As a prelude to mikesolomon.org, I’d like to share with you the fourth of five short ruminations about Sit Ozfårs Wysr, a new project by macompagnie and the ensemble 101 based, very loosely, on several themes and ideas from Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 1939 MGM film adaptation.
While recently lamenting to a good friend that I have few people in my life with whom I can discuss composition, it occurred to me that perhaps by jotting down a series of disorganized thoughts about Sit Ozfårs Wysr, I could initiate a conversation with old, new and future friends about how and why music matters to us. I say this while fully acknowledging that writing about music makes as much sense as cooking about tennis. However, I hope all of us are honest enough to admit that we would at least be intrigued to watch someone cook about tennis, and by analogy, I hope that others have the same curiosity about the musings below.
In 1989, John Oswald released a 25-track record called Plunderphonic, an expansion of his earlier EP Plunderphonics and a realization of his manifesto Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative. Soon after the album's release, multiple artists whose work he had plundered (most notably Michael Jackson) threatened suit. Oswald, who had never sold the album, destroyed the remaining copies, but the damage had been done. For me, Plunderphonic (which I first heard when I was in my early 20s) is a watershed album. It changed my views on composition, authenticity, intellectual property and the evolution of art.
Eight years later, I read Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence and felt like I had lived through all of his six "revisionary ratios," or descriptions of how an artist may respond to her tradition. The ratio that continues to resonate with me most is Clinamen. Bloom calls this "misprision proper" and derives the name from the Lucretian phenomenon whereby atoms arbitrarily swerve at some point and thus initiate change in the universe. He describes a process whereby "a poet swerves away from his precursor... This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem." The types of clinamen that interest me most are satirical, extremely deliberate and often silly misreadings in the form of Oswald's Plunderphonics or parodies like Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
This rumination describes my plundering of The Wizard of Oz as a found object. It explores several aesthetic, ethical, and legal questions arising from the dismantlement of others' works, peppering the rumination with short plunderphonic excerpts from Sit Ozfårs Wysr.
As someone who attends many vocal workshops, I am amazed at the extent to which metaphors involving instruments help singers negotiate interpretive and technical hurdles. In the ensemble 101's workshop with Jesper Holm, his references to different sections of the big band and their unique colors helped us nail certain stylistically difficult gestures in Sit Ozfårs Wysr. Thirty years after Oswald's seminal essay, we can unequivocally state that the recording has become a well ensconced instrument and, as such, we as a vocal ensemble can emulate it much like we emulate a big band. In fact, Jesper Holm has already beat us to it. As an arranger, he often shadows his soloists with airy voices in the background to create the wispy sound of The Singers Unlimited. My influences are different, but the goal is the same — through composition, arrangement, and coaching, I want to get my singers sounding like a distorted, Oswaldian treatment of a recording.
Of course, my singers will never actually sound like a plundered recording, but by trying to sound like one, we create a sort of performance practice that sets the imagination alight. Take, for example, the ensemble 101's treatment of Optimistic Voices. On paper, it veers extremely far from the theme it plunders, but the process to get there is actually quite simple — it modulates by a semitone every three beats. To make it more palatable, it harmonizes the ascending upper voices over the bass, which stays in the original key. This type of harmonic intervention is theoretically possible in tape-based plunderphonics, but it would require Swiss army knife FFT resynthesis and, even with this, the harmonic information would suffer from severe artifacts. This brings me to my second point: if singers can emulate the recording as instrument, then we can modulate these textures with more ease than a plunderphonician working in the electronic medium.
One major difference between plunderphonics in 1985 and 2016 is that the instrument has shifted from the tape to the CPU. Different instruments incarnate our humanity in different ways, but none more so than the computer. Code is an expression of the free will and hacking of the even freer will. While technology can disenfranchise, it does not, on the whole, dehumanize. It enhances our humanity insofar as its design, and flaws, reveal aspects of who we are, and this will continue to be the case so long as humans are making technology. Thus, beyond being a user of digital tools for the plundering of sound, I try to reflect on what these tools reveal about our oddities. Much like third-wave feminism uses the movement as a lens through which general issues of marginality and exclusion can be analyzed, plunderphonics in 2016 affords us a way to think about sound that extend well beyond the act of plundering and can penetrate an entire musical output. At least in my case, innumerable moments of Sit Ozfårs Wysr are indebted to Oswaldian processes without sounding overtly Oswaldian.
