From the 13th to 17th of February, I took part in my last CoLab project as a part of my course at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. CoLab is a week- long collaboration between multi-disciplinary artists that results in a showing or performance of some sort.
The aim is to foster new working relationships, encourage creative growth and get people inspired to create new material.
This year I picked ‘Soundpainting’, a project which ran as a workshop on the language of Soundpainting. The official Soundpainting website has the following description:
Soundpainting is the multidisciplinary live composing sign language for Musicians, Actors, Dancers, and Visual Artists created in Woodstock, New York 1974 by Walter Thompson. Presently (2016) the language comprises more than 1500 gestures that are signed by the Soundpainter to indicate the type of material desired of the performers. The creation of the composition is realized through the parameters of each set of signed gestures.
Here are some more resources about Walter Thompson’s language and work if you are interested in learning more!
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Day 3
- Day 4
- Day 5
Our project took place in one of the Blackheath Halls Concert Rooms. On the first day, we started off with introductions to the rest of the Trinity Laban students and our mentors for the project. Our mentors were Benjamin (a certified Soundpainter from France), Gigi (a dance professor from Laban) and members of the London Soundpainting Orchestra: Will (clarinet), Zoe (dance), Typhaine (dance).
We had the following ‘materials’ all week, as well as supplements from the London Soundpainting Orchestra who dropped in and out of the workshop:
• 2 composers (they alternated between voice/electric piano/electric bass)
• Jazz trumpet
• Double bass
• 2-6 dancers (there were two dance students and four dance mentors/leaders)
Benjamin spent a long time on getting the group warmed up and comfortable. I realised later that this was integral to a Soundpainting Orchestra – the artists must feel as though there is nothing humiliating or ‘wrong’ that they could do within performance and that they can trust their colleagues to respond to symbols or even to not be judgemental. I found that by doing silly activities in the mornings, the artists were more likely to be creative and open to ideas later on in rehearsal.
In a circle, the group played communication games that were based on listening to audio clues and peripheral visibility. An example is clapping towards the person next to you and ‘passing’ the movement on. This kind of game can have added layers – we added a sound to the movement and then the possibility of going in the opposite direction.
After this exercise, we remained in a circle and used just our voices while Benjamin led us through basic Soundpainting language without any verbal explanation. He used his body to indicate what each sign meant and I was surprised at how instinctively the group responded to his signing.
Benjamin then split the symbols into four basic sections:
1. Who – performs
2. What – type of material
3. How – it is performed
4. When – to begin
Here is a list of the kinds of signs you find in the Who category:
• Whole group
• Rest of the group
• This group (shown in space)
• Group 1,2,3 (rhythm group)
• Material group (long-tone group)
• All instruments
• Woodwind/ brass/ percussion/ strings/ electro/singers
• Whoever wants to?
Benjamin showed us a diagram with some notes on the Soundpainting signs:
We discussed the parameters of each sign and exactly what it meant. For example, the volume sign for dancers would mean the ‘volume’ of movement (i.e. a low volume meant very little movement).
The total warm-up took over an hour, which I had never experienced before. I thought that it was highly effective since we were more prepared to ‘play’ and engage with each other afterwards.
We set up the orchestra in a semicircle so that we could all see the Soundpainter. Unfortunately, the piano at Blackheath was on a low stage that overlooked the semi-circle, so I was slightly above the rest of the musicians.
This did feel distancing in some ways, combined with the fact that I couldn’t play my instrument in any other space and was therefore very static unless I performed as a vocalist or used body percussion.
We spent about an hour and a half with Benjamin Soundpainting, trying different combinations of signs and adding new signs either during or outside of an improvisation. Some signs were very easy to grasp immediately without any explanation (e.g. scanning) and others needed to be talked about (e.g. storing memory).
Here is Tyrell, one of the dancers, showing the execution of a ‘hit’ sign (notice how he has ‘stepped into’ the imaginary box, meaning that his actions are in real time and not preparatory):
After Benjamin, Will (a clarinettist from the London Soundpainting Orchestra) and Ben (one of the TL composers) tried their own versions of Soundpainting. Once Ben had tried, we were encouraged by our mentor Benjamin to give critical feedback and to discuss what did and didn’t work. For example, he never fully ‘stepped’ into the imaginary Soundpainting box, just moved his torso backwards and forwards. We agreed as a group to be harsh when learning to Soundpaint and only carry out the Soundpainter’s instructions when they were being accurate.
