How David Bowie Used William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Method to Write His Unforgettable Lyrics

Why do David Bowie's songs sounds like no one else's, right down to the words that turn up in their lyrics? Novelist Rick Moody, who has been privy more than once to details of Bowie's songwriting process, wrote about it in his column on Bowie's 2013 album The Next Day: "David Bowie misdirects autobiographical interpretation, often, by laying claim to reportage and fiction as songwriting methodologies, and he cloaks himself, further, in the cut-up." Anyone acquainted with the work of William S. Burroughs will recognize that term, which refers to the process of literally cutting up existing texts in order to generate new meanings with their rearranged pieces.

You can see how Bowie performed his cut-up composition in the 1970s in the clip above, in which he demonstrates and explains his version of the method. "What I've used it for, more than anything else, is igniting anything that might be in my imagination," he says. "It can often come up with very interesting attitudes to look into. I tried doing it with diaries and things, and I was finding out amazing things about me and what I'd done and where I was going."

Given what he sees as its ability to shed light on both the future and the past, he describes the cut-up method as "a very Western tarot" — and one that can provide just the right unexpected combination of sentences, phrases, or words to inspire a song.

As dramatically as Bowie's self-presentation and musical style would change over the subsequent decades, the cut-up method would only become more fruitful for him. When Moody interviewed Bowie in 1995, Bowie "observed that he worked somewhere near to half the time as a lyricist in the cut-up tradition, and he even had, in those days, a computer program that would eat the words and spit them back in some less referential form." Bowie describes how he uses that computer program in the 1997 BBC clip above: "I'll take articles out of newspapers, poems that I've written, pieces of other people's books, and put them all into this little warehouse, this container of information, and then hit the random button and it will randomize everything."

Amid that randomness, Bowie says, "if you put three or four dissociated ideas together and create awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes, quite provocative." Sixteen years later, Moody received a startling and provocative set of seemingly dissociated words in response to a long-shot e-mail he sent to Bowie in search of a deeper understanding of The Next Day. It ran as follows, with no further comment from the artist:

Effigies

Indulgences

Anarchist

Violence

Chthonic

Intimidation

Vampyric

Pantheon

Succubus

Hostage

Transference

Identity

Mauer

Interface

Flitting

Isolation

Revenge

Osmosis

Crusade

Tyrant

Domination

Indifference

Miasma

Pressgang

Displaced

Flight

Resettlement

Funereal

Glide

Trace

Balkan

Burial

Reverse

Manipulate

Origin

Text

Traitor

Urban

Comeuppance

Tragic

Nerve

Mystification

"Chthonic is a great word," Moody writes, "and all art that is chthonic is excellent art." He adds that "when Bowie says chthonic, it’s obvious he’s not just aspiring to chthonic, the album has death in nearly every song" — a theme that would wax on Bowie's next and final album, though The Next Day came after an emergency heart surgery ended his live-performance career. "Chthonic has personal heft behind it, as does isolation, which is a word a lot like Isolar, the name of David Bowie’s management enterprise." Moody scrutinizes each and every one of the words on the list in his column, finding meanings in them that, whatever their involvement in the creation of the album, very much enrich its listening experience. By using techniques like the cut-up method, Bowie ensured that his songs can never truly be interpreted — not that it will keep generation after generation of intrigued listeners from trying.

Related Content:

How to Jumpstart Your Creative Process with William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Technique

How David Bowie, Kurt Cobain & Thom Yorke Write Songs With William Burroughs’ Cut-Up Technique

How Jim Jarmusch Gets Creative Ideas from William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Method and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies

How William S. Burroughs Used the Cut-Up Technique to Shut Down London’s First Espresso Bar (1972)

How Leonard Cohen & David Bowie Faced Death Through Their Art: A Look at Their Final Albums

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Venerable Female Artists, Musicians & Authors Give Advice to the Young: Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson & More

To the Louisiana Channel and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, on behalf of mature women everywhere: Thank you. You have excellent taste.

We’ve weathered invisibility and Mom jeans jokes, as representatives from our demographic are judged more harshly in categories that never seem to apply to their male counterparts in politics and the performing arts.

