Plunderphonics Part 1: The Art of Musical Collage

When you ponder on the words “making music,” you might envision a singer-songwriter sitting in front of a table, a guitar on their lap, scrawling lines of lyrics on a sheet of paper. Or you might think of a band in someone’s basement, jamming and making melodies and solos up as they go. In both cases, the musicians are making original music by putting together ideas that have likely never appeared in other works before, that are themselves wholly original.

But that’s not the only way to make original music. No, I’m not talking about sampling a beat from another song and then rapping original verses over it. Neither am I talking about interpolating an existing melody and then singing your own lyrics to that melody.

I’m talking about taking snippets of existing songs, compiling and arranging them, making modifications here and there, and then creating new music entirely from these little bits and pieces of previous material. This may remind you of kindergarten or elementary school, when you were asked to make collages for art class—cutting up newspapers and paper of various colours, rearranging them, and then gluing or taping them together on a larger sheet of paper.

Indeed, these musical endeavours could be described as “sound collages”—but they’re probably better known to the music community as “plunderphonics.”


The word “plunderphonics” was coined by Canadian musician John Oswald in his 1985 paper “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative.” However, the use of recorded music and sounds to create new musical material goes back decades, to the years immediately after World War II. In 1948, following the development of the first commercially available tape recorder, French musician Pierre Schaeffer and colleagues created the technique of musique concrète (French for “concrete music”). In this process, musicians would record natural sounds on tape, modify those sounds in any way that they wished (cut them short, extended them, played them in reverse, change the pitch, etc.), and then compile the edited sounds to create a montage of original electronic music. This was a pioneering development in music composition, taking composition to new heights by emphasizing the use of machinery and removing the traditional distinction between composer and performer.

Pierre Schaeffer, developer of musique concrète.
(Source: central-mao.com)

As time progressed, musicians began to use musique concrète methods to manipulate songs that had already been performed and released. In 1956, Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan released “The Flying Saucer,” which was a mashup of various pop songs of the era along with a recorded radio broadcast describing a flying saucer visiting Earth. Over a decade later, John Oswald began experimenting with modifying music in his record collection—cutting up existing tracks and playing around with these fragments of music until they became barely recognizable.

Thus began decades of music experimentation by Oswald, which were eventually captured in his collection Plunderphonics 69/96. This compilation of Oswald’s plunderphonic adventures begins with the famed final chord on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”—lifted from its original context and placed in a completely new environment—and utilizes fragments of works by sources as varied as Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Igor Stravinsky, Count Basie, and even an evangelist preacher. Oswald makes the sources of his tracks clearly visible, and in the process allows listeners (who are presumably familiar with those sources) to set expectations only to be surprised by sudden changes in direction in the music.

John Oswald’s Plunderphonics 69/96.
(Source: baixacultura.org)

In his 1985 essay, Oswald described plunderphonics as a perfectly natural technique with frequent precedent. Quoting Stravinsky (“A good composer does not imitate; he steals”), he explained that plunderphonics was an acceptable method of composition, so long as it improved on the original works that the music was taken from. It was only an extension of the “sonic impersonation” done by bands that made original material sounding just like other artists, and which was considered perfectly appropriate. And indeed, the appropriation of fragments of existing songs was commonplace: for example, Herbie Hancock’s hit “Rockit” (1983) featured a guitar chord that was taken straight from a Led Zeppelin song.

Meanwhile, plunderphonics and sound collages were becoming increasingly known in music circles. Already in 1977, the Residents had released “Beyond a Valley in a Day in the Life,” a collage of fragments from Beatles songs along with a piece of dialogue from an interview with the Beatles. In 1991, the Tape-Beatles released Music with Sound, an album consisting of 31 collages with sounds taken from Beatles tracks, ’60s big band tunes, TV commercials, and random noises. Originally released in Canada, Music with Sound featured on Tower Records’ “Top 10 Imports of the Year” list. Three years later, inspired by Oswald’s work, the group The Evolution Control Committee released Gunderphonic, a collection of sound collages that have been considered an inspiration for the related mashup movement.


