Interview with John Oswald
Plundering the Warehouse of Threshold; The Plundering of the Tomb…
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #106/107, 31 May and 7 June 1997. Kalvos and Damian on the road in downtown Toronto. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:37:50–1:33:04] / Audio Part 2 [0:32:14–1:25:35].
A recent Governor General Award Media Arts Laureate, Ars Electronica Digital Musics and Untitled Arts Award winner, as well as the fourth inductee into the CBC Alternative Walk of Fame, John Oswald has also been nominated to third place in a list of the most internationally influential Canadian musicians, tied with Celine Dion. The BBC Scottish Orchestra, recently performed a retrospective of his concert works. He is currently preparing visual and sound installations, including A Time To Hear For Here, a permanent aural environment for the new Royal Ontario Museum Crystal, and a series of videos for Canada’s largest LED screen, while continuing to develop withinstandstillnessence, a large-scale chronophotic light fresco. He also continues to improvise music and dance regularly.
Audio Part 1 [0:37:50–1:13:08]
[Kalvos] Our guest really is John Oswald, here on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar today. Well, we’ll have to start from our level of ignorance, because we were introduced to your music through only a very few pieces. Your name is well known, but to us, your music is not. We know your piece Spectre, which we’ve played on the show a number of times, I’ve heard some of your plunderphonics pieces… So you’ll take us by the hand, and lead us through the music you create, and how you create it. Let’s have a bit of background from you on how you got to the point of plundering!
[John Oswald] I’m the worst person to be the historian for this, because I just see so many details. I’m really only effective at responding to precise and detailed questions. When it gets into historical questions, I end up exposing my terribly insufficient memory for things. I just don’t tend to remember the things that happened a long time ago. We can talk about what’s happening right now.
[K] Alright, let’s work our way back.
[JO] Okay. Right now I’m working on Plexure. Actually I’m working on Plexure version .2.2.2, which will be released, well, who knows who is releasing it now? Originally in 1992, a record called Plexure came out on the Japanese label, AVANT. The scope of Plexure, which is a plunderphonics piece (plunderphonics being music that is reconfigured from very obvious, audible quotes, or “electroquotes”), is the period of pop music from 1982 to 1992, which is the first decade since the introduction of the CD, and more or less coincided with the first decade of MTV, two things which had some great effect on popular music. Plexure features several thousand electroquotes from pop music from that period, mostly configured in layers and morphs in various ways, that keep the quotes on the threshold of recognizability. Most people seem to find the music very familiar, even if they tend to try to avoid listening to pop music. If, for instance, they listen to your show exclusively.
[K] And it’s something that’s sort of filtered into their consciousness from just being around?
[JO] It’s around, yeah. If you think about it, it’s incredibly around. Cars pass by, you hear it, background music in various public places. If you’re looking for a show on the radio, you’ll probably cross some of this stuff, so you hear it. It does what it’s designed to do, it gets inside very quickly. You hear a little fragment of something, and it’s designed to be memorable, it’s designed to, in a way, become kind of addictive. What happens with any kind of music is you hear it enough times, and you get to like it. The stuff is designed to be stuff that you like, or at least your body likes, almost immediately. There was a firm — I’m not sure if they’re still active — in Texas who used to do EEG responses on volunteers to fine-tune pop hits. Clients would send in music, they would play it for volunteers, they’d watch the electrocardiograms, and say “Hey, this is good music,” “This is bad music,” “Drop this section, it’s a bummer” and I remember him speaking to a university music department. All the professors were there in their tweed suits and had their pipes and everything. He looked across the crowd and said, “Okay, everyone in this room loves the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s Yummy Yummy Yummy.” Some of them looked kind of puzzled, they’d never heard of this. A lot of them had heard of it and they had this look of disgust, shaking of heads, etc. He said, “No, no, it’s true. We took another group of professors from Princeton, the music department of Princeton, we hooked them up to the EEG’s, we played them Yummy Yummy Yummy, and they had the same kind of look of disgust on their face that you have now, from the memory of this piece actually existing, but the EEGs are just dancing along; their bodies were happy, they loved this music.” So, there’s very potent musical material, in these pop hits. I’d been commissioned to do a commercial release of plunderphonic music, and in the past, it had only been practical to do non-commercial releases (although that in many ways was impractical also), ones that had been endorsed by the people who’d made the recordings, as in the case of some stuff from Elektra records, or more recently with The Grateful Dead. The idea I was working on at the time, independent of this commission from the Japanese record company, was the “threshold of recognizability,” the point where something comes into focus: “Oh yes, this is something I’ve heard before.” With music that you’ve heard before, it can be fragments as short as ten milliseconds. [They] almost sound just like coloured clicks, but in some cases — somebody who’s heard something, then several things are played — one of these clicks, can say, “Oh yeah, it’s that piece,” with very short fragments of music. So, you can theoretically stick a sequence of a hundred units, or phonemes of music within one second, that could in some way be deciphered under certain conditions.
