The Science and Art of Plunderphonics

If you’re at all into sampling, song deconstruction and sound manipulation, you need to read this article on John Oswald and the art of “plunderphonics.”  Thanks to Rupinder for the tip.

Composer/ musician/ artist John Oswald coined the term Plunderphonics in the essay “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” (previously) which discussed the efforts to create something new by sampling and distorting audio. Even though Oswald coined the term in ’85, he has been working in the style since the late 1960s, and many people have joined in.

When discussing sampling in music, all sorts of artists get lumped together. For instance, in an episode of the radio show Sound Opinions, John Oswald is grouped with Igor Stravinsky and MC Hammer as artists who dealt in musical quoting, re-contextualizing or “stealing” from other artists. In an interview, Osborn spoke on the differences between traditional musical quoting, directly lifting samples, and manipulating known music to point just before obscurity; the last category is the only which he considers to a case of “plunderphonics.”

The roots of plunderphonics stretch back decades, and span countries. In some ways, it can be traced back to manipulations of audio captured on magnetic tape, going back to 1944, with Halim El-Dabh (hear also: Leiyla Visitations on UbuWeb, created in 1959).

In the realm of pop music, the 1956 novelty single “The Flying Saucer” was the first break-in record, bringing an emphasis to the “plunder” element in plunderphonics. Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan made a single that was inspired by Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” presented as a radio broadcast with snippets from well-known pop songs of the day [transcript with notes]. 17 record labels tried to sue Goodman and Buchanan, a fate not to dissimilar to later audio borrorwers. To appease various parties, the song was re-recorded with different song samples, where most plunderphonic releases get pulled from general release and disappear into dusty corners.


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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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