Singing Together, Hacking Together, Plundering Together:

Sonic Intellectual Property in Cybertimes








Larry Polansky

Department of Music

Bregman Electro-Acoustic Music Studio

Dartmouth College





Paper written for

Humanities Research Institute 98

"The Tangled Web"



I. Digital Sound For Philosophers

What is Sound

Sound Examples 1-6

thanks bill (Does sound exist?)

Sound Examples 7-11

Deborah Johnson and clones

Music and Sound Replication

Borrowing or stealing

The Peanut Butter Conundrum

II. Towards Hacker Aesthetics

Artistic Intellectual Property in Cybertimes

Artists as Social Engineers

Hackers and Artists, Hackers as Artists, Artists as Hackers

Policy Latency

Artists’ Relationship to Technology

DIY Composing

Artists as Subverts

Restratifying Technologies

The Di-Ontological Heuristic! (DOH!)

Imprimatur and the Net


III. Three Case Studies

John Oswald


illegal art

deconstructing Beck

Frog Peak Collaborations






As a composer and programmer interested in how artistic ideas interact with new technologies, I have been intimately involved with the development of computer technology (mainly music software) since the early 1970s. Consequently, I have been tangentially (and sometimes not so tangentially) involved in what might be called an "artistic" hacker culture(1). One of my goals as an artist, teacher, programmer, and researcher, is to explore experimental and unusual uses of digital technologies through my own work (and those of my students), and to help develop new technologies for others to use. I am deeply interested in the ways that new (and often radical) artistic ideas co-evolve with and often raise issues of technology and politics.

This article is in three parts: I. Digital sound for philosophers; II. Towards Hacker Aesthetics: Artistic Intellectual Property in Cybertimes; and III. Three Case Studies: Oswald’s Plunderphonics, illegal art‘s Deconstructing Beck, and Polansky et. al ...Collaborations.... (2) The first part is mostly mostly technical, and introduces important considerations in the replicability and transformation of sound and musical information via computers. In Part II, I try to informally discuss some aesthetic and philosophical features of the current techno-music landscape, with particular reference to what I call "hacker aesthetics." I am particularly interested in how experimental computer musicians have thought about issues like imprimatur, intellectual property, and technologies that restrict or encourage information flow. Part III, in the form of case studies, describes three CD projects that question certain values, or policies, by employing technology for music composition in unusual ways.


I. Digital Sound For Philosophers

What is sound, and sonic information? What are the ramifications of digital sound to questions of intellectual property? The legal and technical issues raised by these questions are beyond the scope of this paper, but I will introduce here a few relevant aspects of digital sound representation relevant to the discussions below.

James Moor(3) and Walter Maner(4), argue convincingly that computer ethics should deal with problems "special" to the technology. According to Moor, "The mark of a basic problem in computer ethics is one in which computer technology is essentially involved and there is an uncertainty about what to do and even about how to understand the situation." Maner presents two conditions, either of which supplies a rationale for the application of computer ethics:

"that certain issues are so transformed by the use of computers that they deserve to be studied on their own, in their radically altered form,


that the involvement of computers in human conduct can create entirely new ethical issues, unique to computing, that do not surface in other areas."(5)

There are "special" things about digital sound and the web, such as perfect replication and the unusual aesthetic possibilities of sonic piracy, which merit these kinds of new considerations. To paraphrase Moor, sound is, ultra-malleable, hyper-greasy(6), and perhaps even turbo-polymorphic.


What is Sound?

Sound is commonly thought of as some time variant pressure pattern (a waveform), transduced by a medium (typically the air), and interpreted by a biological hearing apparatus (in our case, the ear and the appropriate cognitive mechanisms of the brain). The human ear is capable of responding to and distinguishing between an enormously complex and resolute range of sounds. Yet it (we humans) are also capable of categorizing, differentiating, and making precise similarity judgments upon sounds which are physically, or acoustically, quite different. One of the ways our brain does this is by means of complicated feature detection mechanisms. Researchers in timbre, music cognition, and computer music are actively engaged in the study of those features, for the purposes of understanding "how we hear" and also in order to construct sounds from a higher level of description than simply the "waveform."

"Waveforms," or time-variant audio-signals, represent actual physical displacement patterns of a medium (or our eardrum), whereas the way we hear, at the cochlear and auditory cortex level, is better represented by what is referred to as the frequency domain. Any periodic function, such as a finite time-domain waveform, may be analyzed, represented, and in fact, resynthesised from, an infinite sum of sinusoidal (or any other periodic) components with varying amplitudes and phases. A simple way to do this is by a mathematical operation called a Fourier Transform. In fact, the inner ear (notably the basilar membrane) does something like this to "decompose" incoming time-domain signals into component frequencies.

To work with digital sound, composers and researchers often use a computer algorithm called a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT), which represents sounds in this more malleable and information-enriched way (to use Moor's terms). Most image processing technology uses this technique (or similar ones) as well. In fact, frequency domain representations are fundamental to digital signal processing and are often used where time-domain signals are the raw data (economic analysis, radio and microwave transmission, data encryption, image processing, and so on). Frequency domain sound operations are only practical, even possible, with high-speed computers, because of the amount of the data and the computation time these operations require. Sounds are, by the way, far easier to store and manipulate than images because much less data is required and for the purposes of FFTs, two-dimensional representations suffice (whereas in image processing, 3-dimensional and higher FFTs are often required).


Sound Examples 1-6: Thanks, Bill! (Does sound exist?)

An unusual property of digital sound is that since its representation (at least initially) is a list of numbers, the data is highly polymorphic. Any data might be treated as sound, and consequently, all sonic operations may be used on any data.

The following examples are entirely derived from a text file sent to me by Bill Murphy (a fellow participant at the Dartmouth Humanities Institute) called "Entertainment on the Internet," which Bill downloaded from a public source. I received the file as an email enclosure in MSWord, and converted it to BBEdit to read it. These examples show that any information, if considered as a time-variant magnitude pattern, can be sonic. They were made using the popular public domain sound processing program, SoundHack, by Tom Erbe.

