging mass culture’s colonisation of the sound environment. But to simplistically proclaim him as a cultural bulwark against the relentless bombardment of a monolithic global music industry is to seriously underestimate the full significance of his challenge. “I don’t think of it as an attempt to perpetrate any sort of damage,” he counters, “either to the artist’s reputation or to the music that I’m using. I’m just like some producer who wasn’t asked to work on somebody’s material but comes up with crazy ideas and tries to make it sound good.”

Oswald’s realisation of plunderphonics is less a Dadaist defilement of icons than a construction of music anew in the act of deconstructing it, and his most powerful creations shape a life independent of the parent pieces from which they were sample cloned. They are living, breathing proof of the power of plunderphonics. Placed in the hands of ‘untrained’ musicians like himself, plunderphonics liberates sound from ‘specialist’ composers, players and regulators. That certain interested parties music publishers, giant entertainment conglomerates have managed to legally suppress much of his work to date is in itself a testimony to plunderphonic music’s enormous potential.

Last year, Oswald prepared a stunning two CD set, called 69/96, anthologising and annotating most of his plunderphonic work of the last two decades. The set turns rock history on its head, rewriting the evolution of contemporary music from deep inside its most basic paradigms. The set starts with the sustained piano chord from the end of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” which is interrupted and restated again and again. From there it accelerates through the 20th century, with fantasy groupings coalescing in the ether. Free bassist Barre Phillips communes with Steve Lacy, Larry Dubin and Cecil Taylor in a free improvising group that beams its perfonners in from four different solo gigs. Three Bix Beiderbeckes conjure a reading of “In A Mist” that throbs in and out of sync, creating a delirious textural complexity: and Dolly Parton duets with her own lower pitched voice, which sounds strikingly male. “Is it possible that Ms Parton’s remarkable voice is actually the Alvinized (chipmunked) result of some unsung ghost Lieder crooning these songs at elegiac tempos which are then gender polarised to fit the tits?” speculates Oswald in his notes. “Speed and sex are again revealed as components intrinsic to the music business.”

Due to the results of earlier legal tussles, Oswald was legally prohibited from distributing 69/96 through his own label fony. However, the set has been ‘pirated’ by American copyright buccaneers Negativland, who are now disseminating it via their website. Although Oswald sees a connection between his work and that of Negativland and The Tape Beatles, he doesn’t feel he has anything in common with them other than the subjects of his plunderphonia. Indeed, The Tape Beatles’ allegiance to plagiarism actually works against his proposed system of accreditation. “When things come up like copyright issues, we have common ground,” he concedes. “But musically, other than admiring Negativland’s U2 record, which I like a lot, I don’t think I’m anymore connected to them than I am to Paul McCartney. McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” is one of my favourite pieces of music, a good example of something where there is a lot more going on than just the incredibly trite Iyric everybody defines it by.”

Perhaps he’s closer in spirit to the current vogue for ‘bootlegging’ mainstream pop by Kid606 and Girls On Top, who similarly reanimate exquisite corpses, casting them in fantasy musical collaborations not unlike those featured on the 69/96 set. Using sonic quotes for his building blocks, Oswald morphs, stretches and transforms them into hallucinogenic pieces where Elvis Presley jams with Cecil Taylor, and Tim Buckley drifts like a ghost through the Elektra vaults. Revealing the familiar in a different light, plunderphonics works both as a serious art statement and a pinpricking of the untouchable pomposity of pop stardom. It produces incisive cultural critique and, most importantly, great psychedelic music.

Oswald’s system of plunderphonics is a by-product of the various strategies he developed to enable a non musician like himself to compose music. He recalls, “When I was first doing these things I just felt that it was an interesting way of working and one that I seemed to have some sort of musical adeptness at. Really,” he insists, “it was my way of making normal music. When I was a kid I was attempting to figure out music but I was a singularly untalented musician, so I didn’t really have the choice of playing in a bar mitzvah band or an orchestra. Every time I would go to a music teacher I’d be asked not to come back. I pretty much had to sneak into various institutions of higher education to see what was happening. I never passed the auditions. I couldn’t even get in the high school band, I had to steal the instruments.”

