John Oswald – Copyright, Content, Comment and Critique.


John Oswald is a Canadian composer who developed and championed the compositional practice known as plunderphonics. In plunderphonics recorded music is used as a source material that, as the name suggests has been plundered from the composer of the sound. Oswald was inspired to engage with this practice in the 1960s by the ‘cut up’ works of the author William S. Burroughs. Burroughs himself had been inspired by the practice of collage in the visual arts (Cox, Warner 334: 2008). In the epilogue to his novel ‘The Ticket that Exploded’ (1962) Burroughs uses the cut up technique to reflect on his experiments with cutting up tape recordings and the manner in which recordings have an effect on our lives. This inspired Oswald to emulate this practice and with the permission of Burroughs, he created the piece “Burrows” (1975) using recordings of Burroughs reading his cut up texts that were advocating the cut up method (Oswald 1996). From these initial experiments Oswald went on to develop this practice for creation of music. The existence of this music provoked engagement with and comment upon ownership in the age of mechanical reproduction and the archaic nature of contemporary copyright law. He challenged romantic conceptions of ‘the original’ and critiqued the mediated experience of reality to which popular music contributes.

This paper will philosophically position Oswald’s work through the studies of relevant texts and analysis of Oswald’s music and practice. It will go on to explore how these relate to contemporary ideological issues of ownership, originality and the nature of control of ones experience. Finally, there will be consideration of the record industry’s response to the criticism put forth by Oswald and others. As a result of this examination, conclusions are drawn about Oswald’s philosophical position with reference to his practice, and its impact upon contemporary artistic practice as a vehicle for criticism.

In order to contextualize Oswald’s practice it can be said that he, like the majority of 20th and 21st century sonic arts composers, had a fascination with the change in sonic experience offered by the recordability of sound. For the first time in human history, sound was no longer only an ephemeral experience but rather it could be engaged with as captured material(a physical resource). Initially this change in experience was (and still is) sufficiently rich to explore for its own sake. The development of ‘Musique Concrète’ by Pierre Schaeffer attempted to find abstraction in environmental sounds through recording and editing and engaging with the practice of ‘pure listening’ (Schaeffer 76: 2008).  This practice is exemplified in the piece ‘Étude aux Chemins de Fer’, (1948)[track 1] which uses edited samples of trains to, over time, abstract the listener from his experiential associations with the sound.

By 1953 John Cage had used copyrighted material for the purposes of composition in ‘Williams Mix’ [track 2]. However the copyrighted material in the piece is used in tiny quantities hidden amongst other material. Here the focus is aural experience, albeit of a ‘world gone berserk’ (Ross 2007: 402), rather than as a challenge to the concept of ownership.

Broadly speaking one could position these composers [Cage and Schaeffer] as modernists, which Cage always argued he was (Nyman 2002: XVI). In line with much of the avant-garde composition of the first half of the twentieth century, their work seems to have championed the idea of progress in modernity through technology. As has been observed the new opportunities presented by recordability, have ‘vastly expanded our knowledge of the nature of sounds and our perception of them and contradicted many nineteenth century preconceptions’ (Wishart 1996: 5). This could be considered the central artistic and ideological vision offered up to Sonic Artists by the recordability and manipulation of sound. This vision seems inherently modernist, as Trevor Whishart states the technology offers:

‘…the most detailed control of the internal parameters of sounds… to be able to sculpt sound but also makes the original categoric distinctions separating music from text-sounds and landscape-based art forms invalid. (Wishart 1996:  5)

What seems to be suggested here is a desire for a universality of sonic experience and human control over sound material, which arguably drives many to become engaged in sonic arts practice. A desire for ‘progress’ that forms a modernist ideology. An ideology, that Charles Jenks argues, attempts to fill a vacuum in society with a progressive vision as a pseudo religion:

‘In this sense modernism is the first ideological response to a social crisis and the breakdown of a shared religion… the creative elite formulated a new role for themselves, a spiritual one directed against the crasser forms of materialism and conspicuous consumption. (Jenks 2007: 34)

By presenting an alternative to the ‘vulgar musics’ described by Theodor Adorno (Adorno in Paddison 83: 2004), it was believed by some that the modernists could save society from materialism. However the same ideological framework that the modernists followed was also providing the technology to prevent their dream from being successful. This became part of what Jenks describes as ‘the many deaths of modernism’ (Jenks 2007: 18).

