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Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative

This paper was initially presented by the author at the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto in 1985. It was published in Musicworks #34, as a booklet by Recommended Quarterly and subsequently revised for the Whole Earth Review #57 as “Bettered by the borrower.” In one form or another it has been translated into several languages. Now celebrating its 30 years, the CEC is pleased to include the article in eContact! 16.4.

Musical instruments produce sounds. Composers produce music. Musical instruments reproduce music. Tape recorders, radios, disc players, etc., reproduce sound. A device such as a wind-up music box produces sound and reproduces music. A phonograph in the hands of a hip hop / scratch artist, who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced — the record player becomes a musical instrument. A sampler, in essence a recording, transforming instrument, is simultaneously a documenting device and a creative device, in effect reducing a distinction manifested by copyright.

Free Samples

These new-fangled, much-talked-about digital sound sampling devices are, we are told, music mimics par excellence, able to render the whole orchestral panoply, plus all that grunts, or squeaks. The noun “sample” is, in our commodified culture, often pre-fixed by the adjective “free”, and if one is to consider predicating this subject, perhaps some thinking aloud on what is not allowable auditory appropriation is to be heard.

Some of you, current and potential samplerists, are perhaps curious about the extent to which you can legally borrow from the ingredients of other people’s sonic manifestations. Is a musical property properly private, and if so, when and how does one trespass upon it? Like myself, you may covet something similar to a particular chord played and recorded singularly well by the strings of the estimable Eastman Rochester Orchestra on a long-deleted Mercury Living Presence LP of Charles Ives’ Symphony #3 (see Sidebar to the right, Note #1), itself rampant in unauthorized procurements. Or imagine how invigorating a few retrograde Pygmy (no slur on primitivism intended) chants would sound in the quasi-funk section of your emulator concerto. Or perhaps you would simply like to transfer an octave of hiccups from the stock sound library disk of a Mirage to the spring-loaded tape catapults of your Melotron. 1[1. The words “emulator” and “mirage” accurately describe the machines that bear their names. Window Recorder is a more ambitious cognomen for a device that can store longer programmes than can most samplers, and therefore bridges the sense of the terms “sampler” and “digital recorder”. At the other end, digital delay units are in effect short-term samplers.]

Can the sounding materials that inspire composition be sometimes considered compositions themselves? Is the piano the musical creation of Bartolommeo Cristofori (1655–1731) or merely the vehicle engineered by him for Ludwig van and others to manœuver through their musical territory? Some memorable compositions were created specifically for the digital recorder of that era, the music box. Are the preset sounds in today’s sequencers and synthesizers free samples, or the musical property of the manufacturer? (See Note #2) Is a timbre any less definably possessable than a melody? A composer who claims divine inspiration is perhaps exempt from responsibility to this inventory of the layers of authorship. But what about the unblessed rest of us?

Let’s see what the powers that be have to say. “Author” is copyrightspeak for any creative progenitor, no matter if they programme software or compose hardcore. To wit:

An author is entitled to claim authorship and to preserve the integrity of the work by restraining any distortion, mutilation or other modification that is prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation.

That’s called the “right of integrity” and it’s from the Canada Copyright Act (see Note #3) A recently published report on the proposed revision of the Act uses the metaphor of land owners’ rights, where unauthorized use is synonymous with trespassing. The territory is limited. Only recently have sound recordings been considered a part of this real estate.

Blank Tape Is Derivative, Nothing of Itself

Way back in 1976, ninety-nine years after Edison went into the record business, the U.S. Copyright Act was revised to protect sound recordings in that country for the first time. Before this, only written music was considered eligible for protection. Forms of music that were not intelligible to the human eye were deemed ineligible. The traditional attitude was that recordings were not artistic creations, “but mere uses or applications of creative works in the form of physical objects” (see Note #4).

Some music-oriented organizations still retain this “view”. The current Canadian Act came into being in 1924, an electric eon later than the original U.S. Act of 1909, and up here “copyright does subsist in records, perforated rolls and other contrivances by means of which sounds may be mechanically reproduced.”