Most of the fragments in Plexure are longer than that: they are as short as three milliseconds, and go up to several seconds in length. Usually, when they’re several seconds, they exist within layers of other things, where through various means a material can morph into other material. All this stuff kind of hovers at some sort of roughly-calculated norm of what the threshold of recognizability is. There are variations: one fellow I know managed to identify 340 sources in the original plunderphonic on one listening, which was extremely out of the norm. Most people are able to say, “Oh yes, I know what that is” to one or two items, which have been further obscured in preparation for the re-release. So that’s Plexure, and that covers the whole kind of plunderphonic thing.
[K] What are you after in doing it, in using that as source material?
[JO] Well, pleasure and satisfaction. Plexure, which is a [Latin]-derived word also refers to the texture in a weave, the interaction between various elements in a woven pattern. But it also has, let’s say, more connotation of “pleasure in texture”. The main reason I do these things is because they’re pieces of music that I derive a great deal of satisfaction from listening to, and I can’t find the equivalent in my local record store.
[K] Now, you hinted at something, I’m not sure if I picked it up correctly, about having some trouble or difficulty at one time, which has been resolved, about using these samples or these excerpts?
[JO] Yeah, legally… I’ve been directly threatened with a legal argument in one instance, which involved CRIA, which is the Canadian equivalent of the RIAA in the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA and CRIA are organizations employed by the major record companies. There are about five of them which cover the whole world and release about 90% of the overall product in the world record market, and less than 1% of the variety. They tend to be watchdogs for the industry. They look around for cases of copyright infringement, things like that. I did one record called plunderphonic, with about 24 different pieces, each of which focused on a well-known musical icon, from Igor Stravinsky, Beethoven, to Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Dick Hyman… The thing that was noticed by CRIA — and was then passed on to Michael Jackson’s organization — was the cover for it, which was a picture of Michael Jackson from a cover of his album Bad, reconfigured in ways that one prude at CRIA found very offensive.
[K] You sort of did a gender change on Michael?
[JO] Yeah, it was a gender change, which was based on I think reasonable speculation as to Michael’s career trajectory. Michael thought it was “very, very funny,” but that’s not a direct quote, that’s a third-hand quote. But nonetheless, he sanctioned their coming after me. Although, again this was not a commercially-released item. At least in Canadian copyright there are certain provisions for someone who feels like their copyright has been infringed, to claim on the basis of mutilation of their intellectual property. So, we had some legal discussions for a while, and that was all settled, and that was the end of my…
[K] Was everybody happy?
