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.