Plunderphonics is any music made by taking one or more existing audio recordings and altering them in some way to make a new composition. The term was coined by composer John Oswald in 1985 in his essay Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative[1]. Plunderphonics can be considered a form of sound collage. Oswald has described it as a referential and self-conscious practice which interrogates notions of originality and identity.[2]
Although the concept of plunderphonics is seemingly broad, in practice there are many common themes used in what is normally called plunderphonic music. This includes heavy sampling of educational films of the 1950s, news reports, radio shows, or anything with trained vocal announcers. Oswald’s contributions to this genre rarely used these materials, the exception being his rap-like 1975 track “Power.” The process of sampling other sources is found in various genres (notably hip-hop and especially turntablism), but in plunderphonic works the sampled material is often the only sound used. These samples are usually uncleared, and sometimes result in legal action being taken due to copyright infringement. Some plunderphonic artists use their work to protest what they consider to be overly-restrictive copyright laws. Many plunderphonic artists claim their use of other artists’ materials falls under the fair use doctrine. A development of the process is when creative musicians plunder an original track and overlay new material and sounds on top until the original piece is masked and then removed, though often using scales and beat. It is a studio based technique used by such groups as the American experimental band The Residents (who used Beatles tracks) and the UK band The Perrinormal (who have plundered many tracks from classical, folk, rock and jazz but rarely reveal which). Often the new track has little resemblance to the original, making it a derivative work and thus freeing the musician from copyright issues.

Early examples

Although the term plunderphonics tends to be applied only to music made since Oswald coined it in the 1980s, there are several examples of earlier music made along similar lines. Notably, Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan‘s 1956 single “The Flying Saucer“, features Goodman as a radio reporter covering an alien invasion interspersed with samples from various contemporary records. The Residents‘ “Beyond The Valley Of A Day In The Life” consists of excerpts from Beatles records. Various club DJs in the 1970s re-edited the records they played, and although this often consisted of nothing more than extending the record by adding a chorus or two, this too could be considered a form of plunderphonics.

Some classical composers have performed a kind of plunderphonia on written, rather than recorded, music. Perhaps the best known example is the third movement of Luciano Berio‘s Sinfonia, which is entirely made up from quotes of other composers and writers. Alfred Schnittke and Mauricio Kagel have also made extensive use of earlier composers’ works. Earlier composers who often plundered the music of others include Charles Ives (who often quoted folk songs and hymns in his works) and Ferruccio Busoni (a movement from his 1909 piano suite An die Jugend includes a prelude and a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach played simultaneously). During the ’90s Oswald composed many such scores for classical musicians which he classified with the term Rascali Klepitoire.

In France, Jean-Jacques Birgé has been working on “radiophonies” since 1974 (for his film “La nuit du phoque”), capturing radio and editing the samples in real time with the pause button of a radio-cassette. His group Un Drame Musical Instantané recorded “Crimes parfaits” on LP “A travail égal salaire égal” in 1981, explaining the whole process in the piece itself and calling it “social soundscape”. He applied the same technique to TV in 1986 on the “Qui vive?” CD and published on the 1998 CD “Machiavel”[3] with Antoine Schmitt, an interactive video scratch using 111 very small loops from his own past LPs.