Piero Scaruffi's
History of Avantgarde Music

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Collage music in the age of the sampler

As technology allowed more sophisticated manipulation of sound in the studio, musique concrete evolved towards cut-up, collage and montage techniques that mixed found sounds and electronic sounds (and sometimes conventional instruments). The musical score did not disappear, but became the music itself. Musique concrete moved, de facto, closer to the aesthetics of jazz and rock music, in which the composer "is" the performer.

The invention of the sampler even enabled musicians to compose music out of other people's music. In 1984 Ensoniq introduced the synthesizer "Mirage", that included a built-in sampler, making it cheap to create samples-based music.

John Oswald (Canada, 1953), originally a free-jazz improvisor on alto saxophone, crafted the Mystery Tapes, aural collages of music, voices, and found sounds credited to Mystery Laboratory. In the 1980s, the "mystery tape" aesthetics evolved into the "plunderphonics" aesthetics. A "plunderphone" is basically a "quote" of a famous piece of music, typically from popular music. In a sense, it is the musical equivalent of Andy Warhol's pop icons. A plunderphonic composition is a sonic montage of many plunderphones. Unlike Plunderphonics (1988), that sounded like a collection of practical jokes by a merry studio prankster, the ambitious plunderphonic symphony Plexure (1993), that collated more than one thousand musical quotes, was a full-fledged "classical" composition, except that it uses quotes rather than notes as its building blocks.

A few pseudo-rock groups engaged in chaotic collages that harked back to abstract, dadaistic art. The Colorado-based ensemble Mnemonists, formed by William Sharp and others, and later renamed Biota, assembled wild assortments of sonic events on albums such as the monumental Mnemonist Orchestra (1979), Biota (1982) and Rackabones (1985) that ran the gamut from classical music to sheer noise. Their production technique bordered on free-jazz improvisation, but at the same time was surgically designed in the studio. Their audio collage was the equivalent of a descent into hell. In their reincarnations as Biota, that initially continued the Mnemonists' mission with the hybrid of free jazz and musique concrete of Tinct (1988), they eventually moved towards a highly musical "anti-concrete" approach that employed even more sophisticated collage techniques but resulted in user-friendly structures driven by recognizable acoustic instruments (accordion, flugelhorn, guitar) and even vocals. Invisible Map (2001) secreted pop music and at times Half A True Day (2007) sounded like a remix of psychedelic music from the 1960s.

San Francisco-based Negativland (Mark Hosler, Richard Lyons, David Willis, Don Joyce) opted for a satirical urban documentary on Negativland (1980) and Points (1981), breakneck-speed parades of sonic fragments (found sounds as well as radio broadcasts, conversations, musical pieces) that also stood as grotesque celebrations of the consumer society. Their audio collage was the equivalent of a hike in a junkyard.

The Climax Golden Twins, the Seattle-based duo of Rob Millis and Jeffery Taylor, crafted surreal lo-fi collages of field recordings, electronic noise and sampled voices organized as madcap free-form pseudo-psychedelic jams on albums such as Imperial Household Orchestra (1996), Locations (1998), Session 9 (2001),

The 1990s, as the sampler became ubiquitous in popular music, witnessed a generation of sound sculptors who toyed with samples of the musical repertory, field recordings and acoustic instruments, for example John Wall (England), notably on Fractuur (1998), and Lorenzo "Timet" Brusci (Italy).

Carl Stone (USA, 1953) manipulated sources to slowly transform them into a disorienting maze of mirrors. Thus the concrete symphony Woo Lae Oak (1981) for the tremolo of a rubbed string and the tone of a blown bottle electronically processed, and concertos for drones and found sounds such as Kuk Il Kwan (1981) and Shing Kee (1986). These techniques lay the foundation for the pan-ethnic sample-based and synth-based music collages of Al-Noor (2007) and Himalaya (2019).

Bob Ostertag (USA, 1957) pioneered electronic improvisation when he played tape manipulation in a trio with rock guitarist Fred Frith and jazz drummer Charles Noyes on In Tundra (1980), one of the master essays in the fusion of musique concrete and free-jazz improvisation, and when he invented sampling (before the sampler was introduced) on Voice Of America (1981). As a musique-concrete artist, he sculpted Sooner or Later (1990), an ambitious set of variations on the crying of a Salvadorean boy, and the string quartet All The Rage (1992), that employs popular music, sounds of a riot and string instruments as sources. Say No More (1993) inaugurated a virtual jazz quartet with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Mark Dresser and percussionist Gerry Hemingway whose music was actually composed by a computer and sampler from separate individual performances. Like A Melody No Bitterness (1997) was a rare case of solo improvised music for sampler. The Book of Hours (2012) is a digital symphony for voice (featuring vocalists Theo Bleckmann, Shelley Hirsch and Phil Minton), rhythm (indirectly created by the computer manipulations) and improvisation (including saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell's contributions); a carefully assembled (and dis-assembled) stream of consciousness that manages to concoct humane melodrama out of machine music.

