What the March of Time Told Me

I played my 20th-century music class several tracks from John Oswald’s (in)famous 1990 Plunderphonics CD, in which he took illegal samples from Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Dolly Parton, The Rite of Spring, and other sources, making inventive new works by mixing, subverting, looping, and speed-shifting them. (Even though he gave the discs away for free he was threatened with legal action, and had to destroy 300 of the 1000 copies. I was a recipient of one of the original 700, a rare disc indeed.) As we were listening, I realized, though, how familiar these techniques are to my students now, how many of them had performed similar tricks on their laptops.

Next day I played Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives video. When I first saw it in 1982, its nonlinear overlays and screens-within-screens seemed like a totally new artform, and no one knew what to make of it. Now I realized that my students were comparing it in their heads with 20 years of slickly-produced MTV.

I’m old enough that the stunning technological advances of my youth have lost all punch as such, and will never have the impact on my students they did on me. Those works will have to survive – as, indeed, they always did have to – on their intrinsic artistic merits, and they get no extra points today for having been first at what they did. One of my students generously said that the audio roughness of Oswald’s techniques made his music seem grittier and more authentic than similar attempts today. And I was wryly gratified by a general complaint that Ashley’s video contained too much information to take in at one sitting. I asked if anyone had ever tried to read Finnegans Wake.


  1. says

    Actually, Oswald’s plunderphonics pieces don’t sound at all rough to me. I don’t know what your student might have meant by that comment. Well, I don’t have the original version, so perhaps my recordings are all remastered. Notwithstanding Oswald’s choice to sometimes not “crossfade” between samples, the audio production is pretty top-notch. It seems that Oswald is meticulous about the structure and shape of each track, and every single sound seems carefully considered. Is your student perhaps confusing roughness with complexity?

    Anyone who works with current audio technology knows that in five or ten years, we’ll have to remix and remaster everything anyway. Metaphorically speaking, technology cannot paint a portrait, but it can provide a frame.

  2. says

    The Perfect Lives video probably contains too much information to take in at one sitting because it was made by my husband, John Sanborn, who is capable of watching a baseball game, listening to the Pet Shop Boys, working on a video, and checking e-mail all at one time. It is really interesting though that our world has changed so rapidly. And it’s always gratifying to see younger sampling musicians giving credit to artists like Carl Stone, John Oswald, and many others who cleared the path for them.

  3. jmac says

    What is the worth of the pioneer? For example, many people have produced more virtuosic musique concrete than pierre schaeffer, yet scheaffer’s early work is still extremely important. I will say, though, that I find Oswald’s early stuff to be the most amazingly effective “mashing” I’ve heard.

  4. says

    a friend and I had the same reaction to the video of “Perfect Lives.” We each had our interest piqued by your writing, but it seemed almost disappointingly dated in its appearance. I hate to say it, but I still find the CD and book forms more involving. Of course, the “Finnegan’s Wake” analogy is an apt one; I’ve been finding that PL makes great grist for the term paper mill.
    I wouldn’t let the march of time take over just yet, though. Postclassic music still needs some impassioned advocacy before it can be left to fend for itself.

  5. says

    Yes, it’s that old debate of “where does the art lie?” Is it in the archetype, ie the score, or is it in the realization? Listening back to the 1960s recordings of early Reich and Glass, they really sound pretty crappy compared to later studio versions. Yet I can only imagine the aural wonder upon first listening. I guess it all depends on whether you’re happy to allow your work to be ‘re-worked’ later as technology changes.