By the time John Oswald delivered his paper ‘Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative’ in 1985, the modernist ideological framework seemed to no longer offer the answers to the questions implicit in contemporary composition. Technology, as observed by Wishart, had blurred the line between previously strictly delineated musical experiences. However, it is the context within which this blurring of experience takes place that is of some concern to Oswald:

“Musical instruments produce sounds. Composers produce music. Musical instruments reproduce music. Tape recorders, radios, disk players, etc., reproduce sound… A phonograph in the hands of a hip hop/ Scratch artist… produces sounds, which are unique, and not reproduced- the record player becomes the instrument. A sampler, in essence a recording, transforming instrument, is simultaneously a documenting device and a creative device, in effect reducing the distinction manifested by copyright.” (Oswald 1985)

It is clear that Oswald sees the technological developments for music, as did the modernists, as a culturally liberating force that questions ones ability to confine the activities he mentions within traditional legal definitions of ownership. Oswald’s plunderphonics expresses an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ (Lyotard 1984: xxiv) of, in this case the ownership of artistic content and the primacy of the notion of the original. For Jean Francoise Lyotard this incredulity with metanarratives is key to defining the postmodern condition. Furthermore, from the particular metanarratives Oswald had rejected (i.e. ownership and primacy), it could be argued that he has taken a poststructuralist approach in his practice. This sort of practice can be said to have had its origins in Roland Barthes’ essay ‘Death of the Author’ (1967) in which, he argued that the author’s interpretation of a text has no more authority or validity than any other interpretation. With the technology available to Oswald at the time, he was able to take his interpretation of a text i.e. a piece of music, and make it into a sonic artifact. This allowed him to take advantage of what Jenks describes as ‘double coding’ and ‘irony’ (Jenks 2007: 49) meaning building into the text, comment and multiple different readings for different audiences, as a compositional decision. For Jenks this practice of ‘double coding’ often used the audience’s understanding or acceptance of metanarratives. This makes his theory problematic with regard to Lyotard’s (Jenks 2007: 23) rejection of the metanarrative. However as is often the case with postmodernism in practice such problems can and have been circumvented.

Within this context the discussion now moves to consider how these ideas are expressed in Oswald’s practice. In 1989 Oswald followed his theoretical manifesto with his first large-scale investigation of the concept with the ‘Plunderphonic’ LP. The album was constructed entirely from material that had at one point or presently holds copyright. It features twenty-five pieces each using one or occasionally more recordings of compositions by other artists as source material. In order to construct each piece Oswald edits the source material though the sophisticated use of techniques, technology and effects that were available at the time. These include; tape-based sampling and manipulation, analogue effects, record player manipulation and one cannot rule out the involvement of early DAW (digital audio workstation) software. This sort of practice retains some links to its modernist heritage, as it literally requires one to consider music as material rather than something that is only ephemerally experiential. To this end in Oswald’s practice, one can hear the evidence of music as a physical object.

The confrontational attitude within album towards the socially and legally accepted norms of originality is evident in the liner notes, which feature the disclaimer: ‘Any resemblance to existing recordings is unlikely to be coincidental. This disk is absolutely not for sale. All copying, lending, public performance, and broadcast of this disk are permitted.  Not for sale’ (Oswald 1989). Before any music is played Oswald has outlined the ‘anti norm’ premise for the work in the disclaimer. A reading of the pieces the on the album is that Oswald seeks to explore a taboo sonic resource in such a ways as to question the idea of ownership and authorship in the recorded music medium. Focusing on some of the examples of popular music manipulation (where arguably the largest legalistic consequences lie) a critique of specific areas of ideology can be heard in individual pieces. Dab [track 3] makes use of the Michael Jackson song ‘Bad’ as rearranged fragments of material that change the perceived meaning of the material whilst still remaining recognizable as the pieces source. Dab reinterprets the sonic martial in the track, as well as the track itself as sonic material. In The Beatles [track 4] by George Martin, Oswald retunes the final orchestral chord from The Beatles ‘A day in the life’. Interestingly, by crediting George Martin and not the Beatles as the artist Oswald is plundering, one could suggest that Oswald is commenting on the necessary industrial framework for the production of these and many other popular music legends. In Pretender [track 5] Oswald shows how by simply changing the speed of a piece of music one can transform the identity of performer and thus the work itself. In the audio sample one can hear a ‘male’ (Oswald 1989) Dolly Parton sing the last verse of ‘The Great Pretender’ before the female Parton joins and then harmonizes the final refrain. In Brown [track 6] Oswald makes use of a least two songs by Public Enemy and their sampling of James Brown. Brown could be seen to be Oswald prefiguring the extent to which sampling would become pervasive and the manner in which eventually this practice of plundering might loose any claim to originality it may have once held.

