Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Piece by Randall Roberts at Los Angeles Times on John Oswald revisisting / reworking  Grayfolded, his proto-mashup sampladelic expansion of "Dark Star" by Grateful Dead, 20 years after it was first released.

20 years!

Here's what I wrote about it at the time....

The Wire, 1995
by Simon Reynolds

     There are two different schools of sampling. For some (A
Guy Called Gerald, The Young Gods, Techno-Animal), there's a
fierce conviction (50 percent aesthetic, 50 percent legal
anxiety) that all samples must be masked, all sources
rendered unrecognisable.  This is the modernist school of
sampladelia: digital technology as a crucible for sonic
alchemy, musique concrete made easy as pie.  I have a lot of
sympathy for this ethos, but there's a sense in which this
approach reduces the sampler to a synthesiser, and thereby
misses what is truly idiomatic to the machine: taking the
known and making it strange, yet still retaining an uncanny,
half-recognisable trace of the original's aura.

     Canadian musician/producer John Oswald falls into the
second, postmodern camp. Sampling, or as he prefers to term
it, "electroquoting", is a highly self-conscious practice
that allows him to interrogate notions of originality,
copyright, signature and 'the death of the author'.  Long
before the sampler became available, he was using more
cumbersome, time-consuming techniques of tape cut'n'splice to
create his famous if seldom heard Mystery Lab cassettes.  But
he really made a name for himself in 1989 with the
Plunderphonics CD, which caused a major ruckus, sonically and
institutionally, with its digital vivisections of songs by
The Beatles, Elvis, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Glenn
Gould etc.  Despite the fact that 'Plunderphonics' was
distributed on a non-commercial, non-profit basis, the
Canadian Recording Industry Association, acting on behalf of
its clients CBS and Michael Jackson, threatened Oswald with
litigation.  He was forced to destroy the master-tapes and
all remaining CD's.  700 remain in circulation, while the
intrigued can get bootleg copies from a number of Copyright
Violation Squads (see end-note).

     Since then Oswald has mostly confined his plunderphonic
escapades to cases where his reworkings have been solicited,
like his de- and re-constructions of songs by The Doors and
Metallica, amongst others, for a limited release CD
celebrating the 25th Annivesary of Elektra Records. An
exception was "Plexure" (released on John Zorn's Avant
label), where Oswald cannibalised the entire audiorama of
contemporary pop'n'rock in one fell swoop. The result--5000
songs 'composited' into a 20 minute frenzy of crescendos,
choruses, screams, powerchords, etc--is a bit like Napalm
Death with samplers.

     Last year, at the invitation of the Grateful Dead,
Oswald plunderphonized that band's most famous and far-out
song "Dark Star", producing the double-CD "Grayfolded".  The
first disc, "Transitive Axis" came out last year; now the
second half, "Mirror Ashes" has been added, and the whole
'Grayfolded' package is being made widely available,
following the unexpectedly warm reception 'Transitive'
received from the Deadhead community (50,000 copies sold!).

     Entering the Dead's legendary vaults, where recordings
of virtually every performance they ever made are stacked,
Oswald spent 21 days listening to 100 versions of 'Dark
Star', and extracted 40 hours of improvisatory material.  The
original plan was to create just one disc, but Oswald soon
realised he had enough good stuff for two.  'Transitive' and
'Mirror' each took three months of painstaking digital labour
to construct. The results are astonishing. Whereas the
iconoclasm (literally idol-smashing) of 'Plunderphonics' was
patently audible, 'Grayfolded' is true to the spirit of the
Dead:  the nine tracks of 'Transitive', in particular, form one seamless, fluent
monster-jam, and sounds almost like a plausible real-time
event with the Dead in unusually kosmik form.  Although
Oswald's techniques allow Garcia, Weir, Lesh et al to jam
with their own doppelgangers across a 25 years timespan, the
digital methodology doesn't really draw attention to itself
on the first disc (it gets a bit more outre on "Mirror
Ashes", though).

     One of the ironies of "Grayfolded" is that Oswald wasn't
exactly a Deadhead when he embarked on the project. "I
enjoyed 1969's 'Live/Dead', especially 'Dark Star', and might
have heard the odd C&W song or 'Truckin'', but I basically
didn't listen to them for twenty five years," he admits over
the phone from his Toronto office. "But I found what I expected
in the vaults--all kinds of great things were happening in
concert.  I also went to two Dead shows.  The first was in
Oakland, their home town, and I thought 'well, this is not
great improvising', but it was fascinating sociologically, in
so far as there's this relationship between an extremely
active, fertile audience and a very untheatrical musical
experience onstage.  A year later I went to another show in
New York, and found that musically it was quite satisfying,
almost like a completely different band. So I started to
respect the idea that an audience would follow this band
looking for these good concerts. I had got one out of two, a
good ratio."