[JO] I was happy, yeah. The settlement was based on a list of agreements that I sent them through a lawyer I had employed. I sent them several. The first one offered to let them pay me a certain ongoing sum to eternity to release this record as a free item which would be distributed through all their markets. This was mostly picking on CBS who also represented in this, which they didn’t go for, so they went about halfway down my package of lists, and they chose a list which I found perfectly agreeable, in which the stipulations were that I would get to talk about this, so here I am talking about it. They would receive from me all the remaining copies I had of this CD, which was about 300 left of them from a pressing of 1,000, the master tape I’d used to replicate the CD, et cetera, et cetera. A provision that they would do, what they said they wanted me to do, which was to destroy them. I said “No, I’m not into destroying CDs or burning books or anything like that, but if you want to do that you may,” because right from the beginning I stipulated that anyone who wanted to use this package, plunderphonic, in any sort of way, was not restricted by me from doing that. Which is how CRIA ended up getting a copy in the first place, they asked for one. So then they were asking for all the other copies, and they got them. [Concerning] the copies that had already been distributed though — at first they were demanding be recalled and were threatening to take out legal action against radio stations et cetera that were playing it —, their stipulation was dropped and most people were able to keep their copy. So they just got the remaining copies I had. And, what else did we agree upon? That was it. So that effectively took me out of the music distribution business. The fleeing music distribution business, which was impractical in the long run anyway. It also sent a signal that I was no longer, because I am legally required not to produce more of this particular CD. It sent out a signal and allowed other people to kind of take up the slack. So it’s continued to be distributed in various forms, everything from a little 2” English CD version of it, to various organizations. I think there are three of them in the States, one of them that I know of in Canada, one in England called the Copyright Violation Squad, who, if you send them a blank cassette, will tape over it with plunderphonic and a similar band item by a group called Negativland, and send that back to you for no cost.
[K] Negativland has a free music essay posted on the Internet, of “Free Music Philosophy.”
[JO] But they’re much more militant than I am.
[K] [Laughter] Let’s hear one of your plunderphonic pieces.
[JO] We’ll listen to a very early one, in fact, the first pop-relatedplunderphonics piece from 1975. It’s a bit, in a way, a precursor to rap music. Then we can hear a little bit of a live performance of a Beethoven piece that was on the original plunderphonic CD.
We listen to Power [0:57:00–1:00:35] and Seventh [1:00:35–1:06:05] by John Oswald.
[K] Power, from 1975, and Seventh from 1988. The latter one, particularly in what you talked about with little fragments, the evocative nature I guess of little fragments, being able to pick them up and assess them, suck them in and make your brainwaves happy. [Laughter]
[JO] Yeah, I think ideally a plunderphonics piece works when the source is constantly familiar, but obvious something new is happening. This is a transformation of a recognizable source, and that recognizability is omnipresent throughout the piece.
[K] The question I’m sure you’ve been asked is the creative dilemma there, in using familiar material that’s already there as a source material, rather than generating it and making it familiar by its own compelling character.
[JO] Well, what’s the dilemma? I don’t feel there is any dilemma.
[K] Well, let me pose it as a dilemma. Let me present it as if it were my dilemma, and I hear it and I say, “I already know this, why is this yours? Why don’t you give me some new material to listen to, so I can get familiar with it and get rewarded that way, instead of giving me material I’ve heard before and “reconfiguring it,” which is the word that you use.
[JO] Well, I don’t care if you finally decide that it isn’t mine, and I don’t think it’s necessary to come up with new material all the time. All these things we’ve been listening to are recordings, and there’s 5,000 new recordings coming out every week. Have you listened to all of them? And there’s a few probably that you’d like to listen to again, you’re just looking for the time to get around to that.
[Damian] No, there’s not one I would want to hear a second time.
[JO] So, then I should be generating new material for you all the time?
[D] Please. At your leisure, though.
[JO] [Laughter] Okay, at my leisure. I do continue to make new records, but I don’t think it’s necessary to come up with new stuff, there’s just so much old stuff that there’s still to be listened to.
[D] Is this a direction that other people can take? That should take?
[JO] The only reason I see against doing that is the fiscal situation involved in plunderphonics. It’s not necessarily the most practical way of creating music these days. Of course, the most practical way of creating music is to do stuff that is totally redundant. [Pause]But, there’s no other reason not to do it.
[K] About a year ago, we talked to Nick Collins [see interview in this issue of eContact!], and he did a well-known piece now, called Devil’s Music. Does it have a certain relationship to what you do? Do you feel a kinship to that?