In his 1985 paper Oswald went further in his discussion of the control of musical experience than can be said to have been fully expressed in ‘Plunderphonic’. His writing expressed a concern for the mediated nature of experience, as offered by contemporary popular music. He asks:

‘Is musical property properly private, and if so how does one trespass upon it? All popular Music is (as is folk music by definition) essentially, if not legally existing in the public domain. Listening to pop music isn’t a matter of choice. Asked for or not we’re bombarded by it. In its most insidious state, filtered to an incandescent bassline, it seeps through apartment walls and out of the heads of Walkpeople… Difficult to ignore and pointless to imitate: how does one not become a passive recipient?’ (Oswald  1985)

Here it seems Oswald addresses the agency behind the production of popular music, which in turn controls in someway the experience of music and the nature of creativity for many people.  It seems to Oswald that it is in the interests of some in the record industry to bombard the public with a product. Under such bombardment one must in someway respond in order to not become a ‘passive recipient’. However according to Oswald this process of bombardment is being actively encouraged by the industry:

‘…manufacturers have discouraged compatibility between there amateur and pro equipment. Passivity is still the dominant demographic…  An active listener might speed up a piece of music in order to more clearly perceive the Macro structure, or slow it down to hear the articulations and details more precisely.’ (Oswald 1985)

The consequences, of such passivity in response to banal material, in this case facilitated by technological divisions, were outlined by Jean Baudrillard in terms of losing a sense of the real. Through this loss of the real, we actively deceive ourselves into believing that the problems we actually face will be taken care of by others who are more competent than we are:

‘The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false… this world wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere – that it is that of the adults themselves…’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 13)

By substituting the word Disneyland for popular music the same point can be made as effectively. It is this action of deception that, if viewed in conjunction with the ideas of Bernard Stiegler, is what gives ‘rise to a systemic stupidity that structurally prevents the reconstitution of a long term horizon.’ (Stiegler 5: 2010).  As a ‘passive recipient’, one is not exploring the necessary interaction for technical individuation that, according to Stiegler, is essential to define a human being’s identity. For Stiegler humans are defined by their technical intelligence. He argues that the ‘opposition between technical and nontechnical intelligence is practical for descriptive purposes but superficial’  (Stigler 1998: 173). Starting from this premises, that understands technical intelligence as simply intelligence, Stiegler explains how this intelligence must engage in an interactive process in order to individuate:


Now, for a human being, to live is to individuate oneself. How am I indi-viduating myself? By exteriorizing myself. And in the same way, I am inte-riorizing myself, because when I speak to you, I am listening to what I say, so I interiorize myself. Now this process of exteriorization-interiorization is the originary process of psychic and social individuation. So you can see very clearly that at the beginning of psychic activity you always already have technics, i.e., technical individuation  (Stiegler interviewed by Lemmens 2011).

According Stiegler, it is this interaction that is necessary for human beings to individuate both individually and socially. It is precisely this sort of individuation that Oswald argues is prevented by the separation of technology and the copyright legislation, that act on the behalf of the popular music industry. The argument could be made from examining the proceeding literature, that it is this prevention of individuation that distorts a human beings sense of reality and contributes to the prevailing ideology of a society.