The discovery of pre-existing recordings as a sound source liberated composition from the hold of the specialists. A powerful compositional tool was now within his reach. He says he scarcely gave a thought to the small matter of who owned the recordings, and he never intended plunderphonics to be an art-political platform for challenging copyright ownership, though he has since been forced to engage with the issue or be destroyed by it. For Oswald, the debates deflect people from hearing his work as music rather than as a thieves’ charter. “My game plan has always been to create stuff that justifies its existence by being intrinsically interesting as a listening experience whether or not its existence is currently practical,” he says. “So I perhaps naively assume that if an audience really wants it, the consumer environment will adapt an acquisition strategy.”

For Oswald, plunderphonics is before everything else a process for rigorously pursuing the internal logic of a piece of music, its tone and structure determined by the expressive characteristics encoded in his source samples. His Grateful Dead project, Grayfolded (1994-95), affirms his claim for plunderphonics as a musical pledge of faith. Grayfolded is his double CD plunderphonic take on The Grateful Dead’s signature tune “Dark Star” - his best known work by default, since it’s the only one readily available. Made after The Dead’s invitation to plunder their vaults, it’s also his most complete realisation of the plunderphonics concept. Running to some 100 minutes over two temporally defiant movements, disc one’s Transitive Axis is so seamless, it sounds uncannily like The Grateful Dead playing in real time and on transcendental form. Drawn from concert recordings spanning 25 years, it creates the extraordinary illusion of the group jamming with any number of incarnations of themselves inside the song’s identifiable albeit timestretched frame. The subtlety of Oswald’s timebending montages, dissolves and transpositions only becomes apparent when you consult the CD’s time maps, which detail the origins of its constituent parts.

“I was a bit surprised because Grayfolded was so critically successful in comparison to almost any other Grateful Dead disc,” Oswald says. “Both amongst half the Deadheads - the half who didn’t hate it - who likened it to the mind-altering capability of being at a really good Dead show, and amongst the general public, who have shown no interest in other Dead records. So I made a good record for a group who are notorious for making bad records but are nonetheless quite popular. This seemed like a calling card for more liaisons, but I guess either no one else wants to sound like The Grateful Dead - in’other words they assume that I’m a ’one trick pony’ producer - or I just don’t get out enough to meet people.”

That the bulk of Oswald’s plunderphonics releases has been forced underground means his calling cards are hard to come by. His difficulties stem from the inclusion on his 1989 Plunderphonic disc of his Michael Jackson ‘tribute’, “dab,” credited to one ‘Alien Chasm Jock’. Maybe Sony just couldn’t see the funny side of hearing Jackson’s voice singing lines like “your butt is love,” in Oswald’s virtual remake. The drum machine kicks are derived from the phonemes in Jackson’s vocal; and for the breathtaking choral finale, Oswald processed a smear of Jackson singing the phrase “who’s bad” through 10,000 shifting loops of the entire song to create an infinitely deep pool of humming angelic feedback. The ‘tribute’ continued on the CD’s artwork, which essentially gives the singer’s Bad cover image a sexchange and turns his skin-colour white.

From the start, the legal case against Oswald was complicated by his insistence that Plunderphonic was not for sale, though it included a note encouraging not-for-profit home dubbing of the album. With no profits generated, it didn’t leave a lot for Sony’s lawyers to go after on behalf of their client. And though Oswald openly acknowledged that he had created the whole track from sampled Jackson material, Sony have yet to prove that he had done anything illegal. The legal stalemate leaves him at liberty to create these works, so long as he doesn’t distribute them. An unfortunate consequence of his legal struggles is how the reluctant Oswald has since been cast as an anti-corporate crusader. “I hadn’t really thought through what my obligations were in relation to this appropriation and transformation and I probably still haven’t,” he pleads. “I was making pieces, not thinking about how I could put it out. I mean, what happens when you make a record that has other people’s records on it? Are you supposed to call them up, does it matter?”