Sound Example 1: the file bill sent me

The text file is opened up as raw sound data, and heard as an approximately 6 second burst of noise, with little overall shape and few recognizable features. Basically, the 8-bit ASCII text is treated as a list of numbers representing sound pressures in time.

Sound Example 2: the file bill sent me slow

Using an FFT-based algorithm called the phase vocoder, the data file is converted to the spectral domain, and slowed down by a factor of about two. This allows a few more distinguishing sonic features to emerge.

Sound Example 3: the file bill sent me slow and sweeter

Again, in the spectral domain, various frequency regions are emphasized and de-emphasized to reduce the "noisiness" of the file.

Sound Example 4: the file... with a little twist

The file, slowed (Example 2) and sweetened (Example 3) now has a "pitch" shape imposed on it, an arbitrary curve, changing nothing else about the file.

Sound Example 5: twist(ed) and short

Example 4 is sped up (without changing anything else) so that the pitch trajectory becomes more obvious.

Sound Example 6a: a breath of fresh air

Sound Example 6b: a breath of fresh air

Using a process called convolution, Example 5 is "combined" with a short (1/2 second) inhale (Example 6a), breathed by my daughter Anna, at age six months. In convolution, spectral characteristics of one short sound (like resonances, breathiness, etc.) can be imposed on a longer sound (Example 6b): twisted short bill’s data is given mouth-to-mouth.

Once digitally analyzed, sounds are extremely malleable, and very, very greasy (again, to use a term introduced by Moor). We can, for example, slow down a sound without (more or less) changing its pitch, or change its pitch without affecting its speed, while maintaining its timbre (basic sound quality). The second of these two transformations (pitch change with constant speed) is impossible in the time domain (with previous generations of technology), where typical operations include "splices," edits, or volume adjustments (as in using a tape recorder). Frequency domain operations on sound are now simple to do using public domain software on inexpensive desktop computers – it is now easy to make subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes in sound without necessarily informing the listener that these changes have been made.

The following examples illustrate just how greasy and malleable sound can be. I again used Soundhack (by Tom Erbe), as well as a public domain digital editor, to alter the sound, impression, and even semantic content of author Deborah Johnson reading an important paragraph from her book Computer Ethics. I tried not to spend very long on any example, and only did simple things that the average 14-year old user of these programs might be capable of.


Sound Examples 7-11: Deborah Johnson and clones

Sound Example 7: The original soundfile

Deborah Johnson reading a paragraph from her book, Computer Ethics, page 162: "Perhaps, the most important thing to remember in the debate about the value ladenness of computers and computer systems is that to a large extent it does not matter whether the values are inherent in the computer or put into systems when they are designed and used. Values are embedded in computer systems and we ought to be well aware of this when we use them. Those who design systems ought, in particular, to be sensitive to the values they are building in."

Sound Example 8: Deborah "huh?"

The soundfile semantically mangled, with at least one audible edit, using a public domain sound editor. This took approximately twenty minutes. The one questionable edit (a change in ambiance on the word "not") points to some of the tractability of these kinds of operations: there was only one occurrence of the word in the original, making it hard to negate some of Deborah’s points. This example is not just mangled in terms of the text, but also in terms of very slight changes in the rhythms and emphases of her reading.

Sound Example 9: Deborah chills

Using the phase vocoder, Deborah Johnson’s voice is altered in the frequency domain. She gradually changes from about one octave higher (twice the frequency) than her normal voice, to about one octave below (half the frequency) without changing the speed or the timbre (well, as little as possible).

Sound Example 10: Deborah needs to chill

Again, using the phase vocoder, but now applying the changes to time rather than frequency, Deborah Johnson’s voice is time-stretched and compressed without changing her fundamental timbre. A semi-random curve is imposed over the recording to create speed fluctuations in her reading, making her sound uncertain and nervous. This technique (time expansion/contraction) is commonly used commercially to make a given sound fit in a given time period.

Sound Example 11: mighty-morphin’ power Deborah

In this example, Deborah Johnson’s voice is spectrally morphed(7) with the opening guitar chord of Led Zeppelin’s "Black Dog" (played by Jimmy Page). For this particular example, only the steady-state characteristics (perhaps best thought of as her vowels) are used to color the electric guitar sound. A moving function selects less and more of Deorah/Jimmy as the example proceeds. In effect, we have turned Deborah’s head (resonant cavity) into a highly amplified Les Paul guitar.

Hearing these examples, as in the Bill Murphy examples, where transformation is the key, we might ask, with regards to sound: What could be "yours" or, more specifically, "not mine"? Do specific cognitive features uniquely identify sounds, or even our own voices? If so, by changing them, but keeping other features constant, what are we doing (stealing, recreating, borrowing)?


Music and Sound Replication: Borrowing or stealing?(8)

Stravinsky remarked that the best composers are simply the best thieves: they know how to make use of what has been done before, and make it new. While he spoke artistically, we must now develop higher-level determinants of what makes a sound or a piece of music an original or a copy, not only for legal purposes but perhaps in order to form the next century’s aesthetics.

The history of music is replete with wonderful examples of just how "fluid," to be somewhat euphemistic, creative ideas are with relationship to their progenitors. One of the more famous, in fact, classical examples, is Brahms’ deliberate homage, in the main string theme of the 1st Symphony, 4th Movement, to the famous melody from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony:

Example 1: Brahms tune notation

Example 2: Beethoven tune notation

Sound Example 12: Beethoven melody, Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. (9)

Sound Example 13: Brahms melody, Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. (10)

Brahms intended this theme as an act of recognizable piracy. He wanted the listener to understand, musically, something about his own complex relationship to Beethoven symphonies: Brahms only began writing symphonies late in life, and was deeply concerned about his relationship to Beethoven in this regard. No one (that I know of) particularly objects to this melodic pilfering. It is seen as a wonderfully creative and nuanced borrowing ensonifying a host of rich nostalgic, historical, and progressive connotations in a few elegant notes. Note that in the Brahms’ theme, the direction of the tune is subtly changed the first time (marked "down" in the notation), and provided its original contour the second time(11).

