This week I discovered Soundpainting.
On Monday my friend Eric Eigner’s band, Mysterium, played at Spike Hill in Williamsburg. It was a late show and the bar folk were low key. People sipped cocktails at tables or hung out in the back, maintaining a respectful distance from the stage and the video tripod in the middle of the room—which is why I thought it strange that this one guy—stocky and bearded, in a nondescript t-shirt—was hanging out merely inches from the stage. I had overheard Eric’s roommate, Bruce, trying to explain the band to some perplexed and increasingly defensive man at the bar earlier. “Soundpainting,” Bruce called it, murmuring something about improv and jazz. I hadn’t been able to catch much, and besides, the body language was far more interesting. The guy clearly thought that Bruce, a classically trained and therefore very academic guitarist (and I should mention, one of the more generally respectful people around), was somehow patronizing him. “I’m a musician too,” the man had huffed, turning back to his beer.
When the music started, Bruce and I joined Eric’s girlfriend Aparna in the back of the room, and the guy at the front of the stage began moving intently—taking large steps forward and back, nodding his head, waving his arms and making half circles over his head. Roughly thirty seconds in, I realized that the musicians were watching the guy’s every move, even sometimes nodding back before picking up their instruments. I whispered to Aparna in amazement, “They don’t know what they’re going to play before he tells them, do they?”
“It’s crazy, right?” she said. “After I saw Eric play for the first time, the first thing I asked was, ‘what if you don’t want to do what he says?’”
Apparently, there’s a sign for ‘Fuck Off’ and another one for ‘You’re Killing Me,’ so I guess that takes care of any problems that may arise. The guy, also known as Evan Mazunik, is using a series of commonly understood signs to compose songs on the spot, communicating with the musicians as to when and how to jump in. That’s because Evan is a Soundpainter.
Soundpainting was started in the mid-70’s by the avante-garde composer Walter Thompson, who formed an orchestra with a group of Creative Music School (famous for birthing Worldjazz) students who had decided to hang around over summer break. He didn’t want to yell over the instruments, so he developed gestures for certain tones and execution. In the 80’s Thompson moved to New York and, in 1984, formed what is now the Walter Thompson Orchestra. During the next decade, Walter Thompson and his orchestra developed a comprehensive sign language for creating live composition from jazz-based improv. By the 90’s the language was expanded to include directions for actors, dancers, poets and visual artists, today comprising about 800 signs. Theoretically, any musician who knows the language can play with any other musician who knows the language, sans prior notice or practice. Conversly, any Soundpainter can direct any group of similarly informed musicians.
I was so fascinated by the concept that I almost forgot to listen. I’m not usually big on jazz or improv or jam bands of any kind, but I enjoyed the alternating playfulness and intensity of Mysterium. I had to close my eyes to keep from trying to link specific gestures with specific sounds/movements , but one piece in particular created a huge (and with my eyes closed, visual and colorful) wall of sound. There were broad bright strokes of sax and truncated, silly blurts of slide trombone, followed by long, drawn out wails and punctuated with a plucky electric bassline. I’m shocked Eric didn’t break his drum sticks as the piece built, and Adam Caine was really going at it on electric guitar. The fuzz of Adam’s distortion pedal guided the ride through a structured soundscape, a place to get lost, a place to keep your arms and feet inside the vehicle.
The piece was engaging and yet, when it was over, the experience and integrity of the song seemed self-contained, like a canvas that sucks you in, a canvas you want to return to, but at the end of the day, something to behold—a finite object. So with Soundpainting, I guess it works like this: Evan is the painter, the musicians (Eric, Adam, James Ilgenfritz, Lorenzo Sanguedolce and Sam Kulick) are the material and the piece is the product. Hmn…I need to see more, to understand better, I think.
Update: According to Bruce, the missing alt saxist, Jeremey Danneman, is in Rwanda, having a parade of one.