Who here loves to improvise? If you do, how do you proceed?
Some people visualize improvisation as something very spiritual. Others like to see it as something very technical, where each note must respects the ones before and after it in order to create harmonious progressions. Well, if you are very well versed in the musical arts, improvising becomes more intellectual than, let’s say, if you’re just aware of how a couple of scales work and you know how to doodle around with simple melodies. For the soloist, and especially the amateur, it often has more to do with pushing his musical skill to the limits (often leading to showing off, even to thy self – we are all ego monsters to some extent) than with truely creating coherent melodic lines.
When one thinks of improvisation, one thinks of Jazz. But one must also be aware that the art of the impro originated a while back, like twelve hundred years back. That’s right, in the early stages of the Medieval ages, when polyphony finally started to arise; singers were instructed to add an additional improvised melodic element to the liturgical chant in a style called organum. It is in these most ignorant times, the dark ages of human kind, that it all started. Later, during the Baroque (1600-1750), the classical (1750-1830), and the romantic periods (1830-1900), improvisation thrived engaging music on a whole new playing field. All the greats such as Bach, Mozart, Litz, Chopin, Beethoven, Paganini etc excelled in this free-form discipline, called ‘extemporisation’ at the time.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Dixieland Jazz gave it a whole new meaning as it symbolized one of the rare traits of freedom the black communities had over the whites, surpassing in very personalized ways their musical abilities. Now impro is very present in all musical spheres, driven by the many Jazz trends that embraced and defined it.
Anyways this post wasn’t meant to recap the history of improvisation more than it was to introduce its very first orchestrated body language. This language is called Sound Painting and was created by a certain Walter Thompson during the seventies to finally become an official musical discipline by the late-eighties. The story behind its elaboration is very interesting, and feeling I won’t be able to explain it in better terms than the man himself, here are extracts from Thompson’s website recounting how it all happened:
Woodstock in the 1970s was a very exciting time for music. The Creative Music School (CMS), founded by Karl Berger, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman, was going strong. Great composers and performers such as John Cage, Ed Blackwell, Carlos Santana, Don Cherry, Anthony Braxton, and Carla Bley gave 2-week workshop/performances with the students. The CMS was closed during the summers, but many of the students remained in Woodstock. Thompson organized jam sessions with these students. Out of these sessions Thompson formed his first orchestra and produced a series of concerts at the Woodstock Kleinert Gallery. The focus of the orchestra was on large-group, jazz-based improvisation. It was during these early days that Thompson began experimenting with signing improvisation. He created very basic gestures, asking for a long tone or improvisation.
Thompson moved to New York City in 1980 and formed The Walter Thompson Big Band (now The Walter Thompson Orchestra) in 1984. During the first year with his orchestra, while conducting a performance in Brooklyn, New York, Thompson needed to communicate with the orchestra in the middle of one of his compositions. They were performing a section of improvisation where trumpet 2 was soloing. During the solo Thompson wanted to have one of the other trumpet players create a background. Not wanting to emulate bandleaders who would yell or speak out loud to their orchestra, Thompson decided to use some of the signs he had experimented with during his Woodstock days. In the moment he made up these signs: Trumpet 1, Background, With, 2-Measure, Feel; Watch Me, 4 Beats. He tried it and there was no response! But in the next rehearsal, members of his orchestra asked what the signing was about – and he told them. The orchestra members thought it was a very interesting direction and encouraged Thompson to continue to develop the language further. During the next 10 years, Thompson developed Soundpainting into a comprehensive sign language for creating live composition from structured, jazz-based improvisation. In the early 1990s Thompson expanded the Soundpainting language to include gestures specific to actors, dancers, poets, and visual artists.
To date, Soundpainting comprises more than 800 gestures and is being used by many professional performers and educators worldwide.
Now Soundpainting is taught and exercised all over the world. If you are interested in learning these specific signs you can do so by buying Thompson’s educational book. A friend of mine recently bought it and learned some signs. He organized a session with 30 friends, most of whom aren’t musicians, asked them to all bring an instrument and instructed them the basics of the soundpainter’s code (because this code can be easily taught to others for rudimentary improvisation). Unfortunately I couldn’t make it but feedback was incredible. Everyone had a blast and my friend is perfecting his skills to reenact the experience.
Mruff to all the Soundpainters out there!
Here’s a performance conducted by Thompson with some musicians and painters. Sorry for those who don’t speak french but this vid gives you a pretty good idea of how it works.
To see another extremely cool Soundpainting video with proefessional musicians, click here. Unfortunately I couldn’t embed it.
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