Sound passion

At the nexus of inventor, sculptor, musician, composer, technical wonk and garbage picker lies the kind of artist who sees the flotsam and glitches of the world around him and hears the music of the spheres. Such artists are alchemical conjurers, making the everyday sing through the efforts of will mixed with energetic inspiration. One of the most prominent practitioners of such conjuring, an artist based in Seattle, Wash., known simply as Trimpin, is in our midst for a couple weeks this snowy February, practicing his craft as part of a residency at University of Michigan's School of Art and Design.

Trimpin (born Gerhard Trimpin in Germany — but legally just Trimpin, if you please), got his start early as the son of a brass and woodwind musician. Young Trimpin, though, was thrown a biological curveball when he picked up his first musical instruments. He had an allergic reaction to metal that left his lips and tongue covered in a green, algae-like film. So he had to redirect his passion for sound through another outlet. In Trimpin's case, it was rewiring and reharnessing everyday objects and devices and bending them to his will to create fantastic musical machines.

Describing the 57-year-old Trimpin's work is like trying to nail down liquid, like articulating that torpid-lucid moment between wake and sleep when all things in dreams seem possible, and the world of physics, logistics and practicality hasn't yet come crashing in.

Frank Pahl, metro Detroit's most prominent kinetic sculptor, artist, musician and composer, took a crack at a description when he introduced Trimpin during a reception honoring the artist's residency. The pair met in 1992 at the St. John's Sound Symposium in St. John's, Newfoundland — a sort of summit for new and avant-garde sounds.

"The first Trimpin piece I experienced," Pahl said, "was an elegant beast which could beat a Steinway into submission one minute and coax bell-like tones the next, all courtesy of an engineering marvel aptly called 'The Contraption.' It sat perched above the strings of the grand piano, slightly resembling a malevolent Ferris wheel."

Pahl continues, "He also exhibited his version of an absurdly precise drum corps made up of water dripping from a 15-foot ceiling into buckets with pans inside. The effect was startling and humorous. I even laughed when I experienced 100 of his bird whistles dispersed across a ceiling performing the music of John Philip Sousa ... the music always so precise and spatially dispersed. I was blown away and experiencing his work led me to explore the history of automatic music."

If you're familiar with Pahl's work — often basement-born creations of seemingly jerry-rigged organs, lights and objects powered by momentum and just enough electricity to get the contraptions moving in harmony and dissonance — you'll see an apparent kinship between their creations. When asked if Trimpin is a kindred-spirit-mentor, Pahl concurs, but offers both a metaphor and disclaimer for any comparisons:

"Our relationship is curious ... your description of a kindred spirit mentorship might be apt," he writes in an e-mail. "Though I'm in awe of several of his pieces, I am not a computer programmer. And while I appreciate the knowledge and that expertise, I'm more of a Rube Goldberg to his Jacques Vaucanson ... or is he an avant-garde version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Coracticus Potts? Hmmmm. ... "

Indeed, the complexity of Trimpin's work is often veiled by its seemingly simple outward appearance. Before the invention of MIDIs (a device that allows an instrument to interact with and be driven by computer commands), Trimpin found it necessary to create his own homemade version. The story goes that he relocated to America in 1980 in part because he needed to find a more reliable source for outdated computer and electronic equipment.

That sort of organic, DIY elegance drives many of his pieces. Whether it's a fountain programmed to release drops of water onto glass resonators in complex rhythms, or an inspired six-story microtonal xylophone installation running down the spiral stairs of a theater, there's a sense of the extravagant meeting the elemental. For a recent installation at the Tacoma Art Museum, Trimpin suspended purple, metal mobile-like contraptions resembling trumpet-shaped telescopes from the museum ceiling. Visitors wandered among the sound devices and the ambient tones and rhythms emanating from within.

He has also created pieces for dancers, planting noise-making devices in their shoes and under their armpits to create a sonic-kinetic concoction.

His body of work puts him in the rarefied company of such musical and aesthetic mavericks as ambient innovator Brian Eno, inventor-musicologist-raconteur Harry Partch and avant-piano roll composer Conlon Nancarrow. (In fact, Nancarrow and him developed a method for storing punch card piano rolls as digital files so they wouldn't be worn by time.)

"I would consider him as important as Eno, Nancarrow and Partch," Pahl says. However, Trimpin "doesn't have a Web site, use a phone or answer e-mail ... which is a PR nightmare." He was honored with a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1997. Pahl says, "It's a wonder he registered on the radar."

Trimpin's latest work-in-progress, "The Gurs Zyklus," is inspired by those imprisoned during World War II in Gurs, an internment camp in France. He exhibits and demonstrates kinetic sound sculptures developed for the piece from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at the first floor Slusser Lounge, 2000 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor; 734-936-2082.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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