You’ll find plenty of celebrated male artists contributing advice to emerging artists in the Louisiana Project’s video series, but the Guerilla Girls will be gratified to see how robustly represented these working women are.



Nothing beats authority conferred by decades of professional experience.

And while young women are sure to be inspired by these venerable interviewees, let’s not sell anyone short.

We may have assembled a playlist titled Women Artists’ Advice to the Young (watch it from front to back at the bottom of the post), but let’s agree that their advice is good for emerging artists of all genders.

Author, poet, and Godmother of Punk Patti Smith (born 1946) serves up her version of to thine own self be true.

Avant-garde composer and musician Laurie Anderson (born 1947) counsels against the sort of narrow self-definition that discourages artistic exploration. Be loose, like a goose.

Author Herbjørg Wassmo (born 1942) wants young artists to prepare for the inevitable days of low motivation and self-doubt by resolving to work regardless.

Other notables include filmmaker Shirin Neshat (born 1957), author Lydia Davis (born 1947), artist Joyce Pensato (born 1941), and performance artist Marina Abramović (born 1946).

The oldest interviewee in the collection, artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929), refuses to saddle up and come up with any teacherly  advice, but could certainly be considered a walking example of what it means to be “living as an artist with a wish to create a beautiful world with human love.”

Enjoy the full playlist here:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in New York City May 13 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her@AyunHalliday.

What Is Performance Art?: We Explain It with Video Introductions and Classic Performances

If you asked me to define performance art, I’d probably stumble into a couple of clichés—you know it when you see it, you kind of have to be there, etc. Such vague criteria could mean virtually any event can be called performance art, and maybe it can. But the precedents set in the art world over the course of the 20th century narrow things a bit. PBS’s The Art Assignment primer above tells us that performance art is “a term used to describe art in which the body is the medium or live action is in some way involved.”

Still, this is mighty broad, encompassing all theater, dance, musical, and ritual performance throughout human history. And that's kind of the point. Performance art is sometimes seen as an intrusion of a foreign body into the art world.



But the history above implies that the real anomaly is the recent tendency to think of art primarily as a static visual medium that excludes the body. The term “performance art” only took on meaning when it had an antagonist to rebel against. Some of those early rebels included the Italian Futurists, who staged noise concerts and chaotic theater pieces to shake things up.

Dada, Bauhaus, Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the work of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, ambitious Japanese performance pieces, action painting, happenings, Fluxus…. In just its first half, The Art Assignment video covers the key movements using performance to confuse, amuse, offend, and challenge audiences. In the 60s and 70s, performance art became more explicitly political, and more directly confrontational. It also became far more dangerous for the artist.

In Yoko Ono’s 1965 Cut Piece, for example, the artist sits motionless and expressionless on stage, as audience members are invited to come up one by one, pick up a pair of scissors, and cut away any part of her clothing that they wanted. Most participants were well-behaved, but one man made menacing gestures with the scissors before cutting away his piece.

Other artists have gone much further—performing death-defying stunts and real acts of ritual or symbolic violence on themselves. (Watch Chris Burden get shot for the sake of art below.) Performance artists “wanted to make art that could not easily be bought or sold,” says the narrator of the short introduction from the Tate, further up. “The term performance came to define art that had a live element and was witnessed by an audience.”

Although we have hours of footage documenting performance art pieces throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, we really do have to be there, because as part of the audience, we are part of the piece. In some way, if you’ve never participated in performance art, you’ve also never really seen it.

This vagary might bring us back to the question that inevitably arose when performance was no longer avant-garde: “What isn’t performance?” The adjective “performative” covers broader territory, naming aspects, for example, of photography, film, sculpture, or other media that simulate or stimulate action without actually being live performance themselves.

But we should not get lost in abstractions when talking about a type of art—or a way of doing art—that relies on the utmost specificity: the irreducible concreteness of moments never to be repeated again. This is the nature of work from the most well-known performance artists, among them Marina Abramović—who ended up performing her famous “The Artist is Present” in a profound, unexpected reunion with her former partner Ulay in 2010 (further up).

