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Crosspaths for the classical Conductor and the Soundpainter
With an approach to live composition and improvisation
Etienne Rolin composer soundpainter improvisor pedagogue
Many and many performances and discussions about the growing Soundpainting phenomena lead me 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 when leaving the and jazz and improvised conduction concerts that ask for more space for 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 or size of the ensemble do we need to call an orchestral leader playing the role of external ear making decisions for the group?
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 rest on an analysis and rehearsal of the inherent structures of the work to be performed. Considering the soundpainter, his rehearsals will be more concerned with 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 space with freedom to change or choose varying strategies of composition.
So in one case we have the precision and true reproduction of the musical text in collaboration with the ensemble. In the other case we have a sonic ceremony full of surprises and risk, 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 (Available Forms) 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 (I recommend Umberto Eco, «Opera Aperta ) that will give birth to a kind of open conduction. The human body is naturally expressive but more so in soundpainting since the arms hands and eyes become a virtual score drawn in front of the ensemble. Thanks to a gesture « Shapeline », the soundpainter offers himself momentarily as a dancing show man with the ensemble reacting as in a free interpretation of a silent movie.
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 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 and proceeds in an interplay of construction deconstruction reassembling the parts to form a new sonic object..
This coming and going between construction 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 consider the divergent goals as well : the direction of the written score is a pre-determined space with predictable end point. Soundpainting when approached with an open mind invites all to a space of discovery whereby 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.
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 performers, while demanding triggered actions that require a compositional modeling in real-time.
Taking an analogy from the visual arts, 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 and equivalent to a television operator making choices between three cameras for the live broadcast of a sporting event.
By contrast, the analysis time for a classical conductor is infinite, since is interpretation of a work may undergo many changes over a period of years. Cognitively speaking, both conductor and soundpainter are called to extreme attention to small details with enormous quantities of information to process.I would add a slight plus on the soundpainter side : the latter is obliged to bring forth a form from the potentialities of his ensemble. He is therefore 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. Even in the absence of a score and signing a creative orchestra making individual choices, the conductor is entitled to call himself the composer of this specific event.
My rich encounters with Walter Thompson between 2007 et 2017 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 ! stands falling etc.) How do adapt to an apparent chaos keeping one‘s calm is achieved by resorting to the language. The richness of this language allows us to find a way out of a crucial on-stage problem. Despite all appearances of great liberty in Soundpainting, the notion of improvisation (one sign out of 1500) should be replaced the concept of real-time composition.
Creativity recreation inventiveness giving shape and breathing life to the traditional or virtuel score (graphique , gestural etc…) are the foremost 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 playing Bach without a chef for the tenth time is feasible (the harpsichordist giving some nods is still useful) but it is often not possible with Berio 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 on collective free will. Acting on the intuition of the instant while always thriving on the richness of the risks, this sums up the soundpainters’ job.
How does one become a soundpainter ?
Consider the fact that many great composers took up the baton to direct their own compositions : Boulez,Maderna, Berio, Stockhausen, Earle Brown, John Adams etc… The aspiring combustion student must not only come to grips with conquering his own language and notational choices
but must be able to explain analytically and gesturally his acoustic world to performers and public. A new musical language implies it seems new gestural codes beyond the traditional beating patterns
Therefore to become a soundpainter we must work on our body language and to move clearly as in a speech devoid of hesitation, stuttering or mumbling. We start by signing in front of a mirror to control the image of oneself projected to his group; then the apprentice must get up regularly in front of a group of friends students and ultimately professionnels that may include other disciplines such as theater dance visual arts. The first steps are to build confidence between sound painter and performers giving all a clear vision of what is about to happen and where the phrase is going. We indicate a simple gesture long tone high register pianissimo then a go gesture ; we listen to the resultant chord/texture and modify if necessary the pitch the intensity or even keep thing as they are and calling this moment Memory 1.
We now have a reference point to come back to as a distant recall of thematic composition. Bartok claimed that any chord/aggragat if repeated often enough could be considered a tonic!
Directing a live opera would be the most complete form of cognitive control via Soundpainintg. In my own experience directing a multi-media performance (Cavern 3D) I was able to direct a chamber group with 9 voice choir singer actor live electronics and video artist all responding to Soundpainntg. With the video projection I could « cut in » create zooms and with a live camera I could direct the focus angle zoom transpose what was filmed in the moment (myself) onto the screen.
We 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 interesting 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. Tringles squares and circles containing graphic pictograms help the construction of new phrases and also allows improvisors to think about quick strategy changes within the dynamic interplay of improvisation.
I can highly recommend the practice of the martial arts and basic dance technique when preparing the mental and physical preparation in the apprenticeship of Soundpainting. Both sides of the body should be of equal expressivity.
Although palettes (pre-written fragments) are welcome and included in the syntax of the language, Soundpainting mainly addresses 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 utopian goal if Soundpainintg could transform all performers into total listeners, those who are simultaneously conscious of detail and form, as if strangely possessing a newly formed « third ear. »
This is where the questions of freedom of expression may be answered. In my mind, 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.
We can look at the Art function as a never ending questioning of our fragile relation to the immaterial world of esthetic exchange and interaction.
Bordeaux, january 2018
Caverne 3D opéra multi-media N.A.S.A.
composition / direction E.Rolin.
Farben Schöpfung, La création Colorée
Musée d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux Janvier 2013
Aquitaine composition / direction E. Rolin
https://vimeo.com/58384578 pass word : rolin