At first I found it hard to wait and discern when exactly to carry out instructions – also I was confused when I was asked to continue an instruction and also add another layer (with the rest of the group). As a pianist, I found that the piano couldn’t carry out instructions as well as other non-decaying instruments. Long-tone notes or a crescendo on the same note were impossible, and therefore Benjamin told me I could either repeat the note or tremolo on it. The harpist had similar issues.
After lunch break, we went back into improvising and this time everyone in the group (both mentors and students) took it in turns to Soundpaint. Benjamin insisted on everyone taking a turn, if only to understand what the role of Soundpainter consists of. Gigi, our dance mentor, arrived and took part as a member of the orchestra.
When it was my turn to Soundpaint, I experienced the difficulty of layering a piece and having multiple options in front of me, not just one keyboard! I am experienced in improvising on the piano, but Soundpainting is improvising with a whole new variety of materials. I also forgot to step out of the box the first time and I used my feet too much as an indicator of tempo or character. The main point Benjamin had for me was to be clearer in my intent, which would then translate as a clearer instruction for the performers.
I watched the others and made note of the more successful people and their behaviour as well as their content and choices.
At the end of the day we sat in a circle again to speak about our first impressions;
• It was hard to develop and be free when we were told to do anything other than ‘improvise freely’
• We were more confident with a Soundpainter since they controlled the result and any self-doubts we had whilst playing could be pushed aside since we trusted that the painter would change anything that clashed too much or didn’t work
• The exercises at the beginning helped us to work in an unself-conscious way and get to know each other better, as did the chance to watch people’s personal creative style (for example, Dylan the trumpeter had a distinctly jazz style – always making use of solos and walking bass)
We agreed that on Day 2 we would spend more time exchanging the Soundpainter role and giving critical feedback on each piece in order to go over what each painter’s strong and weak points were.
I left feeling very inspired and interested in the possibilities of Soundpainting – Benjamin said we had learnt around 40 signs of a completely new language. It was interesting to note that our improvisations could not have been notated in any standard way, but they were also directed and ‘set’ enough so that it was obvious there was some kind of structure and guidance involved.
We’d started by learning the simplest signs, but as this video shows, there are hundreds of signs Walter Thompson has created that cover all kinds of performance instructions:
The next morning, our warm-up started by walking around the space. Typhaine added first one, then two balls into the room. The balls were thrown at people whose name was called out – this was a good exercise for eye contact and communication. Then the balls were taken out and we were told to gradually speed up as a group. Once we were running at the same pace, we were told to decrease speed in sync until we came to a standstill. This exercise was good for a group awareness of pulse (linking directly into the Soundpainting Tempo slider sign) and made us alert and expectant of change.
Benjamin and Typhaine explained how this concentrated but relaxed state of mind was best for Soundpainting improvisations. We could not be too tense during a 30 minute improvisation, but also had to be aware of what was happening and of all the signs being shown.
For the rest of the morning, we had a continuous improvisation session, where each Soundpainter had to leave content for the next by signing ‘Who wants to Soundpaint’? We discussed how some people immediately changed the content and the merits of putting it to memory if you didn’t like the content before making drastic changes. Because we didn’t feel as though we had to have concise pieces that made ‘sense’, a lot more juxtaposition came out. For example, at one point we had a hip hop dance style juxtaposed with a classical waltz on the piano. I felt a lot more humour and fun emerged with this style of Soundpainting since a sense of responsibility was absolved – if you took over from material that you didn’t set up, there wasn’t any pressure to make it any better or more successful than the previous Soundpainter. With this attitude, I felt that the group produced better work and felt more comfortable with letting go.