The next example, suggested to me by my seven year old daughter, Anna Diamond Polansky pursues this piratic lineage a bit further. Upon hearing my conversation with composer/clarinetist Daniel Goode about the Brahms/Beethoven over breakfast one morning, she said, "I know of another: the tune from the show Blood Brothers!" which we had just seen in London’s West End a few nights before:

Sound Example: 14, Blood Brothers theme tune (12)

Example 3: Blood Brothers theme notation

Piracy, in a wonderfully polymorphous way, is everywhere. One might find Brahms’ use of the Beethoven melodic motif beautiful, poignant, historically insightful, and the Blood Brothers manifestation tawdry, or at best, practical and/or unconscious. But it’s difficult to be conclusive about one’s opinion. Musical melodies are free-flowing ideas, and from a purely mathematical standpoint, there may not be all that many to go around!(13) In their multiple and often fuzzy heritages, melodies are quite similar to software.


The Peanut Butter Conundrum

I often use, pedagogically, the following example illustrate the ethical dilemma presented by virtually unlimited and unrestricted sonic information (not to mention software). I call it the "peanut butter conundrum." Let’s say, for all practical purposes, we have an unlimited supply of peanut butter. It’s sold in the usual way in grocery stores, but it turns out to be cheaper to place it out in front of the store, unguarded. Stealing it is illegal, and immoral, but because it’s plentiful, there is no penalty for doing so. Nor is there danger of getting caught (it’s left out on the street every night in plain sight). You can have it, there’s plenty more, and there’s no consequences. But it’s still wrong! People are requested not to steal it – if everyone stole it, peanut butter companies would go out of business, grocery stores would suffer.

Young students and artists are in a similar situation with respect to cyber-piracy, be it sound or software. They can take as much as they please, and for all practical purposes, they can’t be prosecuted. Software protection is broken as fast as it is created. I know of at least one electronic music graduate school (not my own) where students, in full knowledge of their professors, crack software (mostly programs they would like to use) as a kind of unofficial extra-curricular activity in their music technology education. As the director of an electronic music studio, I repeatedly crack down against piracy, master disk copying, and use of pirate servers. There’s no question that piracy is wrong, but it’s also useless to explain this to most 20 year old hackers and artists who bristle at the very notion of software protection, and who are themselves churning out innovative, high-quality public domain software. They see themselves as cyber-Robin Hoods, and have little sympathy for complicated protection schemes which make their own work (educational and artistically oriented), difficult for the sake of being difficult (since they could not afford to buy the stuff to begin with!).


II. Towards Hacker Aesthetics: Artistic Intellectual Property in Cybertimes

Artists as Social Engineers

Implicit social agendas often permeate artists’ and composers’ work, in the mode of creation, if not always in content. We composers often discuss musical ideas in social, political, or relational terms (dissonances, in traditional harmony, are said to "resolve tension"!). Many contemporary works – such as the music of Nick Didkovsky, Christian Wolff, and John Zorn – explore political and social relationships in the scores themselves(14).Artists who work with computer technology have special interests in creating poetic models or situations which analogize more pedestrian aspects of the use of the technology. How might, for example, the creation of a reasonably intelligent, flexible and powerful compositional programming language affect the very definition of a composer, or change our notion of "ownership" of a piece of music(15).

Artists who make radical uses of technology have difficulty doing any real harm, as opposed those developing technology for the military, scientific or business world. However, other than occasionally producing some interesting work, it’s even more difficult to do any real (tangible) good. It’s hard to imagine a nation, for instance, modelling its social or governmental policy structure after studying Schoenberg’s "liberation of the dissonance" ideas of 12-tone music, or one of my interractive music software environments. However, it is very clear that Schoenberg at least believed that this is exactly what governments should do, in a kind of extreme extrapolation of Trotsky’s idea that the eventual aim of socialism was to produce a society of artists. Closer to home, it’s difficult to imagine a conventional academic community, (like my own institution, Dartmouth College) responding quickly to new technological possibilities, changing its notion of imprimatur (see below), so crucial to its function, in response to a technological experiment like my ...Collaborations... project (see Part III).


Hackers and Artists, Hackers as Artists, Artists as Hackers

Deborah Johnson considers "hackers" as invaders, breakers of security systems, quasi-criminals(16). Many hackers consider themselves as independently minded, usually economically peripheral, deep-level and innovative programmers. Hackers work for the public good (as in hackers who write freeware) as well as the public bad.

Technology and art have are inextricably related. Many musicians, video artists, graphic artists, and even poets who work with technology – whether designing it or using it – consider themselves to be part of the "hacker comunity." Computer artists, like non-art hackers, often find themselves on society’s fringes, developing strange, innovative uses of existing technology. There is an empathetic relationship between those, for example, who design experimental music software and hackers who write communications freeware.

To many artists, Johnson’s "grand analogy" of the uninhabited island(17) is an art-opian invitation. Our implicit challenge is to avoid creating the cybergeo-equivalent of New Jersey. The fundamental mechanism and currency of this utopia is free information transfer (at least artistically). To paraphrase a great late 20th century thinker, we want to "leave ourselves open to extreme possibilities."


Policy Latency

The hacker/artistic community explicitly addresses lags between the legal and moral evolution of computer technology by instantiating new sub-classes of conventional behavior. To modify Moor’s idea of policy vacuum(18), I suggest the computer-appropriate term policy latency(19). Concepts and terminology such as shareware, hubware, freeware, honorware, and even snubware(20) have emerged from this community, by necessity, in response to new behaviors, enabled by new technologies. For example, the tradition of a UNIX "root" acting honorably with respect to her system-circumscribed informational omnipotence perhaps anticipates what may need to evolve in cases where there is (as Terry Bynum suggests) a "third party" condition to cyber-privacy.

Computer ethicists often implicitly assume a "dominant" paradigm, which seems to me to represent a relatively recent, mega-corporate cyberworld-view. For example Moor’s criteria for a "good" program(21) excludes innovation, and almost all of the "scenarios" in Deborah Johnson’s book deal with standard business situations, undifferentiated from situations created specifically by technology. Absent is the fringe vision of independent, hacker-artists who do not necesarily build tools for previously understood tasks, nor aim their work at a Microsoft-level user base. These cyber-poets envision new software and subvert current tools to explore new and often radical concepts, modes of interaction, and ways to co-evolve the human and artist with technology (in what we hope are non-pernicious ways). In this worldview, software is evolutionary, and not primarily concerned with making existing tasks easier. Functionality may not be the (or even a) goal; pure concept and "newness" might.