Of course the capabilities of mechanical contrivances are now more diverse than anyone back at the turn of the century forecasted, but now the real headache for the writers of copyright come in the form of new electronic contrivances, including digital samplers of sound and their accountant cousins, computers. Among “the intimate cultural secretions of electronic, biological, and written communicative media” 2[2. This is Chris Cutler’s poignant phrase, from File Under Popular, which also includes a good analysis of attempted definitions of popular music, and a definition of folk music integral to the use of that term in Plunderphonics: “First, the medium of its musical generation and perpetuation is tradition & is based in human, which is to say biological, memory. This mode centers around the EAR & and can exist only in two forms: as sound & as memory of sound. / Second, the practice of music is in all cases an expressive attribute of a whole community, which adapts & changes as the concerns & realities it expresses — or as the vocabulary of the collective æsthetic — adapt & change. There is no other external pressure upon it. / Third, there can be no such thing as a finished or definitive piece of music. At most there could be said to be ‘matrixes’ or ‘fields’. Consequently, there is also no element of personal property, though there is of course individual contribution.” (Cutler 1985, 133–134)] the electronic brain business is cultivating, by grace of its relative youth, pioneering creativity and a corresponding conniving ingenuity. The popular intrigue of computer theft has inspired cinematic and paperback thrillers while the robbery of music is restricted to elementary poaching and blundering innocence. The plots are trivial: Disney accuses Sony of conspiring with consumers to make unauthorized mice (see Note #5); former Beatle George Harrison is found guilty of an indiscretion in choosing a vaguely familiar sequence of pitches. 3[3. George Harrison was found guilty of subconsciously plagiarizing the 1962 tune He’s So Fine by The Chiffons in his song My Sweet Lord (1970). See Note #6 for more on the topic.]

The dubbing-in-the-privacy-of-your-own-home controversy is actually the tip of a hot iceberg of rudimentary creativity. After decades of being the passive recipients of music in packages, listeners now have the means to assemble their own choices, to separate pleasures from the filler. They are dubbing a variety of sounds from around the world, or at least from the breadth of their record collections, making compilations of a diversity unavailable from the music industry, with its circumscribed stables of artists, and an evermore pervasive policy of only supplying the common denominator.

The Chiffons/Harrison case, and the general accountability of melodic originality, indicates a continuing concern for what amounts to the equivalent of a squabble over the patents to the Edison cylinder.

The Commerce of Noise

The precarious commodity in music today is no longer the tune. A fan can recognize a hit from a ten-millisecond burst, 4[4. The ten-millisecond figure is not based on any psychophysical research I’ve seen, but rather is a duration near the faster threshold of musical sense, which is approached by the examples given in hit parade recognition contests.] faster than a Fairlight can whistle Dixie. Notes with their rhythm and pitch values are trivial components in the corporate harmonization of cacophony. Few pop musicians can read music with any facility. The Art of Noise, a studio based, mass market targeted recording firm, strings atonal arrays of timbres on the line of an ubiquitous beat. The Emulator fills the bill. Singers with original material aren’t studying Bruce Springsteen’s melodic contours, they’re trying to sound just like him. And sonic impersonation is quite legal. While performing rights organizations continue to farm for proceeds for tunesters and poetricians, those who are shaping the way the buck says the music should be, rhythmatists, timbralists and mixologists under various monikers, have rarely been given compositional credit. 5[5. Unlike the more traditional vehicles of creative expression such as writing, drama, or art, the new media of the twentieth century — records, films, broadcasts, computers — often require more equipment and a large and diversified creative team. Creation is no longer a craft but also an industry. This change not only involves new forms of economic organization, but reaches into the creative process itself. For example, in a sound recording the creative aspects include the choice of works, the contribution of musicians and performers, the work of sound mixers, and so on. Here the contribution of each team member is distinct but not separable from the final product; the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts. (“A Charter of Rights for Creators,” p. 13)]

At what some would like to consider the opposite end of the field, among academics and the salaried technicians of the orchestral swarms, an orderly display of fermatas and hemidemisemiquavers on a page is still often thought indispensible to a definition of music, even though some earnest composers rarely if ever peck these things out anymore. Of course, if appearances are necessary, a computer programme and printer can do it for them.

Musical language has an extensive repertoire of punctuation devices but nothing equivalent to literature’s “ ” quotation marks. Jazz musicians do not wiggle two fingers of each hand in the air, as lecturers often do, when cross-referencing during their extemporizations, because on most instruments this would present some technical difficulties — plummeting trumpets and such.

Without a quotation system, well-intended correspondences cannot be distinguished from plagiarism and fraud. But anyway, the quoting of notes is but a small and insignificant portion of common appropriation.