On his 1993 album Plexure [appendix 2] (which means to weave together) Oswald can be heard attempting to re-form ones experience of popular music through an internalizing / externalizing interaction. Oswald constructs a continuous piece of music across twelve movements with sub-movements from samples of over one thousand artists from the proceeding ten years. Their material is used in microscopic quantities and is yet still recognizable. The samples are used with a clearly musical sensibility that constructs gestures and arcs in order to form a structure. The different approaches Oswald takes can be heard on the musical examples [tracks 7, 8, 9]. The work on this album illustrates the pervasive effect of experiencing popular music and, at least for Oswald, allows one to reform and control a mediated experience thus enabling him to individuate.


The way in which the industry, that Oswald critiques, has responded to his practice is fascinating but ultimately undermining to Oswald’s philosophy. Initially, however the response from some in the industry was far more reactionary. Chris Cutler recounts the dire consequences for Oswald’s ‘Plunderphonic’:

‘Between Christmas Eve 1989 and the end of January 1990 all distribution ceased and all extant copies were destroyed. Of all the plundered artists it was it was Michael Jackson who pursued the CD to destruction. Curiously Jacksons own plundering… seemed to have escaped his notice.’ (Cutler 2008: 139-140)

While Cutler goes on to suggest that Jackson’s (or perhaps that of his industrial structure) response to ‘Plunderphonic’ may also have had a great deal to do with the provocative cover for the album; a manipulation of Jackson’s Album cover for ‘Bad’ [appendix 1], the point Oswald was making is further illustrated by this response. This point can be read as, that if one is to place material into the public domain, one must expect to relinquish or simply lose control over how the public will decide to respond to the material. Even, if by its own terms that Cutler outlines, this is at least intellectually, an improper use of copyright. Copyright is intended to prevent others from reproducing and benefitting from content that a creator, by virtue of being the contents originator, owns. For example if Oswald were to be reproducing and selling Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ he would be using Jackson’s content to sell to those who wanted Jackson’s content. However ‘Plunderphonic’ is in the first instance not for sale and thus cannot be used directly for financial gain. Additionally, anyone who wanted to purchase the work of Jackson is unlikely to acquire ‘Plunderphonic’ in its place. Thus it would not prevent sales of Jacksons work. Furthermore on the matter of the album cover, a manipulation of Jackson’s image does not take sales directly from ‘Bad’. As a point to illustrate this, no mention is made on the Wikipedia page for the album ‘Bad’ (accessed 10/05/12) of Oswald’s appropriation. Despite the fact that anyone could possibly add this information to the page it does not seem to have entered the common consciousness regarding the album. Whether or not it is defamatory is a different mater outside the constraints of this essay and it is not a convincing argument for censorship.

As has been made clear thus far, Oswald was able to continue regardless of these reactions. The environment for contemporary composers is considerably different to that in which Oswald operated or indeed hoped to create. This is due largely to technological developments and the movement of hip-hop’s sample based aesthetics to the mainstream of popular music.  Today the very techniques and technology Oswald used to make ‘Plunderphic’ and ‘Plexure’ are the major selling point of much music software as evidenced by Ableton Live’s ‘The Bridge’ which seeks to merge DJ practice with electronic music production [appendix 3]. Cutler explains this ideological shift and its unintended consequences:

‘Here together are cannibalism, laziness and the feeling that everything has already been originated, so that it is enough now endlessly to reinterpret and rearrange it all. The old idea of originality in production gives way to another of originality in consumption, in hearing.’ (Cutler 2008: 153)


This can be seen as the consumer capitalist response to the postmodern criticism of the materialist consumer culture originally facilitated by the progress championed by modernism. Platform software facilitates the new marketing models for contemporary popular music. Certain definitions of acceptable plundering are now culturally understood. This is perhaps well illustrated by websites like Indaba that, for a fee allows users to have access to stems for remix competitions. As part of the competition the contributor is often expected to hand over their entitlement to copyright on their new composition to the remixed artist and in doing so pay for the privilege of providing content for said artist’s benefit. This has become a useful way for electronic music producers to advance their careers. By attaching themselves to a more established artist, they increase their potential to be noticed by those higher up in the music industrial framework.

