Brassage Stew


‘Cut-up’ was a well-known technique in literature in the 1950s. The ‘beat’ writer William S. Burroughs famously used it many times. Its origins lie in the Dada movement that emerged around the end of the First World War. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara created a Dada Poem by drawing words randomly from a hat. Burroughs and his contemporaries applied the same techniques to phrases and sentences, attempting to break up the linearity of both literary and journalistic texts.

The technique has also been used in music: David Bowie and Thom Yorke of ‘Radiohead’ have made many of their lyrics that way, and Genesis P-Orridge, of ‘Throbbing Gristle’, has made it into a whole philosophy of life and art. ‘Dub’ reggae and other remixing genres deploy it as a key musical technique. It has even become an email ‘spam’ tactic, using randomly generated cut-up texts to get past certain types of spam filter.

The Project

Take a short (under 1 minute) piece of music or a recorded sound. Use the computer editor to chop it up into small segments. This can be done so it makes musical sense (i.e. by phrase) or randomly. Now, chop up the segments again. Keep chopping until the segments, heard individually, fail to evoke the original music. Now assemble a random playlist and play back the segments one after another in any order, but with no time gap between them. Observe the differences from the original.


This may be de-composition, or even re-composition. It is hard to resist the anarchistic feel of brassage as an activity. However, once below the level of recognizable musical phrases, this exercise starts to acquire a very different quality. New sounds can be discovered this way with persistence and a good ear.