The popularization of plunderphonics and sound collages meant an ever-expanding oeuvre of works in those genres throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. However, two albums from that era deserve particular attention: Endtroducing….. by DJ Shadow (1996) and Since I Left You by the Avalanches (2000). Both albums have been seen as classics in not only the plunderphonics genre but also popular music in general, garnering immense critical acclaim and being considered among the best albums of their respective decades.

DJ Shadow – Endtroducing….. (1996)

(Source: magazine.vinylmeplease.org)

In 1995, Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, was a university graduate in Davis, California, who had DJed around Europe and had several singles under his belt. His previous experience had left him with a deep understanding of how hip-hop production worked, which gave him inspiration for his work even as he was looking to turn the methods of production upside down. In creating Endtroducing….., Shadow wanted to make an album that was solely based on samples, echoing ideas of plunderphonics from musicians who came before him.

Work on Endtroducing….. started with Shadow searching for all kinds of albums at Rare Records in Sacramento; when he had exhausted the collection upstairs, the owner let him explore the records stored in the basement. (The album cover, depicting the interior of Rare Records, is a homage to this search.) Amid the stacks of vinyls, Shadow gradually developed a sense of what albums he felt would fit his project; in an interview with NPR, he stated that, for example, “One of the first things I realized is that anything prior to 1966 probably wasn’t going to have what I was looking for.”

Having found the records that he needed, Shadow put them together using barely any equipment—just a turntable, a tape recorder, and the crown jewel, an Akai MPC60 sampler. Shadow would play a record on his turntable, have the MPC60 take samples from that record, and then record the samples using the tape recorder. After all the tracks were sequenced, he took them to the home studio of music producer Dan the Automator to be mixed. By early 1996, the album was complete; it was first released on September 16, 1996, in the UK before being released in the US two months later.

The Akai MPC60 sampler, which DJ Shadow used to create Endtroducing……
(Source: vintagesynth.com)

On the face of it, Endtroducing….. is a 63-minute behemoth of a hip-hop album—but giving it a thorough listen reveals much more than just instrumental hip-hop. It’s ethereal, ambient, lush—comfortable to listen to from beginning to end. Much of this atmospheric quality comes from DJ Shadow’s layering of samples—starting with a base beat, and then placing an artificially extended instrumental sample on top, followed by other samples, such as a choral performance or a spoken word fragment.

The album essentially opens with “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” which contains a strong drum beat with a looped piano fragment laid on top, followed by a spoken word sample and a sample of a choir repeating the piano melody. It’s a powerful start that instantly sets forth the album’s sublime atmosphere. Similarly, on “Changeling,” Shadow overlays synthesizer and bass samples over another hammering drum beat before introducing woodwinds, a vocal track, and saxophones, giving the track a calm yet groovy sound reminiscent of sitting in an airport lounge, watching the world go by.

With its minimalist base melody and range of instrumental samples (violin, the drum beat that booms and rattles at frequent intervals, organ, and brass, among others), “Stem / Long Stem” not only reinforces the album’s ambient style but is also somewhat reminiscent of an epic film score. Its slow, heavy pace invites the listener to sit back and reflect on the music and the environment around them. On “Organ Donor,” Shadow takes a little-known Giorgio Moroder song and loops it, transforming it into a mesmerizing melody that has a surprisingly solemn yet groovy sound. “Midnight in a Perfect World” combines a looped, warped synth melody, repeated piano samples, and evocative vocals to build a sweet, otherworldly sonic environment that occasionally wanders into new-age territory. However, Shadow also maintains a groove throughout the track by adding cut-up fragments of spoken samples at regular intervals.

Endtroducing….., as one of the first major albums to be composed entirely of samples, was a major landmark in hip-hop as well as in popular music in general. In its aim, it was musically ambitious, taking the sampling that was commonplace in hip-hop to a next level and re-branding it as an instrument in itself; in its execution, it was a spectacular success, a work that created a rich, ethereal atmosphere, never ran out of ideas, and was consistent in quality. Even more surprising is that it was all made with a sampler, a turntable, and a tape recorder. There was no need for a band or orchestra—all DJ Shadow needed to create his masterpiece was himself and a few tools by his side.