German artist Joseph Beuys tested his audiences’ resolve in absurdist actions like 1965’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, in which the artist literally walks around a gallery with a dead rabbit, his head covered in honey and gold foil, whispering to the animal's corpse while doing a sort of tortured dance. The audience watched this through the windows of the gallery for three hours. Then they were let in to watch Beuys hold the dead hare with his back to them. Not only do we get but a tiny fraction of the performance, less than a minute in the clip above, but we also see it in a way we never could have if we were there.

A less discussed, but critical, aspect of performance art is the staging. The blocking and choreography of live performance pieces not only induce effects in the audience—discomfort, anger, anxiety, disgust, or sheer bewilderment—but are also, in a sense, the very material of the piece. Performance pieces aim to shock and confound expectations—they are never coy about it. But to see them only as outlandish ploys for attention or elaborate pranks, though they can be both, is to lose sight of how they go about upsetting or otherwise moving people.

Jennifer Hartley’s Last Supper uses highly expressive, theatrical movement in a piece designed, the artist herself writes, as “a discussion on opulence and the giving of oneself as an act of auto cannibalism.” If we take a cue from this description about how we might experience the performance, we could ask, what is the vocabulary of this discussion? What are its key phrases and recurring themes, enacted through the movements of the artist's body? Or would we even know them if we saw them? Can we recognize and appreciate art that doesn’t look the way we are taught art is supposed to look?

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

53 Years of Nuclear Testing in 14 Minutes: A Time Lapse Film by Japanese Artist Isao Hashimoto

It’s strange what can make an impact. Sometimes a message needs to be loud and over-the-top to come across, like punk rock or the films of Oliver Stone. In other cases, cool and quiet works much better.

Take the new time lapse map created by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto. It is beautiful in a simple way and eerie as it documents the 2,053 nuclear explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998.

It looks like a war room map of the world, black landmasses surrounded by deep blue ocean. It starts out slow, in July of 1945, with a blue blip and an explosion sound in the American southwest—the Manhattan Project’s “Trinity” test near Los Alamos. Just one month later come the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.



From there the months click by—condensed down to seconds—on a digital clock. Each nation that has exploded a nuclear bomb gets a blip and a flashing dot when they detonate a weapon, with a running tally kept on the screen.

Eeriest of all is that each nation gets its own electronic sound pitch: low tones for the United States, higher for the Soviet Union—beeping to the metronome of the months ticking by.

What starts out slow picks up by 1960 or so, when all the cold neutral beeps and flashes become overwhelming.

If you’re like me, you had no idea just how many detonations the United States is responsible for (1,032—more than the rest of the countries put together). The sequence ends with the Pakistani nuclear tests of May 1998.

Hashimoto worked for many years as a foreign exchange dealer but is now an art curator. He says the piece expresses “the fear and folly of nuclear weapons.”

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2012.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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The Cast of Avengers: Endgame Rendered in Traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e Style

Wherever in the world you live, you've heard of Avengers: Endgame, and may well have seen it already — or, depending on your enthusiasm for superheroes, may well have seen it more than a few times. It comes, as fans need not be reminded, as the culmination of a 22-film series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that began with 2008's Iron Man. The $356 million picture (which has already earned, as of this writing, more than $1.2 billion) uses, of course, only the latest and most high-tech visual effects, and a great deal of them, which does get one wondering: how would these superheroic (and supervillianous) characters, all of them larger than life, come through a transplantation to another art form, from an entirely different culture, and a much less overtly spectacular one at that?

A Japanese illustrator who goes by the name Takumi has taken on that challenge. "To commemorate the film’s release, the artist has created a series of illustrations that render characters from the film in Ukiyo-e style," writes Spoon & Tamago's Johnny Waldman.



Takumi's task of translating these American-made characters to that Japanese woodblock print form (which does have a history of portraying actors) included "a lot of time thinking about the unique patterns and kanji names for each character. Thor is pronounced tooru in Japanese, so he assigned the Japanese equivalent, which is 徹(とおる). Thanos’ 6 infinity stones served as the inspiration behind that name, which references the 6 realms of Buddhism." And all of the Avengers characters Takumi has rendered in this fashion wear costumes with "traditional Japanese designs and each references certain traits of the characters."