Am I underestimating the value of melody writing? Well, I expect that before long we’ll have marketable expert tune-writing software which will be able to generate the banalities of catchy permutations of the diatonic scale in endless arrays of tuneable tunes, from which a not necessarily affluent songwriter can choose; with perhaps a built-in checking lexicon of used-up tunes which would advise Beatle George 6[6. The Beatles, especially Harrison, are an interesting case of reciprocity between fair use and the amassing of possession and wealth. “We were the biggest nickers in town; plagiarists extraordinaire,” says Paul McCartney (Musician, February 1985, p. 62). He owns one of the world’s most expensive song catalogues, including a couple of state anthems. John Lennon incorporated collage techniques onto pieces like Revolution 9, which contains dozens of looped, unauthorized fragments taped from radio and television broadcasts. George obviously wasn’t “subconsciously” plagiarizing in the case of his LP Electronic Sound. This release consisted of nothing more than a tape of a demonstration electronic musician Bernie Krause had given Harrison on the then-new Moog synthesizer. Krause: “I asked him if he thought it was fair that I wasn’t asked to share in the disc’s credits and royalties. His answer was to trust him, that I shouldn’t come on like Marlon Brando, that his name alone on the album would do my career good, and that if the album sold, he would give me ‘a couple of quid.’” The record was released with George’s name in big letters, while Krause’s was obscured.] not to make the same blunder again.

Chimeras of Sound

Some composers have long considered the tape recorder a musical instrument capable of more than the faithful hi-fi transcriber role to which manufacturers have traditionally limited its function. Now there are hybrids of the electronic offspring of acoustic instruments and audio mimicry by the digital clones of tape recorders. Audio mimicry by digital means is nothing new; mechanical manticores from the 19th century with names like the Violano-virtuoso and the Orchestrion are quaintly similar to the Synclavier Digital Music System and the Fairlight CMI (computer music instrument). In the case of the Synclavier, what is touted as a combination multi-track recording studio and simulated symphony orchestra looks like a piano with a built-in accordion chordboard and LED clock radio.

The composer who plucks a blade of grass and with cupped hands to pursed lips creates a vibrating soniferous membrane and resonator, although susceptible to comments on the order of “it’s been done before,” is in the potential position of bypassing previous technological achievement and communing directly with nature. Of music from tools, even the iconoclastic implements of a Harry Partch or a Hugh Le Caine are susceptible to the convention of distinction between instrument and composition. Sounding utensils, from the erh-hu to the Emulator, have traditionally provided such a potential for varied expression that they have not in themselves been considered musical manifestations. This is contrary to the great popularity of generic instrumental music (The Many Moods of 101 Strings, Piano for Lovers, The Truckers DX-7, etc.), not to mention instruments that play themselves, the most pervasive example in recent years being pre-programmed rhythm boxes. Such devices, as are found in lounge acts and organ consoles, are direct kin to the jukebox: push a button and out comes music. J.S. Bach pointed out that with any instrument “all one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time and the thing plays itself.” The distinction between sound producers and sound reproducers is easily blurred, and has been a conceivable area of musical pursuit at least since John Cage’s use of radios in the forties.

Starting from Scratch

Just as sound-producing and sound-reproducing technology becomes more interactive, listeners are once again, if not invited, nonetheless encroaching upon creative territory. This prerogative has been largely forgotten in recent decades. The now primitive record-playing generation was a passive lot (indigenous active form scratch belongs to the post-disc, blaster/Walkman era). Gone were the days of lively renditions on the parlour piano.

Computers can take the expertise out of amateur music-making. A current music-minus-one programme retards tempos and searches for the most ubiquitous chords to support the wanderings of a novice player. Some audio equipment geared for the consumer inadvertently offers interactive possibilities. But manufacturers have discouraged compatibility between their amateur and pro equipment. Passivity is still the dominant demographic. Thus the atrophied microphone inputs which have now all but disappeared from premium stereo cassette decks. 7[7. The PAUSE button on home cassette recorders is used for editing and collaging on the fly, i.e. selective editing in real time. This has led to a connoisseurism of the personality of the PAUSE on various decks. Each makes a different-sounding edit. Some can be operated more quickly and precisely than others. Several composers prefer the long-discontinued Sony TC 153-158 line to all others. The Sony saga of consumer-targeted digital recorders is an interesting case of maintaining the pro/amateur gap. The relatively inexpensive PCM-F1 portable digital/analogue converter was probably bought by more professionals than home recordists. It was essentially compatible with, and could substitute for, much more expensive professional equipment. Sony discontinued the F1, replacing it with the 701 E, which was not portable and did not have mic inputs. But it could still be adapted as a professional studio convertor. So Sony emasculated it, introducing the 501 E, similar but for most purposes studio-incompatible.]