In all, Endtroducing….. was a deserving successor to the work of earlier plunderphonic artists and sound collagists—more proof that you could transform and put together thousands of samples to create something vividly beautiful.

The Avalanches – Since I Left You (2000)

(Source: classicalbumsundays.com)

A few years after DJ Shadow scoured the basement of Rare Records in search of samples for Endtroducing….., two Australians, Darren Seltmann and Robbie Chater, were doing the exact same thing down under. The duo were no stranger to experimental hip-hop: two of their songs, “Undersea Community” and “Yamaha Superstar,” featured rapping in Japanese, vinyl-scratches, and a smattering of samples taken from vocal recordings. Their debut EP, El Producto, further exemplified their ability of combining just about anything under the sun into a single track; one song, “Rock City,” combined rapping and heavy drum beats with country guitar, metal guitar, flutes, opera singing, and other sorts of sounds that normally shouldn’t belong together.

By 1999, they were working on a new project: an album that, like Endtroducing….. three years prior, would be made entirely of samples from copyrighted music. That took them on trips to dollar stores where they’d pick up vinyls for cheap and then return home to glean any inspiration that they could find from those records. Armed with a Yamaha Promix 01 and an Akai S2000 Sampler, Seltmann and Chater gathered anywhere between 900 and over 3500 samples and combined them to create what they envisioned would be their own plunderphonic masterpiece.

Darren Seltmann and Robbie Chater.
(Source: Grant Spanier via audiofemme.com)

Seltmann and Chater called themselves the Avalanches; the album that they set out to make was titled Since I Left You. The album was released in Australia on November 27, 2000, followed by an international release the following year.

Compared to Endtroducing….., Since I Left You is decidedly more vibrant and positive; while the former is marked by a calm, ambient atmosphere that occasionally borders on the otherworldly, the latter possesses a light, poppy mood reminiscent of the middle-of-the-road records that much of it was derived from. Rather than launch the listener into deep thought and possibly even melancholy, the Avalanches encourage them to feel joyful and liberated—to purposefully forget the troubles in their life, at least for a moment.

On Endtroducing….., DJ Shadow employs the use of looped samples and layering to create minimalist pieces; although the looping of samples is also a key component of Since I Left You, the album itself sounds anything but minimalist. New samples are placed almost everywhere throughout the album, especially when a certain sample has been played long enough and might sound too repetitive. Although this makes the album sound very chaotic (and given the Avalanches’ previous work, such chaos is not entirely surprising), the samples transition almost seamlessly and no sample feels out of place. In fact, it gives the album extra liveliness and groove, keeping the listener entertained even as the music twists and turns and gets ever further from its origin.

Of note is the album’s eponymous opening track, which begins with a cheer and a strum of a guitar before launching into happy scat-singing overlaid on a steadily pounding beat that exudes groove and celebration. A female voice excitedly sings, “Since I left you, I found a world so new.”

Already in this lyric, we see the plunderphonics technique at work: the sample originates from the Main Attractions’ 1968 song “Everyday,” whose lyrics go: “Since I met you, I found a world so new.” The original song implies the singer’s euphoria as she enters a relationship; after the Avalanches manipulated the sample, however, it now sounds as if the singer is grateful for having broken up with her lover. As seen here, with a little transformation, plunderphonics musicians can create totally new meanings and contexts for their samples.

It may leave listeners in awe to recognize that the entirety of Since I Left You—including the vocals, the instrumentals, and the background noises that add a dimension of liveliness to the listening experience—is made up of samples of previously existing material. This is perhaps compounded by the fact that the listener is led down a long and winding yet constantly stimulating journey, from the funky joyfulness of the first half to the intimacy on “Tonight,” the humour wrapped inside a horror scene on “Frontier Psychiatrist,” and the calm of “ETOH” leading to the pompous magnificence of “Summer Crane.” How were the Avalanches able to convey so many feelings—pure bliss, intimacy, humour, horror, and more—merely through the adaptation of other people’s work?

