Painting with Sounds

Walter Thompson demonstrating soundpainting

Soundpainting is a live composing sign language created by New York composer Walter Thompson for artists working with improvisation. Currently, the language comprises more than 800 gestures.

On Feb. 15, Walter Thompson was invited by the Idyllwild Arts Academy to introduce soundpainting language to its students and faculty. Students were given the day off from their regular classes so that they could attend and participate in the daylong workshop.

In the 1970s, soundpainting was developed by Walter as a way of communicating with musicians during a performance without having to shout above the music. During his first attempt, Walter was not understood by the musicians in his orchestra, but they liked the concept and encouraged him to develop even more gestures. Over the next 33 years, Walter has developed soundpainting to include gestures not only for musicians, but also actors, dancers, writers, poets and visual artists.

Using the soundpainting language, an entire concert, dance or theater work, film score, or educational presentation can be created spontaneously.

During that Monday, Walter divided the Idyllwild Arts students into two large groups of about 100 students. One group worked with Walter onstage at the Bowman Theater, while the others watched the “performance” as it evolved.

To start, Walter introduced a few gestures, including those that would start the composition, increase its volume, increase its intensity, change tempo and, of course, stop.

For their part, each student performed a task based on their major of study. For example, actors would shout words, musicians would play a certain note on their instruments, while dancers would move their bodies, but not speak.

For those in the audience, it looked like organized chaos. Standing at the front, Walter would make soundpainting gestures, and move his arms across the group like a wand. At the moment his “wand” would pass in front of a certain section of students, all of them would perform their sound or gesture and stop. The sounding and stopping would happen in a matter of a few seconds.

“Some people have compared a soundpainting composition to a hard-edged flipping of TV channels,” Walter explained. To others, it looked like the “wave” cheer seen at many college football games, in which all the fans in the same section would stand together and “wave” or cheer to show their support.

To keep things interesting throughout the day Monday, Walter would change the words or gestures. Sometimes, he would only ask for air sounds.

“Now heckle me,” Walter instructed.  “Say anything you want, as long as you don’t swear or use profanity.”

“You can say, ‘Go home, Walter, you don’t know what you’re doing!’” he offered as an example.

Then, he gestured the “start” sign, and the students all heckled him at once. Then, he stopped and encouraged them to heckle him in a much louder voice–a theater voice–that could be heard at the back of the room at Bowman.

Most of the heckling was a jumble of noises, but one student’s “I hate you!” filtered through the din. Later, Walter said that he couldn’t hear any specific words or phrases during that heckling exercise. He was trying to encourage the more shy students to open up and experience the full composition.

At times, he invited various students and teachers to take over his conductor role, including Denise Boughey, Interdisciplinary Arts Chair, Bonnie Carpenter, Theater Department, and students Saehoon “Kevin” Jang, Visual Arts and Luna Enriquez, Interdisciplinary Arts.

“Luna did a great job, even though she was shy and didn’t want to get up in front of everyone,” Walter said. “But you could tell that she was paying attention and understood what we were trying to accomplish.”

Walter admitted that he asked Bonnie to compose a soundpainting piece was inherently difficult, but she did a great job considering the parameters.

The soundpainting workshop lasted until 5 p.m., and by the end of the day, Walter’s voice was rather hoarse from talking, and the students were eager to get out and enjoy the nice weather. Most of them said that they liked the soundpainting workshop, but thought it lasted too long.

“It could have been covered in a couple of hours,” many students said later.

For his part, Walter said the large number of students that he had to work with at the same time was a challenge.  During his other workshops, Walter said that he generally worked with 20-30 people. They’d work together for a week, and then have a performance at the end.

Walter was also surprised that more of the Idyllwild Arts music students didn’t bring their instruments to the workshop. During the afternoon session, there were only a few basses, a trombone and trumpet onstage.

“The students would have gotten a lot more out of the live composition if there had been more instruments,” Walter said. He hoped that the Idyllwild Arts students would be able to use what they learned from soundpainting in future multidisciplinary projects.

He said that the soundpainting term came from his brother, a musician. He thought of copyrighting it, but then decided against it.

“I don’t want people calling me up to ask me if I they can use soundpainting,” he said. “It’s a language, and people should feel free to speak it and use it whenever they want.”

However, Walter hopes that those who wish to teach soundpainting become certified with materials that he’s developed, and are available on his web site,

Oftentimes, Walter hears about instructors who are teaching his method incorrectly.

“It’s a language, and they’re specific gestures that mean certain things. It’s like a Swedish teacher giving you the wrong word for ‘boat,’ for example. he said. “You don’t want to go around using the wrong word for boat, do you?”

To remedy this, Walter will e-mail the instructor and offer his assistance, including the materials available on his web site.

“I don’t want to police people, it’s not what I’m about,” he added. “Most of those instructors who were teaching soundpainting incorrectly were receptive and happy that I told them about the materials.”

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