Artists’ Relationship to Technology

Artists (not all, but many), like hackers, approach new technologies with a childlike playfulness and wonder. Again, like hackers, we tend to embrace new technologies for their possibilities, sometimes admittedly disregarding negative potentials. This is not to say that artists are completely unaware of what Deborah Johnson calls value-ladenness.(22) We do understand this principle (at least some of us do) and it is important to us.

Artists are very much aware of the relationship between technology and product. On a kind of Luddite-level, I’ve known composers who, prior to the availability of computer notation technology, made their own paper and ink, carved their own pen nibs. They felt that to accept commercial music technologies as their tools was in some way an acceptance of the manufacturer or designer’s aesthetic, which, by necessity, is aimed at the least common denominator. If one’s artistic goal is newness, consumerism is contra-indicated. Painters, writers, sculptors, indeed, all artists, relate intimately to their tools, and give significant consideration to, paraphrasing Johnson, the aesthetic ladenness of the simplest resource, whether paintbrush or rock.

Artists and hackers share a common, forward-looking mentality in which innovation is pre-eminent, where an important goal is "for technology to help develop and be a full evolutionary partner to the human consciousness."(23) With respect to Moor’s "good program, " some artists might add the criteria that the software exploits technological nuance in a "rad " way: at least partially redefining our conception of the relationship between creativity and technology.


DIY Composing

Some computer music composers, like myself, have strongly cautioned against the slavish use of commercial technologies (especially software and music hardware), preferring a kind of DIY,(24) or what composer Gordon Mumma has called "guerilla technology." I have often stressed (in print,(25) as a teacher, and through my work) that any software (even something as seemingly neutral as an operating system) determines, to some extent, what your work is like, how you work, and what kinds of ideas will be propounded by your work. For a long time, in my own composition, I preferred to use only software that I had actually written (with the exception of the fundamental operating system, and even that was chosen carefully). There are various degrees of this kind of approach, and composers who use technology span the gamut, from the kind of techo-zealotry I described to what composer Ron Kuivila has called "virtuoso consumerism": the sophisticated, often insightful use of commercial software and hardware (hey, it works!).


Artists as Subverts

"NI: And so you’ve been lumped in with the pirates.

JO: Well, there are traditional associations between the words ‘plunder’ and ‘piracy’. Perhaps I should have called this stuff flatterfonics or quote-a-musics or something cute and unthreatening. Something I have discovered from talking to employees of this industry, including lawyers, administrators and performers’ managers, anyone who perfers to talk about the ‘music business’ rather than the music itself: none of them can get a handle on why someone would create something, except to make money. To them it’s like an incomprehensible alien life form." (John Oswald, interviewed by Norman Igma, MusicWorks, 48, Toronto).

Some artistic agendas are subversive : uninterested in writing their own code, an artist may make use of available technology to redirect its intentions. Artists may be unhappy with commercial and technological preconceptions of what "music should be." They want to drive unlicensed on the infobahn, and "spike" cheap, widely-used techonologies. Their goal is to coerce functional, grey-flannel-suit applications into poetic, innovative, non-utilitarian ones (for the sake of their work). Their technological visions are counter-intuitive – live in your Honda Accord, read your toaster, use your umbrella as a paintbrush. In their hands, Microsoft Office sings, Quicken generates poetry, and Netscape creates free improvisations. John Oswald(26) (see Part III) is a good example of this kind of artist, as is the current work of web-artists like Antiorp.

Copyright is a legal protection important to society’s proper commercial behavior, but for some artists it is an enemy, chimerical or not. The uninhibited flow of information is equated with creativy. As Negativeland, the well known sample-based performing group put it (on T-shirts) after their experience of being sued by their own record company (for illegal appropriation of materials from the rock band U2): "Copyright infringement is your best entetertainment value." These artists are trying to keep information greased.


Restratifying Technologies

As new technologies allow artists new access to previously unavailable equipment, resources, and publication/distribution channels, there seems to be a concurrent urge to creatively exploit the new technology. "Recycling" and "transformation" have always been fundamental creative principles, and they are enhanced by new technologies (such as the photocopy machine, or word processor). With each new advance, society must try to implement new protections and regulations for information transmission. Artists often bristle at mechanisms which inhibit the free flow of information (though they do not mind being paid for their "own" works).

New commercially-available technologies, especially those which enable people to do what they have wanted to do but couldn’t afford to (travel, print their own pamphlet, make their own video or CD) might be called restratifying techologies, which I suggest as an alternative to the more commonly used termsdemocratic or pluralistic (neither of which seems to accurately describe what we mean). Curiously, with the advent of such a technology, a certain level of activity remains exclusive. Many activities (distribution, higher resolution media, more powerful production techniques), facilitated by even more expensive versions of the same technologybecome exclusive. The standard improves. What was deemed "professional" is now the home-user’s domain. "Professional" gets a lot better.

Restratifying technologies take existing resources available to a few, and make them widely, cheaply, and easily available to many. They are usually cheap and portable (most people have little money and little space). They encourage explosive proliferations of work and creativity. Statistically, things improve.

For example when WYSIWYG word-processors became available there was a lot of discussion, often tinged with trepidation, about the ways writing in general would be affected. We don’t hear this so much anymore (it’s fait accompli), but certainly we can say that this technology made a great deal of writing easier to do, read, edit, and produce clearly (in terms of spelling, legibility, and ease of rewriting). Being better is very different than not being ideal, and it might be concluded that word processors improved the general level of writing, though it may not have had much affect on the outliers (poets, for example). Only in a few cases, however, has the new technology changed what we think of as writing itself.

