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Cut Up: The Creative Technique Used by Burroughs, Dylan, Bowie and Cobain


This surrealist method established itself as the creative vehicle for some of the most brilliant creative figures of the 20th century.

Just as Picasso’s collage paintings and Duchamp’s ready-made sculptures became decisive techniques to present a reality analogous to dreams, writing also had its encounter with ‘pure automaton thinking of the mind,’ surrealism, through the cut-up technique.

Created by the poet Tristan Tzara, ‘cut up’ is the deconstruction of a primary text using the random cutting up of words and phrases to form new sentences and thus a new piece of writing. It is a process of extraction and reconstruction of a new meaning of language, based on chaotic intuition and the free creative flow.

The rediscovery of the technique is thanks to Brion Gysin, who showed the method to William Burroughs and he, in turn, spread it among dozens of musicians and artists under his influence. Originally the technique consisted of cutting out one or several words from a printed work and then sticking them randomly onto another piece of paper. However, Gysin modernized the idea by using a random sequence generator with a computer, with which he wrote his famous poems of permutation and, together with Burroughs created, using this method, a long series of writings and recordings.

Burroughs defined the cut-up method as an art for filtering out the future between the lines. He said that everything recorded could be edited, including reality itself. In this sense, it is a method for reimagining the reality from the random deconstruction of its semantics.

When Genesis P-Orridge and David Bowie began using the technique, cut up went from being a purely literary instrument to permeating the music scene. Bowie called it a kind of “Western Tarot” both as a tool for composing as a means of seeking inspiration. Many of his songs were written using the technique, which allowed him to be able to create “a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose…”

Another of the great figures who used the method was Bob Dylan, who harnessed it to mine his frankly literary vein. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” was written using the technique. Iggy Pop, Joy Division and even The Beatles (who used it to cut up the tapes of an orchestra recording and put it back together) are examples of those who used it to make subconscious chance rebel against the conscious order within the creative process.

But the breach that opened up in those years was continued decades later. Kurt Cobain, who had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with Burroughs, was one of the maximum exponents in the 1990s of cut-up literature, declaring that his lyrics were the result of his cut up poems. Later, Thom Yorke would imitate the form that was supposedly first used by the surrealists, pulling cut up words out of a hat to write the entire Kid A album.

Although it is hard to imagine that written language doesn’t require reason or a logical syntax to reach an understanding of ideas, each of these musical references showed the fruitful relationship between the random, the authentic and the literary. And in that same sense the cut-up technique showed itself to be a creative vehicle to modify the codes of a reality molded to linear reasoning.


Image credit: Extract from invitation to William S. Burroughs Centenary Exhibition, the “Cut-Up” Technique / Boo Hurray – Emory University

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