What is the Cut-Up Method?

Cassette boy from BBC programme

Generations of writers, artists and comedians have made new works by mashing together old works. It can be a beautiful thing, writes Ken Hollings.

I can still recall the strange thrill I felt as a teenager coming across a paperback copy of William Burroughs's The Soft Machine hidden amongst the comic books and men's magazines in a corner shop spinner.

This was nothing, however, compared with the excitement of encountering in its pages not a novel but a vivid literary hallucination, shocking and confrontational in its approach to language. Words had been edited into weird new juxtapositions - sentences, paragraphs and whole pages cut up into flickering images.

As an experimental technique, the cut-up method as applied by William Burroughs in his work from the late 1950s onwards, already had a rich history. In fact, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would have been unthinkable without it.

The cutting together of pre-existing material into radical juxtapositions closely followed the development of a mass culture that had been busily recording itself in photography, newsprint, sound and moving pictures since the start of the 20th Century.

In 1920, Tristan Tzara, one of the Dadaist movement's founders, published a short poem that advised the reader to cut out the words from a newspaper article and pull them at random from a bag - the result would make you "a writer of infinite originality and charming sensibility".

Photography and print contributed to the political photomontages of John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch, both of whom were involved in Berlin Dada. The biting satire of their imagery, by turns raw, aggressive and sophisticated, gave hints of what was to come.

Media caption,
Cassetteboy's parody of the UK version of The Apprentice features the mashed-up dialogue of Sir Alan Sugar
Media caption,
Extract from Doug Kahn's audio track Reagan Speaks for Himself
Media caption,
Experimental group Negativland's take on Julie Andrews singing Favourite Things from The Sound of Music
Media caption,
Chris Morris's dark Radio 1 comedy show Blue Jam reedited the station's own Newsbeat bulletins for satirical effect
Media caption,
Lenka Clayton took every word George W Bush's State of the Union speech in 2002 and arranged it in strictly alphabetical order

Cut to: English artist Brion Gysin in his room at the notorious Beat Hotel in Paris cutting picture mounts atop a pile of old newspapers. Along the axis of each cut, the layers of sliced text formed themselves into sequences of randomly juxtaposed words whose jumbled meaning had him laughing out loud.

Busily lashing together his breakthrough novel Naked Lunch in the room below, William Burroughs realised the potential of Gysin's discovery. Applying the cut-up method to his own typescripts, he produced novels that threw meaning back upon itself, scrambling the habitual organisation of words and images. The cut-up became a more violent expression of the editing process - a breakthrough that looked forward to the point at which text, sound and image are no longer separated from each other.

During the 1960s, thanks to the electronic revolution in mass communications, this happened at an accelerating pace. Burroughs and Gysin, together with an early computer and sound recording expert Ian Sommerville, experimented with how tape recorders and cameras can recombine words and images.

One outcome was The Third Mind, a collection of essays and collages dealing with the practical applications of the cut-up to cultural and political change. Another was Cut Ups, an experimental short film made in 1966 by Burroughs and Gysin in collaboration with director Antony Balch who ran a couple of "adults-only" cinemas in London.

The soundtrack comprises a small selection of recorded phrases, read by Burroughs and Gysin and repeated in different combinations, while the actual footage has been chopped into a random sequence of actions and scenes. According to Gysin, one cinema in Oxford Street stopped showing Cut Ups because so many customers were leaving their belongings behind in their haste to walk out.

Around the same time that Cut Ups opened, Burroughs wrote of hearing a tape of cut-up news broadcasts called The Drunken Newscaster and "laughing until I fell out of a chair". With a little patience and a lot of practice it was possible to rearrange the words of a broadcast media item to convey a completely different message from the one intended.

Editing techniques could involve either splicing magnetic tape with a razor blade or using the pause button on a machine to create a smooth transition from one word to another, thereby making people say whatever you wanted them to. "Reagan Speaks for Himself", assembled in the early 1980s by Doug Kahn from interviews given by the then president of the US, gives the impression of a Hollywood actor struggling with a script.

Easy access to twin cassette decks and home computers in the late 1980s meant that the reworking of words, sounds and images was open to anyone. Artists such as Vicky Bennett (aka People Like Us) in the UK and Negativland in the US became adept at altering films, phone-ins and talk shows to offer surprising readings of media events.

Meanwhile, British satirists Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris helped reorganise how people consumed broadcast news with groundbreaking shows like On The Hour, which offered biting parodies of current affairs coverage, and Blue Jam, a nightmare of the small hours seemingly intent upon unravelling the entire fabric of radio culture.

The cut-up's more deliberately comic applications have brought the method to a far wider audience than the earlier, more random experiments of the literary avant-garde.

At the same time the proliferation of digital platforms has narrowed the divide between the two. The video cut-ups of artist Lenka Clayton and media satirist Cassetteboy make use of different processes but share the same unsettling effect.

Clayton took every word of George W Bush's 2002 State of the Union address and rearranged them into strict alphabetical order. Her resultant film, Qaeda, Quality, Question, Quickly, Quickly, Quiet, plays dispassionately with the statistical frequency of certain terms, such as "America" and "terrorism", in what has become known as Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech.

Meanwhile Cassetteboy has trawled through transcripts of David Cameron's speeches at Conservative party conferences to transform his speeches into a foul-mouthed gangsta rap. Both films represent remarkable technical achievements while at the same time reducing our leading politicians to the status of yammering ventriloquist dummies.

Society, from the Dadaists onwards, seems to get the cut-ups it deserves.

William S Burroughs 1914-1997

Image source, ALAMY
Image caption,
William Burroughs, photographed in London 1989
  • US author, born in Kansas City, whose novels include The Naked Lunch, Junkie and The Soft Machine
  • His works are experimental in technique, and draw on his life as a long-term heroin addict and the accidental killing of his wife in 1951
  • Closely associated with the Beat movement, he was friends with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg

Cutting Up The Cut-Up is presented by Ken Hollings on BBC Radio 4 at 11:30 BST on 25 June - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

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