“David Bowie is” . . . : Bowie at The Brooklyn Museum, a Synthesizer and Cut-Up

Last week I saw “David Bowie Is . . .”, the exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum that examines the art and career of David Bowie.  Any fan of Bowie will be impressed by the breath and depth in which the show looks at his life and work. My personal favorite object was the EMS synthesizer that was used on the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger (see below). I explained to my wife that this was like seeing the bass guitar that Paul McCartney used on Sgt. Pepper or the trumpet used by Miles on Bitches Brew. It’s an object that played an essential role in the creation of an iconic piece of music. It’s coolness cannot be overstated.  Those who disagree, get your own blog.

It was during the period of these records, now collectively known as the Berlin trilogy that Bowie experimented with the literary technique known as cut-up in his songwriting. The artist Tristan Tzara is credited with originating the technique in the 1920s when he proposed to create a poem by pulling words at random from a hat. In 1958 the painter Brion Gysin invented the technique of Cut-Up, which was to cut some texts to reshuffle the parts randomly. Later the great American writer William Burroughs used this technique to write entire novels.

Burroughs explains the cut-up technique thus:

The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different–(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise)–in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. Take any poet or writer you fancy. Heresay, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like.

The cut-up technique plays to the ideas of randomness and juxtaposition as a way to “discover new truths” and had great appeal to an artist like Bowie. Bowie described his use of the technique in a 1974 BBC documentary, Cracked Actor, as “igniting anything that might be in my imagination,” and would use it often throughout the later part of the seventies when Bowie was creating the Berlin trilogy .

Cut up techinque- David Bowie –

Bowie returned to using the cut-up technique whe he once again worked with Brian Eno in 1995 for Bowie’s 19th studio album, Outside.This time though he updated the process thru the use of digital technology. Working with Ty Roberts, who had been working on interactive CD-ROMs for both Outside producer Brian Eno and Bowie at the time, Bowie developed a program he called the Verbasizer.

David Bowie — the Verbasizer


I always found the actual process of creating music (and art in general) to be fascinating and getting a glimpse of how a great artist like Bowie used ideas from other artistic disciplines very inspiring.

As a side note, since seeing the show I’ve been checking some David Bowie records that I never really listed to before, especially “later” Bowie. I have to say that I’ve been particularly blown away by Earthling (1997). Check it out.

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Posted in Classic Rock, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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