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The Scarlet & Black

Artist Walter Thompson brings soundpainting to campus

Photo by Sofia Mendez

Teresa Fleming

Over the past few weeks, Grinnell students from a broad range of disciplines have developed their fluency in Soundpainting, a system of gestures devised by visiting artist Walter Thompson. Thompson drew on his experience as a composer to create a system of signs that would allow him to direct more improvisational pieces.

“I was conducting and we came to the point where a musician was supposed to improvise,” Thompson said. “The musician is supposed to connect their improvisation to the rest of the piece but they didn’t do that at all. So what was I going to do? … I gestured at the rest of the group to play a long, low note. And it worked!”

From that moment of improvisation, Thompson developed a system of gestures designed to guide musical groups through improvised performances by signaling pitch, tone, and duration of sound. His performances seek a middle point between pure improvisation and controlled conducting, creating pieces that represent a combined collaborative effort by Thompson and the various musical groups he works with.

But Soundpainting isn’t limited to musical groups. Thompson also believes his method can be used to guide improvised dance and even theatrical performances, where movements are guided by Thompson’s gestures. Nor is the movement limited to Thompson himself. Though he initially copyrighted the language, it is now available for all and has been used by a variety of international composers.

“It’s kind of like life, in that way. You try to make a plan, but things fall apart, you can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Thompson said. “So you need to improvise, to come up with new systems. That’s what it’s all about.”

Thompson will perform with the Grinnell Jazz Ensemble and Dance Ensemble/ACTivate on Friday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis.

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