Captain America’s pants, for instance, "use the shippo (七宝) pattern of layered circles, which references the shape of his shield. Thor’s pattern is pretty straightforward: the traditional cloud (雲) pattern. Iron Man uses the complex bishamon kikko (毘沙門亀甲) pattern, which mimics the look of a circuit board."

Takumi previously made a splash by creating "Ghibli Land," a hypothetical version of Disney Land themed entirely around the animated films of Studio Ghibli. (The idea turns out to be less hypothetical than it once sounded: Studio Ghibli, as we've previously featured here on Open Culture, plans to open its own theme park in 2022.) Just as the staggering success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies proves the popular viability of the kind of superhero stories assumed not so long ago to be the domain of obsessive fans alone, Takumi's ukiyo-e Avengers cast, all of which you can see at Spoon & Tamago, shows how versatile this traditional art form remains.

via Spoon & Tamago

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Cultureand writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Listen to Last Seen, a True-Crime Podcast That Takes You Inside an Unsolved, $500 Million Art Heist

In the early morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 pieces of precious art, including paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. To this day, those paintings, valued at $500 million dollars, have never been recovered.

The story of the bold heist and the various attempts to recover the paintings--they get told in a 10-part series of podcasts called Last Seen. Created by WBUR and The Boston Globe, the true-crime podcast "takes us inside the ongoing effort to bring back the jewels of the Gardner collection." You can listen to the engrossing episodes online, or via iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify. Or simply stream the episodes below. And if you know anything that cracks the case, there's a $5 million dollar reward.

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

To delve deeper, you can also read two books on the mystery: Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist and The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Enter, Explore, and Learn About Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson with a New Augmented-Reality App

More than 350 years after he painted them, the paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn still look real enough to step right into. Now, thanks to a new augmented reality app from the Mauritshuis museum, you can do just that through the screen of your phone, starting with Rembrandt's famed early canvas The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. "The augmented reality experience, a first for a museum, allows the user to experience the anatomical theatre of 1632 digitally," says the Mauritshuis' press release, "and to observe Dr. Tulp and his fellow physicians, as well as the subject of their examination, the corpse of Aris Kindt."

"I entered it and was surrounded by its enveloping darkness, its piecemeal illuminations," writes Hyperallergic's Seph Rodney on his augmented-reality experience of The Anatomy Lesson. "I walked in front of and sometimes faced each of the characters arrayed around a central figure, a corpse, with its left arm missing its skin below the elbow. One man, rather overdressed in a black doublet with a white shirt collar and white sleeves accenting his head and hands uses a pair of forceps to hold the corpse’s exposed arm muscles and tendons stretched away from the bones beneath."



As Rodney approaches the figure, "a small text box pops out telling me precisely this: that he is gazing at the book to make sense of what the body beneath him is saying in all its vascular and muscular complexity."

Sans text boxes, the scene will sound familiar to Rembrandt enthusiasts, but not even the most enthusiastic of them will have seen it in quite this way before. To build an augmented-reality version of the scene Rembrandt painted 387 years ago, "lookalikes of the main figures in the painting dressed up in seventeenth-century outfits and were then scanned with a 3D scanner made up of 600 reflex cameras. The original theatre in the Waag where Dr. Tulp gave his anatomy lesson in 1632 was then captured with the 3D scanner. These scans were then combined, after which 3D modelers gave the figures and the space the correct colors, textures and light."

You can get a glimpse of the process in the short video at the top of the post, then download the Rembrandt Reality app in either its Google or Apple version and step into The Anatomy Lesson yourself. It may feel somewhat odd at first to simply stroll around the scene of an ongoing dissection of a human body, but in a way, the Mauritshuis' digital opening of this immortal lesson to the world re-emphasizes the true nature of the original scene. When a physician of Tulp's stature dissected a corpse, people from all around — medical professionals and otherwise — would come to watch the spectacle that could last for days. But could even Tulp, then Amsterdam's city anatomist and later the city's mayor, have imagined that this particular spectacle would last 387 years and counting?

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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