by Claire Sykes
Contraptions for the Human Instrument
A dozen questions for sound sculptor Trimpin
As much a scientist as an artist, Trimpin creates kinetic, computer driven, acoustically musical sound sculptures from found objects, natural elements, and traditional musical instruments. The 64-year-old, German-born, Seattle-based sound sculptor, composer, and inventor (who goes only by his last name) uses everything from old organ pipes and duck calls to fire and water in his sound installations and performances that often include audience participation.
One of his most famous is Klompen. Here, 120 Dutch wooden clogs hang from the ceiling, clomping a unique percussive pattern every time someone moves among them. Concealed wires connect the motion-sensor-activated clogs to a computer. As a visitor activates the sculpture, a mallet, inside the clogs’ toes, is electromechanical triggered.
Since 1983, Trimpin’s work has been seen and heard in galleries, museums, and performance spaces throughout the U.S. and abroad. Permanent installations can be found at the Experience Music Project and Sea-Tac International Airport, in Seattle, and at the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany. He has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, both in 1997.
I often wonder how much interest those in the nonlinguistic arts have in poetry. How much is poetry a part of your life?
I seldom read poetry. And I never buy CDs because I never listen to recorded music, only live music. What I enjoy most is the live experience. Just as a musical composition depends on players in order for you to hear the music, a poem depends on the poet reading it to hear the intonation of their words. Unlike musical performances, though, I rarely go to poetry readings. But there are poets I get together with once in awhile when all of us [MacArthur grant recipients] meet for reunions–Richard Kenney, Irving Feldman, Linda Bierds, Ann Lauterbach, Brad Leithauser, and others. I know there’ll be readings, and I look forward to those. When I hear a poem recited live, it’s like listening to music. There’s their voice, how they articulate and structure the sentence with their intonation. But there are also their gestures, how they move. All this is completely missing from the printed page or a recording.
Just as poetry can be a kind of music–by way of the sound, rhythm, and intonation of the words–how are your sound installations similar to a live poetry reading?
First of all, there’s the visual; you see a sculpture, something moving. This combines with the sound. So you see and hear the work at the same time. It’s the same with someone’s voice. When a poem gets recited, there’s also the movement of the person reading, so you experience a certain movement of sound within space. It’s this movement of sound that I’m focusing on in my work. The sound isn’t coming from a fixed location; it’s constantly moving. It could be near the floor and then gradually, or suddenly, travel up above your head; and you experience these different spatial movements of the sound. So the space is also very important. The space changes the musical structure of the work. With a poetry reading, the rhythm and intonation of the words occur in a particular space, and in another space, the air, the light, the acoustics are different, so in each space, you experience it in a different way. Likewise, my work sounds completely different in each different space. I create the piece with the space in mind, its physical dimensions and acoustics. So every time a sculpture of mine is to go up somewhere else, I change it musically, and you experience it differently. You need to be in that particular space and time to experience it. It’s the reason my work doesn’t exist on CDs or video, except as documentation.
So there’s this visualization of sound within space going on in your work…
Yes. When you see that my sculptures are also kinetic, then the eyes become a part of listening, because the sculpture’s movement expresses the sound. All this goes back to my childhood, growing up in Efringen-Kirchen, Germany, at the Swiss and French borders. Every year for centuries, three days after Ash Wednesday, the villagers in the area have built these huge bonfires, originally to get rid of winter demons. When the bonfire was lit and about to burn, I remember listening to the wet, steaming wood whistling and crackling. There were all these voices, like a choir, or a symphony. It was just fascinating to listen to this. And I had always wanted to do something about these voices coming out of this fire, but in a more controlled environment, so people could actually see the flames. It led me to the FireOrgan [using fire, and hand-blown glass vessels and different lengths of Pyrex tubing, to generate tones activated by the audience responding to motion sensors].
When a deaf person and a blind person stand in front of the flaming voice of the FireOrgan, they have the same experience. The deaf person can’t hear the sound, but they’re watching the oscillating blue and yellow flames. The higher the pitch the faster the oscillation, so that with the next octave up the flames go twice as fast. The blind person can’t see the flames, but they hear the tones, whether they’re high or low. But both of them can feel the warmth and vibration of the frequency. So if they exchanged their experiences, they’d come up with a similar result. The kinetic movement of the flames, the light, the sound, the rhythm, heat, and smell–all the different physical energies combined are exactly those of the bonfires.
Knowing the story behind this installation, someone could see the metaphor of that bonfire in this sculpture, but I’ve read that you don’t intend metaphor in your work.
No, I never would think in terms of metaphor. You can sometimes explain the work with it, but you don’t need it. My work is not about metaphor, but about metaphysics. When I’m listening to certain sounds, especially low notes, I can feel them through my body. But it’s not just pure physics; it’s also the combination of seeing, hearing, thinking, and doing, simultaneously at this moment. Usually when you’re at a concert or poetry reading, you don’t think about how the visual sounds. But in my work, all these different parts are coming at you at once, and you’re almost forced to separate what you see and hear. And sometimes they get fused together, and you cannot explain later if you actually saw it or heard it. And that’s this metaphysical experience, where both sight and sound exist almost on the same level.
Do you have this metaphysical experience when you hear poetry recited live?
Yes. When I’m at a poetry reading, I tend to drift off, and the words and the visual performance of the reading merge. As I’m listening and watching the poet, their words are transformed into an image or sound in my imagination, triggering ideas for my work.
What about narrative? What stories do your sculptures tell?
