Black, white, music all over

By Brianna Wellen

Stories of Earth-shattering political decisions, heartwarming human triumph and nationwide changes grace newspaper pages every day. Adopting a less-is-more policy, Texas native Austin Kleon took a permanent marker to the newspaper pages in a moment of writer’s block, leaving only a few meaningful words visible to tell a story of his own. By stringing his poems together, the book “Newspaper Blackout Poems” was born. Now the marked-up newspaper pages have come to Chicago and are receiving a new treatment.

Access Contemporary Music will present the Newspaper Blackout Poems Concert on Dec. 6 at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, 430 S. Michigan Ave., using Kleon’s unique brand of poetry as inspiration for newly composed music. ACM used the opportunity to continue its mission of promoting the music of living composers and weaving together different art forms.

While on a trip to New York City for the American Music Center’s annual conference, ACM Executive Director Seth Boustead came across “Newspaper Blackout Poems” at a local bookstore. Boustead said the range of the poems and nature of the work had a lot of potential for musical material. He called composers and let them choose whichever poems inspired them, hoping for a variety of interpretations.

“There’s a really wide range of musical styles, from very emotional to a more reserved academic tone, to an almost pop sound,” Boustead said.

Composer Ryan Manchester deciphered imagery from one of Kleon’s short poems that inspired him to incorporate real world sounds, such as a bell ringing, into his composition. Along the way, he kept in close contact with Kleon.

Collaborating with Kleon on his poetry and keeping in mind the three vocalists and two pianos provided by ACM for the performance changed Manchester’s approach to his piece.

“It’s actually quite different from how I normally compose,” Manchester said.

“Usually I don’t compose in a key, it’s all just kind of free music. To help the singers out I composed in a key derived from a majority of the tones from the bell. It sounds very tonal but also has a really unique sound.”

Not every composer readily embraced the collaborative challenge. Troy Ramos enjoyed the poems but didn’t want his music to directly interpret the words on the page. After studying composition at University of York in 2008, his work evolved from combining music with syntax and moved to looking at the composition as separate from the words in the poems.

“The sounds have their own meaning and that’s not something I want to disrupt,” Ramos said. “I think it sort of becomes a harmony of meanings.”

As part of ACM’s five or six performances per year, some shows are collaborative efforts requiring new works—such as the Newspaper Blackout Poems and the upcoming concert of new scores composed to modern silent films—while others are based around contemporary composers’ existing work. Boustead finds composer’s involvement and excitement is much higher when the pieces are new as opposed to written years ago.

According to Boustead, it also piques the public’s attention when new works are being performed—the Newspaper Blackout Poems Concert is a night of world premieres.

To make the event more interactive for the audience, Boustead is hoping to set up a do-it-yourself Newspaper Blackout poem activity. At the reception following the performance, he said he’d like to set up blown-up newspaper pages with a magic marker for attendees to try their hand at the art.

Boustead said it’s still undecided if Kleon will attend the event based around his poetry, but Boustead will continue taking ACM in the direction of collaboration. Crossing and combining artistic mediums is a logical move and the challenge opens up artists to new possibilities in their work, according to Boustead.

“Music rarely exists just by itself,” Boustead said. “Music by its nature conjures up images or tells a story, so why fight it?”

The Newspaper Blackout Poems will be performed at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, 430 S. Michigan Ave., 7th floor, at 7:30 p.m. with a reception immediately following. Tickets are $20 at the door, $12 online and $5 for students. For more information, visit