John Oswald is perverse, although not necessarily kinky-his 1989 collage of a transsexual Michael Jackson notwithstanding. That infamous image, which helped spark a copyright battle with the Canadian Recording Industry Association acting on Jackson's behalf, simply indicates that the Toronto saxophonist, composer, and conceptual artist looks at things from a different angle than most other human beings.
His perspective is informed by a beguiling combination of innocent curiosity and wicked humour. Consider his invention of Plunderphonics, a process in which familiar recordings are cut up and spliced together in radical new combinations: it derived, in part, from a simple experiment in which he played a Dolly Parton 45 at 33 rpm. Delighted by the way the country-and-western icon immediately became a slightly effeminate male crooner, Oswald started manipulating other recordings, then folding them together to form "compositions" by such recombinant artists as Bing Stingspreen and Marianne Faith No Morrissey. (Both are featured on Oswald's Plexure CD, which-given that all but a few stray copies of his earlier Plunderphonic disc, with its gender-bending cover, were destroyed as part of an out-of-court settlement with the CRIA-remains the best place to encounter his cut-and-paste wizardry.)
More recently, Oswald has shifted a greater degree of his attention to visual art, producing beautiful but disturbing photographs of subtly altered human figures, and movies in which very little moves. Again, he's playing with our expectations while exploring the boundaries between different media, as he'll do in Ariature, one of the "Robot Piano Performances" he'll present at the Western Front next Thursday (September 15), on the opening night of the New Forms Festival. The annual conference and performance series, which celebrates computer-based creativity of all kinds, runs until September 24, and features a wide array of concerts and gallery exhibitions; for more information visit www.newformsfestival.com/.
Ariature is not, strictly speaking, a Plunderphonics work. Instead, it's a form of "rascaliklepitoire", a term Oswald coined as a loose and suggestive anagram of "classical repertoire".
"In most cases, these are performance renditions of classical music where-in most cases, again-it's the scores that have been messed with, rather than recordings of existing music," he explains, on the line from his Ontario home. "A couple of them were played in Vancouver a few years ago, including that Paul Plimley piano concerto, Oswald's First Concerto by Tchaikovsky (as suggested by Michael Snow). That's an example of rascaliklepitoire."
For Ariature, Oswald began with pianist Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations. Along with sound engineer Ernest Cholakis, he made a digitized version of Gould's performance that, converted to MIDI data, can be used to control a Yamaha Disklavier, a hybrid instrument that's part player piano, part computerized synthesizer. As a by-product of the digitization process, Oswald was left with a file of sonic detritus: the weird and sometimes wildly off-key singing, humming, and groaning for which Gould was notorious. But rather than discard this musical information, he sent it to singers Benjamin and Christopher Butterfield to transcribe and recreate.
"I've never been able to perfectly isolate [Gould's] voice from the recordings, so I picked on the Butterfield brothers, whose voices are kind of in the same range and timbre as Gould, to do these fakes," says the composer.
In short, the central piece on Thursday's program will feature the ghost of Glenn Gould "playing" an instrument that hadn't been invented at the time of his death, accompanied by Christopher Butterfield singing a meticulously arranged version of what many listeners would rather ignore. Is that not perverse?
"When it's really perverse is when it's done with an orchestra, as it will be in a few days," allows Oswald, referring to an upcoming trip to Austria. He adds with some satisfaction that the music industry is only now catching on to his notion of reanimating the legendary pianists of the past.
"A company in the United States, in North Carolina, has just been going great guns lately selling the same process, and using Gould playing the "Aria" from the Goldberg Variations as their signature demonstration piece-about five or six years after we did it," he reports. "The way they describe the process is 'making Gould perfect'; it's very much that idea of getting rid of things like his singing voice. So they must have all this great residue that we could use for something else."
Listeners interested in finding out more about Oswald's art and thought processes might want to check out the conference component of the New Forms Festival, which will be held at the UBC Museum of Anthropology from next Friday to Sunday (September 16 to 18). He's going to give a talk that somehow relates to the conference's theme of "negotiating natural, cultural and technological systems in a post-traditional ecology", but he's reluctant to spell out exactly what he's going to say. Oswald does reveal, however, that he's still influenced by the music and thinking of composer, soundscape innovator, and conceptualist R. Murray Schafer, with whom he studied almost three decades ago.
"I just got the Soundscapes of Canada 10-disc set that was made for the CBC's Ideas show in the '70s, and I'm finding that a lot of things that Schafer et al were professing back then haven't left my consciousness at all," he says. "So I think a lot about quiet things and sound things and that sort of stuff-and one thing I really miss is the idea that in order to be loud, you have to work hard."
He recalls going to a conference on electroacoustic music in which almost all of the featured composers insisted on playing their music at the highest possible volume. "I thought they should be on a stationary bicycle that powered the amplifiers," he says. "If they wanted to be loud, they'd have to pedal faster, so that there'd be some physical effort involved in being louder-as there almost always is with acoustic instruments."
Once again, there's a hint of gently mocking perversity here. With many of the festival's musical performers manipulating laptops rather than conventional noisemaking devices, loud electronic music is probably going to be the New Forms norm. But perhaps all Oswald is saying is that we could stand to listen more critically than we do, and that there's no shortage of alternative ways to play with sound.