In Nantes the night before our interview, Oswald delivered a performance largely based on his 1993 Plexure album, which was released on John Zorn’s Avant label. As the most extreme realisation yet of his plunderphonics concept, he clearly didn’t come here to I make friends the easy way. It’s essentially a rapidfire assault of introductions snipped from reels of cheesy going-on sleazy 80s and 90s pop hits like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love.” Live, it doesn’t work so well. At times it passes in a disorientating blur, unimpeded by any significant tonal variation. The piece prompts the question as to whether Oswald thinks the speed of human perception will ever be fast enough to penetrate the dense layers of his plunderphonic creations.

“Oh yeah,” he perks up, enthusing, “that’s part and parcel with dealing with the recorded reproduction medium, the fact that things can be played again and again. Back in Beethoven’s days they tended to put repeats of the themes and all that stuff in, because it was quite likely that someone was only going to hear it once in their life. So you want to make sure they knew the theme before you started getting into more complex arrangements. It’s absolutely not necessary now, because you can just play a record over and over again. And you know the theme, so things can be more condensed.

“There were some complaints when we put out Plexure that it was only 18 minutes long,” he recalls, with a dry smile, “and they were complaining about the import price, which meant more than a dollar for their music per minute. Well, that was surprising because I thought there’s such an incredible degree of concentration here that you’re getting so much more stuff. You can listen to it again and again and discover new things. That’s one of the reasons I tended to concentrate these things, the process of making them gives me the opportunity to be somewhat complex and I’ll quite often follow that tendency. I think most of the pieces in the 69/96 set are fairly robust in that you can put it on as background music and it works. And a lot of them work in terms of scrutiny, getting out the aural magnifying glasses and checking it out.”

As the basis of his Nantes appearance, Oswald’s Plexure-derived set might have been less than thrilling, but elsewhere, his obsession with sonic sleight of hand has inspired more compelling performance pieces. He explores areas of disassociated sound in conceptual pieces like Pitch, where concerts are staged in absolute darkness, providing a heightened aural experience; and Swarm-Time, where he attempts to create the aural equivalent of a time-frozen photograph by endlessly folding a single sound event in on itself. “One thing I’m always interested in is the capacity for illusion,” Oswald admits. “The conventions of what happens on stage is something I come up against every time I get a commission to do a piece that I want to do for musicians,” He has developed many pieces for performance by live ensembles, despite his avowed antipathy towards the vagaries of live performance and the “weirdness of musicians,” ranging from compositions for modern dance and radio plays through some startling commissions for The Kronos Quartet. On “Spectre,” for instance, the Quartet start off playing a simple one note drone that is gradually augmented by thousands of recorded multiples. “At a certain point where things have multiplied a lot, they start playing with their bows just lifting off the strings until it becomes really obvious that they’re not playing anymore, just swirling around in the air a bit,” Oswald laughs. “It works really well when you kind of go - huh? Because it was pretty obvious at the start that they were actually playing. When I first saw it, it really felt like a dream of some kind of string performance, using this illusion. The other side of my compositional interests is time. For most of the stuff on the 69/96 box set, time is the major compositional element. Components in time. I’m always thinking about that.”

Composition in real time is yet another arrow to Oswald’s bow and he has a parallel career on what he terms his ‘hobby instrument’, the alto saxophone. Despite working alongside the likes of American pianist and experimental film maker Michael Snow in the CCMC ensemble, avant guitarists Jim O’Rourke and Henry Kaiser, John Zorn and bassist Dominic Duval, Oswald’s angular, guttural throat work owes more to the British Improv tradition. On the surface, his excursions in free improvisation seem to take the polar opposite approach to his plunderphonic activities. “It seems like that to me too,” Oswald nods, “although I do think they are connected. For that sense of being inside, playing improvised music is extremely informative and influential on what happens when I’m composing. Because I’m not working in real time, I only have a normal musical experience of a piece when I’m listening back to what I’ve been formulating. So most of the work is done in a non-musical way, moving towards a goal of something that’s going to be listenable. Being able to have a sense of three minutes of music lasting three minutes is really important to get a handle on what I’m doing in this non-real-time process. So those two very different activities influence and feed off each other.”

