By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
Inevitably, the business of "repurposing" sounds leads to a host of copyright problems. (Most famously, Negativland felt the crush of legal frustrations when it released its 1991 U2 EP, which used samples from U2 and Kasey Kasem's American Top 40 radio show. Negativland argued art; lawyers argued theft. The lawyers won.)
"It's been a big headache," says Schalit of the Methodists' use of recorded conversations -- along with their use of "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Also Sprach Zarathustra" as background music -- "especially when we've dealt with larger labels who are interested in us." Schalit says he was once approached by Time Warner, whose rep had scanned some of the group's press clippings and figured he had the next Jerky Boys on his hands. Once the rep heard the actual music, however, "we gave him a heart attack."
If the Christal Methodists use tapes to expose the hypocrisy of Christian radio, Ralph Johnson uses tapes to mess with everything else: God, sure, but also corporations, government, pop culture -- the entire American Experience.
The East Bay-based experimental musician started his career in 1986 in Iowa City, where he began toying with old cassette decks and reel-to-reel players with his University of Iowa schoolmates Lloyd Dunn and John Heck. Together, they formed the Tape-beatles, cutting up corporate-speak and political rhetoric into engaging pastiches of sound. Musical samples include "a lot of old, bad Latin jazz from the '50s and '60s," while other ingredients are "odd spoken-text records, [and] a lot of radio material."
The results are three records that function as both social commentary and art for art's sake. What Alanis Morissette knows about irony couldn't fill a thimble, but 1993's The Grand Delusion is sick with the stuff. Riffing on rhetorical catch phrases ("America Is Confident," "Behold a Republic"), it spins its found-sound concepts around intentionally grandiose orchestral music -- particularly "Zarathustra," apparently the composition of choice for artists wishing to make ironic comments about today's society.
A film meant to be watched with the music hammers home the points with images of American iconography: bald eagles, politicians, proud revolutionaries for the American Way. In performance, the audience itself was implicated. As tape spooled out of a reel-to-reel player, Johnson and Dunn would wrap the audience in it. Unlike the Christal Methodists' work, the Tape-beatles' oeuvre doesn't spring from an angry need to respond politically. But like the Methodists, their humor is based in the presentation of the mechanics of rhetoric -- supposed "truths" about God and country turn out to be more entertaining once you've mucked with them.
The Tape-beatles broke up, if they ever were truly a group, soon after Delusion's release. Heck moved to Prague and Johnson moved to the Bay Area, where he now works and studies at Mills College in Oakland. Still, Dunn and Johnson continue to collaborate across the country, and their latest recording, Good Times -- which uses tapes of corporate-speak to comment on workplace ennui -- will be released later this month under the name Public Works.
Johnson is proud to be a plagiarist, devising the concept of Plagiarism¨ to explain -- and justify -- his approach to rearranging the recorded detritus of musical and political history. "Plagiarism with a lowercase P is what they're terrified of in academics," Johnson explains. "That's stealing somebody else's work and claiming it as your own. Plagiarism with a capital P, registered trademark, steals other people's work but never claims it to be your own."
"We claim to be thieves," he says. "We say we're thieves, but we mean that, under the current topsy-turvy ethics of cultural property, we are thieves.