[JO] It does have a relationship in that it does take obvious sources. It doesn’t go to any sort of great lengths to disguise its sources, which I think in the case of Devil’s Music was taken from the radio? The big difference between the things that Nick Collins does and a few other people — Carl Stone [see interview in this issue of eContact!], David Shea in New York, Christian Marclay using vinyl, and a lot of DJs — is that’s all related to the performance of these materials, whereas almost everything I’ve played for you (with the exception of that one version of Seventh) is created in the studio, not in real-time, over an extended period. It’s much more like painting than taking a photograph, or making a photograph. I can get in a lot of trouble with that analogy, but it’s a very time-intensive studio-based process making these things, and I don’t perform plunderphonics pieces in public.
[K] Does plunderphonics have a future?
[JO] Well, it does for me, because I still have more projects to work on, that I’d like to work on. The records and CDs are more or less permanent, so they have their own little futures.
[K] We have a feature on our show occasionally, which Damian creates, called the Best of the Bazaar, in which he takes very small snippets of previous shows, usually in groups of five shows, and creates a piece from those. Inside some of those are the previous playing of the previous Best of, and it becomes somewhat recursive. Do you have any of that kind of recursive stuff inside your own work? Taking what you’ve already done and using that as part of the source material included with new material?
[JO] Oh sure, yeah. For instance, in Plexure there are a couple of quotes. There is at least one quote from the plunderphonics CD, there is material that overlaps with the plunderphonics CD, although not very much because most of the material we used on the plunderphonic CD came in that period before 1982–1992. But there is one quote that exists, and because it is a quote in the first place and the first plunderphonic CD, it could be referred to as the “original material,” but the original material is from the 1960s. So, hearing it in the new version seems at first anomalous to a 1982–1992 restriction, but in both cases, they’re the first note of the plunderphonic CD and the new version of Plexure (not the old version of Plexure), and the last note of 1960s source. Maybe we should just listen to that note.
We listen to Plexure by John Oswald [1:13:36–1:33:04] before moving on to the second part of the interview.
Audio Part 2 [0:32:14–1:25:35]
We listen to Temperature, Massive, Velocity by John Oswald [0:32:14–0:38:35].
[JO] [Portion of interview missing] … partly because Finnegan’s Wake is an inspirational source for, kind of, both for just sheer complexity but also dialectic complexity that’s in Plexure.
[K] What else are you working on, and what else led you to be working in this area?
[JO] I’ve just finished a radio play for the Dutch national radio called Brazilianaires. There’s a German Brazilian, there’s a Portugese Brazilian, a Canadian (me), and a Dutch radio person. The play exists mainly in four languages. The speaking part for me is in English. It’s performed by [road movie queen] Valérie Buhagiar, and for the Portugese Brazilian parts there are several characters. Both men and women are performed by a Brazilian man. There are several German parts, for some Germans who are living in Brazil, are all performed by a German man, and the Dutch radio guy who’s always on the telephone is always performed by a Dutch woman. So, the play exists in these four languages where everybody’s speaking in their indigenous language, and it’s based on a more or less true story, in which almost all the dialogue that has been re-created here in the play was spoken in English, going back to the indigenous languages of the various people involved. There were several projects I worked on last year that had to do with multiple languages at the same time. I’m kind of going for an international feel, and also trying to see where there were points of decipherability, and if you weren’t a polyglot (like you, and knew what all these languages were)…
[K] Right. Are you concerned with the acoustic event in there, as well as the linguistic one?
[JO] Oh, definitely.
[K] The sounds, the different sounds?
[JO] Well, I was originally commissioned by the Dutch Radio to do a soundscape piece based on Brazil, and after quite a bit of coaxing, they sent me down to Brazil — São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — for three days each, which has been compressed to one day each in the play, just to get the flavour. Originally they called me up and said, “John Oswald, we want you to take Brazilian records and do plunderphonics. We’ll send you to Brazil to buy some records,” and I said, “Well, you know, I can buy Brazilian records in Toronto.” And it turns out that they are much more available in Toronto than I was able to find in Brazil. That was the most practical solution, but they wanted me to get the flavour of it.