During the forum, we went over some of the issues that had arisen;
1. Signs for pointing Vs. scanning
- The signs for pointing and scanning kept getting mixed up. Benjamin explained that scanning the orchestra had to be done consecutively but pointing could be done by going directly to the performer you wanted to play, as Will demonstrates in this photo;
2. Layering material
- Who exactly was the Soundpainter addressing when he signed ‘other group’? Was it the people who had previously done nothing, or everyone apart from the people he had signed to continue?
- Benjamin ran through some examples to show how to ask one person to stop or continue in different scenarios, with the rest of the orchestra following different instructions
3. Peripheral vision – especially for dancers who were moving
- Benjamin solved this by running through a short exercise. He asked us all to remain where we were and look at the same painting on the wall. At the same time, he stood in the middle of the room and directed us as a vocal orchestra, with us using only our peripheral vision to follow him. We were better at this than we expected!
- Benjamin also advised us that we could move the dancers if they were in the way of eye contact with the rest of the orchestra. Here is Tyrell moving some dancers around the space using Soundpainting signs:
After our lunch break, some more performers from the London Soundpainting Orchestra joined us and we decided to workshop each person acting as the Soundpainter composing small finite pieces. Each person got 4 minutes with Typhaine giving us a warning sign so that we could develop our skills at being very precise and having clear goals in mind. Each time, we gave comments and Benjamin had us try out certain aspects that could have gone better or that were interesting enough to be developed further (e.g. one person re-tried layering techniques; another tried various entries and exits).
Later that afternoon, we were taught new signs for freezing moments and oscillating between two moments during a stab freeze. We played around with changes within the stab freeze such as semitone up or volume change.
Here is a clip of Benjamin using the stab freeze sign:
Before we left that evening, Benjamin explained the concept of a palette, which is pre-arranged content that the group already knows, and asked us to think of some ideas to work on the next day.
This morning, the warm-up was centered on rhythm work and peripheral vision. Once again, we all walked around the space and Benjamin asked us to sync our walking pace to one another. He told us that ‘Hit’ means double time and ‘Hop’ means half time. When he said ‘Feet’ or ‘Hands’ (walking or clapping) it meant normal paces and the combination ‘Hop Feet’ meant half time walking. We walked around trying to follow the instructions as a group in sync, which was a much easier exercise than some of the syncing ones of the first few days.
Typhaine then led a physical warm-up by having us rub our hands together and massaging our whole bodies. We were asked to then pair up (one musician and one dancer). The ‘leader’ has a pointer finger up which the other has to follow with their eyes alone. Then the other hand makes Soundpainting signs which have to be mimicked by the follower using peripheral vision. After a few minutes, travelling is incorporated as well as the use of different levels. I found it harder to follow than to lead since the coordinated movements are unexpected and a lot of concentration is needed!
Here are a few photos from the physical warm-up:
After our warm-up, we decided to try out the palettes that Will (violin) and Rotem (composer) had come up with.
• Delicate glissandi
• A rhythmic melodic pattern in two different keys (played simultaneously by harp and piano)
• ‘What should we do with a drunken sailor’ folk tune
We workshopped both Soundpainters to see what did and didn’t work with palettes. Will especially saw that using a song could be helpful in layering material and Rotem noticed that the melodic pattern could be warped and looped until it was unrecognisable.
After lunch, the dancers and musicians split up to work on individual content. The dancers worked on palettes and the musicians took turns to lead improvisations with a specific focus on minimalism (or looping).
When the dancers came back we tried notating other Soundpainter’s works with our backs turned. The Soundpainters had to make short pieces that used very simple and straightforward signs. The person notating then had to recreate the piece using the signs they had notated. Some were vastly more successful than others. When it was my turn to Soundpaint, a dancer tried to notate it and she said that she thought hers was inaccurate because she paid more attention to the dance elements and missed a lot of the second half which had a lot of signs relating to the musicians.
It was interesting to see that although some people managed to sign exactly the same signs, the content was different because a ‘long tone’ instruction does not specify the pitch or precise movement (for dancers). It was also interesting that many people chose to use the same content as before so that the pieces would sound and look the same, and not merely share the same structural foundation. This is an example of what the person notating could have seen standing behind the Soundpainter:
Our physical warm-up today started by contracting to the floor and then slowly unfurling from the spine. We then patted down our muscles before walking round the room once more, trying to get in sync. Typhaine asked us to remain in sync whilst we slowed down to a standstill.