Ethics is a field of thought of which I have barely scratched the surface, but it seems to me that, for all I read, nothing is so immediately satisfactory and globally accepted as the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Even in the corner cases (masochists, stalkers, non-ironic fans of The Shaggs), we can generalize the rule to assume that as a masochist, we should not harm others but rather we should strive give others the same pleasure as we would receive by being harmed.
There is at least one case, however, where the Golden Rule fails, and plunderphonics reveals this chink in the adage's moral armor. If, via one act, I do unto many people something that is undesirable for you but desirable for others, have I done something wrong? The waters get even murkier if the relative gains for the many are small whereas the loss for the few is large. Putting aside theories of social justice à la John Rawls, I would like to explore the ethical questions that one asks oneself when plundering a work. Plunderphonics can hurt people; fans of a song, if not the writer, can feel a sense of violation when their work is distorted in a way that they do not approve of. So when is it appropriate?
The difficulty of this question extends to a larger crisis about right and wrong that humanity is still wrestling with after it was breached in the mid 20th century. G. E. M. Anscombe writes the following in her short essay Modern Moral Philosophy.
I couldn't agree more — it is impossible to discuss anything about morality until we understand the basic psychology of the moral agent, at which point we can begin discerning if what she did was right or wrong. This is an intellectual cousin of the more well-known "emotivism" in A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic except it is a far more insightful claim in that it implicitly subsumes emotion into the broader discipline of human psychology and claims that this psychology is something that needs to be understood as opposed to brushed off as the progenitor of worthless, non-empirically verifiable statements.
Back to plundering in music, it is precisely this psychological domain that links the aesthetics of plunderphonics to politics. The psychology of plundering, whether it causes exhilaration or pain, is often initiated by a strong aesthetic response to a work. This goes on to shape our political views — it is not surprising that those who are most emotionally hurt by plundering are also those that advocate the most stringent intellectual property laws against it. What I would like to discuss below is this ethical dimension as a compositional parameter, showing how it informs my musical choices and how this is linked to notions of reception.
Take this plunderphonic treatment of The Lullaby League as an example. The image I had in mind as I wrote it was a vinyl melting on the turntable. This metaphor has an impact on every aspect of the work, from its distorted harmonies to its undulating rhythm to the guttural timbre we use to sing it. The drippy setting seems appropriate for the manic happiness of the original, like a plastic sculpture of a clown on fire. What inspired me most, though, is a fantasy I had of setting the song as a four-part barbershop arrangement (probably from the alternating whole steps in the beginning) and the old-timey, broken vinyl sound that I associate with that genre. Bearing this in mind, I would like to put forth what Charles Stevenson, in his book Ethics and Language, would call a "rational psychological" defense of the work. That is, I acknowledge the deep sense of wrong one feels when one sees the art they love debased, but I am arguing that what is manifesting itself here is a sense of profound respect and love for a work that motivates me to do ostensibly violent things to it. As perverse as that psychology may sound, I stand by it, and I suspect that many other plunderers do as well.
If one accepts my propositions above, then I think we have a lot to be optimistic and idealistic about. Moving out of our era and back to that of Kant, the great idealist, let's imagine a world where everyone does this sort of thing all the time. Artists authorize themselves to create derivative works that make people more, not less, interested in discovering the original. More art is thus encountered, which leads to more ideas, which leads to the genesis of more creative work. We become more aesthetically engaged and art turns into a strong economic force. This is why I believe that my ethical stance with respect to plundering passes the categorical-imperative muster. Even more importantly, a society supportive of plundering would actualize Kant's most important assertion: that we are all ends in and of ourselves and never just means to an end. Treating a piece of music as a commodity to be purchased and consumed reduces the listener to a means of the self-enriching ends of the person who produced it. Treating a piece of music as a proposition to which others can creatively respond asserts our listeners' humanity — they are all unique ends whose declension as such is facilitated by their ability to transform your work.
