Austin Kleon’s Concrete Poetry

A debt to Tom Phillips, and extracting music from an obituary

An Austin, Texas–based artist and all around generous thinker about creativity, Austin Kleon is a great admirer — as am I — of the late Tom Phillips, who died last November at age 85. Kleon is also a marvelous practitioner of one of Phillips’ primary techniques, which was to extract concrete poetry from pre-existing texts. 

Phillips achieved this most famously in his ongoing project The Humument, which had several editions, all of them exacting reworkings of an earlier book, called The Human Document, by William Hurrell Mallock, who died in 1923, 14 years before Phillips was born. 

Where Phillips often employed dramatic colors and textures, Kleon often brings an energetic, brutalist vibrancy to his pieces. Shown here is a recent favorite of mine, reproduced with the artist’s permission:

Kleon, who often bases such poems on newspaper clippings, explained to me that this one came from a New York Times obituary (gift link) from last August for Sy Johnson, an arranger who collaborated with Charles Mingus, the jazz bassist and composer. I love the “music” that Kleon found within an obituary that had music as its topic, and I love the idea that such a phrase could emanate from the original, unbeknownst to the overall text’s “first” writer. 

The scenario reminds me of an often quoted comment about aesthetics by novelist Don DeLillo: “when I work I have a sculptor’s sense of the shape of the words I’m making.” Kleon is, as well, a sculptor in this manner, making shapes from raw materials provided, unwittingly, by another writer, who in DeLillo’s thinking is also a sculptor.

When granting approval to share this piece, Kleon also explained to me an aspect of his approach: “I don’t ‘read’ the article first when I make these — try to think of them as a raw field of words, like a word search puzzle.”

Scratch Pad: Jordan, Molvær, Fiction

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the little comments I’ve made on social media (as well as related notes), which I think of as my public scratch pad, during the preceding week. These days that mostly means @[email protected] (on Mastodon). Sometimes the material pops up earlier or in expanded form.

▰ You almost have to admire how when DuckDuckGo doesn’t have a useful response it just shoves a bunch of unrelated stuff at you at random.

▰ The laptop keeps changing “mapo tofu” to “mayo tofu” and, well, ick

▰ RIP, saxophonist Kidd Jordan (1935-2023), one of the greats. I think the first time I saw his name may have been as part of the title of the last track (“Kidd Jordan’s Second Line”) on a Dirty Dozen Brass Band record, The New Orleans Album (1990), but I soon grew to learn about how much further out his music went, thanks to his work with Hamiet Bluiett, William Parker, and many others. Here he is live with drummer Andrew Cyrille just four years ago at the Vision Festival in Brooklyn, in June of 2019. Aim to be this vibrant at 84 — or, heck, at any age:

▰ It’s called The New York Times Spelling Bee but it should be called The New York Times Teaches You Random Words for Fish and Plants.

▰ Watching a new Nils Petter Molvær performance means keeping the video open in one tab while tracking down details in another on whoever else is in the band, because the trumpeter has always got great colleagues, here percussionist Erland Dahlen and bassist Berger Myhre.

▰ I read a bunch in March. I finished three novels and a long book of short stories in the process. The novels were Chemistry by Weike Wang, The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz, and Box 88 by Charles Cumming. (I reviewed the short story collection for a magazine, so I’ll wait until it’s out before mentioning the book here.)

On Repeat: NIN Cover, De Vis & Co.

Home/office playlist

Brief mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

▰ This is my favorite of some of the recent pieces that guitarist Simon Farintosh has posted, maybe because it feels especially close to the original in tone, like the pace of the source material and the size of the room in which it was captured. Farintosh is best known for his transcriptions for classical guitar of Aphex Twin’s music (about which I’ve interviewed him). Here he does “The Frail” from Nine Inch Nails.

▰ Gorgeous trio, featuring frequent Disquiet Junto participant De Vis with bassist Roy Mastega and a horn player I’ve yet to identify. It’s somewhere between a slowed down “Love Supreme” and an especially stripped down Jon Hassell.

▰ And I’ve been spending a lot of time with some other albums I’ve mentioned recently, notably Years of Ambiguity from keyboardist Kjetil Husebø, supported by Eivind Aarset and Arve Henriksen, and Travel from the Necks.

On Repeat: Guðnadóttir, Frisell, Rathrobin, Rplktr, Colombo

Recent favorites

It’s the start of a new year, and I want to try to get back in the habit of posting quick mentions each Sunday of my favorite listening from the week prior:

Hildur Guðnadóttir already had committed some of the most remarkable film music of the year for Tár, Todd Field’s feature starring Cate Blanchett, and she’s followed it up with Women Talking (Deutsche Grammophon) Both scores veer dramatically from her often drone-based prior work (Chernobyl, Joker, Sicario: Day of the Soldado). Women Talking, in contrast, features a lot of staccato string work.

▰ If I had done a top favorites of 2022, guitarist Bill Frisell’s Four, his third album for the jazz label Blue Note, would have been on the list for sure. It teams him with Johnathan Blake on drums, Gerald Clayton on piano, and Greg Tardy on horns (saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet). The key word is “team,” as this is a jazz album with essentially no solos; it’s all about constant interplay.

Beth Chesser and Pier Giorgio Storti collaborate as Rathrobin. Their album Ear to the Ground combines strings, voice, and unidentifiable textures, including field recordings, into a sometimes aggressive but often ruminative sonic spaces. It came out almost a year ago, at the end of January 2022, but I’ve only recently started listening to it.

Rplktr (aka Łukasz Langa) recorded half an hour using the Awake script, which comes as part of the Monome Norns musical instrument. It’s sparkling and lightly percussive. Just listen as the patterning unfolds.

▰ Embedding here won’t do it justice, so if you do use Instagram, check out Jorge Colombo’s ( — specifically the short films he posts. The “NYC2” batch, for example, are black and white snippets, shot in cinematic horizontal mode — field recordings that evidence the keen eye and ear I’ve admired for decades.

This is a screenshot from Jorge Colombo's Instagram page, showing a train passing Autechre, Burrell/Adderley, Sun Ra

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, collating most of the tweets I made the past week at, which I think of as my public notebook. Some tweets pop up sooner in expanded form or otherwise on I’ve found it personally informative to revisit the previous week of thinking out loud. This isn’t a full accounting. Often there are, for example, conversations on Twitter that don’t really make as much sense out of the context of Twitter itself. And sometimes I tweak them a bit, given the additional space. And sometimes I re-order them just a bit.

▰ Officially have done the This Week in Sound email newsletter 20 weeks in a row:

▰ Afternoon trio for birdsong, percolating crockpot, and neighborhood gearhead revving motorcycle engine.

▰ TFW 8 hours of live Autechre sets pop up in your YouTube subscriptions at the start of a workday

(Also at

▰ Feels really good to get the Junto projects set up the night prior. Thursday feels a little odd, still, because I spent a decade putting the post together and then hitting send. Now I prep it more thoroughly in advance, and it arrives automatically, and I follow up via email.

▰ Says to self: “I’m gonna practice Kenny Burrell’s ‘Chitlins Con Carne’ for half an hour without looking at the sheet music or listening to the track.”

Proceeds to practice Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” for 15 minutes.

Finds “Chitlins Con Carne” sheet music. Listens. Practices it.

▰ Verb I heard this morning that I will not be employing: “diligencing”

Phrase I used this morning and plan to make more use of: “synth dandruff”

A friend followed up with the quite amazing “laptop dander”

▰ Bosch listens to Sun Ra.

Long day, long week. Have a good one. See you Monday.