Soundpainting: Tomi Tsunoda and Pugs Pugliese

Tomi Tsunoda conducting the workshop.

This entry documents a workshop at the 2019 Winter Residency Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts at the Plainfield, VT campus of Goddard College. The Workshop was facilitated by second semester student Tomi Tsunoda and photographically documented by fourth semester student Pugs (Daniel Seung) Pugliese. The text was prepared by Tomi and the photographs created by Pugs. — editor

I started training in Soundpainting in the summer of 1998, just on the heels of college graduation. I rode up to Woodstock from NYC on a bus with two friends from school, with little idea what I was getting into. We were picked up by a couple of actors from the Walter Thompson Orchestra, who drove us up to Byrdcliffe artist colony, dropped us on the porch of a wooden cabin, and left. The assistant conductor met us, gave us a five minute overview of the language, then walked us into a rehearsal already in progress in the barn down the hill. When we walked in the door, we were smacked with the cacophony of about 75 artists – drummers, horn players, strings, woodwinds, singers, actors, dancers, writers, visual artists – playing a giant collaborative improvisation. We took seats and hung on for dear life. By dinner, all three of us were functionally fluent in the language of Soundpainting.

Soundpainting is the universal multidisciplinary live composing sign language for musicians, actors, dancers, and visual Artists. Presently (2018) the language comprises more than 1500 gestures that are signed by the Soundpainter (composer) to indicate the type of material desired of the performers. The creation of the composition is realized, by the Soundpainter, through the parameters of each set of signed gestures. The Soundpainting language was created by Walter Thompson in Woodstock, New York in 1974.

I’ve tried to keep this moment of spontaneous immersion alive in my memory for over twenty years, as I’ve gone on to train actors, performance ensembles, conservatory students, undergraduates. In the early years of teaching Soundpainting, I carried some insecurity that people wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t really appreciate the magnitude of what this language has to offer, the intense and nuanced practice of working with surprise, of listening, of fearlessness on stage, and the sublime beauty of what it’s possible to create together out of nothing and on the edge of failure. I would throw as much vocabulary at the group as I could fit into the 2-3 hour sessions, thinking anyone new to the language would only love it as much as I do if they had all the toys to play with.

As my relationship to Soundpainting fluency has matured beyond volubility into striving for concise, effective choices, what I’ve learned about this language is the truth at the heart of any language: what matters is not the breadth of vocabulary, but how you make use of each word. Language is a tool for cooperative communication, not a showboat or a bedazzler. The art of any language is in its poetics.

I proposed a Soundpainting workshop for my G2 MFA-IA residency at Goddard this spring because of the opportunity for multi-disciplinary collaboration. There aren’t many tools that apply universally and collaboratively to all of the creative arts in the same work. An interdisciplinary arts community seems a natural place to bring Soundpainting to the table. When the residency theme was announced – Speaking Without Words – Soundpainting seemed like an obvious contribution.

When I got the schedule and saw I only had 75 minutes, the old insecurity came back: how will I introduce a new community to the power of this tool in 75 minutes?

It takes conscious work to trust the work.

One of the things that punched me in the gut when I first got to Goddard last year was how much the Haybarn reminds me of the Byrdcliffe barn. The texture is the same, the layout is the same, the elevated area in the back where a makeshift tech desk has been installed is the same. It’s the place on campus that feels most like the home of an early artistic awakening, calling up my inner 21-year-old and dropping me back into the cacophony of spontaneous immersion with a new creative community.

Once I got up in front of everyone in the Haybarn, part of me zoomed back to Woodstock in 1998, and the insecurity melted. I’ve done this work enough to know each encounter will be its own and valuable on its own terms. Five minutes was enough for me on my first day.

For an introductory class, I usually start everyone as a singer for the sake of teaching basics, and introduce the task of interdisciplinary translation after the first hour. But at residency, for the sake of time, I had everyone choose which discipline they wanted to work with from the start.

At one point I looked up and saw Jeffrey Parry standing in the dance section. I’ve only seen Jeffrey working with music at residency, and was surprised and excited to see him in a different mode. Sometime later I looked up and caught sight of him again, staring back at me with a giant grin on his face, eyes sparkling, looking giddy like a kid playing his new favorite game on the playground at recess.

I’m a big fan of Andres Munar as an actor. Everything I’ve seen him do, he finds a way to personalize and make himself present in the material in a way that seems so effortless and immediate. The work is under and in him so quickly. This workshop was the first time I got to watch him have to really chase the work, to try to figure out what he was bringing himself to and how to do it with no time to think it through, and how much fun he seemed to have exploring the edges of that challenge. It was so joyful to watch.

Sandra Paola Lopez Ramìrez played as a dancer, and at every stopping point had exactly the right question for how to interpret the language in movement. The “what does this mean for a dancer” questions she posed were like a table of contents for a textbook in Soundpainted dance.

I watched everyone’s faces move through confusion and hesitation and eye-popping and grinning and crinkling brows and – just as we came up on the hour mark – impending brain freeze. This language, even in its simplest terms and most basic vocabulary with a talented, experienced group of artists, makes minds and bodies work in ways never required in any other context. Learning this language is not just about learning language. It’s about unlearning and relearning listening, responding, collaborating, composing, reading, doing, thinking, communicating in new ways and all at the exact same time.

Seventy-five minutes was plenty.

A Note About Documenting the Soundpainting Workshop from Pugs (Daniel Seung) Pugliese:
One of the joys of being a photographer in an Interdisciplinary Art graduate program is the opportunity to photo-document exhibits, presentations, demonstrations, performances, and workshops that I would never be exposed to otherwise.  Tomi’s Soundpainting Workshop is one of those moments in which the interdisciplinary nature of the program is highlighted so strongly that it’s an honor to be able to play a part.  At some intersections, the things moving along their various vectors pass each other seamlessly without interacting; in other intersections, like Tomi’s workshop, the various vectors weave in and amongst each other to produce something greater than any one of them could achieve alone.  More than just documenting the workshop, I was able to bring another vector, another aspect into the intersection; I was able to add the Visual Arts in the form of Photography to this beautiful chorus of music, speech, and movement.  For me, these intersections are so much of the beauty and value of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Art Program at Goddard College.  

Tomi Tsunoda is a theater artist, writer, visual artist, songwriter, producer, facilitator, and educator. She heads the Theater Program at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, and is frequently a guest artist and teacher with the Powerhouse Training Program at Vassar College.

Pugs (Daniel Seung) Pugliese is a photographer, videographer, and writer.  He has helped teach the photography classes at Alverno college and has been a working photographer in and around Milwaukee, WI for the last decade while maintaining and growing his career in Information Technology.


The Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) program at Goddard College is a unique graduate experience at the intersection of contemporary art practice and Goddard’s landmark method of low-residency, human-centered learning and teaching. Information about Admissions to the program is available at

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