Plundering in music has led to a political quagmire that pits the recording and publishing industry (and the artists they represent) against creators that trade on plundering or sampling. The most significant legal breakthrough against this impasse is the suite Creative Commons licenses, which allow works to be freely copied with various restrictions. The only viable alternative to free licenses in America are rights management organizations like ASCAP and BMI and, in France, the SACEM. This is a shame, because it creates a false dichotomy between "free" (Creative Commons) and "not" (everyone else) in a society that, in theory, should not need this distinction. Both American and French code and case law support robust exceptions to intellectual property rights that authorize a permissive array of plundering practices.
Sit Ozfårs Wysr is a parody of both Scandinavian culture and The Wizard of Oz. Its core fiction is based on the myth of a troop of culturally backwards actors that, marvelled by an ephemeral encounter with The Wizard of Oz, attempt to make a play based on their vague recollections of what they saw. The result is a commentary and criticism about the cultural misunderstandings that permeate our increasingly global society. Sometimes it does this through gross exaggeration, sometimes through Beaumarchais-like jabs, but the work is always tongue-in-cheek and never trying to compete with the thing it is parodying. As such, it is exactly the type of work that American law protects under "criticism" and French law protects under "La parodie, le pastiche et la caricature, compte tenu des lois du genre."
Music's lack of semiotic meaning makes a musical parody more difficult to define, and yet musicology affords us a rich history of analysis to help understand what parody in music may be. In early music scholarship, the term parody mass is used to categorize masses that "plunder" popular songs and set them in an imitative mass texture . Indeed, this conforms to the Greek roots of parody — "par" (beside/altered) and ody (ode). Literally, a parody is a work altered to the point where it is beside itself. The humorous connotation that the word has in common parlance is but a small subcategory within the larger concept of parody. Free jazz is, to me, as parodic as a parody mass. Its cubist treatment of theme, aggressive distortion of tempo and use of harmolodics to generate imitative counterpoint puts a jazz head "beside itself." This is what I try to achieve in my setting of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.
 What is interesting is that the term parody, when used to describe masses, actually comes from a misreading of a Latin text about masses. I like to think, though, that the word is a scholarly Freudian slip that contains a great deal of truth.
Of course, not every use of others' work is a parody. Sometimes, people are ripped off. I am completely sympathetic to intellectual property rights allowing an author to recuperate money that is linked to the illegal exploitation of something over which she has a legitimate claim. What is unfortunate is when people make property claims over acts of creation that are in no way substitutes for their work. This definition of intellectual property is intellectually dishonest, as it is no longer using laws to protect property but rather to preserve a sense of integrity that they feel is under attack. To these people, let me be the bearer of good news: everyone loves you and your music, otherwise they wouldn't spend so much time tearing it to shreds. So lighten up, grab your favorite piece, and start hacking away at it until you make something new.
John Oswald's plunderphonics is a modern parable for the anxiety of influence, and his rich misreadings create compelling new works that in no way can be confused with the pieces they plunder. Bloom sees this transgressive act as being essential to our understanding of poetic, if not artistic, creation.
The plunder-happy moments in Sit Ozfårs Wysr are certainly deliberate misinterpretations of their predecessors, but what Bloom is telling us is that every work falls into this category. Thus, plunderphonics is a distilled, rather prima face form of the animating force behind creation. As gross and vulgar as an Oswaldian plunder may be, I find it a jolting and refreshing way to approach music composition, evoking ethical and political questions that bring the listener momentarily out of the music proper without being pedantic. While I would have difficulty writing a night-long concert of pieces like this, throwing a few in Sit Ozfårs Wysr has been a great way for me to go to the heart of the works I'm parodying, for it is only by knowing them intimately and admiring them greatly that I came to feel a need to destroy them.