‘Sound of invention’
Trimpin and art of making music from everything
As a young boy, Trimpin discovered that he was allergic to playing brass instruments. He wasn’t just trying to get out of rehearsing, though—he really did have an allergy to the metal mouthpieces, and he was forced to quit.
But instead of abandoning music, Trimpin (born Gerhard Trimpin, he has long gone by only his last name) would invent ways in which he could physically detach himself from instruments while still being able to compose. This took the German-born artist down a road of musical discovery that would eventually lead him to relocate to Seattle in 1979 on his way to becoming a world-renowned sound artist, one who could replace his touch with preprogrammed machines attached to electronic triggers that played the instruments. Sometimes the instruments are traditional (take the tornado of guitars in his sound-sculpture installation “IF VI WAS IX” that self-play—and self-tune—for visitors) and sometimes they’re far from normal (imagine a clown figurine on a unicycle riding back and forth on a wire recording).
He’s also collaborated with other great artists, such as the Kronos Quartet, been the recipient of prestigous awards (Guggenheim Fellowship, MacArthur Genius grant), been the subject of a documentary (Trimpin: The Sound of Invention) and has installed pieces all over the world. Currently, he’s working on two commissioned works, one in a wine cellar in Germany and one at the entrance to a new museum at the University of Washington in Pullman.
Trimpin spoke with the CN&R by phone from his Seattle studio in advance of his upcoming visit to Chico State’s Sound Art class and his public talk on Wednesday (May 10).
What do you have planned for your talk at Chico State?
The presentation is kind of a survey about my work so far, and also, of course, talking to the students. I hope that they have questions where I can have a dialogue. But it’s mainly to talk about the perception of the visual and the aural experience.
Will you be performing?
No, I don’t think so. My installations—you cannot just put them in a suitcase.
When you receive a commisssion, to what degree does the site dictate what you create?
It’s always first the site itself. I have to visit first. Then the inspirations are coming. For example, for the museum in Pullman, it’s more long, sustained sounds, which are created with airflow, like natural sounds. But in the wine cellar, it’s more percussive, almost like wooden xylophone sounds, and I’m actually using barrel staves to create this instrument.
Do you have have any interest in digital sounds?
Not really, because there’s so much still to investigate—what you can do with natural sounds. I’m still focusing on using the acoustical environment and using real acoustical sounds to have a sound environment for the audience to experience what’s going on with their perception.
Do you ever watch people interact with your pieces?
A couple years ago, [I] did an outdoor kind of a playground installation for children. You can learn from this experience, just to watch them. I noticed once … when you have black and white keys like a piano keyboard, then children would go immediately and play the keys. But adult people, they are afraid to touch the black and white keys because they think you have to be a pianist. [In later pieces], I didn’t use any black and white keys; I used other kinds of interactive devices where you don’t think it’s a musical instrument.
Heard any new, interesting sounds lately?
I was just in Germany going to a bank and somebody was throwing a lot of coins—each bank over there has a coin-counting machine—and it almost had, like, a groove rhythm going on. With the one euros, the two euros, or 50 cents, or 20 cents, each coin made a different sound when this machine was counting and sorting out the coins and immediately had really a groove going on. And I told the bank teller, “Wow, that’s nice to stand nearby and listen to this groove.”
So, almost every day you are exposed to another interesting sound that comes from whatever. And for me, the eyes and the ears are always listening.