We loved this essay from two time Putney Pre-College alumna Elena Conde. Elena, a junior at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City, traveled with us on our campus-based summer programs in Oxford and Tuscany in 2012 and on our summer Pre-College program in Spain in 2013. She wrote this essay on a “soundpainting” in Oxford. We love it!
Swish…Swoosh. BOM BOM BOM BOM BOM. This is la vie en rose… 你好！我叫康海明。我是纽约人。Confused? This is soundpainting.
Imagine a concert where the show is equally an unknown thrill for the performers as it is for the audience. This is a concert where the traditional norms of music are transcended, where so many textures of genres, mediums, sounds, and rhythms are overlapped to create a feeling that can only be described as an overwhelming wave of culture and a combination of inexplicable emotions that cleanses your soul. You are left optimistic, excited and refreshed. If you can imagine this, you already have a sense of what soundpainting is.
I first tried soundpainting the summer after my freshman year, during the beginning of a student travel program. I was sitting in a circle in a light blue room on a class-free Saturday with about eight other students and two professors. The room was perfectly illuminated, thanks to the huge window that let in Oxford’s bright nine-o-clock light and the glimmers of excitement that came with the opportunity to finally realize our wanderlust. Nobody really talked before we began; nobody really knew how to respond to the overwhelming feeling underneath the jet lag and unfamiliarity that we were in a special place.
The professor briefly introduced us to soundpainting, explaining that it was essentially a performance in which the conductor uses various gestures to lead the types of sounds that the performers make. I realized that soundpainting is just that: painting with sound. In the same way the painter creates his masterpiece using distinct hues, the conductor combines unique sounds to create his. A canvas only painted one color would be considered boring; soundpainting is only truly effective when distinctive sounds are combined together to enhance the other, like gentle whispers that heighten the vivid intensity of a repeated bass note. In addition, neither the painter nor the conductor truly knows how his creation will turn out, as both involve an element of improvisation and reliance on raw material. Therefore, the painter and conductor simply act as leaders that guide the creation of art. Moreover, like the painter who has different brushes to create varied textures, the soundpainter has his own set of tools that create individualized sounds: his performers.
However, it’s not the final product itself that was so special about soundpainting, but the environment it created that made me feel perfectly content. Soundpainting is a completely collaborative work, because it relies on constant sparks of inspiration to keep a greater fire going. Soundpainting is based off of immediate improvisation, so each motion the conductor makes causes the individual performers to respond in distinctive, innovative ways. There’s simply no time for one to second-guess herself. This is creativity in its purest form.
When soundpainting, we aren’t afraid of what we don’t know; instead, it excites us. Nobody knows where the piece is going to end up, but we engage in a musical conversation to figure it out together. Impermanence is inevitable, because the feel of the piece is constantly changing with each new addition and layer. Instead of fearing change, one becomes an agent of it, willing to test if her core values and what she can offer to the group can truly survive new ideas.
I probably won’t spend the rest of my life soundpainting in a light blue room in Oxford with the same eight students and two professors, but luckily, I don’t have to. If this environment sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This is the environment of learning, and this is where I am perfectly content. My contentment is constantly moving and dynamic—it’s whispering eeriness followed by loud bass notes, a French-infused song overlapped with a Mandarin monologue reminding me who I am. It’s sudden silence that seems as if it will last forever, hanging onto the mercy of the conductor who decides when our anxious selves can be expressed again. It’s the harmonies of collaboration that break the threatening silence of stagnancy; it’s the co-creation of an everlasting song of learning greater than ourselves.