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WIRED 3.02: "The Man Who Stole Michael Jackson's Face" by David Gans


John Oswald creates new works from existing sonic materials. His Plunderphonic got him in trouble with the copyright police. (It also got him gigs with the Kronos Quartet and the Grateful Dead.)

By David Gans _________________________________________________________________


John Oswald's instrument is technology - analog and digital editing. His "revised performances," created from existing works, often make wry commentaries on the content of the source material. He makes some interesting points about how we hear and listen to music. Oswald calls the genre that creates new works from existing sonic materials plunderphonics. The moniker comes from a paper he gave to the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto in 1985, titled "Plunderphonics, or audio piracy as a compositional prerogative."


Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, a fan of Plunderphonic, persuaded his bandmates to let Oswald into the band's archives to collect materials for an hour-long plunderphonic called Gray Folded. It encompasses 25 years of live performances of the Grateful Dead's improvisational mainstay, "Dark Star."

Consisting mostly of stereo tapes from live performances, plus a few solo instrumental and vocal passages from multitrack concert recordings, "Transitive Axis" (the first half of Gray Folded; the conclusion is in the works) is very definitely a John Oswald composition and not a composite performance. It's a Tralfamadorian recap of the entire history of "Dark Star," freely interposing and intertwining episodes from Grateful Dead performances. "It's not a performably possible version of 'Dark Star,'" Oswald notes. "You can't have three generations of Jerry Garcias live on stage together - but there's this illusion of it being the Grateful Dead playing in concert."

Oswald listened to more than a hundred performances of "Dark Star," which is not as boring as it might seem to the uninitiated. "Dark Star" is the merest structure of a song, which the Dead have used as a framework for insanely varied improvisational flights.

It was the perfect subject matter for Oswald's experiment, offering a vast range of possibilities with a consistent set of musical touchstones as anchor points. "There's always something that hadn't happened before in 'Dark Stars.' I focused on the things that made a particular performance noticeably different from all of the other performances. I knew fairly early on that I'd be trying to make this Dark Star that focused on the exceptions rather than the rules."

As the best of the real-time versions of "Dark Star" have done over the years, "Transitive Axis" turns some interesting corners and traverses a multifarious musical universe; it's an audio mural depicting the most challenging regions of the Grateful Dead's musical frontier. "I've made a very unorthodox Dark Star," says Oswald, "but I haven't tried to submerge the performances under a lot of technique. I've tried to let the performances still speak for themselves." Oswald is at work on the concluding installment of Gray Folded, to be titled "Mirror Ashes." _________________________________________________________________

David Gans ( is an author, radio producer, and the president of Truth and Fun Inc.

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