I met Walter Thompson at the zebra crossing

by Anders Flodin

Three minutes and twelve seconds into PEXO (see link below), about half of the way through the movement, voices suddenly exclaim – very loudly – a short reiterated guttural phrase. It eventually turns into a unison exclamation “It’s not hard at all” with everyone in the ensemble. Walter Thompson’s art is engaging and has evolved over time into a fascinating method called Soundpainting that also includes other forms of art.

A few months ago I met Walter Thomposon at the zebra crossing in his hometown in southern Sweden. It became an exciting, but too short, meeting and discussion that ties together conducting – improvisation – composition. 

Walter Thompson, like Lawrence Butch Morris, has in common that he makes music here and now with a refined system consisting of gestures that the musician or the artist follow. Explained in the book Soundpainting – the Art of Live composition he write the following:

Soundpainting is the multidisciplinary live composing sign language for Actors, Dancers, Musicians and Visual Artists developed by Walter Thompson since 1974. The language comprises more than 1200 gestures that are signed by the soundpainter, the conductor and composer, to indicate the type of material desired for the performers. The creation of the composition is realised through the parameters of each set of signed gestures. 

The soundpainter standing in front of the group communicates a series of signs using hand and body gestures indicating specific and/or aleatoric material to be performed by the group. Ths soundpainter develops the responses of the performers, molding and shaping them into the composition then sign another series of gestures, a phrase, and continues in this process of composing the piece. The gestures of the soundpainting language are signed using the syntax of who, what, how and when. There are many types of gestures, some indicating specific material to be performed as well as others indicating specific styles, genres, aleatoric concepts, improvisation, disciplines, stage positions, costumes, props, among many others. Soundpainting is a theoretical introduction as well as a practical guide for conductors – improvisers – composers.

Compared to Morris, mentioned above, Thompson broadens and deepens the method to include other artistic expressions. Thompson is outside the circles and he has never been fashionable in Sweden. His name is not noticed and he is not perceived as a draw by festival organisers, but he has no market need either. He walks alone and he walks free.


Bernstein, Leonard.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrzF5Yu-Q2U [20230114]

Morris, Lawrence Butch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhXnA7gj6j4  [20230114]

Morris, Lawrence Butch. https://craftsmanship.net/video/butch-morris-demonstrate-the-art-of-conduction/ [20230115]

Morris, Lawrence Butch (2017). The Art of Conduction  –  A  Conduction®  Workbook, ed. Daniela Veronesi. Karma, New York.

Reibel, Guy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3VTNFV3Y5s [20230115]

Thompson, Walter.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmHH8e2L0vA&t=214s  [20230114]

Thompson, Walter (2006). Soundpainting – The Art of Live Composition, Workbook 1, SPingBooks, New York.

Thompson, Walter. http://www.soundpainting.com/soundpainting/ [20230115]

Programme notes. https://www.newmusicconcerts.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/April-15-1978-Concert-Program.pdf [20230115]

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