As a listener my own preference is the option to experiment. My listening system has a mixer instead of a receiver, an infinitely variable-speed turntable, filters, reverse capability, and a pair of ears.

An active listener might speed up a piece of music in order to perceive more clearly its macrostructure, or slow it down to hear articulation and detail more precisely. Portions of pieces are juxtaposed for comparison or played simultaneously, tracing:

… the motifs of the Indian raga Darbar over Senegalese drumming recording in Paris and a background mosaic of frozen moments from an exotic Hollywood orchestration of the 1950s (a sonic texture like a “Mona Lisa” which in close-up, reveals itself to be made up of tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal. 8[8. From Jon Hassell’s essay “Magic Realism” (liner notes to his 1991 release, Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism). The passage refers in an evocative way to some appropriations and transformations in Hassell’s recordings. In some cases this type of use obscures the identity of the original, and at other times the sources are recognizable.]

During World War II, concurrent with Cage’s re-establishing the percussive status of the piano, Trinidadians were discovering that discarded oil barrels could be cheap, available alternatives to their traditional percussion instruments that were, because of the socially invigorating potential, banned. The steel drum eventually became a national asset. Meanwhile, back in the States, for perhaps similar reasons, scratch and dub have, in the eighties, percolated through the black American ghettos. Within an environmentally imposed, limited repertoire of possessions, a portable disco may have a folk music potential exceeding that of the guitar. Pawned and ripped-off electronics are usually not accompanied by user’s guides with consumer warnings such as “this blaster is a passive reproducer.” Any performance potential found in an appliance is often exploited. A record can be played like an electronic washboard. Radio and disco jockeys layer the sounds of several recordings simultaneously. 9[9. Referring to DJ Francis Grosso at the Salvation club in New York in the mid-seventies Albert Goldman said: “He invented the technique of ‘slip-cueing’: holding the disc with his thumb whilst the turntable whirled beneath, insulated by a felt pad. He’d locate with an earphone the best spot to make the splice, then release the next side precisely on the beat… His tour de force was playing two records simultaneously for as long as two minutes at a stretch. He would super the drum break of I’m a Man over the orgasmic moans of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love to make a powerfully erotic mix… that anticipated the formula of bass drum beats and love cries… now one of the cliches of the disco mix.” (Goldman 1978)] The sound of music conveyed with a new authority over the airwaves is dubbed, embellished and manipulated in kind.

The Medium Is Magnetic

Piracy or plagiarism of a work occur, according to Milton, “if it is not bettered by the borrower.” Stravinsky added the right of possession to Milton’s distinction when he said, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.” An example of this better borrowing is Jim Tenney’s Collage 1 (1961) in which Elvis Presley’s hit record Blue Suede Shoes (itself borrowed from Carl Perkins) is transformed by means of multi-speed tape recorders and razorblade. In the same way that Pierre Schaeffer found musical potential in his objet sonore — which could be, for instance, a footstep, heavy with associations — Tenney took an everyday music and allowed us to hear it differently. At the same time, all that was inherently Elvis radically influenced our perception of Jim’s piece.

Fair use and fair dealing are respectively the American and the Canadian terms for instances in which appropriation without permission might be considered legal. Quoting extracts of music for pedagogical, illustrative and critical purposes have been upheld as legal fair use. So has borrowing for the purpose of parody. Fair dealing assumes use that does not interfere with the economic viability of the initial work.

In addition to economic rights, moral rights exist in copyright, and in Canada these are receiving a greater emphasis in the current recommendations for revision. An artist can claim certain moral rights to a work. Elvis’ estate can claim the same rights, including the right to privacy, and the right to protection of “the special significance of sounds peculiar to a particular artist, the uniqueness of which might be harmed by inferior unauthorized recordings which might tend to confuse the public about an artist’s abilities” (House of Commons 1985 [?]).

At present, in Canada, a work can serve as a matrix for independent derivations. Section 17(2)(b) of the Copyright Act of Canada provides that:

[An] artist who does not retain the copyright in a work may use certain materials used to produce that work to produce a subsequent work, without infringing copyright in the earlier work, if the subsequent work taken as a whole does not repeat the main design of the previous work.

My observation is that Tenney’s Blue Suede fulfils Milton’s stipulation, is supported by Stravinsky’s aphorism, and does not contravene Elvis’ morality or Section 17(2)(b) of the Copyright Act.

