Will Redman: Graphic Ideas In Sound

Many scores are visually striking, but Will Redman’s catalog carries a particularly strong “take this piece and frame it” vibe. In his work, fragments of traditionally notated music can be found free-floating on an eight foot scroll or overlayed on top of one another to form a dense nest of competing musical ideas, with lines and other abstract graphic symbols implying mood and character.

Composition was not something Redman initially considered as a creative outlet. When he arrived at University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the mid-’90s, the reluctant undergrad was a percussionist and a pen and ink artist, but says he couldn’t read music beyond snare and drum set parts. While under the instruction of Stuart Saunders Smith, he began exploring everything from Berio to late Coltrane, and the worlds of percussion, composition, and improvisation began to lead him towards a music of his own making.

Sample from Study for the beginning of Weight by Will Redman
Sample from Study for the beginning of Weight by Will Redman

“You’re already starting to bend the rules for notation” when adapting traditional scoring to percussion, Redman explains, “so it wasn’t anything that I thought was sacred.”

It took him only a couple of experimental tries to find the start of the compositional path he was looking for, but another ten years to get a firm hold on it. “It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the visual aspect of the score was almost as important to me as what I thought it sounded like. And so I’ve become more concerned with, well, I have some idea of what I think this sounds like, but I’m more interested in what the performer thinks this sounds like.”

During that intervening decade he continued to produce scores and earned his Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo, but it wasn’t until he produced Book, a collection of 98 graphic compositions that is “available for interpretation (however radical) by any performer(s) in any place at any time in any part for any duration” that he felt he had fully realized the music he envisioned when he first set out. “When I get questions, I like to say, ‘I’ve got answers for you or maybe I’ve got suggestions, but I’d rather that you answered it.’ Part of the idea of some of the superimposed notation [in Book] I hope is that it just sends the message to the performer that this notation exists in a space where there aren’t straight answers.”

The composer's performance score for Book
The composer’s performance score for Book

The interpretive flexibility his scoring offers, indeed demands, of its players lies at the heart of what Redman’s work is all about. It’s a characteristic that working with improvisers like John Dierker first led him towards, when his understanding of various sound worlds made sense in his ears but not on the page. He turned to his own system of “unsystematic notation” both to express his ideas most accurately as well as to allow the performers room to draw on their own skills and preferences as they bring the work to life for an audience. Redman himself has participated in highly rehearsed performances of his work, to which he showed up and added pages to the score that the performers had never seen before to keep those moments of fresh interpretation in the music.

Sample page from Book by Will Redman
Sample page from Book by Will Redman

Not all of Redman’s scores are so radically notated, but his attraction to dense music makes for a lot of black ink on the page. In the interest of speed and productivity, he has put down his pen and begun using Finale software to produce some of his conventionally notated work, but he says he’s still “a slave to the graphic composition.”

“When the graphic [look of the music] versus the sound does a battle, it’s always in the conventional stuff,” Redman admits. “I guess the unsystematic notation is sort of the answer to that battle. Here’s a way I can have my cake and eat it too because there is no one specific sound of the piece. There are a lot of different manifestations of it.”

Sample from Scroll by Will Redman
Sample from Scroll by Will Redman

2 thoughts on “Will Redman: Graphic Ideas In Sound

  1. Lawton Hall

    I discovered “Book” on Redman’s website a few years ago (I remember the PDF took forever to download) and read through a few pages with some friends/fellow improvisers. Really beautiful and fascinating pieces.

    Like Cardew figured out in Treatise, the use of traditional notational symbols really throws a wrench into the whole idea of “graphic notation”, since it’s so hard to ignore their traditional meanings. Redman seems to embrace this more than Cardew does, and supersaturates his scores with traditional symbols.

    Reply

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