By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
John Oswald is a malefactor of another order altogether. While sharing Diana’s penchant for deliberate provocation, Oswald operates in a distinctively cerebral arena. In contrast to Diana‘s psychosexual id-fest, Oswald assaults the less deeply rooted, but just as fiercely guarded, taboos of intellectual property. He first gained a reputation in the underground cassette-trading culture as the proprietor of Toronto-based Mystery Labs, whose complex “X tapes” were among the most accomplished artifacts of that subculture. Plunderphonics and the attendant brouhaha gave him an international notoriety, and that recording’s technically unavailable but endlessly pirated versions of music by Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Glenn Gould, and the Beatles made him king of the highbrow remix-masters. Slowed down, sped up, superimposed, chopped into tiny fragments and reassembled in barely recognizable configurations, the musical works on Plunderphonics compose a radical reassessment of originality, and a revelation of the potential of recording technology as a compositional tool.
Through the subsequent decade, Oswald‘s deconstructive skills were sought out by artists like the Kronos Quartet and Pizzicato Five; Elektra hired him to do a promotional plunderphonic version of its “Rubaiyat” retrospective; and the Grateful Dead gave him free access to their tape archives, resulting in the improbable 110-minute version of “Dark Star” spread over two discs as “Grayfolded.” All the while, as U2 and Negativland duked it out in a much-higher-profile fair-use battle and the Napster wars gathered steam, Oswald’s magnum opus remained illegal -- a much-traded bootleg, but unobtainable by the curious consumer.
A few years ago, that started to change as Oswald set out on the Sisyphean task of clearing the copyrights of all the samples he‘d used on Plunderphonics, hopefully in time for the 10th anniversary of its initial 1989 release. Well, he missed that anniversary, and the 11th as well. Finally, earlier this year, it was announced that, pending a couple of final clearances, a box set of remastered Plunderphonics plus rarities and outtakes, and a handsome booklet, would be available within a few months.
To the relief of those who found this a dubious political move -- some perceive the project as a sellout to the forces of copyright protectionism -- something went wrong. The Plunderphonics 6996 box set, originally slated to carry a staggering ticket price of $100 (all those clearances!) and appear at your local Tower Records next to DJ Spooky, was suddenly available from Seeland Records, Negativland’s Olympia, Washington--based record label: $33 for the “digitally borrowed” set, and copyright be damned! So, for as long as the majors are able to restrain themselves from martyring these aging sonic bricoleurs all over again, we are free to purchase the reputedly stellar collection -- sequenced in a much less jarring manner than the original, and chock-full of surprising obscurities -- in a manner that upholds the righteous tenets of the copyright-liberation movement, i.e., the extra 67 bucks aren‘t going toward a plasma-screen TV in David Geffen’s stretch Hummer.