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University of Iowa News Release

Oct. 6, 2004

World Premiere of Improvised Opera Will Be At UI Oct. 29-31

Walter Thompson, the inventor of the Soundpainting method of collective ensemble improvisation, will present the world premiere of an improvised opera while visiting the University of Iowa as an Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor Oct. 18-31.

Thompson was invited to the UI by the School of Music, in cooperation with the departments of theatre arts, dance and interdisciplinary studies. During a two-week residency at the UI, Thompson will present a number of interactive lectures, discussions and workshops to interested students and faculty in the areas of music, music education, theatre and dance to demonstrate and discuss applications of Soundpainting.

His visit to the UI will be headlined by the first-ever performances of "Columbus: A Soundpainting Opera," at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 29 and 30, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31 in Space/Place Theatre of UI North Hall. The performances will be free and open to the public.

During his visit Thompson will also make two free public appearances to discuss Soundpainting:

  • a public lecture/demonstration of Soundpainting at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, Harper Hall of the UI Voxman Music Building; and
  • an interview by Joan Kjaer on the "Know the Score" radio program, broadcast live on radio station KSUI, 91.7 FM (101.7 FM in Dubuque), at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29 in the Nancy and Craig Willis Atrium of the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

"Soundpainting" is a system of conducting/composing developed by Thompson for musicians, dancers, poets, actors and visual artists working in the medium of structured improvisation. The system includes a vocabulary of gestures made by the conductor/composer indicating the type of improvisation to be made by the performers.

"Columbus" is a non-linear multimedia performance whose theme is the myth surrounding the life of Christopher Columbus, exploring the effect of his life, his journey and the subsequent fallout from the "discovery" of the New World. The work will use an ensemble of instrumentalists, actors, dancers and singers, whose performance will be shaped by Thompson using Soundpainting techniques.

Besides the improvised sections, the work will include composed/rehearsed elements of music and drama, called "palettes," and video clips. The palettes will not be composed to follow a specific timeline but will be rehearsed and prepared so that they can be used and modified using the Soundpainting language.

The music palettes, ranging in length from a few seconds to more than five minutes, are by composer Stephen Rush of the University of Michigan (UM). The libretto/text palettes contain elements from Christopher Columbus' journals, as well as extrapolations and dramatic moments taken from incidents that can be traced to the effects of Columbus' actions and written by Michael Rodemer, an electronic sculptor and short-story writer from the UM.

A video montage by Rodemer, loosely based on Eduardo Galeano's three-volume history of the Americas, will scroll by as a backdrop, weaving a non-linear panorama of history from 1492 to 2003, while the stage action is moving fluidly between the past and the present.

Thompson developed Soundpainting more than 20 years ago, and the technique now comprises more than 750 gestures that are signed by the composer/conductor indicating the type of improvisation desired of the performers.

The public will have a chance to learn about Soundpainting in Thompson's Oct. 23 lecture/demonstration. Thompson will not only demonstrate Soundpainting to the audience, he will give them a chance to learn some of the gestures and become the 'orchestra' themselves, using voice and/or body percussion sounds.

Soundpainting is becoming known both nationally and internationally as Thompson performs and conducts concerts and workshops at home and abroad. The UI is one of two universities that has a Soundpainting Ensemble: "Gamut," founded by UI graduate teaching assistant Evan Mazunik.

After the UI premiere, "Columbus" will be performed in 2005 at the University of Michigan, whose Creative Arts Orchestra is the only other university Soundpainting ensemble, and in New York City.

For further information on Thompson and Soundpainting, visit on the World Wide Web.

A native of Vinton, Iowa, Beam willed her farm to the UI in 1977. Her only university connection was a relative who graduated from the College of Medicine. Proceeds from the sale of the farm were used to establish the visiting professorships program in her name. Since 1977, hundreds of eminent scholars and scientists have visited the UI campus to give public lectures and to meet with students and faculty.

The School of Music is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For information on UI arts events, visit on the World Wide Web. You may visit the UI School of Music web site at To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Peter Alexander, 319-384-0072,

PHOTOS are available at

OTHER INFORMATION: Soundpainting is much easier to understand through experience rather than description. Interested journalists are invited to visit an ensemble rehearsal. To arrange a visit, contact: or (work: 335-1648; home: 338-7733)