The Art of Pilfering

A brief history of sampling in music and sound art, with emphasis on the author’s personal interests and influences on his own work in the field. (For ViCCA, 10 Dec 2015)

In Brief

Sampling, in context of sound and music, is the act of taking a part of a previously recorded sound and reusing it as a part of a new piece of music. This technique was enabled by the emergence of sound recording technology of the mid-20th century and the record industry that followed. Since then, sampling has become a common technique among composers across genres, yet it remains questionable in the eyes of copyright laws. This essay provides a cursory look into the theory and practice of sampling from my admittedly biased point of view as an artist (who employs sampling in his own work) and a general sound enthusiast.

What’s Hit is History

The theoretical roots of sampling can be traced back to the modernist art movements of the early 20th century. Collage was defined by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque around 1912.1 A couple of years later the dadaists cut and reassembled anything from text to images.2

In the 1950’s, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs claimed that writing was fifty years behind painting and developed the cut-ups as a form of literary collage. Later on they on experimented with cut-ups also on film and sound recordings.3

The first sound collages were made by the inventor of musique concrète, composer Pierre Schaeffer in 1948, when he created the piece “Étude aux chemins de fer” by mixing together recordings of trains from vinyl records. In the 1960’s, sound collage was used on a number of pop music albums, perhaps most famously by The Beatles.

Pierre Schaeffer: “Étude aux chemins de fer” (1948)

The leap from sound collage to sampling as we know it nowadays happened in the late 1970’s, again via emergence of new technology: samplers. This new type of instrument allowed the user to record a piece of sound – a sample – and play it back by means of a keyboard, sequencer or another triggering device. Around the same time, new music genres – most notably hip hop, industrial music and electronic dance music – emerged, each suitably postmodern in approach and attitude to assume the sampler as a core instrument. Similar to what the electric guitar was to rock’n’roll.

The first commercial synthesizers such as the Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI were way too expensive for most musicians to obtain, but a number of adventurous artists made their own devices. Among them were Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson of the seminal Industrial group Throbbing Gristle, who built samplers of their own design from a bunch of cassette players. 4

Grandmaster Flash was one of the first hip hop producers to release records based on sampling, in 1981. Prior to this, sampling in hip hop was common practice but mostly done live by Djs in block parties. Grandmaster Flash developed a number of innovative DJing techniques and pioneered turntablism, the art of using the turntable as a musical instrument.

Grandmaster Flash: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (1981)

Money, Money, Money

In the 1980’s the new genres with their sampling practices entered mainstream consciousness, and along with popularity came controversy. As usual, the fight is about money. A million-selling record includes a sample from another, previously recorded piece of music. Who holds the copyright? And furthermore, who gets the money from the sales?

The British dance act M|A|R|R|S used an unauthorised sample of the Stock Aitken Waterman hit ”Roadblock” on their top ten single ”Pump Up the Volume” in 1987. The sample was so distorted that SAW didn’t realise they had been sampled until they heard a M|A|R|R|S co-producer mention it in a radio interview… but as soon as they did, their lawyers got busy suing M|A|R|R|S.

M|A|R|R|S: Pump Up The Volume (1987)

The same year another UK act The JAMs (later known as The KLF) were ordered to destroy the pressing of their album 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?) due to having an extensive amount of obvious sampling of, among other artists, ABBA. Pranksters as they were, The JAMs then released another version of the album, with all samples stripped, the result consisting mostly of silence and little audible content.5

The JAMs: 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?) (1987)

Usually these kind of disputes are settled out of court, with more or less substancial amounts of money exchanging hands. Often the writer of the original, sampled piece also gets a co-writing credit on the new work.

The music industry does not acknowledge a musical quote as anything else but theft. Even if the new composition clearly passes the threshold of originality, the composer may face legal trouble by using samples.

Nevertheless, the unwritten rule among artists seems to be that as long as you don’t make big bucks or big press, you can sample whatever you want and nobody cares about it.


There is a ”subgenre” in the art of sampling, more arty than popular, where controversy is inherent. The term plunderphonics was coined by Canadian composer John Oswald, describing ”a recognisable sonic quote, using the actual sound of something familiar which has already been recorded.”6 The difference from other sample-based works is that plunderphonics is deliberately blatant. Plunderphonics by definition requires the original, sampled piece to remain recognisable in the new piece.

Inspired by Burroughs & Gysin’s cut-up technique, Oswald had been composing in plunderphonic style since the late 1960’s. His 1975 composition ”Power”, which combines Led Zeppelin guitar riffs with a cut-up voice of a Christian evangelist, is the first known example of what has decades later become known as ”mashup” – a recording made by combining two previously made recordings.

John Oswald: Power (1975)

One Oswald’s most controversial pieces is ”Dab”, where the Michael Jackson song ”Bad” has been cut to pieces and rearranged anew. The companies holding rights to the original recording, by way of lawyers of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, demanded Oswald to cease distributing his derivation. Ironically, Oswald had self-financed his recording and distributed it for free.7

Another name commonly associated with plunderphonics is Negativland. This music/art group, founded 1979, has caused a lot of controversy by sampling/plundering U2 and other popular music. For Negativland, the media events and controversy are more important than their actual sound recordings.

