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Billy Martin’s Graphic Scores: Redefining Notated Music

A picture is worth a thousand notes

Billy Martin
Billy Martin's graphic score for a piece performed by Annie Gosfield
Billy Martin's graphic score for a piece performed by Anthony Coleman
Billy Martin's graphic score for a piece performed by Bill Frisell
Billy Martin's graphic score for a piece performed by John Zorn

As a drummer, Medeski Martin & Wood’s Billy Martin has a lot to offer: funk, Latin, swing. But the 52-year-old New York native has just as much to give as a visual artist. His drawings are full of eyes, creatures, cones and celestial scenes; his pieces are abstract and spontaneous, hinting at comprehensible forms but rarely recreating them. But now you can hear Martin’s visual art. On a recent engrossing album, Wandering (Amulet), the drummer presents graphic scores-images meant to be played as if they were traditional music charts. And during a three-day run at the Drawing Center in Manhattan in July, Martin coordinated live performances of these pieces, by a cast including saxophonist John Zorn and keyboardist John Medeski. For this area of Billy Martin’s creative world, an old saying gets a tweak: A picture is worth a thousand notes.

Though Martin has drawn all his life-he is responsible for Medeski Martin & Wood’s marvelously strange logo, for instance-and pianist Anthony Coleman performed one of the visual charts in 2013, Wandering, which has a companion book, and the Drawing Center shows are the public premiere of Martin’s graphic score endeavor. Inspired by the ancient vodou symbols known as veves, the drummer’s graphic scores came into view only recently, and the project progressed with Martin’s performing itinerary. “I got deeper into it traveling with Medeski Martin & Wood on the road,” he says, seated at a Vietnamese restaurant near his home in New Jersey. “I would be on a tour bus, and it’s awfully boring to be touring through the United States in general, so I would just slip into a library and take over a table and draw on pads.”

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