Typhaine asked us to choose two people secretly and to try and keep an equal distance between them (and equilateral triangle). It took a while for people to be satisfied with their personal triangles and we ended up fighting for different positions for a few minutes. Once everyone had stopped moving, Typhaine then instructed us to secretly pick one of those two and stay as close to them as possible whilst staying as far from the other person as possible. This also produced a panic, as people were trying to follow both instructions at the same time.
After the warm-up, Benjamin had us stand in a circle and we recapped signs in each category (Who’s, When’s, etc.). Most of the group decided that we wanted to start the Soundpainting with a continuous improvisation, with each painter leaving material for the next to work with.
We followed the improvisation with an honest discussion about what needed more work, both individually and as a group. Everyone agreed that now we were much more homogenous as a group and comfortable with the signs and each other, we should focus more on the content and resulting material in the afternoon. From a Soundpainter’s point of view, the main questions should be: is this material relevant/necessary? Does it make sense as whole? Improvisers also have the responsibility of these questions but in the sense that they should choose their content wisely.
In the afternoon we had the chance to make short 2 minute pieces that had a strong sense of unity and purpose behind them. Benjamin would then make suggestions for repeating an idea or working on an issue that arose. I based my piece on air/wind sounds and had a narrator interacting with the dancers. Benjamin told me that it went well over the time restriction and I ended up doing two more very quick, concise pieces using block composition and different techniques. He set me the challenge of having eight contrasting sections with at least one moment of silence in the middle. I found this quite liberating, since I didn’t have to worry about the product, just try to make each section vastly different and creative. I realised that the pieces I made did not necessarily need structure and planning – they were often very successful and interesting without any specific goals in mind.
Towards the end of the day, members of the London Soundpainting Orchestra joined us again and we had a lot more textures and timbres to play around with. That evening the Orchestra put on a performance and it was great to be on the other side, watching and taking everything in. It was a more relaxed experience of Soundpainting since I could focus on the performance rather than the instructions and my own actions. At the end, Benjamin involved the audience and I loved taking part in that way too – as a performer with no obligations or pressures.
On the last day of CoLab, the group agreed that it would be better to meet at 5pm at Laban (where the sharing was) instead of going to Blackheath in the morning and travelling later. This would be easier on people who lived further away and allow us more time to relax and have fresh ideas that evening. Sometimes the intense concentration required for Soundpainting means that later on in the workshops new material is hard to generate.
There were two half-hour performance slots at Laban which the audience could drift in and out of. We arranged for the first show to be continuous improvisation with changing Soundpainters and for the second to be a few short pieces ending in one continuous one.
An hour before the first performance the group did a warm-up and vocal rehearsal, since we were allocated a room without our instruments. Benjamin, Will (clarinet) and Typhaine each led the group and we finished with clapping. Everyone was feeling positive and good so there were extended clapping techniques with plenty of humorous moments that got everyone in the mood to be creative. By the time we got back to the Theatre Studio, we were all in a playful, open state of mind.
There was no piano in the Theatre Studio, so me and Rotem had an electric piano each. This was a little jarring for me at first since there were different settings but no opportunities for the extended techniques I had been using all week. It was also harder to control the dynamics when playing with both hands and to give different characters to my material.
At the end of both performances, Benjamin took over the Soundpainting and did a few minutes of audience participation; some people were more receptive than others. He inserted a few moments that acted as comic relief, such as when the audience had to sing a note which half of them did not do, and Benjamin had us respond with laughter. I thought it was an excellent idea to finish with the audience taking part since they could actively engage in the signs and processes they had been watching for half an hour. It also connected everyone in the room since Benjamin effectively tore down the fourth wall and the barriers between performers and audience.
Here are some video excerpts of the final performances at Laban:
My CoLab experience this final year at Trinity Laban has been very rewarding and informative. I felt as though the whole group was immersed in the project and willing to have fun with Soundpainting. There was a great sense of possibility and I felt as though the project personally fostered a new interest in the subject.