Plunderphonia by Chris Cutler

Posted by: Dave Douglas on November 26, 2008 @ 8:06 am
Filed under: Culture, Music Technology

Cutler’s essay from kagablog begins thusly:

sounds like a dive downwards as a sped up tape slows rapidly to settle into a recognisable, slightly high-pitched dolly parton. it continues to slow down, but more gradually now. the instruments thicken and their timbres stretch and grow richer. details unheard at the right speed suddenly cut across the sound. dolly is changing sex, she’s a man already; the backing has become hallucinatory and strange. the grain of the song is opened up and the ear, seduced by detail, lets a throng of surprising associations and ideas fall in behind it. the same thing is suddenly very different. who would have expected this extraordinary composition to have been buried in a generic country song, one thousand times heard already and one thousand times copied and forgotten?

so i hear john oswald’s version of dolly parton’s version of the great pretender, effectively a recording of oswald playing parton’s single once through, transformed via varispeed media (first a high speed cassette duplicator, then an infinitely variable speed turntable, finally a hand-controlled reel-to-reel tape – all seamlessly edited together). apart from the economy of this single procedure of controlled deceleration, which is, as it were, played by oswald, no modifications have been made to the original recording. however, although the source is plainly fixed and given, the choice, treatment and reading of this source are all highly conscious products of oswald’s own intention and skill. so much so indeed that it is easy to argue that the piece, although ‘only’ parton’s record, undoubtedly forms, in oswald’s version, a self-standing composition with its own structure and logic – both of which are profoundly different from those of the original. oswald’s pretender would still work for a listener who had never heard the parton version, and in a way the parton version never could. though the parton version is, of course, given – along with and against the plundered version. what oswald has created – created because the result of his work is something startlingly new – is a powerful, aesthetic, significant, polysemic but highly focused and enjoyable sound artifact; both a source of direct listening pleasure and (for our purposes) a persuasive case for the validity and eloquence of its means.

The piece goes on to talk about how the use of recorded sound in composition has changed the way we think about plagiarism, fair use, and the idea of creation itself. And how that intersects (interrupts?) both the academy and current copyright law.

Here’s Negativland’s take:

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