AMN Reviews: John Oswald’s Plunderphonics Take on the Grateful Dead 25 Years Later

In 1996, I had never knowingly listened to the Grateful Dead. Not for any particular reason, just that there was so much music that I was immersing myself in at the time, and the Dead were pretty far down the list. But then I read a review of John Oswald’s twisted 2-hour-long mashup of over one hundred versions of a single Dead song. In it, the reviewer opined that Oswald had ended up making the best Dead album ever. Curious, I grabbed a copy of the 2CD set of Grayfolded. Due to my lack of experience with the band, I could not agree or disagree with that writer’s superlatives, but I did enjoy the album quite a bit and it certainly wasn’t like anything else I had heard at the time.

Oswald pioneered Plunderphonics, the technique of sampling other artists’ music (often without permission) and combining these fragments in a sound collage to create new compositions. Unlike the sampling that can be found in popular music, Oswald rarely added any original elements of his own. In the 1980s and 1990s, he did his work the hard way – cutting and splicing magnetic tape. This was the basis of the many types of creative mashups by others who used modern equipment to make the job less burdensome.

When the Grateful Dead became aware of Oswald’s works, they asked him to make a Plunderphonics take of their music. Oswald chose to limit himself to one song that was often used for extended jam sessions, Dark Star. He took dozens of versions of it from the Dead’s vault, recorded live between 1968 and 1993, and combined, spliced, layered, and “folded” them together to produce two lengthy pieces. They were released separately in 1994 and 1995, but were hard to find until their combined release as Grayfolded in 1996.

Most of the album appears to be constructed from a relatively small number of samples at any given time, perhaps two to five. You can hear multiple guitar lines, keys, bass, drums, and occasional vocalizations. These parts are not unpleasant on the ear, and sound as if a radio is tuned between two stations, picking up an overlay of both.

On the other hand, Oswald also experiments with combining many, many more tracks into much denser and busier collages. These offerings, most of which appear on the second disc, Mirror Ashes, could be used to clear a room of traditional-minded Deadheads. If anything, they resemble the approach and at least some aspects of the sound from Anthony Braxton’s more recent Echo Echo Mirror House musical systems – a beautiful information-rich chaos. Another track is thoroughly abstract sound art that is closer to experimental electronic music than the Dead. In the liner notes, Oswald provides a map indicating the density (layers) of source material used throughout the length of each work.

Fast forward to today. I have heard the Dead, most relevantly a few versions of Dark Star. They are okay, have a relaxed appeal, and feature a handful of free improvisation here and there. But perhaps I was spoiled by Oswald’s more “out there” takes somehow helping me form an early impression of how the Dead should sound. In any event, every few years I get an itch to hear Grayfolded and I am never disappointed.