A musical example is the the Teac/Tascam "Portastudio," an inexpensive multi-track mixer/cassette recorder, introduced in the early-mid-1970s (and still in wide use). Suddenly, amateur (whatever that means) musicians all over the world were able to make sophisticated ("professional") recordings in their kitchens, basements, bedrooms. Because LPs were inexpensive to produce in small runs, thousands of independent records were put out, without anybody paying musicians (they did it themselves with their friends), hiring a studio, or asking permission. Although one might think that this would produce a lot of musical detritus, in fact, my experience listening to a lot of this material (I spent years as a kind of in-house reviewer for a large underground "zine") was that the general musical and technological level rose considerably. People learn best when they have access to good tools. The nicer the piano, the more likely one is to play it.

The word "democratic" has often been used with respect to technologies. In any way that "democracy" might be defined – pluralistic, levelling of the playing feld, availability, access – computer technologies have been more accurately restratifying in that they specifically allow more people to express themselves (not necessarily commercially).


The Di-Ontological Heuristic! (DOH!)

A key principle for describing the evolution of technology’s relationship to security, privacy, and information-flow restriction might be called the Di-Ontological Heuristic! ("DOH!"). Simply put, if you come up with a great algorithm for keeping me out of your system, eventually (usually sooner rather than later) I’ll use the algorithm to get in." Technological innovation prevents activities as it permits them, and vice versa. Piracy technologies are anti-piracy technologies, privacy technologies are anti-privacy technologies. This is obvious in encryption – what would be the difference between encryption and decryption research? (Although, for the last 25 years, since the advent of public-key encryption technologies, some of these fundamental DOH!-assumptions about encryption symmetries may need to be redefined! It is no longer the case that an encryption system can be assumed to be breakable, at least for the time being...).

More interestingly for artists and philosophers, this parallelism implies that technological innovations that limit old freedoms and restrict information flow will eventually engender new freedoms, spawn new ethical and moral responses (as happened in hacker software categories), and change (for the better, I feel) the nature of information flow.

There are many examples of the DOH!. The elaborate and well-thought out security procedures of UNIX also enable extraordinarily trust-laden local cybertopias. Digital Signal Processing techniques allow for complex transformation of sounds and images, yet they also provide the same tools for data analysis. Although Microsoft and Netscape are certainly vying for total click-omniscience, the flip side of their web-presence is absolutely anonymous (and economically free) services like HotMail, turning the web into a system of anonymous pay-phones (where you don’t need to disguise your voice). By David Kotz’ working definition of cyber-privacy(27) ("The right to decide which information is to be transmitted"), Hotmail and similar sites are completely private. The same technologies protect and destroy.

The Java language is a good example of the hacker aesthetic more or less "permeating" the corporate technological world. Evolved from object-oriented languages like Neon, Smalltalk, and C++, Java was developed to increase programmer productivity and high-level application development. Java’s design prohibits file access and pointers, freeing programmers from the possibility of trespassing into foreign media, and constraining them to write more universally executable, almost psuedo-code. In other words, it deliberately "hamstrings" programmers from doing what they most love to do (gain direct access to memory), so that their code will be safer and more widely used and understood.


Imprimatur and the Net

imprimatur 1. Official approval or licence to print or publish, especially under conditions of censorship. 2. Official sanction; authorization. [New Latin, let it be printed, from Latin, imprimere, to print.] (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

Artists have always had an ambivalent relationship to imprimatur. While it is always nice, at the very least, to have a publisher or editor "certify" one’s work as acceptable, high-quality and worth publishing, it is also the case that a great deal of work, be it ahead of its time, unusual, difficult to understand, extremely subtle, or just plain weird, will not receive this certification.

There are a number of reasons to want one’s work "published," including:

1) to more widely disseminate the work

2) to establish it as "your own" work

?3) to benefit from imprimatur

However, the following are two possible perspectives of imprimatur:

– (necessary) the professor/editor: limits confusion, certifies knowledge, makes it possible to do our jobs, enables trust in information, most important, keep standards high.

– (unnecessary) the artist/hacker/subversive: power is preserved, information is restricted, fundamentally conservative structure, formal restrictions on expression.

Artists necessarily have a different relationship to imprimatur than do scientists. Scientific data is more objective, more easily verified, its import and quality more widely agreed upon (in general). For artistic works the opposite is true: the "data" is subjective, completely unverifiable (that’s what makes it art), and quality and import are widely disagreed upon.

Innovation often confounds imprimatur. For example, the ease and significant advantages of Web (self) publishing have seriously challenged existing notions, at least in academia, of peer review publication, and as such confused tenure and promotion processes considerably (hopefully, forcing changes for the better).

Restratifying technologies, as the example above shows, also challenge existing imprimature mechanisms. If I own a printing press, I don’t need anyone else to certify that my poems are worth printing. I can publish what I want on my webpage. The history of art, in all forms, is permeated by restratifying technological shifts which redistribute the hegemony of imprimatur. Technological advances allow for radical aesthetic shifts which may not be acceptable to existing imprimatur-granting bodies.

In my own field, the history of what I call "American experimental independent publishing"(28) exemplifies the way artists often view the relationship between technology and imprimatur. The following series of statements by American composer/publishers (such as Billings, Farwell, Ives and Gaburo), ranging from revolutionary times to the present, may give some idea of the ways that artists have felt both restricted by imprimatur and economics, and excited and empowerd by restratifying technologies. For each one of these important artists, "self-publishing" was the only choice.

Figure 4: Composer/Publishers on Imprimatur

William Billings

Richard Crawford and David McKay

Arthur Farwell

Charles Ives

Kenneth Gaburo



The idea of anonymity is often brought up in discussion of computer ethics and privacy. To again paraphrase Moor, I suggest that, anonymity, artistically, as well as psuedonymity, has been informationally-enriched. For musicians, cybernymnic technology has begun to function in a number of ways. Some artists, extending the hip-hop tradition of constructed techno-identities, like Trent Reznor (9 Inch Nails) Richard James (Aphex Twin) or Darrin Verhagen (Shinjuku Thief) have enjoyed moving fluidly from singular to plural: technology and cybernymnity allow them to be a "band" by themselves. They acheive cyber-metonymny or -synechdoche, depending on whether they are viewed as "plural" or "singular" identies.

