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Unsettling the Score

Will Redman unearths a decade and a half of rule-breaking compositions

Michael Northrup
Composer Will Redman thrives on complexity.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 4/28/2010

The Compositions perform music by Will Redman with composer/performer Erik Spangler

The Windup Space May 2

For more information visit thewindupspace.com.

Like many Baltimore homes, Will Redman's Gardenville Craftsman features a back bedroom that has been converted into an office. There's the usual desk, computer, and shelves, common to writers and accountants alike, but the room also contains a bulky flat file. Inside its drawers rest the scores for some 50 compositions, from brief melodies to an hour-and-a-half piano piece, Redman has written over the past 15 years. And much of the music on those hundreds of hand-rendered pages has never been heard outside Redman's head.

"I would write music and finish the pencil sketch and do the fair copy in ink and put it in the box and start working on something else," he says of his typical working method. "I have piles and piles and piles of music. That string quartet? No one's ever even seen it other than my masters' [degree] panel."

Redman grew up in Arbutus and has been a familiar presence in local music off and on since the mid-'90s, early on as the drummer for absurdist indie-rock outfit International Soundscape Internationale and most recently as half of the free-jazz duo Microkingdom. But few Baltimoreans have had the chance to hear the compositions to which he has devoted much of his adult life. That's about to change: On May 2, the Windup Space hosts a performance by the Compositions, a rotating-membership chamber group (this time: Liz Meredith, Kate Porter, and Chris Pumphrey) convened by Redman to perform his own music: . . . and the Tale Told for solo violin and North Street Facing East and an excerpt from his 98-page score Book arranged for viola, cello, and keyboard.

Such a performance might seem like egotism at work, but, in fact, it results from the exact opposite quality. As the tall, thoughtful 34-year-old relates one balmy weekday afternoon as his toddler daughter naps upstairs, it's taken him years to become an advocate for his own work. "I've always been uncomfortable about saying, 'Hey, I've got this piece,'" he says. Putting together a performance of his own music "was a new year's resolution, and the first three people I asked were wildly enthusiastic. It's been astoundingly nice."

Part of Redman's astonishment has to do with the difficulties he's sometimes had getting his music played in the past. A self-taught drummer, he wasn't planning on attending college until he found his way to UMBC's music composition program. Under the tutelage of composer Stuart Smith, he found both a vocation and the foundation of a musical aesthetic, one rooted in the relatively conventional harmonies of turn-of-the-20th-century French music but atomized by the complexity of much contemporary music, especially in terms of rhythm. Many musicians who confronted Redman's early work found it too challenging to tackle his thorny time signatures; players who were more interested in and adept at such complex scores balked at the orderly harmonies. "I was kind of stuck between these two worlds," he says.

As an undergraduate, Redman had been fascinated by so-called "graphic scores"--compositions that replace the conventional staff and notes with unusual and invented notation, written instructions, even drawings. Working on a master's degree at the U.K.'s University of Southampton in 2001, Redman studied with composer Michael Finnissy, at whose urging he began to rethink the importance of notes on an orderly staff spelling out every detail of a piece to be followed down to the last dot. "Throughout the history of notation, composers have been figuring out ways of telling people what to do and different levels of control over that," Redman says. "You really have to think about not only what sounds you're trying to tell them to make, but how you're telling them to make these sounds, and to what degree you want the performers to make choices. Being an improviser, I like the idea of [performers] making a lot of choices."

By the time he moved on to studies for a Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo in 2002, Redman was writing "just crazy scores--piano parts with eight individual voices but one piano.

"It got to the point where I thought, as a joke, it'd be funny to start superimposing notation," he recalls. "And so I ended up with these images of this superimposed notation, and I thought, Hey, that's not just funny, that could actually work musically."

The breakthrough that has fueled his work for the past six years came in two parts. First, superimposing or otherwise altering traditional notation allowed him to build the desired complexity into his scores in a new and interesting way. Second, he did away with the traditional composer's mandate that each piece must be played precisely as written down. "It's incredibly complex, but I put it in front of a musician and say, 'Just look at this and play it,'" he says of his recent work. "If you want to get in and chew on the rhythms and mess with the metronome, you can. But if you want to look at it and say, 'I'm going to look at particular densities rather than each individual note head,' you can."

Redman's insistence that there is no "wrong way" to play his work must come as a comfort to some players first confronting material such as Book, wherein Redman not only superimposes lines of notation, he scatters bits of it around the page or veers the staff line into looping circles. (One of Redman's scores was chosen as the cover image of Notations 21, a 2009 compendium of unconventional musical notation.) At the same time, he says, each page of Book, no matter how bizarre-looking, contains bits of the musical "genetic material" that unites the piece. Trumpeter Dave Ballou's meditative take on an excerpt of Book, accessible on Redman's MySpace page, illustrates that such unorthodox notation doesn't necessarily produce outré results either.

Redman has plans for more Compositions performances; he has a wealth of music to be played, after all. But his office work table contains an early draft of a new piece called Scroll that carries his non-systematic notation even further, mixing sections of free-floating notes with squiggly contour lines and a cluster of overlapping hand-drawn boxes. He can talk about the inspiration for the boxes but says he doesn't know what they "mean," much less have the faintest idea of how a potential performer should interpret them. As he says, "I want people to show me things about my music that I haven't figured out."

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