     In the lysergic daze of late '60s acid-rock, the Dead
did weird studio-as-instrument stuff on early albums like
'Anthem of the Sun' and 'Aoxomoa', But today one associates
the Dead with a keep-it-live, jam-a-long mess-thetic,
possibly because their legacy is godawful American neo-
tie-dye bands like Blues Traveller, Phish, etc. Was there a
sense in which Oswald was making a case for digital music as
the new psychedelia, and making up for the Dead's abandonment
of the studio's possibilities?

     Actually, no. "The technique of this record--using
computers, digital transfers and stuff--is really incidental
to the illusion I'm trying to present.  People would tell me
to stop listening to the tapes and go to a concert, 'cos live
it's a totally different thing.  And I thought what
constitutes this other 'thing'? It's obviously not in the
band itself, cos there's no theatricality. Maybe it's 'cos
there's so much drugs in the air! What I found at the
concerts is there's a give and take between the audience and
band, there are audience surges triggered by certain things the
band do, or by the lighting, which is very subtle and directs
the visual attention back onto the audience every so often.
I thought 'well, we're not going to soak the CD cover in
acid, so how can I achieve what I think everybody desires--a
record that captures this feeling that Dead concerts are
magic?'  So I did things that are unnatural, like have a young
Jerry Garcia sing with an old Jerry, or have an orchestra of
multiple Dead musicians, all in order to pump up the sonic
experience so that at certain points you think: 'What's
happening? Have the drugs kicked in?'".

     These paradoxical sensations--a real-time, flow-motion
band suddenly transfigured and transcendentalized--were
created via an array of intensely artificial and finickety
techniques. Like 'folding', whereby Oswald took similar
material from different concerts and layered them up,
achieving a density similar to the effect Phil Spector got
from having several pianos playing the same chords. "For
instance, on "Transitive Axis" I took a really nice 12 minute
duet between Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia, trimmed out
redundant ideas and folded it down to three minutes. Yet it
still feels like a duet. Using a computer, it's easy to take
something from later in a musical sequence and slide it in
earlier, superimposing it on a different track of the mix. I
used to do that in my earlier analog days but it was much
harder to do it accurately. With computers, I can move things
by a millisecond 'til they fit exactly in the rhythmic
pocket, so you still have the 'feel' of a band.

     "After the first disc, Lesh said he would have liked to
hear even more folding, and in response I took the entirety
of 'Transitive Axis' and folded it 14 times. This created 16,
384 layers and squeezed 60 minutes into 2 seconds! It sounds
like a feedback rush or a jet engine, and I slipped it into
"Cease Tone Beam" on the second disc. It's a bit like that JG
Ballard idea that in the future people will listen to Wagner
operas that have been compressed from four hours to a few
seconds, but still have the flavour, like a whiff of

     "Cease Tone Beam" itself is Oswald's plunderphonia at
its most extreme. From the ' drumspace' sections of Dead
shows, which often segue into 'Dark Star', Oswald took a
minute and a half fragment of ultralow-end percussion timbre,
generated on Mickey Hart's custom-made aluminum beam. Oswald
slowed it down 16 times into a protracted sub-aural seism,
over which he layered progressively shorter, less-slowed down swatches
of percussion that went up in ratios (2, 4, 8) that generated a simple harmonic relationship.  The result, at once ethereal
and chthonic, other- and under-wordly, is the missing link
between avant-grunge unit The Melvins and Eno's "On Land".

     Oswald doesn't really know how the Grateful Dead feel
about "Grayfolded". Ex-keyboard player Tom
Constanten did send him a thank-you note, but the death of Jerry
Garcia left the rest of the guys "pretty preoccupied".  Diehard Deadheads
responded extremely well to "Transitive Axis", but the more
anti-naturalistic "Mirror Ashes" has stirred the first
charges of 'heresy!'.  Oswald's favourite reaction is "from a
guy on the Internet who wrote that Grayfolded makes him cry,
because it encapsulates 25 years of Garcia, and it's unreal
in a way that gave him a very visceral sensation of it being
a ghost."

     Garcia's death does shine a peculiar light on the whole
project, in so far as it suggests that a kind of involuntary
immortality for artists may soon become widespread. Oswald
has shown that a sympathetic ear can 'play' another artist's
aesthetic like an instrument. (Of course Luddites like Lenny Kravitz and Oasis
have effectively already done the same thing, vis-a-vis
Hendrix and Lennon/McCartney, by writing new songs in
another's old style).  But what's to stop an unsympathetic,
money-motivated ear doing the same thing?  In the future,
will artists copyright their 'soul-signature' and then sell
it to the highest bidder to be exploited after their demise?
Fond of visual and filmic analogies, Oswald mentions that the
movie business has been trying to devise ways of taking dead
stars and creating simulations of them to play new parts.
The mind boggles....

