INTERVIEW: French jazz musician François Jeanneau sketches the Soundpainting experience in Cairo

Nahed Nasr, Wednesday 25 May 2016

Following his workshop and performance at Cairo's French Institute last week, Ahram Online talks to renowned French musician François Jeanneau about his rich world of Soundpainting

Soundpainting workshop in Cairo (Photo: Nahed Nasr)

A small ensemble consisting of six young Egyptian artists were led by the French saxophonist and composer François Jeanneau during their performance held at Cairo’s French Institute on Thursday 19 May.

However, the ensemble had an unusual line-up: a singer, an actor, a pianist, an oud player, and two painters. As the music emerged, in the background a small screen showed what the painters were drawing.

On the stage Jeanneau created the world of Soundpainting, a universe where melodies, colours, human voices, songs, dancing, and several other art forms meet.

Born in 1935 in Paris, a multi-instrumentalist Jeanneau gained international recognition as a jazz musician. He composed works for small ensembles and large orchestras, films scores and music for a jazz opera.

Jeanneau has a profound knowledge of the field and a number of academic achievements. He was the founder and then head of the Jazz and Improvised Music department at Paris’s Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (1991-2000). He performs with numerous bands -- among some that he founded -- in France and across the world and has garnered numerous accolades, such as the Grand National Music Prize, Grand Prix du Disque, and Grand SACEM Award.

Jeanneau’s interest in Soundpainting, a live composing sign language, was inspired by his meeting with the genre’s creator, American composer, saxophonist and educator Walter Thompson, back in 1998. Jeanneau then brought Soundpainting closer to music followers, giving concerts and organising master classes in France and internationally.

During his short visit to Cairo, François Jeanneau gave a two-day workshop on Soundpainting that culminated with a performance on 19 May.

Ahram Online (AO): So what is Soundpainting exactly?

François Jeanneau (FJ): Soundpainting is language, or more precisely, a multidisciplinary language that produces a composition in real time. This language was created in 1974 by New York composer Walter Thompson first to serve the musicians, and it was developed to address dancers, actors, poets, visual artists, and so on. The language has its own structure and follows clear rules, pretty much like any other language. Soundpainting is in fact developing and spreading around the world.

AO: What is the difference between Soundpainting and orchestral conducting?

FJ: Soundpainting shares similarities with gesture-based systems used by the orchestral conductor, but at the same time it is different. The story of inventing this language could clarify the difference.

Walter Thompson used to work with orchestras, mostly in jazz and contemporary music, where he composed music and conducted the concerts. Yet his mind was always pre-occupied with the question of “how can the orchestra play spontaneously, in real time, without a score? How can a conductor communicate with an orchestra outside the score so he can include new ideas into the performance during the performance itself?"

He addressed this issue with some gestures that proved to be successful so he started developing them further. He used his technique in the 1970s and the 1980s but then thought about expanding the concept to other artists-- be them dancers, actors, visual artists and so on. He began developing a language, signs and gestures that could be understood by other creators. Soon, a Soundpainting concert included all those art forms, even video clips and film scenes.

Today, the Soundpainting language has more than 900 signs, and it continues to develop. Today, together with Walter Thompson, we worked on a Soundpainting dictionary that will include all those signs and could be read by an application on mobile phones.

AO: And how is this reflected in an onstage performance?

FJ: The notated material of Soundpainting is called Palettes, like in painting. It could have dance calligraphy, video clips, music, or any other kind of art. The Soundpainting gestures have several categories that refer to what type of material, how it is to be performed, who performs and when to begin performing. The Soundpainter and the performers communicate through those gestures.

And because the language has developed and includes all kinds of arts, Soundpainting might not be the best term to describe it today. But this is the term that Walter Thompson coined in the 1970s and it is too late to change it.

AO: However, it took quite a long time for the language to develop across the world. Why?

FJ: It took time to develop the language first in the USA. Then it took time to raise artists' interest in it in Europe, and so on. In recent years however, people began perceiving it as a new art, and they are more open to trying something new.

Having said that, remember that Soundpainting developed rapidly, especially in France. Soundpainting is now taught academically in the conservatory, and we have also a lot of Soundpainting orchestras. It has become very appealing for audiences. I think that France is particularly receptive to this art form and it developed very fast in the country.

AO: Soundpainting is not used only for performances purposes, correct?

FJ: While there are many Soundpainting orchestras in the world and in France, this art form is also used in pedagogy. It also has a therapeutic use for people with special needs as well as for aged people because it helps in strengthening memory and concentration. It also helps children to discover different kinds of art with playing. In France Soundpainting made its way to public schools and not only music schools.

AO: You started your career as a jazz musician -- a saxophonist -- just like Thompson. But then you added Soundpainting to your interests. What triggered your interest in this art?

FJ: I met Thompson in Spain in 1998 and since then we have worked together until now. Soundpainting for me was another way to make music -- not only music -- and it gives me the chance to work with dancers, actors, visual artists, and so on. This was very interesting to me.

AO: The performance you conducted in Cairo on 19 May included elements of Egyptian music and Arabic songs. How were you able to pick and mix the components during the two-day workshop?

FJ: It was not a problem- in fact it was easy. We played the songs and music the participants already knew. I do not bring any music or any material with me. I prefer to use the music of the country where I am. Soundpainting is multidisciplinary and flexible so it can absorb different cultures and the artistic traditions. No matter your background, it will work for you. It is a new way to look at music and visual art. And the performers I worked with here were very happy to experience it.

AO: But how many gestures or palettes did they manage to learn during the two-days workshop?

FJ: In this workshop I taught them a few signs, just enough to find a harmony between all the components. In two days it is just possible to make more than an introduction, it is just the beginning of something.

I would like Soundpainting to develop in Egypt, so people here can discover it better. Egypt has many old traditions of artistic forms and you have to continue that while adding new forms. I believe that if only people in Egypt give it some time and attention, the Soundpainting could develop rapidly here.

AO: You are one of the notable Soundpainting trainers in France and around the world. Do you still play jazz?

I am a saxophonist, flutist, composer, conductor, and pedagogue. I am giving concerts and leading master classes of Soundpainting in France and abroad. I also have a Soundpainting orchestra in Paris and we have played together for five or six years now. But I still play jazz. Now I am heading back to Paris for a workshop on Soundpainting with Walter Thompson.
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