Aural Wilderness

The reuse of existing recorded materials is not restricted to the street and the esoteric. The single guitar chord occurring infrequently on Herbie Hancock’s hit arrangement Rocket was not struck by an in-studio union guitarist but was sampled directly from an old Led Zeppelin record. Similarly, Michael Jackson unwittingly turns up on Hancock’s follow-up clone Hard Rock. Now that keyboardists are getting instruments with the button for this appropriation built in, they’re going to push it, easier than reconstructing the ideal sound from oscillation one. These players are used to fingertip replication, as in the case of the organ that had the titles of the songs from which the timbres were derived printed on the stops. 10[10. I have been unable to relocate the reference to this device that had, for example, a “96 Tears” stop. According to one source, it may have been only a one-off mockup in ads for the Roland Juno-60 synthesizer.]

So the equipment is available, and everybody’s doing it, blatantly or otherwise. Melodic invention is nothing to lose sleep over (look what sleep did for Tartini). There’s a certain amount of legal leeway for imitation. Now can we, like Charles Ives, borrow merrily and blatantly from all the music in the air?

Ives composed in an era in which much of music existed in a public domain. Public domain is now legally defined, although it maintains a distance from the present that varies from country to country. In order to follow Ives’ model we would be restricted to using the same oldies that in his time were current. Nonetheless, music in the public domain can become very popular, perhaps in part because the composer is no longer entitled to exclusivity, or royalty payments‹ a hit available for a song. Or as This Business of Music puts it:

The public domain is like a vast national park with no guards to stop wanton looting, with no guides for lost travellers, with no clearly defined fences or borders to stop the innocent wayfarer from being sued for trespass. (Shemel and Krasilovsky 2003, 118)

Professional developers of the musical landscape know and lobby for the loopholes in copyright. On the other hand, many artistic endeavours would benefit creatively from a state of music without fences, but where, as in scholarship, acknowledgement is insisted upon.

The Buzzing of a Titanic Bumblebee

11[11. “A musical note like the buzzing of a titanic bumblebee which sped through space,” was one account of the sounds that radio amateurs were receiving along the east American seaboard in 1914, a year after the Rite of Spring riot. No one knew what these sounds were until one experimenter recorded them on a hand-cranked Edison cylinder phonograph. When he accidentally played the recording back with the machine undercranked, he heard the slowing turning cylinder resolve the high-pitched whistles into the dots and dashes of Morse code. Further investigation revealed that an American radio station was broadcasting these signals to German U-boats off the coast. A war happened to be going on at the time. The U.S. Navy seized the station, and a lid of secrecy was clamped on the recordings until recent times, when the Freedom of Information Act allowed the National Archives to make them available. The Freedom of Information Act has made the titanic bumblebee available, but Alvin the Chipmunk, a character created by means of a specific tape recorder technique — double-speed playback of the human voice — continues to retain exclusive rights.]

The property metaphor used to illustrate an artist’s rights is difficult to pursue through publication and mass dissemination. The hit parade promenades the aural floats of pop on public display, and as curious tourists should we not be able to take our own snapshots through the crowd (“tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal”) rather than be restricted to the official souvenir postcards and programmes?

All popular music (and all folk music, by definition), essentially, if not legally, exists in a public domain. Listening to pop music isn’t a matter of choice. Asked for or not, we’re bombarded by it. In its most insidious state, filtered to an incessant bassline, it seeps through apartment walls and out of the heads of walkpeople. Although people in general are making more noise than ever before, fewer people are making more of the total noise; specifically, in music, those with megawatt PA’s, triple-platinum sales and heavy rotation. Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate, how does one not become a passive recipient?

Proposing their game plan to apprehend the Titanic once it had been located at the bottom of the Atlantic, oceanographer Bob Ballard of the Deep Emergence Laboratory suggested “you pound the hell out of it with every imaging system you have.”


Cowell, Henry and Sidney Cowell. Charles Ives and His Music. Oxford University Press, 1955.

Cutler, Christopher. File Under Popular: Theoretical and Critical Writings on Music. London: November Books, 1985.

Goldman, Albert. Disco. New York NY: Hawthorn Books, 1978.

House of Commons of Canada, Standing Committee on Communications and Culture. “A Charter of Rights for Creators — Report of the Subcommittee on the Revision of Copyright.” Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1985.

Shemel, Sidney and M. William Krasilovsky. This Business of Music. 9th ed. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2003.

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