     In addition to plunderphonic activity, Oswald works as a
producer, where he deploys unique recording techniques like
his Orbital Microphone Navigational Imaging Via Echotronic
Radio Stereo Eccentricity, aka OMNIVERSE (a mic' with the
aural equivalent of a zoom lens, enabling it to do a 'tracking shot' down the entire length of a piano string).  He also writes pieces for
orchestra, and, as we speak, is putting the finishing touches
to a stage production involving 22 choreographers "none of
whom know what the others are doing". Finally, and strictly
as a hobby, he plays sax in a quintet confusingly called The
Double Wind Cello Trio.  On the plunderphonic front, Oswald has a
backlog of classical music related stuff to release, and he's
about to embark on a massive opus that will somehow
"encapsulate this first century of music recording history
that is about to come to an end".


and a later (2001) piece for Uncut on the reissue of Plunderphonics as part of a box set

Plunderphonics 69/96
by Simon Reynolds

In this "pop will regurgitate itself" era, sampling and referentiality is so par for the course, it's barely comment-worthy. Flashback, though, to a time when the debates about bricolage and (re-, mis-, and ex-) appropriation were more urgent: the late Eighties of Def Jam, the JAMMS, M/A/R/R/S, Steinski, that moment when the sampler suddenly got much cheaper. Canadian avant-gardist John Oswald had been messin' with music by iconic artist for years, using traditional tape-editing techniques, and he seized the opportunities presented by the new digital technology. The result was 1989's Plunderphonic CD: songs by Elvis Presley, James Brown, Count Basie, Stravinsky,  and others, vivisected and rebuilt into grotesque mutant alter-egos.   What was different about Oswald's approach was that each track focused on a single artist, and usually a single work. This sort of aural Pop Art mischief wasn't unprecedented, either in the academy (James Tenney's 1961 Elvis-deconstruction "Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede) or in pop itself (The Residents Reich'n'Roll), but Oswald's cover (per)versions were especially extreme.

Despite being scrupulous about identifying his sources, and circulating Plunderphonic on a non-commercial basis, Oswald was persecuted by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (largely because CBS were upset by his reworking of Michael Jackson's "Bad") and forced to destroy all remaining copies of the CD. For years, the only way to hear it has been to contact various Copyright Liberation outfits who'd tape it for free. But now, finally, Oswald has secured permission for all his  "electroquotes" and has re-released Plunderphonic, plus some of his earlier and later collages, in a deluxe CD box. There's an extensive booklet, which goes into fascinating detail about Oswald's techniques and diverse approaches to each different song-treatment, along with all the related issues of originality, copyright, artistic signature, etc, that Oswald is exploring.

Listening to the set's two discs, a certain Oswald "signature" emerges:   a partiality for choppy, fractured rhythms and weird time signatures. The herky-jerky cut-up of  "Hello I Love You" sounds like the Magic Band reduced to eking out an existence as a covers band, with the players uncannily imitating the Doors's instrumental and vocal timbres, but restructuring the tune in the jagged spirit of Trout Mask Replica.  Extracts from Plexure, Oswald's attempt to compress the entire pop universe into one 20 minute piece, offer a frenzy of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back-blasts, etc, an FM radio inferno that spawns monstrous hybrids like Annie Lennox amalgamated with Fine Young Cannibals inna Cronenburg/The Fly-stylee.  There are also moments of beguiling delicacy, though: offcuts of Juan Carlos Joabim bossanova rewoven into a beautiful quilt of lilt; "Strawberry Fields Forever" condensed into a quintessential quiver of wistful ethereality; a varispeeded "White Christmas" that makes Bing's croon droop and ooze like a Dali dreamscape. "Pretender" is a sex-change version of a Dolly Parton song descending from only-audible-to-dogs ultra-treble to a testosterone-thick basso profundissimo, and  executed using a Lenco turntable that  goes from 80 rpm down to 12 rpm.

The most stunning of  Oswald's plunderphonic feats is "Dab", his infamous unravelling of Michael Jackson's "Bad".  Attempting to bring sorely-needed electricity to what he felt was musically lifeless, Oswald does his usual Beefheart/Zorn-style thing at first, transforming the song into convulsive cyber-funk. Halfway through, though, the remake ascends to another place altogether. Micro-syllable vocal particles are multitracked as if in some infinite hall-of-mirrors vortex, and this ghost-swarm of 
nano-Jacksons strobes stereophonically from speaker to speaker, while simultaneously billowing back and forth through dub-space. The opposite approach to Plexure's maximalist assault, "Dab" creates a new universe within a finite, not-especially-great pop song. It's one of the most cosmic (micro-cosmic?) things I've ever heard. And it alone justifies the not-cheap admission price to Plunderphonics 69/96. 

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