Jay Cloidt (USA, 1949) integrated concrete music and classical music in Life is Good And People Are Basically Decent (1995) and Eleven Windows (1998), with a chamber ensemble wittily alternating between quasi-classical passages, emulations of ordinary sounds and counterpoint to processed found sounds.

David Shea (USA, 1965), who had already established his reputation as one of the first turntablists (mainly in John Zorn's ensembles), further legitimized the sampler as an instrument with his works, both the ones for ensemble, such as Shock Corridor (1992) for Samples and instruments (Anthony Coleman on piano and organ, Shelley Hirsch on voice and electronics, Ikue Mori on drum-machine, Zeena Parkins on electric harp, Jim Staley on trombone and didjeridoo, Jim Pugliese on percussion), a kaleidoscopic merry-go-round of stylistic detours, and those for solo sampler, such as Alpha (1995), a real-time collage of record snippets, Satyricon (1997), a sophisticated survey of the collective unconscious, Sita's Walk Of Fire (2001), a demented study in frenzy and contrast.

Irr. App. (Ext.), the project of San Francisco-based composer Matt Waldron (USA, 1969), applied musique concrete to the anarchic, provocative aesthetic of surrealism, perfecting the fusion of field recordings, event music and electronic soundsculpting with the two lengthy suites of Ozeanische Gefuhle (Helen Scarsdale Agency, 2004), originally recorded in 2001.

Multimedia artist Alfredo Costa-Monteiro (Portugal, 1964) produced organic flows of sound by processing paper noises in Allotropie (2005) and by employing pickups and turntables in Z = 78 (2006). His digital symphony Epicycle (2008) for processed voice mixed techniques of "deep listening" (long slowly-evolving drones) and of musique concrete (bursts of abstract sound).

Danish-born German-resident sound sculptor Jacob Kirkegaard (1975) devoted his audio experiments to rediscover the "secret sounds" of the environment. Eldfjall (2005) used the sounds of the Earth itself (captured through microphones buried underground in a region of geothermal activity) to construct calmly dissonant music. 4 Rooms (2006) was an exercise in "deep listening" with a technique borrowed from Alvin Lucier and implemented in four abandoned rooms in the region of Chernobyl's nuclear disaster. Labyrinthitis (2008) was basically an exercise into paradoxically listening to the artist's ear, while musically producing a cascading stream of drones and overtones.

Lionel Marchetti (France, 1967) continued to pursue old-fashioned "musique concrete" (as in "tape collage") in the age of the laptop, but under the influence of ambient music: La Grande Vallee (1996), Train de Nuit (1999), Knud Un Nom du Serpent (1999), Portrait d'un Glacier (2000).


The turntablist as an instrumentalist was an artistic figure that migrated from hip-hop music into avantgarde, rock and jazz music during the 1990s. The turntable allowed musicians to achieve two goals (that were frequently overlapped): 1. "quote" from a musical source by another musician (and therefore create collages of quotations), and 2. produce sequences of extreme noise. Since the turntable is inherently an instrument that plays recorded music, whatever turntablists played was, in theory, an audio montage of found sounds, but, in practice, the sources were rarely intelligible.

Christian Marclay (USA, 1955) spearheaded the new trend towards "composing", performing and improvising using phonographic records. De facto, he applied John Cage's indeterminism and, in general, Dadaism's provocative principles of aesthetic demystification, to the civilization of recorded music. His specialty was to devise mechanisms for letting a record evolve a sound over time, typically by having people somehow degrade its sound (as in Record Without a Cover of 1985, a record sold with no cover and no jacket so that it keeps deteriorating after every playing, or Footsteps of 1990, a totally random composition resulting from hundreds of people walking on a record).

Turntablist, sampling engineer and sound sculptor Philip Jeck (Britain, 1952) fused the turntable creativity of Christian Marclay and David Shea with the sampling terrorism of John Oswald and Negativland. Obsessed with vintage vinyl, with the noises that the "performer" can extract from the process and with the "sounds" that the records contain, Jeck created the chaotic cacophony of Vinyl Requiem (1993) for 180 turntables and the solo improvisations titled Vinyl Coda (2000) in which snippets of old records are mixed with a jungle of turntable noises. His excursions into abstract art, such as 7 (2003), Songs For Europe (2004) and Sand (2008), eventually abandoned the discontinuous, glitchy format and turned crystalline, slowly-revolving, quasi-ambient soundscapes.

Otomo Yoshihide (Japan, 1959), Ground Zero's guitarist, reinvented himself as a turntablist and engaged in duets between the turntable and the laptop, such as Nobukazu Takemura's laptop on Turntables and Computers (2003), the turntable and the sampler, such as Sachiko M's sampler on Filament 1 (1998), or the turntable and another turntable, such as Martin Tetreault's turntable on Grrr (2004).

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.