Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 39: Plexure (John Oswald, 1993)

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There's a great video of Dolly Parton performing her song "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?" in 1977 on the West German television show Der Musikladen. Accompanying herself on guitar, she sings a cool and bouncy version, backed up in close harmony by the boys in her band. At the song’s conclusion, she admits, grinning, “We have another version of that same song we'd like to try a little bit of for you. Let's pretend,” she says, “that we have the record recorded on a 45-speed record, and we flip it up on 78-speed.” And off they go, performing the exact same tune in chipmunk voices sung through broad smiles, Parton’s long-nailed fingers deftly driving the tempo. They do just one verse and a chorus—after all, as expertly executed as it was, it’s intended only as a gag—and cap it off with Parton quickly saying “Thank you,” still in her sped-up voice.

I think about the folks who watched that performance at the time, about whether those passively consuming fans who, after witnessed Parton’s parlor trick, might have taken it upon themselves to “try this at home,” to experiment with this most basic form of active consumption of music: to take the music that’s given to you and “flip the switch up”—to listen at a different speed just to hear what it’s like.

In 1985 at the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto, Canadian composer and sometimes-saxophonist John Oswald presented a paper called “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” in which he commented that, for consumers of music, “passivity is still the dominant demographic,” and prescribed—in a Partonian spirit—that “an active listener might speed up a piece of music in order to perceive more clearly its macrostructure, or slow it down to hear articulation and detail more precisely.” Just a few years later, on a track called “Pretender” within his first album, titled plunderphonic, Parton’s brief musical joke would be stretched—along with the threshold recognizability—to its logical extreme. Using a version of Parton herself singing—fittingly—“The Great Pretender” as the source material, we hear, as the song goes on, the pitch of the song slowly but dramatically drop, until, as Oswald put it to Norman Igma in 1988, “Dolly experiences a sex change.” Then, toward the end, the original, perky Parton returns to duet with her inverse-self.

plunderphonic came out in 1989—the same year, as it happens, as De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, another album of extreme appropriation. Unlike Three Feet High and Rising, however, in an effort to avoid litigation, plunderphonic was never made available for sale; it was instead freely distributed to radio stations, libraries, critics, and musicians. Despite these steps taken, Oswald’s manipulation on the album of Michael Jackson’s song “Bad”—and, surely, who are we kidding, the cover art, depicting Jackson’s head atop the body of a nude white woman—irked Jackson’s lawyers (a.k.a, “prudes in the Recording Industry”) enough to force Oswald to cease distributing the disc, and destroy any remaining copies.   

Which brings us to 1993, when Oswald, commissioned by John Zorn, released his most extreme plunderphonic project to date—his “most dense and crushing heavy assemblage,” the album’s press release states—and this week’s Album of the Week: Plexure.

The EP clocks in at nineteen minutes and nineteen seconds, and while diligently divided into twelve “movements” ( marked off by tracks with titles like “Urge,” “Blur,” “Zoom,” “Cyfer,” “Worse, “Temperature,” and “Massive” ) and twenty-one “submovements” (with titles like “Suck,” “Rip,” “Slice,” “Blink,” “Wow,” “Hazzard,” and “Tremendous”), it is intended to be played through in its entirety, underpinned as it is by an “underlying morph” that moves from the very slow to the very fast indeed—from 47 beats per minute to 384+. The beat, as such, is one of the things Oswald leans on in offering a foothold to those for whom such music may not an easy climb be. “Tapping your foot to Plexure is a bit of an adventure,” Oswald confesses, “but it can be done.”

For a plunderphone to be a plunderphone and not simply a sample, its source must remain recognizable in spite of any transformation. “The plundering has to be blatant,” Oswald says. But the threshold of recognizability opens up a beautiful can of worms, particularly when the samples to be recognized are seconds-long or less, and scrunched up tight against thousands of other equally potentially recognizable snippets. A snatch of bass line here, a snippet of snare there; peeks of vocal shouts and coos—I know I’ve heard that before. Prince and Huey Lewis and the News. Nirvana and Paula Abdul. The Eurhythmics and U2. Peter Gabriel and the Beastie Boys. Michael Jackson and Michael Bolton. Bombarded with such a disorienting barrage of material, so quickly and thickly, one might be unable to finger specific sources, but will most certainly sense waves a familiarity. And rightly so. The source materials Oswald used for Plexure include chart-toppers on down in Western popular music from 1982 to 1992, which is tantamount to the entirety of the first decade of the “compact disc era.”

The use of recognizable material on Plexure, much like its focus on a pulsing beat, can also help ease in the listener who may not already have a knowledge of or a taste for styles outside of the mainstream—it’s an effective way to bridge the gap between the avant-garde techniques of the twentieth-century with pop music.

Make no mistake, though: Plexure—which is a word meaning “an interweaving”—is unrelenting. It is so tightly packed with moment-to-moment shifts that the closest thing to respite we get is the varied pseudo-looping of material for just about thirty seconds on the Madonna-infused ninth movement, “Mad Mod” before we are knocked over the head once again with a dizzying barrage of familiar sounds.

The album’s eleventh and final movement, called “Velocity” (which includes the final two sub-movements, “Tremendous” and “Tremulous”) takes what is already an idea taken to its radical conclusion to its radical conclusion, concluding as it does with rushing flood of millisecond-long electroquotations—the sound of a decade, flashing before your ears.

It’s true that while, generally speaking, cassette and even CD mix tapes are a thing of the past, we’ve regained some strides from an architectural perspective at least—what with playlists on Spotify and such—in the sense that we can control which tracks we hear and can hop from song to song without worrying about the remainders of albums, but overall we’re not that different from our 1985 counterparts in how with interact with the music itself.

I hope you’ll find twenty minutes to sit with John Oswald’s Plexure in its entirety. It’ll be a workout for many, but a manageable one, and one well worth it. And at very least, I encourage you to find a way to free your own consumption of music from the binds of exclusively passive listening. Make a mix for yourself or someone else. Download a free audio editing platform like Audacity and futz around with your favorite music for a while. If in doubt, take Dolly Parton’s advice, and just see what happens when you flip the switch up from 45 to 78.  

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.