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Abstract scores combine graphics, music

It takes a little time to unroll "Scroll," a composition by Baltimore composer Will Redman, since it's on paper that measures 8 feet long, 8 inches wide. It takes even longer to digest.

Although there are four distinct lines of music on the elongated page, indicating at least four players, there's no specification of instruments.

So how do you perform such a piece? Ask Redman and he'll just say: "That's up to you."

There are no clefs, so playing treble or bass notes is also up to you. Except there aren't too many recognizable notes.

The top part of the page, for example, starts with a few inches of a curvy line, like a stock market graph on a volatile trading day; bursts of dots and perpendicular or parallel lines pop up part-way through. Other surprises await anywhere you look on the long page, including drawings of rectangles and squares, intersected with other lines and shapes.

And "Scroll" is just one example of Redman's intricate graphic scores. Some of his pieces are filled with graceful circular lines that weave in and out of snippets of traditional notation, which appear, like islands, on the page. Some contain hardly any markings, maybe just a few straight lines or a scattering of doodles.

Even in a piece that begins with something conventional-looking, exotic graphic formations are apt to follow. On some scores, chords have so many notes piled on that the result is closer to an ink blot.

Redman's music has been gradually attracting attention. One of his most vibrant-looking works was chosen for the cover of "Notations 21," a 2009 compilation of graphic scores, a sequel to a similar book 40 years earlier by iconic maverick composer John Cage. Last month, NewMusicBox, the American Music Center's award-winning e-zine, carried a feature on Redman.

And last season, Mobtown Modern, Baltimore's edgiest new music ensemble, presented a performance at the Windup Space of Redman's "Book," a collection of 98 visually arresting scores that are as fascinating to look at as they are challenging to interpret.

"Book" was Redman's doctoral dissertation at the State University of New York at Buffalo — "a place where they never say, 'You can't do that,'" the composer said.

"I was always fascinated with the way music looks, whether it's a Beethoven symphony or [an Iannis] Xenakis score," Redman, 35, said. "I was always very serious about visual composition. When I realized other composers did so-called graphic scores, I thought, 'Oh, cool; I can do even crazier stuff.'"

The pages in "Book" aren't numbered ("Shuffled is how it is supposed to go," the composer said). And there is "no linear evolution" from piece to piece; each stands alone. But there is some shared DNA, so to speak; the composer, using tracing paper, transferred the outline of certain melodic contours from score to score.

"It was an arts and crafts project — lots of white-out, glue sticks and pigment pens," Redman said. "And a lot of cut-and-paste with a Xerox machine. I would sometimes drop things on the page, and the notes might land upside down." Upside down they would stay.

Some of the most visually striking scores reflect the cutting and pasting in a big way, with triangular white spaces jutting into the music.

"In the digital age, Will is still analog," said Mobtown Modern curator and co-founder Brian Sacawa. "A lot of composers use software to get the graphics. Will's music is completely hand-done. It takes an immense amount of time to draw that on paper. That adds a lot of character to his scores. They are beautiful works of art."

Part of the beauty is the liberating element of these scores.

"One instructor told me I was being 'oppressive' because I didn't give specific instructions, withholding information that the musicians need," Redman said. "Musicians do have tons of questions, which I try very hard not to answer. I may give some suggestions, but I encourage everyone to ignore me and come up with their own answers."

That's one of the things Sacawa admires most about Redman.

"There is no ego in what Will does," Sacawa said. "Nowadays, a lot of people get caught up with trying to promote themselves. That can get in the way of the quality, the craft, the journey to explore. Will is all about the exploration."

With a bucket hat pulled down tight on his head and a Natty Boh in one hand, the soft-spoken Redman talked about that journey the other day in the Gardenville home he shares with his wife, 3-year-old daughter and a remarkably affectionate cat.

"Hip-hop was the first thing I loved," Redman said. "In kindergarten I was rapping [The Sugarhill Gang's] 'Rapper's Delight.' When I was a 10-year-old, I was into break-dancing, walking around with a boombox in Arbutus, where I grew up. That experience has carried me all through my life."

Redman went on to develop a keen interest in such things as sample albums, "especially the pre-litigation ones, before artists were being sued," he said. "I was always attracted to the fringe, like Dead Kennedys. The first time I realized that noise could be music was when I heard Slayer — all those atonal, squalling-feedback guitar solos."

The composer also developed an interest outside of music early on.

"In high school, I was really into drawing," he said. "I stopped when high school stopped."

By that point, the drums had become Redman's main focus. In the late 1990s, he played in bands around town, including what he described as "an illegal storefront punk-rock venue" near where he currently lives.

He went to University of Maryland, Baltimore County to study percussion with notable composer and percussionist Stuart Saunders Smith, who encouraged his student to listen to recordings of jazz pioneer John Coltrane and pathbreaking 20th-century classical composer Luciano Berio.

"I didn't know anything about avant-garde music or free jazz," Redman said. "I decided I needed to do both things. I thought of free jazz as sort of like the punk-rock of jazz."

After UMBC, Redman went to the University of Southampton in England for his master's degree in composition, studying with Michael Finnissy, who is known for writing extremely complex music. By the time he earned his doctorate in Buffalo, Redman had retooled his youthful drawing talents for use in creating music.

He moved back to Baltimore in 2007. He teaches rock history part time at Towson University and plays percussion in a cutting-edge band called Microkingdom, but his primary focus remains the creation of his challenging graphic scores.

A player confronted with a squiggly line on the page of a Redman work is invited to consider what squiggly sounds his or her instrument can make. Long straight lines on the page may be thought of as an indication of pitch, dynamics or tempo.

As for the scores with the graceful, intricate swirls, anything goes. Redman was impressed with how an accordionist once translated the curves into instructions on when to pump the bellows.

Can't figure out how to play a piece looking at it in a horizontal way? "Turn it on its side and do something vertical with it," Redman said. And those impossibly thick chord clusters? "I've suggested that people learn it the best way they can, find the pitches they can see and ignore the rest," Redman said.

This is not to say that performers can approach these scores lightly.

"It sounds weird, but you have to practice that kind of music," Sacawa said. "The execution of it takes a lot of care. You can't be bound by convention, and you have to be a very attentive listener. It really comes to life as a result of really creative people playing it."

Even after rehearsals, performances will likely contain elements of improvisation.

"If you perform it twice and it's the same, that's awesome. If it's different, that's awesome, too," Redman said. "You may not be comfortable with the music. But comfortable is boring."

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