Many cyberartists fabricate new identities (some currently well-known ones are antiorp, illegal art, and akira rabelais). Like George Elliot or Mark Twain, they publish under "false names," but as CBEs (cybernetic entities) they have also constructed digital persona in addition to bodies of work. This has led to some wonderful and, to some, alarming artistic projects.


III. Three Case Studies

I conclude this paper with three musical examples of the ideas discussed above. In chronological order, they are: John Oswald’s Plunderphonics CD (from around 1988-89), illegal art’s Deconstructing Beck CD (1998), and my own Frog Peak Collaborations Project (1996-98). Each of these CDs is a meta-project indigenous to digital sonic media, and, in the last two cases, the Net. The first two pirate but do not plagiarize.(29)


John Oswald: Plunderphonics

"plunderphonics is a term coined to counter the covert world of converted sound and retrofitted music. A plunderphone is an unofficial but generally recognizable audio electroquote. These blatant borrowings of the privateers of macrosampling are a class distinct from common parroting, samplepocketing, and tune thievery. Plunderphonography identifies the lexicon."(30)

John Oswald, a well-known Toronto saxophone player, composer, and sound artist, began working with the ideas that eventually became Plunderphonics in the early 1980s. As a free improvisor, active internationally, he was accustomed to artistic environments emphasizing group creativity and collaboration. In improvisational settings, pieces are often processes, not results. The activity itself is primary – the music is often performed in private settings, or even just for the musicians themselves.

In the early 1980s Oswald produced a series of cassettes, called the Mystery Tapes, in which works submitte by sound artists, in almost any form, were anthologized without attribution. These tapes were distributed at cost through the then burgeoning cassette culture network.(31) A "p.o. box aesthetic" characterized this network, which was supported by an international subculture of fanzines, mail art, and cassette exchange. Oswald’s somewhat early ethos of anonymity and celebration of obscurity still persists in the way fringe artists so effectively use cybernymnity today.

Around 1989, Oswald produced a CD called Plunderphonics. Aside from its cyber-socio-legal-media-implications, this CD is generally thought of as simply a fine piece of creative work. Each of the 20+ works takes as its source(s) some popular or recorded music, and employs an unusual process of transformation. In this way, Oswald creates simulacra, arrangements, and strange and poignant homage to artists and musical styles for whom he clearly loves and respects. Oswald’s work (like my own Collaborations project) focusses on transformation rather than source: music as verb, not noun.

Plunderphonics’ aesthetic might be called post-modern in its recontextualization and juxtaposition of popular, often pedestrian sonic materials. But Oswald’s compositional ideas, and treatment of his source materials (which of course are not his at all), are also modernist and highly formalist. Each piece elucidates a distinctive process, the nature of which (perhaps typified by the famous Dolly Parton track, "Pretender") is often derived from the (often slightly deranged) connotations of the original. He gender-bends, racially integrates, restylizes, and creates absurd levels of abstraction (as in the wonderful Liszt example).

Sound Examples 15 and 16: Dolly Parton track, Liszt track, both from Plunderphonics

Plunderphonics is not aesthetic piracy, but piracy as an aesthetic. Deploring what he saw as corporate-driven copyright laws which impede experimentation and artistic work, Oswald produced the CD with his own funds, and designated it not be sold (he gave them away). Disabling the copy-protect bit on the CDs (a feature of older CD technology) he ensured that everyone with a DAT machine or digital recorder could make perfect copies and participate in distribution. He hoped, I believe, by publicly and intentionally precluding any economic gain on his own part, to expose the misconception that artistic copyright is about anything other than money.

An epigraph for the CD said: "If creativity is a field, copyright is a fence."

The well-documented(32) fate of Plunderphonics illustrates many of the issues Oswald intended to explore. Oswald was threatened with a lawsuit by the Canadian performing rights organization and a conglomeration of other music industry interests. Oswald, economically ill-suited to fight a legal battle with the music industry, settled out of court in an unusual and somewhat endearing way. He agreed to turn over for destruction by the Canadian rights organization of CRIA the "original" and all remaining "copies" of Plunderphonics, and not produce any more. About 1000 copies were made, and, I believe, about half of them remained, stacked in his tiny Toronto apartment. Anecdotally (and completely coincidentally), I happened to be performing with him in Toronto around the time this all occurred. He told me that he’d agreed to let them destroy "the master." Completely perfect digital copies were circulating freely all over the world, and there was no doubt that John had several digital tape copies himself (if he didn’t, I would happily have given him mine). It is hard to imagine what the lawyers thought was being destroyed.

A year or so later, Electra records hired Oswald to plunder their own catalog and release the work on their label, and since then, groups like the Grateful Dead have done the same. The publicity Oswald gained from being sued by Michael Jackson made him famous, and ironically, somewhat respectable.


illegal art: deconstructing Beck

In 1998, a group of composers/cyberartists, using the name and completely untraceable cybernym "illegal art" released a CD called Deconstructing Beck All the pieces use, as source material, the music of this commercially successful artist (Beck), who has himself exploited the notion of sampling (plundering?). Some of the artists on the CD used cybernyms, some their real names.

Beck’s own work had established an aesthetic of low-budget "fair use" sampling (though on his second CD, produced by a major label, most of the samples are credited), as well as a kind of cheap-guitar, neo-coffee house persona, even inviting derision and attack in his biggest hit ("I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?"). It seems natural then, that a group of cyber-sound artists might target his work for some creative sampling of their own. In doing so, illegal art transplanted Beck’s own prol-art to cyber-theater.

The CD is a marvel of consumer humility. It resembles a ransom note: a plain white cardboard envelope, with a stationery-store adhesive label stuck on the front (bearing the title, the name "illegal art," and a URL.

Figure 5: Complete text from cover of deconstructing beck

deconstructing beck
illegal art sponsored by ®TMark

The CD itself has no printing on it, so it’s difficult to even know which side goes "up" in the CD player. To find out who’s on it, and the track titles, you must go to their (untraceable) website, which, similarly, is mostly grayed out, in difficult to read print. The cybernyms are familiar net musicians like Huk Don Phun, Philo Farnsworth, and Jane Doe. Some of the composers gender-bend, further confounding their cybernymnity to a Shakespearean level of layered identity.

