Soundpainting Composer – Conductor Crosspaths

Etienne Rolin composer, soundpainter, improvisor, pedagogue.Soundpainting is a sign language for multidisciplinary

real-time composition invented by American composer Walter Thompson. This language emerged from handful of signs in Woodstock N.Y. in 1974 and now contains 1500 signs.

 Crosspaths for the classical Conductor and the Soundpainter

Many and many performances and discussions about the Soundpainting phenomena lend to the emergence of a necessary reflection on the similarities and distinctions to be made between conducting and  soundpainting. On one hand many people ask me

« How is it possible to direct a group of improvisors or an ensemble with no score ? » There are musiciens  upon leaving the classical  and jazz concerts that ask for more spaces of freedom of expression.

Finally the debate could be resumes as such how does the individual Find his own sense of freedom of expression within a collective group. And subsidiary question : from what number do we need to call upon an orchestral leader who plays the role of external ear ?

As a preamble to this article lets us define the respective roles of the conductor and the soundpainter. The Conductor as with the choir director must bring to and guarantee the public of a faithful rendition of the score in question. His means stand upon an analysis and rehearsal of the inherent structures of the work to be performed. Considering the soundpainter, his rehearsals will be concerning the possibilities of game play emerging from this sign language for the performing arts. He allows himself at the moment of the performance an open espace with freedom to change or chose varying strategies of composition.

So in one case we have the precision and true reproduction of the musical text  in collaboration with the ensemble and in the other case

We have a sonic ceremony full of surprises and risk taking allowing room to invite « chance » to the party.

Nevertheless there are examples of twentieth century compositions where we can witness a convergence between chosen directions and chance results. The works of Boulez (Eclats) and Earle Brown come to mind as both composers use notated sequences that can be reordered by the chef at the moment of execution.

We can speak of open forms (one can reread Umberto Eco, «Opera Aperta ) that will give birth to a kind of open conduction. The human  body is naturally expressif but more so  in soundpainting it becomes a virtual score drawn in front of the ensemble. Thanks to a gesture « Shapeline », the soundpainter offers himself momentarily  as the show man with the ensemble’s reactions near to playing  a movie soundtrack .

In other circumstances, the soundpainter in « virtuoso » mode can call upon « Split body » and direct two halves of his group. This body split into two independent parts can be a challenge : having one group crescendo on the left and a decrescendo on the right ; tempo rallentando on the left and sharp attacks on the right  even double glissandi in contrary motion etc…

It often occurs that some soundpainters will choose to use a score with short sequences or Palettes which are determined in advance and rehearsed by the group. A rare but evocative example was Walter Thompson’s project Soundpainting Haydn project  where he took many sequences of the Cello concerto in C major. Upon listening, there was  an explosive encounter between two musical ways of thinking.  Almost as a child exploring a toy just broken, the soundpainter explores the elements of the musical construction.

This coming and going between composition and de-construction has become one of the challenges for today’s creative musicians.

Concerning the question of sound, it is relevant to both ensemble directors to shape the sound of the group to keep an equilibrium to ensure the clarity of the individual parts and  to

keep a coherent formal plan of the work. Philosophically speaking we should  the goals as well : the direction of the written score is a pre-determined space with predictable end point. Soundpainting  approached with an open mind invites all to a space of discovery since the soundpainter seeks to extract the richness of invention from his ensemble. In this new framework the question of finishing the work is replaced by the question how to prolong the interplay of the sonic adventure.

In the terms of a visual artist, the soundpainter works « al fresco » constantly modeling the sonic materials that are presented, emerging in the instant.

The analysis time for the soundpainter is in the moment equivalent  to a television operator making choices between three cameras pour a live broadcast of a sporting event.

By contrast the anlysis time for a classical conductor is infinite, since is interpretation of a work may undergo many changes over a period of time. Cognitively speaking both conductor and soundpainter are both called to extreme attention with  a slight plus on the soundpainter side : the latter is obliged to bring forth a form from the potentialities of his ensemble. He is in fact simultaneously conductor and composer and must keep  eye and ear  on the structural equilibrium of materials used as well as having good judgement when considering the proportions of the different sections of a work.

My rich encounters  with  Walter Thompson between  2007 et 2016 have shown me the complexity of the cognitif control of the soundpainter.  This is especially clear when performers make mistakes or the is a technical malfunctioning (lights off ! music stand falling etc.) How do we adapt to an apparent chaos keeping one ‘s calm by resorting to the language to find a way out of a crucial on-stage problem. Despite all appearances of great liberty in Soundpainting    the notion  of  improvisation is but (one sign out of  1200) should be replaced  the concept of real-time composition.

Somewhat similar to   phenomenologist, the soundpainter will question his experience with a critical consciousness adjusting in real-time the objects of his auditive perception. The comprehension of this sign language invites the spontaneous expression of the  imagination of the performersBut equally demands trigger actions that require a compositional modeling in real-time.

Creativity recreation inventiveness  to give shape and to breathe life to the traditional or virtuel score (graphique , gestural etc…) are the main common goals shared by both classical conductor and soundpainter.

To answer the very first thoughts of this article, we need group of open minded artists willing to look at sign language carefully to understand the invitation to simultaneously explore sound and form. Concerning the minimum number of performers that would need an external ear, that answer is not scientific but depends equally on the complexity and familiarity of the language. Ten performers without a chef playing Bach for the tenth time is feasible (it is still useful to have the harpsichord give some nods) but it is often not possible with Bartok or Boulez where moving time signatures make coherent rhythmic precision quite delicate.

Again where the conductor is primarily giving clear down beats and entrance cues in contemporary scores, the soundpainter is always opening playing spaces inviting a soloist or group  to develop the musical process at free will.  Acting on the intuition of the instant while always thriving on the richness of the risks, this sums up the soundpainter job. 

How does one become a soundpainter ? Each of us  must work on our body language and to move clearly as in a speech devoid of hesitation, stuttering or mumbling. He will start by signing in fron t of a mirror Then the apprentice must get up regularly in front of a group of friends students and ultimately professionals that may include other disciplines such as theater dance visual arts. Directing a live opera would be the most most complete form of cognitive control via soundpainting. One can also draw up palettes of traditional or graphic scores to rehearse form in one’s head and to find ways of connecting gestures that are esthetically pleasant to read and that of course give intersting results.  I have personally chosen to build a graphic system Erolgraphs putting the basic Soundpainting gestures into a time frame  that disciplines the body into a rhythmic way of signing.  The martial arts are a good example to follow when preparing the mental and physical preparation in the apprenticeship of soundpainting.

Although palettes are welcome and included  in the syntax of the language, Soundpainting seems to address the music directly, bypassing the written score. This language becomes a hands on process unhindered by the reading factor on the part of the performers. Indeed it would be a beautiful goal if soundpainting could turn all performers into total listeners –conscious of detail and form seemingly possessing a newly formed « third ear. »

This is where the cries for freedom of expression may be answered. Genuine Freedom is born from hard work clarity of though solid technique a curious mind  open to all music styles an esthetic  spirit  that makes connections between all the facets of our tradition and the changing technology of the present day. Then with a refreshed attitude one starts over even looking the classic repertoire with new eyes and ears.

Art as an never ending questioning of our fragile relation to the immaterial world of esthetic exchange and  interaction.

Etienne Rolin October 26, 2016