Rediscovered #15

by Will Cafferky

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” – Voltaire

Have you ever heard of plunderphonics? I hadn’t. In fact I hadn’t heard of plunderphonics until I sat down to start writing this article. I’ll save you the inevitable Wiki-tangent – plunderphonics can best be understood as the musical equivalent of a scrapbook, the layering of a bunch of weird sounds to create your own piece. Much like your GCSE Art scrapbook however, plunderphonics is often met with the disparaging sigh of industry too enamoured with the emperor’s new clothes to appreciate a patchwork quilt. As Andrew Tholl puts it:

“Now, any kid with a computer and a little time on his hands can become a composer…”

That’s a quote from his essay entitled_: Plunderphonics: A Literature Revie_w, which actually genuinely exists in real life. Tholl isn’t exactly clear as to what makes a kid looping samples in his room any less respectable than a douchebag fondling a guitar at a campfire. Nonetheless, his point highlights an important line of criticism within the music industry regarding plunderphonics, and in fact the concept of sampling as a whole. Another critic, Chris Cutler in his piece “Plunderphonia” in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music goes so far as to claim that it undermines the three pillars on which music is built – originality, individuality, and copyright.

I love plunderphonics. I love sampling. I think Mark Richard put it best whilst writing for Pitchfork regarding the release of Jamie xx’s In Colour:

“When you capture and play back a sound, transposing it to a new context, you are ‘playing’ the memories that have attached themselves to the original piece of music as much as you are playing a particular piece of sound.”

Memories – it’s what this column is all about isn’t it? That idea that a piece of music can transport you to the place you were when you first heard it, both physically and emotionally. In many ways, when you’re passionate about music, you can use it to map the milestones of your life. To its critics, sampling is the dispassionate theft and dissection of property; to its supporters it provides a uniquely intimate insight into a producer’s musical history and, by association, their life.

The Avalanches are a confusing group to trace. Hailing from Australia, by most accounts they geographically departed from the triumphant emergence of Bristolian trip-hop spearheaded by the likes of Portishead and DJ Shadow. Nonetheless their output bore a stark resemblance, especially with regard to the latter of the two. The 2000 release of their first, and indeed only, album Since I Left You coincided with the genre’s golden era.

The group’s membership has been dazzlingly fluid, with around nine different people associated with the project at different points. Two of these – Darren Seltmann and Robbie Chater – coordinated the release of Since I Left You, the album that provides the centrepiece for this week’s column. Chater has estimated that the album uses around 3,500 samples in total, with each being taken from what must have been an incomprehensively vast record collection. This isn’t Kanye sampling Kim on Bound 2, in terms of plunder – this is the Ocean’s 11 to Kanye’s mischievous kid in a candy store.

If music can be seen as a map of a life, then Since I Left You is a cartographer’s wet dream. It traverses the contours of every funk-filled mountain and the swell of the orchestrally vast ocean with remarkable amphibious grace. The immersion is such that it never once surfaces from its patchwork universe to gasp for air. The extent of its seamlessness would likely be impossible were it not for the album’s track-to-track intertextuality – each piece borrows something from its predecessor, each skip of a snare, each sway of a violin, is shared. The effect is remarkable – fifteen years have passed since Since I Left You was released, but I’m yet to find an album as profoundly cohesive.

The Avalanches didn’t make a single piece of music on Since I Left You. It was all unoriginal, impersonal… stolen – so some would have you believe.

If you ask me, it was just what music should be.