However, this is entirely different from the principles of sound source liberation that Oswald originally sought to champion. Oswald wanted people to be able to take control in forming their musical experience outside of the industry which controls of the medium. However, now both the industry and software have defined acceptable plundering and in so doing reduced the capacity of the audience to manipulate content and thereby question the ideology of consumption. An example of this is the ‘mashup’, which like Oswald’s ‘Plexure’ relies on the associative power of its recognizable samples to contextualize the work. Now these samples, facilitated by technology, adhere to the stylist features of the plundered material.  An example of this is ‘Pop Culture’ [track 10] (the title itself laced with postmodern irony in an unselfconscious way) by Madeon (2011). Here a ‘mashup’ of thirty nine songs is put through the tempo synchronizing and pitch correcting software of Ableton Live and performed with the made for purpose clip launcher the ‘Novation Launchpad’. The end result is a piece of music from a possibly plundered source that stylistically fits within the social function, i.e. dance music, of it plundered sources.  This is the experience that Cutler defines as ‘originality in consumption’

The questions Oswald asked in his 1985 paper are still as pressing today if not more so. The modernist fascination of progress facilitated the industrialization of popular music and creativity in what Adorno and Horkhiemer termed the ‘Culture Industry’ (2002). The response to this was to discard the metanarratives of originality and ownership that these industrial institutions were founded upon. These are some of the founding principles of postmodernity and post structural criticism within which Oswald’s practice operates. However, it seems that in the act of discarding these metanarratives a vacuum has been created which in time has been filled by institutional restructuring that allowed for acceptable plundering and fosters an understanding that ‘everything has already been originated’ (Cutler 2008:), whist the institutions still held on to the narrative of ownership. As a prevailing ideology the inability of creative originality allows no more for the process of ‘technical individuation’ than adhering to the metanarratives did. In addition, by operating within the institutionally set bounds, these practices that Oswald championed are no longer able to offer up critique. Institutions that allow one to create only within their definitions of acceptability not only industrializes creativity and culture as mentioned above, but also contributes to what Stiegler terms the ‘industrialization of memory’ (Stiegler 2009: 97). In order to challenge all this, one can no longer engage in the post structural criticism that Oswald did, as it has been adopted and adapted by those that it criticized. Jenks coins the term ‘Critical modernism’ (2007) to define a movement that combines notions of positive progress and the ability to critique. What seems to be necessary, is creative practice that produces work, which allows one to criticize that which is problematic within human culture but is not dependent on that criticism for its worth.




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Baudrillard, Jean ,1994:  Simulacra and Simulation Translated by Glaser, Sheila Faria. (Michigan: University of Michigan Press).

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Jencks, Charles, 2007:  Critical Modernism: where is post-modernism going? (Chichester:  Wiley Academy).

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Nyman, Michael, 2002: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Oswald, John, 1985: Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional  Prerogative. Plunderphonics –, Accessed  19/04/12.

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Paddison, Max, 2004: Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture, (London: Kahn &Averill).

Ross, Alex, 2009: The Rest is Noise, (London: Harper Perennial).


Schaeffer, Pierre, 2008: ‘ Acousmatics’, in Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, ed., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music(New York: The Continuum international Publishing Group Inc). pp. 76-81.

Stiegler, Bernard, 1998: Technic and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Translated by Richard Beardsworth, George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Stiegler, Bernard, 2009: Technic and Time, 2: Disorientation. Translated by Stephen Barker (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

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‘Bad (album)’ – Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia.  accessed – 10/05/12.

Wishart, Trevor, 1996: On Sonic Art (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers).



Leclercq, Hugo Pierre, 2011:  Pop Culture, Madeon  –, accessed 12/05/12.

Cage, John, 2000 ‘William’s Mix’,  Ohm+: the early gurus of electronic music. (Ellipsis Arts)

Schaeffer, Pierre, 2000: ‘Értude  aux chemins de fer’ ,  Ohm+: the early gurus of electronic music, (Ellipsis Arts)

Oswald, John, 1989: Plunderphonic : (unpublished)

Oswald, John 1993: Plexure (Japan: Avant)





Appendix 1. ‘Plunderphonic’ (1989) Album cover.


Appendix 2. ‘Plexure’ (1993) Album cover.


Appendix 3. Ableton Live ‘The Bridge’.




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