Conceptually, plunderphonics deliberately explores, or attacks the grey area between fair use and copyright infringement. It uses any materials available in mass media – pop music, adverts, news and so on.9 Is it culture jamming, experimental music, media art, or conceptual art? Undoubtedly all of these and perhaps something else.

Negativland: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (1991 a cappella mix)

Walking in My Shoes

The vast majority of my work in sound and music in the last two decades is based on sampling. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of collage – taking pieces of something or other, combining them and see what happens. I did my first sound collages as a kid by recording random snippets from the radio on cassette tapes. I thought it was fun, but it took many years and plenty of musical exploration to realise it could be art, too.

With a handful of exceptions, my sampling was not particularly plunderphonic but rather alchemical. I’ve usually attempted to create something new out of the sounds I lift from others’ work. After extensive cutting, manipulating and combination with other mutated samples and ”real” instruments, the finished pieces may no longer show many clues to their origins. Whether the listener recognises what has been sampled and where is usually of no importance. I may not remember myself where a particular sound originates from, the fact I know the source bits are somewhere there is enough.

But that is all in the past. Some time ago I decided to put an end to the two-decade period of ”hermetic fusion musick” (as it was often refered to) and move forward to new areas. I felt the need to rid myself of my personal history which has become a kind of burden, even without the weight of popularity or overwhelming expectations from an audience. From now on I work undercover in classified projects only. I desire anonymity… It’s all in my head only, perhaps. But totally changing my ways of working and, especially, thinking about my work seemed like the only way I could move forward. Certainly every creator has their ways and traits they cannot escape, but what I mean is SHUT UP! SHUT UP!

Do it.

Don’t think about it. Just do it.

What’s (not) funny is that now I write about it, and since writing is mostly organising one’s thoughts, I’m again thinking about it.

Thinking about not thinking about it. Like the situation in Magritte’s La reproduction interdite reproduced as an endless mirror corridor. Loop it, loop it, loop it one more time.

So there, after a brief, passing signal of a nervous breakdown we’re back to the topic of sampling, more or less…

My latest sound works are completely constructed out of previously recorded music. Most of it is obvious and I’m not trying to conceal it, nor make a big deal out of it. The most important thing that has changed is the process. In the past, I used to sit long periods of time in the studio, creating rather elaborate, planned sound sculptures (or ”songs” if you will). These days I prefer to make things more on the fly. I’m quite fond of sampling random bits of music and voices from whatever radio channels I find and build something out of them instantly. A more spontaneous approach constantly gives pleasant surprises – and admittedly, quite some garbage (although occasionally garbage of the good kind, but I’ll write about sorting garbage some other time). Working this way, more intuitively, without thinking too much, and sharing selected pieces anonymously or under obscure pseudonyms, is most rewarding. The focus is entirely on sound, the piece of sonic or audiovisual art, while the maker remains out of the spotlight. Darkness is comfortable, liberating. All mirrors obscured, covered, shattered or just plain out of sight.

And so it is done. I will never write another word about making music/sound art. The next thing I’m going to do is go upstairs and turn my mind off. Exterminate all rational thought.


1 Hugh Honour & John Fleming, Maailman taiteen historia (Otava 1992), 663-665

2 Dietmar Elger, Dadaism (London: Taschen 2004), 6-14

3 William S. Burroughs, ”The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin”, accessed November 29, 2015,

4 ”Coil: The Darker Side of Sampling”, Keyboard Magazine (San Bruno: NewBay Media 1987)

5 Ze Pequence, ”1987: The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?)/1987 (The JAMs 45 Edits)”, Tiny Mixtapes, accessed 9 December 2015,

6 John Oswald, ”Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative”, accessed 5 December, 2015,

7 ”John Oswald (b. 1953)”, Ubuweb Sound, accessed 5 December 2015,

8 Matt Sebastian, ”Casey Kasem’s greatest hit: Negativland and ‘the letter U and the numeral 2’”, accessed 9 December 2015,

9 Thomas Bey & William Bailey, MicroBionic: Radical Electronic Music and Sound Art in the 21st Century (New York: Creation Books, 2009), 81-98

Further reading

Bey, Thomas & William Bailey. MicroBionic: Radical Electronic Music and Sound Art in the 21st Century. New York: Creation Books, 2009.

Burroughs, William S. ”The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin”. Accessed November 29, 2015.

Elger, Dietmar. Dadaism. London: Taschen 2004.

Honour, Hugh & John Fleming, Maailman taiteen historia. Helsinki: Otava 1992.

Oswald, John. ”Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative.”Accessed 5 December, 2015.

Pequence, Ze. ”1987: The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – 1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?)/1987 (The JAMs 45 Edits)”. Tiny Mixtapes. Accessed 9 December 2015.

Sebastian, Matt. ”Casey Kasem’s greatest hit: Negativland and ‘the letter U and the numeral 2’.” Accessed 9 December 2015.

Coil: The Darker Side of Sampling”, Keyboard Magazine. San Bruno: NewBay Media 1987.

”John Oswald (b. 1953).” Ubuweb Sound. Accessed 5 December 2015,

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.