The arts of sampling, remixing, and mashups have exploded at the turn of the century, redefining the sonic space of modern music and laying down a foundation for new avenues of experimentation. And yet, the concept of collage in music is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s a practice that dates back almost to the beginning of recorded music (recorded in the history books, that is, not on vinyl). Way before collage became the widely implemented means of music creation that it is today, the music world was still overflowing with reuse, recycling, and reinterpretation. Sound collage evolved gradually from early precursors such as the practice of musical "quoting," and by the 20th century it was sending seismic waves throughout the world of popular music. By the 21st century, it had already become a core ingredient in modern music. A musical landscape firmly rooted in collage is not on the horizon; it’s already here.
One of the earliest predecessors of musical collage—and a practice still abundantly present in modern music—is the practice of musical “quoting.” Quoting is interpolating a small piece of a recognizable melody into a new composition. Nowadays, this is mostly done as a novelty to excite or amuse listeners: think of jazz trumpeter Thad Jones opening his now-famous solo over the standard “April In Paris” with “Pop Goes The Weasel,” or Jay Z and Justin Timberlake singing part of a famous Nirvana melody in their song “Holy Grail.” (For those living under a rock, here's the original Nirvana clip.)
Back in pre-classical music, quoting was an equally, if not more viable, compositional practice. Many would consider the holy grail of musical collage to be the “Dies Irae,” one of the earliest musical quotes ever. The “Dies Irae” began as a Gregorian chant melody in the 13th century, over 500 years before classical music developed. The melody quickly became one of the most recognizable musical fragments of its time, and it wasn’t long before composers began quoting it in their own compositions. Eventually the melody was paired with lyrics from a medieval Latin poem titled the “Dies Irae,” becoming one of the most commonly recycled melodies and lasting even into the classical period. The melody can be heard in compositions centuries after its creation, and it has been reinterpreted and spun in a new way almost every time. Romantic composer Hector Berlioz quoted the "Dies Irae" in 1830 in the final movement of his controversial magnum opus Symphonie Fantastique. The "Dies Irae" has survived so long in our culture that one might even recognize it from the opening credit sequence of The Shining.
While quoting is a perfectly acceptable baseline for musical reinterpretation, some restless composers began to explore more creative ways to recycle music. As the 20th century loomed on the horizon, they began experimenting with well-known folk songs and hymns by using them as ingredients to create newer,modern pieces. Take insurance-salesman-posthumously-turned-renowned-composer Charles Ives, for example. His song “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” is a jarring song that takes a vocalist singing pieces of the 1878 American hymn “Are You Washed In The Blood Of The Lamb,” and juxtaposes it with disjointed, atonal piano accompaniment. In 1956, composer William Schumann wrote an overture that took a suite of old folk songs, dissected them, and reassembled them through a dissonant modernist lens.
This method of reusing old, popular songs as the building blocks of new, dissonant compositions proved successful, and it was soon adopted by a man named John Oswald. However, Oswald’s music constituted a paradigm shift in the world of musical recycling. Unlike others before him, he used a new, untapped tool: sound recording technology. Oswald followed in the footsteps ofmusique concrète composers (number nine… number nine…) and used audio recordings as the ingredients for his musical collages. The result was something not quite like anything heard before, and he dubbed his style of music “plunderphonics.”
Oswald helped plant the seeds for the three major forms of collage found in today’s music. Plunderphonics contaied examples of early sampling, which is the practice of taking a small “sample” of an audio recording and using it as an ingredient in a new song. Where quoting was the baseline for the evolution of musical reinterpretation, sampling is the building block for modern musical collage. Some of Oswald’s Plunderphonics compositions also recycled audio exclusively from one original source and served as a reinterpretation of that song…a practice known today as remixing. Other songs of his aimed to marry two relatively disparate audio sources; this is known today as a mashup.