Last night, I played around with Apple’s GarageBand (the iLife 08 version is quite nice). First, I laid down a nice baseline. Then I layered it with a few rhythm tracks. After that, I screwed around with the mix and the volume a bit, and then put in something like a melody.
Even though my efforts were pitiful, I caught of glimpse of what it Brian Eno meant by a “wall of sound”. It was there on my screen, and because I’d built it brick by brick I could feel it too. By listening to the same five seconds over and over again, the groove sank into my bones. I knew when the drums would start and how that little guitar loop mixed with the longer one dropped in at 3 seconds. I slapped in other sounds to see how they worked. I tuned out certain tracks to see how new sounds would mix, and then rejected them or accepted them accordingly.
To shake things up, I tossed in a few banjo riffs. The banjo is definitely an acquired taste. On hearing the piece, my wife had a physical revulsion to it. She loved the beat and the funk tracks, but that banjo (which was barely audible) stuck out. It shocked her. I thought she was going to vomit.
So much for my career in music, but what if we applied the technique to writing?
Some say a bad writer plagiarizes, while a great writer steals. The same can be said for the artists of today’s music scene. They cut and screw and twist samples from the vast archive of our collaborative culture.
The process of writing using the cut-up technique developed by William S. Burroughs is similar. After writing semi-lucid novels like Junky, Queer, and Exterminator, Burroughs got heavy into a new method of taking other people’s works and mixing them into his own at “random”. I put quotes around random because there was surely an editing process that cleaned up his work (though perhaps you can’t tell in some of the weirder bits).
Samuel Beckett was shocked at this when Burroughs described the process. He thought it was stealing. And perhaps it is, but does it produce a more readable text than Beckett’s stream of consciousness style (a style by the way that he stole from James Joyce)?
Regardless of the ethics of cut-up, there’s a lot of energy to be found in sloshing this stuff together. First, you’re taking works of others out of context, which strips them down to their raw, elemental power. And as such, you recombine them to create a greater whole. Second, there’s an excitement in finding how easily disassociated sentences and paragraphs can be combined.
It’s a little like channel surfing and hitting the seredipity of one show’s dialog folding seamlessly into another.
But the process of writing, even if you use all your own words, is not so different from being a mixmaster. Once you get the raw data, you break it up into samples. The samples get screwed and bent. The only difference is that there isn’t a turn-table or a mixer to help out. You have to do it all by hand, but wouldn’t it be sweet if you could use a tool?
In the absence of a tool, I created a sample by hand using two very different sources I chose nearly at random:
Animals seem to take particular pleasure, as we do, in movements that are enjoyable to the senses – great leaps, fast forward motions, floating or rocking movements – as well as in actions that are particularly energetic in their own right. Speed is intoxicating, and the quickened heartbeat and fast respiration of vigorous play are often enjoyable states.
– Kay Redfield Jamison “Exuberance” p. 47
She held up her head and busied her hands, and went about her daily occupations; and when the state of things in Washington Square seemed intolerable, she closed her eyes and indulged herself with an intellectual vision of the man for whose sake she had broken a sacred law.
– Henry James “Washington Square” ch. 22
Like an animal taking pleasure in the mere movement of the senses, she held up her head and kept her hands busy. Her daily occupations were not particularly energetic. The state of things did not allow for vigorous play There were no great leaps of fast forward motion except when she closed her eyes. The quickened heatbeat, intoxicating speed. She floated in the indulgent vision of the man for whom she had broken scared law.
It took five minutes to construct my paragraph from the bones of two samples above. A bit purple perhaps, but an interesting experiment.
Now, the question is whether I could have written something like this without the help of these other two writers. Clearly, I’ve cribbed phrases directly but they are all out of context now. The woman in question is not holding up some moral front in the Victorian age, nor is she in the jungle. This paragraph could be lifted up and placed into any setting.
Anyone who read Washington Square closely would see that I stole the bones of this passage from James’ run-on. The Jamison theft is more obscure, and layers in a raw intensity that the original was lacking. James clearly wanted to separate the animal from the intellect, but how hot is an intellectual vision, even when coupled with “indulgence”. The intellectual part ruins the spiritual connection to ancient laws.
This would be hard work though, cutting and layering. Might be good to find another sample to weave into the paragraph too, like adding a third color. Maybe something shocking, like a bit from Milan Kundera.
Couples have a continuous conversation that lulls them, its melodious stream throwing a veil over the body’s waning desires. When the conversation breaks off, the absence of physical love comes forward like a ghost.
– Milan Kundera Ignorance p. 97
Her daily occupations were not particularly energetic. The state of things did not allow for vigorous play. Like an animal taking pleasure in the mere movement of the senses, she kept her hands busy. Without the lull of conversation, there were no great leaps of fast forward motion except when she closed her eyes. Her heatbeat quickened. Intoxicating speed. She floated in the melodious stream of desire, indulging the ghost of a man for whom she had broken scared law.
This seems better (though perhaps a bit laden with adjectives). Still, the fluid nature of the Kundera quote brings something different to the composition.
The technical details aside, I had no idea what I was actually writing. I had an emotional reaction to the intellectual vision of the man who forced this woman to break the sacred law. Who wouldn’t? This is intense imagery. The Jamison quote seemed to intensified the feeling and I went with it. I selected the Kundera quote with a little more care, looking for something that would give me a different palatte, flavor, what have you.
In other words, I played the texts like an instrument.
I wonder what it might be like to apply this technique to an entire novel. Cutting texts in and out, mixing and remixing. Quoting liberally but not literally…
Would it be readable? Would it be interesting?
3 thoughts on “Cutting and Mixing: Prose-Style Wu-Tang”
I think it depends. I doubt that a computer could mix this stuff up the way that a person could. NPR had a thing yesterday about Bill Frisell’s new album Floratone. Again, this is music but the idea of cutting,pasting,looping and such to create something new is the same. In the end though, there’s a person at the controls.
Holy crap, dude! That rocks!
Course, it would take you like 25 years to write a book, but what a book it would be! Think of the xrefs!