John Oswald’s claim that he’s never given the copyrigh issue much thought can appear somewhat disingenuous in light of his extensive writings on the subject. For one, he thoroughly examines the subject in an incisive lecture delivered in 1985, called PIunderphonics Or Audio Piracy As A Compositional Prerogative. In the lecture’s text, he proposes composer James Tenney’s 1961 cut and taped collage of Elvis Presley’s “BIue Suede Shoes“ - Collage 1 - as a good test case for examining whether rudimentary plunderphonic appropriation can stay within the boundaries of legally defined copyright. “Tenney took an everyday music and allowed us to hear it differently,” Oswald writes. “At the same time, all that was inherently Elvis radically influenced our perception of Jim’s piece.” Tenney’s piece also fulfils a criterion inherent in 17th century poet John Milton’s assertion that plagiarism of a work only occurs “if it is not bettered by the borrower,” Oswald argues, going on to elucidate the american legal concepts of ‘fair use’ and ‘fair dealing’ at provide various legally protected contexts for appropriation. Fair use covers instances where appropriations are used illustratively, critically or with intent to parody - as in Tenney’s piece and much of Oswald’s own work. Fair dealing ensures protection “against any usage that might adversely affect the economic viability” of the original source. The legals a bit more personal on the subject of the vague oral rights related to copyright, which are designed to protect the ‘uniqueness’ of the artist’s soundworld, and event it being harmed by sloppy unofficial recordings that might hurt the artist’s reputation. Oswald brings a section of the Canadian copyright act that appears defend Tenney’s and, by extension, his own working practices. It reads: “That an artist who does not retain the copyright in a work may use certain materials used to produce that work to produce a subsequent work, without infringing copyright in the earlier work, if the subsequent work taken as a whole does not repeat the in design of the previous work,” But then Oswald’s sure makes the thrilling leap from defending himself the courtroom to proposing appropriation as a form resistance against the noisily marketed, copyright protected musics colonising public and private spaces. The hit parade promenades the aural floats of pop on blip display,” he writes. “As curious tourists should not be able to take our own snapshots through the wild rather than be restricted to the official souvenir postcards and programmes? All popular music - and all music by definition - essentially, if not legally, exists in a public domain. Listening to pop music isn’t a matter of choice. Asked for or not, we’re bombarded by in its most insidious state, filtered to an incessant s line, it seeps through apartment walls and out of heads of walkpeople. Although people in general are making more noise than ever before, fewer people are making more of the total noise; specifically, in music, those with megawatt PAs, triple platinum sales and heavy rotation. Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate, how does one not become a passive recipient?”

Enabling individuals to reappropriate their heavily polluted sound environment, plunderphonics effectively combats the increasingly one-way transmission of culture. In this sense, it can be seen as a restoration of folk’s oral tradition, treating the sound environment as a common stock of sonic building blocks, which anyone can take and evolve new variations from, much as folk singers used to freely mine a common lode of orally passed down lines. “Still, for me that folk music thing doesn’t seem to stick,” Oswald argues. “The best example of the folk thing, particularly when it was on a street level, was rap music of the 70s where they were using turntables and boomboxes and making edit tapes and mixtapes and using these instruments to make fairly direct communication. They were played in public situations and there was that troubadour kind of element. That’s a folk music thing but it doesn’t stick in my own mind because I seem to be too much of a recluse to be part of any folk tradition.”

“There’s that potential in my work to deal with it but I don’t think I’m the person to encourage that,” he continues. “If I’ve advanced on any front that deals with the way the corporate situation works, then it’s been totally inadvertent. I haven’t taken any active stance or tried in any way to undermine it. In fact I would quite possibly wear a Nike emblem on my forehead if they paid me enough money. I feel like me being co-opted would have a happy ending. More interesting things would be produced.”