[K] Why Brazil?
[JO] What happened as a result was that my stay there was so bizarre that I found after about a three-year hiatus — in which I didn’t do any piece at all — that every time I came back to the idea of fulfilling a commission, I kept thinking in terms of the story, rather than a sonic piece about Brazil. I didn’t have any great connection to Brazilian music, other than with these sambas and bossa novas and The Girl from Ipanema, and that’s about it. And it’s a rich musical culture, so I was not somebody that was suitable for representing that.
[K] Missed the one piece though, why Brazil?
[JO] Why Brazil? Well, it was their idea.
[K] Yeah, why was it their idea? I mean, did you ever find that out?
[JO] Well, part of the intrigue in this play, is why does the Dutch Radio want a Canadian to go to Brazil and be hosted there by Germans in order to create some sort of sonic reference to Brazil?
[D] It’s clear to me, but I don’t want to spoil it for the rest of our audience, so go right ahead.
[JO] So the play is this investigation, and it does have all sorts of sonic elements, and kind of a conundrum that is in a way anti-radio: as soon as you’re dealing with spoken elements and anything else in radio, the spoken element should be dominant. That’s traditional, proper production. There are various things built into Brazilians that I guess would make the listener suspicious as to the capability of the producer (which is me), and there are also various things to confuse the listening audience as a whole. If you listen to the piece in stereo as opposed to mono, in certain scenes you get a complete different picture, because there are absolute out-of-phase elements built into the sound that cancel each other out in mono. So, a mono listener might hear a dialogue that is completely masked by an environmental element in the stereo version. Stuff like that, there’s all sorts of tricks.
There are places where the voices become a chorus or a babble of people trying to say things. There are multiple languages without any sort of support or translation, and I suggested to them — and as far as I know they haven’t broadcast this yet — that they make the script available in its multiple translations for the Dutch audience — which in any case has much greater facility with English and German than with, for instance, an American audience would have with Dutch, German and Portuguese.
[K] Look forward to hearing that. Let’s hear some more of your other approaches to music.
[JO] Uh, well, we’re talking about language. Let’s play another plunderphonic-based piece, go back to this one here. Let’s listen to this disc here, there’s a shorter version on here. This piece is called A Case of Death, it’s another dance piece. The track is not mentioned on the back of this, Track 17, the bonus track. A Case of Death exists in 25 chapters, so I guess we’ll hear a couple of chapters for now.
We listen to A Case of Death by John Oswald [0:47:25–0:56:50].
[K] Okay, you’ve got a sense of humour, though. Do we listen to it, that wryness, we’re supposed to hear that? How many listenings to we get out of it, and what are you doing? What do you alternately hope we hear of this, you know, 27th listening?
[JO] Well, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do, but it’s sort of obvious to me that if you’re making something that’s going to go on a CD… In this case, this piece is a bit of a hybrid, in that it exists as two dance solos that were initiated and choreographed by the guy who’s now the head of the National Ballet here in Canada, James Kudelka. So it does have some pacing that kind of thinks, “Well, people are going to laugh” and you need that live comic’s kind of pause, spaces where the laughter can happen before the next bit of dialogue comes in. It’s a bit difficult with a tape piece, you have to kind of second-guess what an audience might want to do.
But as a record, it can be something that hopefully will be played again and again, so I don’t shy away from complexity in records, because you can always go over the material. I do shy away from things like repeats, because again, you can just play the thing over and over again. In a lot of cases, you can pack a lot more information on a CD by just programming in the repeats, for instance as with traditional classical music, where the reason the repeats were there is because quite often the audience would only hear that piece once in their life, and in order to get through the variations they’d have to hear the theme a couple of times in order to remember it. That’s not the case anymore.
[K] Do you laugh when you do this? Or is it just too much work?
[JO] Oh, yeah, I’m entertained by various things I do. There’s no stipulation to laugh, though, and I really dread this idea of saying, “Hey, here’s a funny piece, you’re gonna really like this.” You just present the thing, and if people think it’s funny, fine. Sometimes people think the oddest things are funny, somebody’s crying and somebody else is laughing.