Figure 6: List of composers and piece titles, deconstructing beck (complete liner notes, only available on the Web)

01. Mr. Meridies "Paving the Road to Hell Pt2"
02. Jane Dowe "Puzzels & Pagans"
03. Huk Don Phun "Killer Controls Enters Blackhole"
04. Steev Hise "Stuck Together, Falling Apart"
05. The International Bankers "Void Transaction"
06. Corporal Blossom "Burning Today’s Memory"
07. Mr. Meridies "So Cal Weevil Dream"
08. The Evolution Control Committee "One Beck in the Grave"
09. Spacklequeen "Eggs, eggs, arms legs"
10. Hromiegn Kainn "Doublefolded"
11. Mr. Meridies "Carpet Tunnel Syndrome"
12. J. Teller "Fat Zone"

For these composers, the web is a virtual po box, liberating and protective, giving them an anonymity and universal accessibility that was more difficult for Oswald to achieve. For illegal art, cybernymity and the web are part of the medium itself.

Unlike Oswald, illegal art sold their work (at first only over the Web, it was been picked up by an important distributor). But like Oswald, the works do not mock their source –they pay a kind of abstract homage. Beck would not have done what these composers do – they employ reasonably sophisticated, but widely available, digital signal processing and audio workstation tools to transform the material, in what I have called restratifying technology. They work in a style that is probably best referred to as "art music" (although they’d probably be horrified to hear this). They make "tape" or "concréte" pieces very much in the tradition of European classical, "serious," electronic music composers like Stockhausen, Henry, Berio, etc.

What mainly makes this project noteworthy, and perhaps has generated so much publicity (including articles in the New York Times, the Village Voice, and in national newsweeklies) is not the quality of their work (a shame, because these are innovative composers in a purely musical sense), but the fact that they sonically "cracked" a major commercial artist in an inventive way. It’s unclear whether the interest in their work is related to the Beck phenomenon, or their own piracy, but it’s probably a bit of both. Beck’s and the record company lawyers couldn’t seem to find them, though they were traced to have some connection with Dartmouth College. Like a lot of software and sonic pirates, they have a certain romantic charm. People enjoy seeing the pretensions of a commercially successful artist chided in this way (while still enjoying his music). Recently the CD has been picked up by a small distributor.

Sound Example 17: Huk Don Phun Piece From Illegal Art CD

" Killer Control Enters Blackhole" (track 3)


Frog Peak Collaborations

In 1996, I placed the following invitation on the net:

 FIGURE 7: Frog Peak Collaborations Invitation

The Frog Peak Collaborations Project: An Invitation?

September 11, 1996

Frog Peak Music (A Composers’ Collective) invites all composers to compose a short piece (about 1 minute long) based on a 66 second soundfile of a text written and read by Chris Mann. Frog Peak will produce a CD compilation of these pieces.

to receive the source material

via the internet: A 66 second (about 6 MB) mono, 16-bit, AIFF soundfile may be downloaded from the web at the following sites:

(Australia, thanks to Tim Kreger)

(U.S., thanks to Tom Erbe)

on DAT: Send a DAT tape (15 minute tapes are fine!) to Larry Polansky at (before December 1, 1996) Music Dept., LaTrobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia 3182, or (after December 1, 1996) to Frog Peak Music. Please write "Frog Peak Collaborations," your name and address on the blank DAT, and include return postage.

Please copy this soundfile and invitation freely to other websites, hard disks and digital media.

to submit finished pieces

Send DAT tapes of (approximately) 1 minute pieces using only this source material to Frog Peak Music. The format must be 44.1, 16-bit, stereo. Send as many pieces as you like. Please send the complete title of your piece, your correct name and address, and any notes on the piece in electronic format accompanying the DAT (Macintosh preferred).

We will try to put as many pieces on the CD as we can. Composers will retain all rights to their own materials, and will receive two free copies of the final CD.

the text

(The reason that something is an example, a fold (how many does it take to define a problem? (, a predicate)), an economy of virtual knowns, interrupts the idea of proof (those names of actions and events) that does a shy redundancy, a wave. Looks like a subject, but. I mean, is is-an-emergent-property-of-any-system-the-increasing-probability-of-asking-a-right-question a question (a parasite that adapts) or no, a science of quantity, a legal? And the additions? A function. Of represents. Information after all is that failure of description, an immune system a la consciousnessed, a parody (a typical number (probability is a product of real numbers), a base maybe parity in bags) that dags as some inductive random, a negative it, sit. Like a tautology is a square of the propensity to explain any point-function as (random is just like absence) a factor (D) of phantom flickers, a sort of they-type time (it disappoints (dusts) description) of non-linear possibilities, an avvy quit. Shit. The pragmatics of ignorance - something (decorative) you do on my time (my reduction is smaller than your reduction coz I is a large number) - an abstract that, an example of itself, a me-too no-risk of refers picks up a difference on a stick (difference, the first good) and licks (self-evident (a judgement is a perfect rule)): dear sames, a limbo (game) replica in drag, as names (deduction is the administration of violence (credit is the history (interest) of words without history)): claims it (the altruist) I's about. Conspires. In (surrogate) two's. No doubt it queues.)

Frog Peak Music (A Composers’ Collective)

Please distribute this invitation freely.

Box 1052, Lebanon, NH 03766 USA

ph/fax: 603-448-8837



The selection criteria for inclusion on the CD were phenomenological (the artist had to actually send in something) and chronological (the plan was to release the first 65 or so pieces received, which would fit on one CD).

The collaborations project was formally similar to the Beck deconstruction project (sans imprimatur), but it did not use a commercial source. Unlike Oswald and illegal art, references to popular culture are not part of my aesthetic. This has influenced the public perception of the project: whereas the Beck project is discussed mostly in terms of its legal and ethical gray areas, the Collaborations project is clearly a kind of stand-alone artwork.

One of my main interests in this project was to reify the collaborative nature of the net by actually using it as the backbone for a large "meta-piece."

