Perhaps the greatest part of reading John Dos Passos’ famous U.S.A. trilogy are his sections of “Newsreel.” The author chopped printed clippings of newspaper headlines and song lyrics apart and put them back together to paint an accurate picture of a nation on the verge of collapse. The technique may have been ahead of its time, but the message was not; the 1930s were a time to be scared and the headlines carried a double meaning once rearranged. Dos Passos’ vision of a doomed world was made all the more powerful by his use of other people’s writings and lyrics. The spirit of plunderphonics, at its purest, began here.
John Oswald, who would invent that term nearly half a century after Dos Passos’ masterpiece, performed a similar technical feat in the early 90s. 1993’s Plexure, in a nutshell, consists of about 1000 artists weaved together into a piece of music that clocks in under 20 minutes; dense does not even begin to describe this exercise in speed-of-light editing.
Plexure existed outside any of the reference points expected from sample based music, in fact it doesn’t even compare that well to the earlier plunderphonic experiments. The original plunderphonics were generally treatments of a single song, and never obscured the origin of the source material. When Oswald manipulated tape in the Dolly Parton track “Pretender” in order to recreate her as a man the effect was dependent on the audience recognizing the original pop tune. From the start you can tell it’s Dolly, and that recognition makes the transformative effect all the more powerful.
Here Oswald prevented any chance of recognition by splicing these hundreds of songs into samples that rarely last more than a fraction of a second. In a 1994 interview he explained how Plexure rejects some of the basic principals of plunderphonics; the samples are not manipulated in anyway, the transmutation comes entirely by the recontextualization within the greater piece.
“If you compare with your audio microscope a small part of a second of one layer of the composition with its comparable source it sounds exactly the same. There is no distortion or noise, or electronic obfuscation. It is an electroquote.” - John Oswald
These electroquotes, when combined into the overall piece, don’t create a major conceptual thesis. Despite the massive influence Oswald has over artists such as Matmos and Oneohtrix Point Never, he never attempts to create something with the conceptual crispness of Replica or The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast. Plexure works more like Dos Passos’ books, or (if you’re looking for something a little more lowbrow) I would actually compare it to EverythingIsTerrible’s DoggieWoggiez PoochieWoochiez* in its attempt to catalog a specific point in time through its pop culture. Oswald said Plexure was inspired by the CD era that began in 1982, and pulled samples from that moment up until the year he was living in, and the patchwork he expertly sewed together expresses the incredible speed in which things began to move as the 90s began not just culturally, but technologically. Kids can do some of the things Oswald was doing in ‘92 on their fucking iPhones now — of course that wouldn’t make up for the vision with which he formed this psychotic bricolage that feels as relevant today if not more so.
* An incomprehensible 55 minutes that deserves every bit of over-the-top praise it gets. This movie takes what “Newsreel” and William S. Burroughs started with cut-up exercise, which Oswald converted into sound collage, and moves it into the realm of cinema, with stunning success. Oswald’s 1000 CDs in 20 minutes became EIT’s 1500 VHS tapes in 60.