[K] A piece we’ve often played, let’s jump into that, that’s very different.
[K] The first piece I heard of yours… knocked me over.
[JO] This is the first piece I ever wrote for a live performing ensemble. It was done in 1990, I think, and it’s the first one since I think 1976 or 1978, and although I didn’t have that many offers in between, I really avoided creating works for live ensembles. I did some choreographed pieces that in all cases tended to challenge the whole idea of performance. So it was something I had to consider carefully when I got this invitation from Kronos Quartet, whether I wanted to get back into making pieces for performance. The thing I avoided in performance — in the same way that Conlon Nancarrow did — was the imprecision of my compositional intent with the result. But I accepted the Kronos commission and I did it, in a way, with the [trepidation] that the performers might not do what I want on stage. So on Spectre, the tape element — which I think would be expected of me to do something that was tape and live performers — is the dominant element. What Kronos and any other string quartet performing this work do, more than anything, is provide a visual element which helps you get through the tape.
They’re also part of an eventually very large orchestra of string players. Kronos played all the parts for the tape section, and they’re progressively multiplied as the piece goes on, so at a certain point there are 4,000 strings, or a 1,000 string quartets. What you get in performance are four people sitting on stage, surrounded by 4,000 mirrored images of what they’re doing. So built into the piece was a lot of safeguards for any kind of eventuality of performance individuality. Since doing that piece, I’ve done several pieces for Kronos and for other groups in which the players get to do more.
[K] I guess your own preference would be to have everyone be hearing this live, because of the visual elements and of course the loudness, I suppose, at the peak of it?
[JO] It’s a very strange record, and of all the things that I’ve played for you, it’s the one that I would least recommend, because it’s not a circumstance that I control. What you have on the Spectre recording is a very dry image of the elements of all the strings. It was intentionally recorded in a semi-anæchoic situation, so that when it’s reproduced onstage, it only takes advantage of the acoustics of the hall, and doesn’t have that sense of room within the speakers that you’re listening to from the audience. That’s part of creating the illusion that all the music you’re hearing is right there. There’s another more extreme case, where I recreated the image of a pit orchestra for a ballet piece in Berlin a few years ago. The speakers were situated in the pit, and the orchestra’s in the pit, but then strange things start happening to the orchestra. At one point they’re attacked by a lion.
The same thing applies in Spectre, and a few other recordings I’ve done for reproduction in places. The original sound is in a sense, in a “no-space,” and the space is created in the room. So what you have on the record is kind of “in your face” reproduction of the strings, which is nice in itself, but I think it’s a very difficult piece to read without the dynamics which are beyond the capability of a CD.
[K] And of course, in this particular case, we’re also going to have the compressor on the transmitter that takes over.
[JO] Oh yeah…
[K] It’ll flatten that out a little bit.
[JO] … I’ve found live recordings of Spectre, and there have been ones where the recording unit has tried to get the live sound of the string quartet on top, you know, as things are supposed to be. Performer and tape pieces are supposed to be like concerti, where the performer is the focus. In this case, the performers aren’t the focus, they’re just 4 amongst 4,000. So, it’s a piece that can easily be misconstrued outside of that performance context, but it does exist on record, people do listen to it, and as I’ve mentioned to you, it’s in Hollywood movies and things now, and there it is.
We listen to Spectre by John Oswald [1:05:24–1:11:08].
[K] And we’re back pretending to be knowledgeable, and that was John Oswald’s Spectre, flattened out, dried out, made into a husk of its original self.
[JO] I should come out with an announcement saying, “Well, we’re not going to play Spectre, just because the composer seems to be so pained about the idea of it being broadcast yet again.” You’ve mentioned that you’ve played it on your show already. I ran into discussions for programming this: the idea that if we’re presenting new music, we should always be presenting new music, and there should be no historical basis or no repeats of material.
[K] Oh, we repeat, we believe in that.
[K] Tell us about improvisation. Tell us about your music. Tell us about your dress.
