Walter Thompson

PEXO: A Soundpainting Symphony

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Using a technique he calls "soundpainting," Walter Thompson composes the way a visual artist might approach a large canvas, with broad, sprawling strokes that mix colors in wildly rhythmic swirls. Thompson's "system" encourages musicians to improvise based on hundreds of different signals (approximately 90 of which are used here) that he conveys during a performance, not entirely dissimilar to Butch Morris' conduction technique or Anthony Braxton's approach to some of his large-scale projects. This version of Thompson's orchestra contains only a few names that are immediately recognizable, including trumpeter Rob Henke and trombonist Christopher Washburne, but Thompson builds on the strengths of the collective, using it in effect as his instrument, the way that Duke Ellington did. The six movements of "PEXO" are intended to aurally translate and spoof a trip to a television studio, and include a game show, a news program, recording crews, and preparation of the studio audience. The three actors speak the various parts, with the orchestra accompanying and often taking the lead. The composition can be listened to on at least two levels, as a sort of operatic drama with a loosely based plot, or simply as a stand-alone composition. Either perspective works for the most part, although the dramatic and often humorous voices of the actors and actresses are sometimes unrealistically formal. It is easy to imagine the theatrical versions of the piece being inherently easier to follow and much more satisfying, though the recording forces the listener to imagine the possibilities. From a strictly aural perspective, Thompson's gestures challenge the players to start and go, and engage in cacophonous interludes and clipped solos, often with wondrous results. With so much going on at one time the project runs the risk of imploding, but to Thompson's credit he maintains a stark discipline that keeps it all focused. He is particularly effective at integrating and interweaving complex spoken and instrumental lines.

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