'Grayfolded': Dead album has 1 song, done 51 ways


"Grayfolded" is not your typical Grateful Dead concert recording.

For one thing, the hourlong disc is entirely devoted to performances of a single song, "Dark Star" -- 51 performances, to be precise, recorded between 1968 and 1993. But none of them is offered whole; instead, the Dead invited John Oswald to apply his Plunderphonics approach to the tapes, selecting snippets from the performances and reshuffling them into something totally new.

"Plunderphonics is the taking of existing recordings -- usually of very familiar music -- and changing them around in some usually radical way," he explains, over the phone from his home in Toronto. Although the process involves digital sampling, he prefers to describe it more as the work of an "active listener."

"I think everyone is active in their listening habits to some extent," he says. "They turn things off, if they don't like them, before they're over. Lots of friends of mine put together compilation tapes.

"I do the same sort of thing, but in some cases, that act of listening gets kind of extreme. It comes out of very simple choices, though. Back in the days when we all had four-speed record players, I discovered that the music sounded better at a different speed. I really liked 'The Rite of Spring' at 78, and I really enjoyed Dolly Parton 45s played at 33. She just sounds a lot more elegant and more natural at 33."

In the case of "Grayfolded," Oswald was invited to the Grateful Dead vaults and allowed to sift through 25 years of concert tapes, which would then get the Plunderphonics treatment.

"I accumulated a lot of material for the 'Dark Star' project," he says. "I've got about 40 hours of digital transfers of stuff from the vaults, all of which is 'Dark Star' or 'Dark Star'-related -- improvisations that they would get into around 'Dark Star,' segues into other songs, etc.

"After listening to a few of the 100 versions I eventually went through," he adds, "I would naturally get tired of hearing them do the same thing in the same way." So he decided to avoid the constant parts of the song -- the things that remained the same from show to show -- and focus on "the exceptions to those constant parts."

What emerged on this disc (a second volume is slated for 1996) is a seamless, nine-part extrapolation that flows from the speakers with dreamy ease.

"I was hoping that it would work in two ways," he says. "There's a lot of detail in there, and a lot more happens in one hour than happens in any one hour of a Grateful Dead performance of 'Dark Star.' So you can dig away at the layers, but it also works as a superficial listening experience, something you can have on in the background that presents a certain kind of flow."

Dead redux

To hear excerpts from "Grayfolded," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6216 after you hear the greeting.

The Grateful Dead

When: Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 9-11, 8 p.m.

Where: USAir Arena

Tickets: $30 (Oct. 9 sold out)

Call: (410) 481-7328

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