Still, contemporary copyright law’s ever strengthening hold is squeezing Oswald further towards the margins. “I think we all know how the field keeps getting smaller thanks to copyright,” he confesses. “I always like to refer to this piece of speculative fiction by Spider Robertson, which takes place some time in the future, where these copyright extensions I’m talking about become so extended that they go on until infinity. In this alternate reality, if somebody is the owner of something, they’re always the owner of it. As a result, at some point in the future it becomes impossible to make any sort of original music, because people have exhausted those few remaining melodic configurations by using computers to search for all the combinations. - “If we don’t open things up to allowing people to transform the past - as we’re all inevitably doing when we do the things we do - then eventually we’re going to run into a wall.”

There are precedents for Oswald’s stance on copyright. “I live in a different age from the one that Charles Ives did,” he says, “but he’s an exemplary composer in this respect, in that he never copyrighted his own work and never accepted any sort of remuneration for it. When some of his stuff got published in the late 40s, his publisher said, ‘We should send you some money’. He just redirected the money to other young composers. He also lived in a time where there was no public quandary about re-use of existing music in music. He could quote contemporary popular songs freely. We can still do that freely but there’s always that potential that you’re going to run into some legal hassle down the road.”

But perhaps composers would still be confined to scrabbling for church or court patronage, if the introduction of copyright hadn’t established a principle of ownership that ensured they got paid for their work.

Free market freedom might come with other restraints but what would Oswald suggest in its place? Maybe artists shouid get a proper job to subsidise their art activities.

“I don’t know what to replace it with,” he shrugs. “It’s interesting you ask that question because I’ve never thought about it. We should get back to what I first said. l simply love the music,” A few days after our meeting, Oswald further reiterates his stance in an email update: “I had faded (which isn’t normal) near the end by the time you asked for my solution to copyright,” he wrote. “If I had been feeling more articulate I would have said that I don’t have anything to say on the subject.”

As a child, Oswald was undoubtedly precocious. By the time he was ten he had worked out how to manhandle his record deck to put it to more expressive use. “I was a bit of a manipulative DJ in the late 60s,” he recalls. “I started out playing with radios before I got my first tape recorder. l was in this funny band I concocted where I was playing records at the wrong speed and I had a trumpet player, two bongo players and me. l hadn’t heard of anyone using radios and record players as instruments, but we all had them. Obviously the potential was there for them to be played in all sorts of different ways,” Oswald uses a beautiful quote by trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell, taken from the sleevenotes to his Aka/Darbari/Java album (1983), to describe the sort of musical microstructures that opened up to him through experiments with vinyl, exposing “sonic texture like the Mona Lisa which, in close-up, reveals itself to be made up of tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal.” Indeed, Hassell’s description of the potential of a new collage based music which would facilitate “remarkable sight-hearing excursions to a place which doesn’t exist but should,” uncannily anticipates Oswald’s plunderphonics, where false facts mingle with real ones. For the young Oswald, vinyl records became gateways into protean soundworlds, accessible via speed shifts, juxtaposition of sounds and actual physical manipulation. He continues, “I meet a lot of people who at a young age start taking pieces of equipment apart and putting them back together again so that it turns out to do something different or at least they know how it works. My way of taking things apart was to break them, so I tended to work within the limitations of what was built into the thing. Sometimes there are options outwith standard procedure in those manufactured devices, so your average turntable back in the 1960s played four speeds, in most cases with no variation, but you could play 33 rpm records at 16, 45 or 78. You would hear different things and you could also make funny sounds by moving the records. And those sounds still seem quite funny every time I hear them.”

“It’s quite natural,” he proposes, “you have a limited number of records and you get bored with hearing them the same way each time, so you start to fiddle around with them. Of course, in retrospect, l could see that people like Stockhausen and Cage were doing this sort of thing. High Fidelity magazine tended to have interviews with people like Stockhausen and I’d find some records of that kind of stuff and guess or read about tape manipulation and start doing that kind of stuff.”

