Here’s David Bowie explaining one of his random techniques for stringing together lyrics. The clip is only 68 seconds long.
Although Bowie was going through a fair amount of chemicals and frayed nerves at the time, this scene is far from a moment of madness. Bowie continues to use cut-ups as a compositional tool, as a way of finding inspiration by adding an element of chance and spontaneity into the creative process.
But you’re sceptical. Perhaps the flurry of words looks like a coded message, impenetrable gobbledegook. Or they remind you of those silly “tag clouds” you see on blogs (including mine ===> ). Or the kind of automated nonsense you sometimes get in spam emails or in a blog’s comments box (spambots even use cut-ups from Dickens novels and Sherlock Holmes nowadays to fool the spam filters).
So how can these randomising techniques produce a complete and perfectly perfect poem, lyric or short story? No one is saying they will. These techniques aren’t so much about a finished product but an ongoing process, yet another way to inspire you to think differently. As Bowie put it in a 2008 interview:
You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ‘em up and reconnect them.
“You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.
The technique can be a great way to uncover and unlock possibilities, relationships and patterns – ones that are possibly already lurking somewhere at the back of your own head too, not just on slips and scraps of paper.
As Bowie himself says, this idea of cutting up (or, indeed, folding up) an existing text and rearranging it to create a new text is nothing new. It can be traced back to the Dadaists and Surrealists in the 1920s, and Tristan Tzara’s random poetry.
It’s obvious from the clip above that cut-up writing is a form of collage and a visual, physical, tangible process. It’s very hands-on, is thinking with your hands.
The writer William Burroughs once described it as a montage technique from painting, applied to words on a page – or indeed to sounds and moving images. Burroughs himself was turned on to cut-ups by the painter and writer Brion Gysin, who accidentally stumbled on the technique in the 1950s.
While cutting papers with a razor blade, Gysin liked to use a layer of old newspapers as a sort of mat to protect his tabletop from being scratched. But as he cut through the newspapers, he noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image. So he began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged.
Burroughs popularised cut-ups in the early 1960s – doing them not just with text but with audio recordings too.
For Burroughs, “word and image locks” control the mind. They “lock” us into conventional patterns of perceiving, thinking, and speaking that determine our interactions with society and the world. His theory was that cut-ups were a way of exposing these subconscious word and image controls and freeing yourself from these mind ruts. He even believed cut-ups may be a form of divination:
When you cut into the present the future leaks out.
Since then, a wide range of writers have used cut-ups, fold-ups, word collages and similar techniques not just for lyrics or poetry but novels too. They range from Julio Cortázar (Hopscotch) to Alan Burns (Europe After The Rain) and Kathy Acker (Blood and Guts in High School).
In 2010 Jonathan Safran Foer went one step further and published Tree of Codes. It’s both a novel and an artwork, a sculptural object in the form of a book. Here’s the twist: to create this new book, he took Bruno Schulz’s book The Street of Crocodiles and carved a new story out of it. Literally.
It’s not quite the same randomising technique as a classic cut-up, perhaps, but it gets back to that idea of physical, tangible objects and unusual juxtapositions. Yet Safran Foer’s book wasn’t a one-off, a limited edition of a single copy. Imagine the logistical difficulties involved in printing several hundred paperback copies of a book where most of the words have been cut out. The “making of” video is gobsmacking…
(Trivia: Snip seven letters from the title Street of Crocodiles and you get Tree of Codes. And the cheapest new copy of the latter I could find on Amazon.co.uk would have set me back £239.46, mostly for a large amount of holes. And before you ask, there is no Kindle edition.)
Perhaps you can also see how cut-ups make sense within punk sensibilities. Maybe that Burroughs clip has already reminded you of Jamie Reid’s iconic sleeve for the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen single, the one that makes her highness look like a criminal or a blackmail victim, with the collage of newspaper words like a hostage note masking her eyes – and filling her gob with the name of the band.
My lyrics are total cut-up. I take lines from different poems that I’ve written. I build on a theme if I can, but sometimes I can’t even come up with an idea of what the song is about.
…but let’s leave the last word to Burroughs:
Cut-ups are for everyone. Anybody can make cut ups. It is experimental in the sense of being something to do. Right here write now. Not something to talk and argue about. Greek philosophers assumed logically that an object twice as heavy as another object would fall twice as fast. It did not occur to them to push the two objects off the table and see how they fall. Cut the words and see how they fall.
I thought I’d be cheeky and stick those very words – that quote comes from The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America (1963) – into an online “cut-up engine” or two and see what it inspires.
Here’s the first output…
twice about. ups as objects are to Cut assumed Cut logically everyone. for the cut It now. ups. object the to talk off off as Not and and make can not something occur to the the to them to objects something about. can here the how write It make argue another experimental the as is write logically something assumed object two another the body they Cut the the not not Right an Cut talk philosophers another to in
Not great, is it? Far too Joycean for my liking, and I don’t like the way it gets thrown by the hyphens.
A second cut-up engine gives the output as individual words that you can drag-and-drop to change the order, a bit like fridge magnets…
Still not very tactile is it? In terms of the output, I much prefer the Lazarus Corporation Text Mixing Desk v2.0. Even at its default settings (including a crude “echo” level) it gives you this:
Heavy as another object would fall see how they fall. How they fall. Cut the write now. The write now. Not something to talk and argue about. And argue about. Greek philosophers assumed twice as fast. Twice as fast. It did not logically that an object twice as Cut ups are for everyone. Are for everyone. Any two objects off the table and is experimental in the sense of being something to do. Something to do. Right here body can make cut ups. Make cut ups. It occur to them to push the. To push the.
The echoes, those repeated strings of words are all well and good in a pop song, but they become too annoying in prose after a while.
If you want to be really smart, try taking this random output and sorting it alphabetically then removing the duplicates. Or paste it into one of those “Duplicate Word Remover” tools that are intended for webmasters, which remove repeated keywords from their meta data and are able to reorder the words or phrases too.