Tristan McKay

New York University

Into the Wilderness: A Semiotic Analysis of Notations in Will Redman’s Book (2006)

Book(2006) is a musical composition by Will Redman (b. 1975) that consists of 98 modular pages. Each page of Bookoffers the performer an encounter with a chaotic amalgamation of conventional and graphic notation elements—or to paraphrase the composer, an invitation into a wilderness of interpretive self- sufficiency. The precariousness of Book’s notational scheme is essential to its identity as an indeterminate work. Because Redman’s notations occupy the liminal space between conventional and graphic, this score explores the boundaries of order and disorder as they relate to the performer’s mode of reading, or framework for interpretation. Redman’s score incorporates a variety of notational forms, so the frameworks and corresponding guidelines for interpreting any given notation are left entirely to the discretion of the performer. Redman’s emphasis on ambiguity is not a hindrance, but an opportunity to extend the role of the performer to co-creator. Far from inviting indiscriminate participation, Redman’s notations require the performer to consciously and actively create.
Peircean semiotic theory grants access to the various modes of reading afforded to performers from the notations in Book. The iconic, indexical, and symbolic dimensions of Redman’s notations serve as the foundation for the delineation of semiotic processes such as qualic transitivity (Harkness 2013), which locates the cross-modal signification of qualities such as “softness” or “roundness,” and downshifting (Parmentier 1994), which references tendencies to reduce complex signification to simpler forms. Redman employs certain compositional tactics in Book such as the recontextualization of symbolic notations. Examples of this include superimposition and obscuration of complex symbolic notations, as well as extension of framing notations such as the staff; a prescient graphic element, staff lines break out of their usual five-line formation and afford opportunities for sounding. Semiotics theory allows for analysis of the concurrent frameworks that enable the performer to successfully navigate the wilderness of notations in Book.

Keywords: Graphic Notations, Semiotics, Will Redman.


Celebrated for his “dramatic” and “assertive” playing (New York Times), pianist and multimedia artist Tristan McKay’s performances explore an uncharted musical terrain. Mr. McKay engages with a diverse repertoire that includes seminal works by composers such as Morton Feldman, Charles Ives, and Michael Finnissy, as well as new works by composers such as Leah Asher, Mario Diaz de Leon, and Nathan Hall. Recent performances include an album release with TAK Ensemble and an evening of music for six-sided keyboard with Mark Mothersbaugh. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in Piano Performance at New York University’s Steinhardt School, his research uses semiotics to better understand how unconventional musical notations convey information to performers. Mr. McKay has previously received performance degrees from New York University (B.M.) and Manhattan School of Music (M.M. Contemporary Performance).