Fingerpainting is Ober-rated; Soundpainting is Much Better
Last week, Oberlin Conservatory brought in New York-based composer Walter Thompson for a guest residency. Thompson is known for inventing a technique called “Soundpainting” that can be used to generate works in music, dance, theater and the visual arts.
“Soundpainting is a composing language using structured improvisation as the medium,” Thompson explained to a group of composition students last Thursday. “It’s live composing. It’s like life.”
The composing language Thompson was referring to is a collection of over 750 hand gestures that a “live composer” can use to extract sounds, motions and almost anything else imaginable from a group of performers. The language has evolved and grown over its 30 years of existence, even developing its own syntax. People all over the world now use it.
Thompson’s residency included multiple presentations on Soundpainting, a master class in which he worked closely with select composition majors, and a piece on last Friday’s Contemporary Music Ensemble concert.
The culminating event, though, was an all-Soundpainting concert on Saturday night performed by the New Music Workshop Ensemble under Thompson’s leadership.
Thompson was drawn to Soundpainting because of the vast array of options it gave him as a composer. It also liberated him from the fear of making mistakes. Perhaps most important to him was the focus it provided for the group, not the individual.
“I’m not being self indulgent,” he said. “I’m not interested in that as an artist. I’m interested in community.”
In his presentations, Thompson taught students some of the fundamental gestures of his language. He also spoke about the distinctions between composition and improvisation. For Thompson, composition is a broad category of which improvisation is a subcategory. He sees improvisation as composition in real time, and takes offense when his works are called improvisations, not compositions.
An important theme he kept stressing was the importance of interdisciplinary work, the blending of aural, visual and dramatic elements into an all-encompassing, cohesive whole. Thompson sees this as an increasingly prominent trend in contemporary music and in this way he is able to see himself in the context of the broader history of music.
The three student composers featured in the master class, seniors Eric Brook, Aaron Judd and Tatyana Tenenbaum, all utilized interdisciplinary elements in the pieces they presented, and this became the focus of Thompson’s comments.
The Soundpainting concert on Saturday also had interdisciplinary elements, incorporating movement, storytelling and acting, as well as more normal music-making.
The result were varied. It was at times light-hearted, at times serious, at
times incredibly abstract and at times conventional. This mix, of course, was
exactly what Thompson was looking for with his turn to Soundpainting, but in
spite of his hopes to create coherent pieces, his music was sometimes hard to
follow. When working with a palette of 750 gestures, it can be easy to go
overboard, even for someone with 30 years’ experience in live composing.