The first piece of transformative sound to blow open the young Oswald’s ears was Luciano Berio’s Thema Omaggio A Joyce, where the composer transformed Cathy Berberian’s readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses into rhythmic, onomatopoeic lines, whose fractured logic mirrored Joyce’s own. Fittingly, however, one of Oswald’s earliest appropriations was the voice of plagiarism’s high priest, William S Burroughs, for a 1974 piece called Burrows. Its ten studies toyed with bizarre aural palindromes lifted from the Call Me Burroughs album on ESP-Disk. Despite an attempt to shoehorn it into the 69/96 box as a pre-track, Burrows has yet to show up on any Oswald release. “In retrospect, I can see that we have very different ways of working,” he remarks. “Burroughs’s search for the random aspect of juxtaposition and cut-ups was completely contrary to my attempt to control the cut-up effect and make very careful choices as to which words go together.”

Oswald’s first Plunderphonic release was a vinyl EP in 1988 that featured inventions based on re-assigning Dolly Parton’s sex, matching Elvis with a wildly improvising backing group and mutating the orchestras of Igor Stravinsky and Count Basie. “I didn’t approach the artists before I made that EP,” Oswald confesses. “They might’ve said no. I do the work and worry about the practicalities afterwards. If they refuse me permission, I then feel that I’m obligated not to play this for anyone. But I really like playing this for people, so to ensure the maximum degree of self preservation I wouldn’t ask permission. Now I’ve started to think that it wasn’t even a good idea or a necessary thing to ask them. There’s this tendency with almost anyone who looks at a photograph of themselves to say, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible photo, I don’t want anyone to see that’, whereas everyone else has a much more moderate opinion. And I think this is why producers exist, to have somebody outside of the artist’s contribution. So, as I’m the uninvited producer there isn’t that dialogue going on, and in some ways I’m in the best position of just calling the shots so as to make the quality of the music a priority.”

Oswald’s one experience of going legit and accepting a plunderphonics commission only confirmed his preference for playing lone wolf on the edge of the herd. In 1990, Elektra opened their vaults to him in order to produce Selektrax, the five track plunderphonic EP that features some of his most memorable work, It includes his haunting Tim Buckley, chorale “Anon,” the hard-rocking Doors fantasia “O’Hell,” and a hilarious MC5 rallying cry “Mother.” “They said I could use outtakes or whatever,” Oswald relates, “but it just seemed to me to be like dirty laundry and garbage. The things I like to deal with are the recordings that we know, so they didn’t have to send me anything. I just went down to the store and bought a Doors CD. I didn’t want or need any special access to the valuables of the record company,” However, Elektra had failed to get sample clearances from the estate of Jim Morrison and others involved. The CD was swiftly withdrawn, but not before a few copies got out to DJs. A pity, because Oswald’s exemplary Doors track, “O’Hell,” exaggerates and intensifies the group’s characteristic elements, while introducing breakneck tempo changes and grimy guitar bursts as form-destroying as anything by contemporary Japanese groups like Ruins or Boredoms. Here, the plunderphonic process resurrects The Doors as unlikely avatars of everything rock should have sounded like but didn’t. “I go forth on the assumption that people will recognise something, and somewhere between them remembering and the recognition of the transformation lies a really useful musical tool,” Oswald reiterates. “That doesn’t immediately bring up copyright questions and all that stuff. It is quotation and I’ve made extra effort to make the quotations clear on the box set. And as for the anagrams, they take a little deciphering but people are named,” When its morphed hybrid popstar images and daft anagram credits, such as Dame Conic Cannon and Sir Jim Moron, get buried under copyright and legal issues, it’s easy to forget that Oswald’s plunderphonics can be side-splittingly funny. “So I’ve heard,” he smirks, 4 disappearing through the door. “So I’ve heard.”

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