Another interest of mine had to do with clarifying the collaborative and community aspects of restratifying technologies. I was, and continue to be interested in powerful public domain sound and music software (writing it, teaching it, advocating it). I hoped that this project might encourage people to explore that world of software, with a rsulting levelling of the technological playing field. Whether you worked in a big studio or in your basement, you still had the same one minute source material, and guaranteed release, kind of like a digital (and international) town meeting where everyone is allowed to "speak their piece."

Artistically, I shared something significant with Oswald and illegal art. In all three of these CD projects, "original content" is impossible, and the emphasis is on change and transformation. As in Brahms’ Beethoven (or Beethoven’s Diabelli), what is done is more important than what is.

In a nice symmetry, veterans of case studies 1 and 2 show up in the Collaborations project as well. Huk Don Phun and Philo T. Farnsworth both contributed works (Farnsworth’s pieces are characteristically titled 1 and 2). Oswald sent me email that though he had done several audio experiments, he wasn’t happy with any of them, but had, however, done a video piece with the source material (which I still look forward to seeing) that he liked a lot and could we use that in some way? Two artists (Ernie Althoff and Graeme Davis) complained bitterly that the process wasn’t restratifying enough! These Melbourne composers claimed to have no access to the internet, DAT machines, or any appropriate sound technology. Even though I personally arranged for some colleagues in Melbourne to lend them equipment, they finally decided to submit 1 minute of silence as their contribution (which, of course, was included, as Track 35).

Several artists explored, creatively, the ideas of translation and digital replication discussed in the first part of this paper. The works of Carter Scholz, a Berkeley-based composer (and science fiction author) are excellent examples. His "An Economy of Virtual Knowns" plays with the idea of "perfect copying" by running Chris Mann’s voice through pitch detection software, which tries to compute the fundamental frequency of Mann’s voice as he speaks. Scholz then transcribed, as accurately as possible (given the approximation of 12-tone equal temperament and western music rhythmic notation), the melody of the whole soundfile for piano, resulting in a score of great complexity, which he realized on a digitally sampled piano. The result, a kind of hyper-example of Janacek’s concept of "nápevky mluvy´" (or "speech melody")(33), is a strange (and beautiful) hybrid of music and not-music, speech and not-speech.

Sound Example 18: Scholz piece from Frog Peak Collaborations Project, An Economy of Virtual Knowns, for solo instrument

Figure 8: First page of Scholz score for An Economy of Virtual Knowns for piano

Oswald, in the Liszt example above, performs a similar operation, except that where Scholz’s transcription aims for accuracy within its technological limits (and succeeds astonishingly well) Oswald is interested in the most haphazard approximation possible. It is interesting to ponder the reaction of Michael Jackson’s or Beck’s lawyers had they been presented with Scholz’s work: would it be a copyright infringement?

Other works on the Collaborations project (there are 121 of them) are more conventional in design, impressionistically transforming the source using a wide array of commonly available audio processing software. The piece by Maggi Payne, a pioneering electronic music composer from Oakland, California, is a fine example of this approach:

Sound Example 19: Chris Mann Piece, by Maggi Payne from Frog Peak Collaborations Project

This project’s musical success, to me, points to fecund future possibilities for digital collaboration. An interesting issues that arose from this CD is "whose piece is it?" The combination of Mann’s text, my recording (and project), and the works by the individual composers (although some of the pieces were even more collaborative, done by multiple composers) raises questions of intellectual property that are still, quite frankly, unsolved, even though I clearly specified that the recording may be used freely. However, if used without acknowledgment (either of Chris Mann or myself) an interesting situation of plagiarism without piracy is created (the opposite of Oswald!). I look forward to more projects like these.



A great deal of computer music (including these case studies) digital art, video, mutli-media work, and so on is indigenous to its technology. What interests me in particular about the three "pieces" (or collections of pieces) discussed above is that each, in its own way, uses musical policy latencies to fuel the work. They question conventions of artistic creativity, imprimatur, primacy, and property. These CDs are patently (no pun intended) not interested in engaging the legal technicalities of copyright, fair use, or parody. None of them had any more than a marginal economic foundation, nor gain. Each used the malleability of digital sound as a medium, the proliferation of cheap software as a tool. The first two question legal issues of copyright and the idea of an original versus a transformation, and consequently resulted in legal difficulties for the artists. Each project questions imprimatur in a very direct way (though the third, perhaps, more than the first two). These three works, in their design, attempt to redesign some small aspect of the landscape upon which digital musical art takes place.



In the Spring of 1998, I took a group of Dartmouth students on a foreign study program to London. We attended a great many concerts and discussed them afterward. In charge of selecting the concerts, I tried to assemble a stylistically diverse set of events. One concert was a kind of "event" by David Thomas of the 80’s "new wave" rock band Pere Ubu. Thomas, the singer and leader of the band, is physically unattractive, vulgar, and mostly incoherent. He drank throughout the set, cavorting and polemicizing aimlessly and anarchically, seemingly without inhibition or focus. My students generally hated the band, and one said in our post-concert discussion: "This performance went against all the things my parents said were correct!" My only response, in conclusion, was that in rock n’ roll, as in other things, this is the general idea.


This paper was written for the Dartmouth College Humanities Institute, "The Tangled Web: Ethical Dilemnas of the Internet," Summer 1998, directed by James Moor (of the Dartmouth College philosophy department) and with Senior Fellow Deborah Johnson. I benefited from the interesting introduction to philosophical/computer ethics I was fortunate to receive at this institute. Composers, such as myself, tend to take a practical, artistically pro-active approach to the technological innovations offered by computer and internet advances. We don’t often articulate them in the way, for example, a philosopher would. When it comes to formulating complex and general ethical ideas, we are perhaps a bit "philosophically challenged." However, I hope that the viewpoint of a practicing computer-artist may provide an unusual perspective in the discussion of computer ethics. s, and to James Moor and all the members of the Summer 1998 Dartmouth Humanities Institute for their frequent and varied contributions to this article.

Thanks also to douglas repetto and Matthew Smith for thought provoking and valuable conversations about these issues.




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