LISTENING TO JOHN OSWALD IN 2022
by J. Vognsen
(October 2022)Fiction is the most suitable place for exploring the future that I'm aware of. H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Isaac Asimov operated well ahead of their contemporaries in the social sciences in this respect, to pick a few familiar examples.
But what about the world of music?
It would be a mistake to say that the Beatles foresaw the future. More precisely, they shaped it. That the music that followed the Beatles ended up sounding like the Beatles was due to others actively copying them, thus moulding posterity in their image. Call it self-fulfilling, if you like.
The collage music of John Oswald, in contrast, has the character of regular prophecy. Whether or not one happens to have had any direct contact with Oswald's conscious repurposing of sounds already solidly in the public mainstream, his music and the philosophical, moral and legal issues it touches upon define the reality we are all living in today. The borders of authenticity, authorship and originality are now constantly crossed in front of - and inside of - all of us, culturally trapped as we are within copies of copies within further copies. To contemplate the world in 2022 is to be metaphorically locked inside Oswald's classic Plunderphonic album from 1989, constantly asking: Is this real?
That is the first thing that comes to mind when I listen to John Oswald today. The second is how much musical quality Oswald's works possess. At times a hint of technological outdatedness manifests, but Oswald's care for the material he selects and the sheer musicality of his treatments yield a result that still stands among the most sophisticated and enriching collage-based music to date. It's a compelling listen.
Finally, I should like to highlight a third important element of John Oswald's music that unites the first two: A clear yet delicate sense of humour runs throughout. In less skilful hands this could easily have led to a bankruptcy of irony, but here it simply portrays an uncanny and tragicomic reality, making it nothing less than profound.
I recommend that new listeners begin with the Plunderphonics 69/96 box set from 2000 for the best overview, then jump backwards to Oswald's most extreme and successful work Plexure from 1993, before finally visiting the early Mystery Tapes for historical perspective.
The best time to listen to John Oswald is clearly now, the present. This is unlikely to change in the future.
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