Like Endtroducing….., Since I Left You was an exercise in ambition—the Avalanches initially didn’t desire international fame with their masterpiece, but instead wanted to make music that they felt didn’t already exist. The album was meant to be in a league of its own—and it succeeded. With a few exceptions, no other album has sounded like Since I Left You; it truly stands out as an album that could communicate so many feelings and create such lively atmospheres, all from snippets of existing recordings meticulously compiled, arranged, and manipulated. And as with Endtroducing….., there was a clear lack of traditional instruments; the Avalanches’ mixer and samplers became the instruments that created the masterpiece track by track, sample by sample. And certainly, the labour behind the sampling process—with potentially thousands of samples being captured and integrated into the musical fabric—only makes it worth appreciating more.

As Newton sought to stand on the shoulders of giants, so did the Avalanches on the shoulders of the pioneers of plunderphonics and sound collages. Endtroducing….. showed that you could make beautiful music with plunderphonics techniques, but plunderphonics decidedly reached a peak with Since I Left You—an album that could evoke all kinds of feelings, moods, and atmospheres with nothing but just existing sound clips cut up and joined together.


As seen so far, plunderphonics is a totally different approach to composing music: it eschews traditional methods of composition—coming up with original melodies and lyrics, and then performing that written work—in lieu of cutting up existing musical material, transforming it, and then combining it to create a wholly different song, often in an equally different musical context. There need not be any sign of conventional instruments—instead, the sampler itself becomes an instrument, the means through which original music can be formed, sample by sample.

Yet this approach is not without controversy: how legal is plunderphonics? Is there an point at which plunderphonic sounds, once they’ve been cut up and transformed enough, stop being illegal and become protected by the law?

These are important questions that must be answered—but I’ll leave them for part 2, when I discuss the legality and creativity of plunderphonics.

References:

034 – The Tape-Beatles – Music With Sound. (2012, February 11). AmbientExotica.com. http://www.ambientexotica.com/exorev034_tapebeatles_mws/

Bell, J. (2021, September 2). DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing” Explained. UDiscover Music. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/dj-shadow-endtroducing-explained-feature/

DJ Shadow: Keyboard, October 1997. (1997, October). Solesides. https://www.solesides.com/dj-shadow-mdj-shadow-keyboard-october-1997.html

Ediriwira, A. (2016, June 2). Since I Left You: How The Avalanches weaved thousands of samples into a supernatural tapestry. The Vinyl Factory. https://thevinylfactory.com/features/the-avalanches-since-i-left-you/

Lawless, P. (2008, May 1). John Oswald—Plunderphonics. Only Music. https://lawlesspeter.blogspot.com/2008/05/john-oswald-plunderphonics.html

Matos, M. (2021, June 10). ‘Since I Left You’: The Avalanches’ Lounge-Inspired Odyssey. UDiscover Music. https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/the-avalanches-since-i-left-you/

Musique concrète. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/art/musique-concrete

Ohanesian, L. (2020, November 27). 20 Years Ago, The Avalanches Released Sample-Saturated Masterpiece Since I Left You. Audiofemme. https://www.audiofemme.com/the-avalanches-since-i-left-you/

Oswald, J. (1985). Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative. Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference, Toronto. http://www.plunderphonics.com/xhtml/xplunder.html

Plunderphonics: Bettered by the borrower. (2013, May 5). MetaFilter. https://www.metafilter.com/127745/Plunderphonics-bettered-by-the-borrower

Pytlik, M. (2002, November). The Avalanches. Sound on Sound. https://www.soundonsound.com/people/the-avalanches

The Tape-beatles. (2002). Festival of Appropriation. https://www.festivalofappropriation.com/bio_tapebeatles.html

The Virtual Gunderphone. (n.d.). Evolution Controlled Creations. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.evolution-control.com/sounds/gunderphonic/index.html

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