Cutting Up

Painter-poet Brion Gysin and the invention of the cut-up


in Ideas • Illustrated by Esther Lee


“A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was, as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, Minutes to Go, was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in The Camera Eye sequences in USA. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus, it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.”  

That’s what author and spoken word artist (sit-down comedian is more like it) William S. Burroughs told The Paris Review about painter, writer and performance artist Brion Gysin in 1966 about Burroughs’ use of cutting up various texts of his own, along with additional wide-ranging sources, and rearranged to create a new, psychically tinged set of ideas. 
Certainly, there have been historic references to what eventually became the cut-up in modern literature. In the 2004 feature article “The Lost Symphony” in The Believer magazine, author Paul Collins writes about a clever friend and neighbor of Ben Franklin — Caleb Whitefoord — who created a brand of cut-up called cross-reading based on elements of text “so opposite in the nature and qualities, that no man alive would ever have thought of joining them together.”  
Mathematician-writer Lewis Carroll portrayed the possibilities of turning poetic line and meter on its ear in 1883 with “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” and instructions such as: 

    “For first you write a sentence, 

    And then you chop it small; 

    Then mix the bits, and sort them out 

    Just as they chance to fall: 

    The order of the phrases makes 

    No difference at all.” 
Still, it is Gysin and Burroughs who fueled forward with the cut-up as a continuous process, not just for literature, but for the hope of psychic transference and mind travel. 
Along with the fragmentary post-memoir genius of Naked Lunch and its experimental tour journal collection of black comic bits and routines, future Burroughs works The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket That Exploded were written from the perspective of cut-ups and fold-in fiction to build (and explain away) his self-defined “mythology for the space age.” 
At present, the idea of the cut-up in its finest verbal display can be found in the Wewantsounds label release, Junk, from cut-up king-turned-sound-poet Brion Gysin. Originally produced by Ramuntcho Matta in 1985 with avant-garde trumpeter and cornetist Don Cherry and a host of other like-minded souls, the new version released in March of the angular, calamitous Junk comes with fresh lengthy liner notes by Gysin scholar Jason Weiss 
Based on the prospect of adding chance to one’s art form in order to create new meaning (or multiple, intersecting definitions), the opportunity of open, random selection in writing that is the cut-up is the thing that has made the lyrics of David Bowie (the cut-up’s most outspoken advocate), Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the late Kurt Cobain so vivid and oblique.  
“What Brion did was treat words and text like material, like cloth,” Weiss told me during a brief conversation about the album rerelease. “He basically cut against the ego of the personality of the text and could take the inner workings of any sentence and jumble it around so that the so-called controlling minds could not have as much action, as much say-so in the affair.” 
What could be more adventurous than taking a phrase you have written for a common love song, cutting it into pieces, splicing in additional cut-up phrases from other, perhaps equally electric sources such as newspaper headlines, and tossing them together as one would a Ceasar salad. All meaning is then turned immediately on its head, open, as it is, to new interpretation and preternatural revision.  
Sentence by sentence, stanza by stanza, the written word is given the editing capabilities of collage, painting and cinema with supersensory transcendence once the cut-up is introduced. 
That was a large part of Gysin’s introduction of the cut-up to Burroughs in the first place: that literature was — as the former told documentary filmmaker Howard Brooker in his 1983 work, Burroughs: The Movie — decades behind the revolutionary techniques that made painting (and even experimental poetry) a post-modern, social commentative force in the hands of absurd, college-minded, Dadaist creators such as Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp. 
Then again, Gysin was always a provocateur — a conspiratorial role that seemed like his greatest talent. Along with pushing Burroughs into the realm of the cut-up, Gysin, an avid, active traveler through the Middle East and Japan, was famous for his invention of the Dreamachine, a stroboscopic flickering device/sculpture that doubled as an “art objet,” whose purpose was to create new electric visual stimuli when viewed with one’s eyes closed. Gysin innovated the ancient art of calligraphy by introducing new work influenced by aged Arabic script and the cursive grass texts of Japan. For those who could care less about art and literature, Gysin introduced the swirling surround sound of the Master Musicians of Joujouka (after author Paul Bowles introduced that ensemble to him) to the Rolling Stones’ multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, who in turn recorded the 1971 album Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka with them. 

Still, what truly connects Gysin to the aesthetics of the present is his experiments in cutting up all that he could get his hands on, how it influenced Burroughs, who then went on to inspire the most ephemeral work from Radiohead, Nirvana and David Bowie. “What I’ve used it for is igniting anything that might be in my imagination,” Bowie once told an interviewer about his appropriation of the cut-up technique as a work skill. “I was finding out amazing things about me and what I’d done and where I was going.” 
While Bowie fashioned lyrics to favorites such as “Five Years” and “Breaking Glass” using the old school scissors and paste technique, by the 1990s, the tech-savvy rocker invented a computer program that allowed him to input phrases, words and paragraphs, then mash them around. jumble them for a quicker alternative to cutting and sticking newspapers to the wall. In a 1997 interview, Bowie called the self-devised computer program a “little warehouse, this container of information,” where all he needed to do was “hit the random button” and all would be “randomized.” 
Cutting up one’s self-generated written works — or even ripping apart your old books — might be a scary proposition. Yet, for any adventurous creative and aesthete, the cut-up technique opens multiple doors to perception and re-definition.  
Junk producer and co-composer Ramuntcho Matta offers greater color on the cut-up technique and its perspective on fellow lyricists and musicians in a way that is uniquely self-reflective. Matta continues to utilize the cut-up technique and stresses that its use could now be valuable to 21st-century artists to forge new pathways for their work. 

“When we think and when we write there is much of ourselves and who we are in every text,” said Matta. “But if you, say, took your diary and cut it into eight equal parts and put them together again, you will discover what you really want to say to yourself.” 
Matta recalls a time at Gysin’s home in 1976 with David Bowie in attendance while the British singer was working on his album, Low in Berlin. 

“Bowie came over the house with some lyrics and Brion picked up a set of scissors, cut them up physically with the words and sentences scattering. From there, Bowie took the lyrics from the floor and re-made the lyrics. It was a way of not being controlled by certain ways of thinking. If you don’t want to be controlled, you have to experiment.” 
Though Bowie never spoke of the cut-ups on his latter-day projects such as 2016’s Blackstar — his final album — the lyrics of songs such as “Lazarus” and its title track have the jarring effect of the cut-up process with their incongruous words and images knotted together to forge a new reality and deep-meaning spirituality. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, renowned for using the cut-up technique to create that band’s loftiest lyrics, certainly brought that literary process to bear on oblong new music that he performs as The Smile. To that end, so too do many of hip hop’s finest, most poetic lyricists such as Kendrick Lamar seem to have borrowed from the cut-up technique to create new emotional texts and imaginary planes. 
“Maybe the new rearranging of the phrases through cut-up is more important than the actual meanings of the words in the first place,” said Matta. “For me, the cut-ups are a method to discover or explore a part of yourself that you don’t quite see enough.” 

Maybe the aesthetic process of Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique will soon become an important part of popular video applications such as TikTok or even AI. The sky is the limit. Or, as William S. Burroughs once said of the willingness to travel to other lands and spaces in one’s art: “We are here to go.”•


A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning, Philadelphia-raised journalist who writes regularly for numerous publications including Variety, and is the host and producer of his weekly Pacifica National Public Radio syndicated program, Theater in the Round. A.D. is married to garden-to-table cooking coach, Reese, with whom he shares a delightful pharaoh hound named Tia. In addition to his work, A.D. enjoys watching documentaries about absolutely anything, boxing and visiting museums with his wife.