[JO] Improvisation for me is very much a hobby, as might be apparent. I spend long hours in the studio, working on these compositions. Then, for social satisfaction and the satisfaction of getting, you know, a minute’s worth of music done in a minute’s worth of activity, I am involved in several groups playing improvised music. I am also improvised in improvised dance that’s a bit like wrestling, and it’s a nice respite from talking to machines all day.
[D] What about your early life? Did you take harmonica lessons as a youth?
[JO] I don’t remember.
[D] Is there anyone who might remember? Could we phone anyone and ask?
[JO] There’s been various biographical attempts, most of which have been extremely inaccurate, and…
[D] Inaccuracy doesn’t bother us particularly…
[JO] Well, it doesn’t bother me either, because I like the contradictions that have come up. So far I’ve been born in three different countries over a range of about 20 years, and the historical perspective is shaping up very nicely, without any help from me.
[D] That good, an elusive quality…
[K] Elusive, yes, do you enjoy that? Do you enjoy being elusive?
[JO] Sure. Yeah, well, no, no.
[K] Okay. Let’s sort of, see if we can frame this somehow. I don’t think we have a perspective of you in this short time as a composer, creator, any of these things. It seems that you’ve slipped out the side of the question sometimes. Why don’t you ask yourself a question? Get a message, everybody has a message of some sort, that…
[JO] “John, is it time to go now?” “Oh, yes it is.” Uh… no, I did have an answer, but I forgot it. I mean, it wasn’t even an answer, because you were not asking a question. Oh yeah, it’s this elusive thing. Well, if anything I prefer not to be centre stage for any of these things. The pieces are the interesting thing, and I end up just having to do some PR for these various things, which is why I talk about them, but it’s not really any attempt to build up some sort of character or character reference. It’s just hopefully initiating some sort of interest in listening to the things.
[K] You’ve done very different work.
[JO] Different from the rest of everything, or each one’s different from its…
[K] Just that the character of this is different from a large body of what one considers composers of new music doing. Are you a groundbreaker? You have sort of a marker you’re putting out, for sort of a stream of music that you can come along and see it on the riverbank?
[JO] Well, I think of a distinction in which there’s two ways of doing music. One way is just for personal satisfaction, and a lot of that can be extremely redundant to what other people do for their own personal satisfaction. I could potentially derive a lot of satisfaction from sitting and playing sheet music of some well-known piece of music. As it turns out, I can’t do that. I’m a bad reader and a bad interpreter and all those things, so in a way I’m kind of stuck with my own idiosyncrasies for making music.
But, as a producer of music, or as a disseminator of music, it seems the only reasonable thing to do is fill in the gaps of things that haven’t been done. And the selfish reason I do that is because I want to listen to these things. It seems like the only reason I do a project is because I want to listen to something and somebody hasn’t already done it. If they’ve already done it, it’s great. It’s not like [I think], “Oh, I wish I’d done that,” because there’s lots of other things. I can spend 15 minutes and go down to the store, and spend 15 bucks and get it, rather than spend the next year of my life trying to make this thing. So, the things are idiosyncratic only in that they tend not to duplicate other stuff that’s already available.
[K] What shall we wrap up with, last thing to listen to?
[D] How about your recent orchestral piece that was co-written, for which we have, in this very room, five willing voices able to transport our listening audience, if the score has been brought. The score has not been brought, so… never mind.
[JO] Well, unfortunately, you haven’t introduced a wrap-up item, because again, this piece does refer to (which is composed by myself and Linda Catlin Smith, who’s also in the room), It’s called Orchestral Tuning Arrangement, and like Spectre, it’s a piece that you really have to go and sit with lots of other people and experience it. Need we say more? It’s a terrible wrap-up item, but it’s…
[K] We’re going to do it, then.
[K] Our guest today on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar, John Oswald, thank you.
[JO] Thank you.
We listen to Skindling Skadés by John Oswald [1:20:43–1:25:35], as the rights were not assigned to broadcast Orchestral Tuning Arrangement.