The Power of Sound: William S. Burroughs and Music

There he is. Right next to Marilyn Monroe. Placed almost dead center among the wax figures and cardboard cut outs populating the cover of the classic 1967 album by The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The cut out of a man who with fellow artist and traveler Brion Gysin pioneered the "cut up" writing technique. Beyond The Beatles, writer, painter, and unrepentant drug user William S. Burroughs (February 5, 1914 - August 2, 1997) continues to influence musicians in just about any genre of music one can imagine.

Burroughs agreed with writer Robert Palmer that the "amplitude of rock" was a potentially tremendous "force for liberation." Sound frequencies and "cut-up" lyrics, where the words are scrambled to the point of incoherence yet still end up making a weird kind of sense, were also of great interest to him. Imaginary song titles appear in his writing, and many band names and now common place musical vernacular comes from his books (the term "heavy metal" first appeared in his 1962 novel The Soft Machine). Burroughs may not have been a typical "fan" of popular music, but he was cognizant of its power and influence.

Burroughs was very keen to hypothesize possibilities for using sound to produce "psycho-physiological effects" in a listener. Inaudible sounds, air vibrations oscillating at less than ten vibrations per second, can cause extreme discomfort in listeners as their stomach and other inner organs will churn uncontrollably upon "hearing" such a sound. Burroughs wondered if in the outward borders of ten hertz's "bad vibrations" one could instead produce listener experiences that were not unpleasant or, God forbid, fatal. Collaborative experiments with sound did take place throughout his life thanks to a handful of admiring musicians.

Material with William S. Burroughs Seven Souls (Tim Simeon Mix)

The deep dub bass of Bill Laswellis the anchor for several collaborations with Burroughs in the guise of the ever changing ensemble Material. The original version of the track Seven Souls from Material's 1989 album of the same name features the incredible Sly Dunbar laying down a ferocious Jamaican groove over which Burroughs describes ancient Egyptian beliefs regarding death. Connecting Burroughs with dub is inspired. Equalization and filtering are used in this music to continually transform the physical nature of its sound, including its texture and dimensions. Sound is manipulated constantly in dub, sometimes gradually, sometimes quite abruptly, as is Burroughs' prose where time, place, and perspective are subject to unpredictable change.

Excerpt from a film featuring William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin

Discovered by Gysin who, after accidentally cutting up a newspaper with a Stanley blade, began rearranging cut up news articles into visually pleasing patterns producing a poetic and sometimes humorous "remix" of the previously set copy, the "cut up" writing technique mirrored the efforts of abstract expressionist painters who gave up visual representation for a new way of painting where their materials were as much the subject as anything else. In writing, the "cut up" technique brings attention to the individual words themselves and the power contained in the type as it appears on the page.

Last week, we mashed up Jane Eyre, Marlo Thomas' "That Girl," and Miley Cyrus in an effort to understand the thread that connects the first feminists with one of today's much loved and much maligned pop stars. Taking some of the copy from that article and applying Burroughs co-conspirator Brion Gysin's "cut up" process to it produced the following bit of poetry:

"...can their heart those who accrue have no imagination gives creativity an life that by asks are questions in the questions fringes of society scary yes, but what's the Brontë's alternative? especially to people who their power thanks and are a tacit "yes" to address in this public eye young protagonist privately or, at some point have to..."

Pretty cool! The technique has been adopted by many rock lyricists and producers. Great lyricists like Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger have all acknowledged Burroughs' influence on their songwriting, and that influence is clear in Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Jagger's "Memo From Turner," and songs on Bowie's album Station to Station and his 80's hit "Ashes to Ashes" which includes the lines:

"Time and again I tell myself I'll stay clean tonight, But the little green wheels are following me, Oh no, not again, I'm stuck with a valuable friend, "I'm happy, hope you're happy too" One flash of light but no smoking pistol..."

Sgt. Pepper's producer George Martin used the "cut up" technique to create the circus on LSD break that pops up the John Lennon sung "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" By hand using a razor Martin cut up tapes he had of various calliope sounds, then threw the cuts into the air only to splice the bits of tape back together without knowing exactly what sound would follow what.

Burroughs' groundbreaking experiments in writing continue to influence musicians along outer edges of popular culture seeking, in a world as mad as anything Burroughs imagined up until his death, the transforming and healing power of sound.

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Chris Becker
Contact: Chris Becker