In the VH1 Storytellers (1999) episode starring David Bowie, the musician comments that the questionable quality of the lyrics from his old band Tin Machine should be “blamed” on the computer. He is making reference to the Verbasizer, a software created by him and Ty Roberts, that automates a technique used by Bowie to write.
The technique consists in forming random phrases based on shuffled word cut-outs from newspapers and other sources.
Words in a Hat
Note that Verbasizer differs from other computational approaches, in the sense that it uses the computer in a relatively superficial manner, only emulating a process that could be realized by hand (cutting words and putting them in a hat). There is an image of the interface in this post.
Ty Roberts [, co-creator of the Verbasizer,] described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He’d then cross out material that didn’t fit to create lines of lyrics. Roberts suggested he could create software for Bowie to speed up the process (…).
On the other hand, by “removing” this process from the hands of the artist, this opens the potential for new layers of creativity and expression.
In the documentary Inspirations (Michael Apted, 1997), Bowie ellaborates.
It’s almost like a technological dream in its own way. It creates the images from a dream state without having to go through the boredom of going to sleep all night; or get stoned out of your head. And it will give me access to areas that I wouldn’t be thinking about otherwise (…) (5:35 in this video)
The artist’s role is still fundamental, first in the choice of the original words, but mainly in the analysis and selection among the generated phrases.
I can then reimbued [the generated sentece] with an emotive quality if I want to; or take it as it writes itself. (3:58)
Why Does The Artist Create?
A reflection on the role of the artist in a more general sense emerges by considering the apparent contradiction between Bowie’s technique and his creative approach as he describes it:
Always remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.
If the artist’s impulse resides in it’s search for something “inside”, does it make sense to use an artificial external stimulus? The point here is that an artist’s identity is not so much in individual acts or productions, but in a way of making.
That is, an artist is not a song, a painting or a sculpture – these are only products of that particular person dealing with the world around him (and himself). But it is through these productions that we gain access to this sensibility.
[Published in 2013/10/30 as an abbreviated version of the original post in portuguese.]
PS: there is a new version of Verbasizer, created for an exhibit about Bowie (article).
PPS: in the album Outside (1995) Bowie also experimented with the creative process, including the use of the Verbasizer: “The Verbasizer was used in the creation of “Outside” which employed additional creative techniques for bypassing one’s usual methods of artmaking that fall into patterns that are otherwise difficult to avoid. Roberts had the unique experience of observing Bowie’s working methods as he went from the computer to the mic with new material sometimes in just a minute.” (article)
PPPS: “Artists often feel as though they have the key to something. I don’t think that we do at all. We just dwell on it more.” – David BowieSee more research.