The stories are the different explorations of sound that each sculpture focuses on. For example, there’s Conloninpurple, a large-scale xylophone-like installation with purple “trumpets” suspended from the ceiling, that the audience walks through. I built this in honor of Conlon Nancarrow [an experimental composer of abstract player piano pieces, many unplayable by human hands]. In the 1950s, he developed a percussion machine using a player piano mechanism, but the pneumatics didn’t make it go fast enough for him. Forty years later, now with electronic components, I was able to realize his idea. With Conloninpurple, I was looking at what happened when the sound plays below ear level and suddenly moves above ear level. The audience doesn’t realize this right away, but they notice that certain movements are going on. The story is the sound moving spatially through a particular sequence in the piece, and when it changes direction or location, the story changes.
It’s as if the sound itself were like a character, or an emotion, of a poem, moving through dramatic or lyric time.
Right. Another example is through the nature of the machine. In most of my pieces, I’m using machine-like equipment to help produce certain musical or mechanical movements. With Der Ring Hoch Drei, three sixteen-inch-diameter aluminum spheres rotate within trios of three-, four-, and five-meter-diameter aluminum rings that hang from ceiling cables hooked up to a gear box to raise and lower them. The spheres turn at different speeds and reverse directions, triggered by the audience interacting with motion sensors. As they turn, they play a vibrating, melodic hum, very softly, almost inaudibly.
One of the narratives here is visual, going back to Pythagoras and his mathematical theorem of the 3:4:5 ration, which is found throughout nature, including the sonic frequency of the C-Major chord, CEG, and the relationship between the revolutions of Earth, Mars, and Venus. One revolution of Earth takes 365 days, Mars 687 days, and Venus 225 days. If you could listen to these planets turning, you would hear very close to a C-Major chord. When Der Ring‘s spheres are rotating at that 3:4:5 ratio, you do. As the spheres’ rotations accelerate, the pitches increase. When they rotate at twice the speed, the tones are an octave higher. So again, a deaf person can read the melodic pattern. The whole piece is pure mathematics, physics, pure nature. Der Ring‘s narrative explores nature versus the machine, and also that you don’t hear the tones unless it’s really quiet. In a public space, there’s never a quiet moment. That was my point–to actually create a sound sculpture that’s silent.
What does silence accomplish in your work?
It gives reference to the sound. In German there’s this word, Kunstpause, which literally means “art pause.” It’s a short pause, usually between musical movements, for the soloist to rest for a little while. I’m very fond of this Kunstpause in my work, because it allows people to notice the sound and think about what they just heard. I’ve noticed that some people are alarmed by the silence, though, thinking there’s something wrong. With Conloninpurple, there are buttons the audience can push to make it go, and one of the buttons sometimes does nothing, so people think it’s broken and they push again. Another player piano contraption I built was programmed so that the hammer stopped just before hitting the strings. You saw the keys moving very fast, but you wouldn’t hear the musical sound, just the sound of the keys and the hammers moving. It goes on for several minutes, sounding like a muffled train going down the tracks, then in the last five measures, the hammers don’t do anything differently but finally hit the strings very violently, and it’s a big surprise. The original piece was meant to run the whole night; you’d fall asleep with the sound of it going on, and then it would wake you up in the morning. I called it Lullaby.
I wish I could hear that one! Speaking of titles, Lullaby, like FireOrgan, is simply descriptive. some of your others are often poetic, such as Liquid Percussion, or cryptic, like D.R.A.M.A. oho. In your use of words for them, what is your thinking behind titles?
They’re mostly accidental, something that comes to mind when I start working on a piece, and I never change it. Titles are not so important to me. I’m not searching for ones that sound fancy or have word-game meanings. With Phffft, the whole piece developed out of this title, when I did a “phfffft” with my mouth. I realized that the air blowing through my lips making this sound could mean different things, depending on whether it crescendoed, or started slowly and then accelerated, or suddenly stopped. In this piece [made of nearly 200 air-activated reeds, pitched pipes, flutes, whistles, and other instruments hanging from the ceiling, the sound travels across the gallery space. If you move the dial fast, the “phffft” sound goes quickly, and if you move it slowly, it’s a more sustained sound.
You’ve suggested that your treatment of sound and visuals moves the narrative forward in your installations. In what ways do you consider the audience in terms of how they experience the narrative?
I don’t consider them, except that I know they’ll be introduced to sounds that have never been heard before, in relation to something visual. I build my installations mostly from found objects and existing musical instruments, or parts of them. I don’t want to make traditional sounds, but experiment with new ones. The rest is completely up to people’s imaginations as to what they’ll experience from it. When I begin to work on a piece, I’m doing it for myself. It’s an investigation of, Can this be done in the way I imagine it? Because imagination is simple. As soon as you take a piece of paper and a pencil and write it down–whether words, symbols, or a sketch–that’s the hard part because then you think, How can this be constructed? I translate the thought into a kind of diagram, which serves as a blueprint for the piece. Everything is written or drawn in a language that only I can read and understand, and that opens up the flexibility. The words are fragments of ideas; and colors identify different characteristics, ranges, and sequences of sound. Sometimes I cut the paper up and make a collage, for a completely different idea. Once I know that I can actually make the installation, I may think it’s interesting for myself, and I don’t really care what people might think. I never would try to make the work compatible to a certain audience or group.
How do you view all the sound sculptures you’ve made, as a body of work?
Each sculpture focuses on a different sound, rhythm, timbre, and sound movement. Together, I see them as groups of instruments, acting like the string or brass section of an orchestra. Eventually many of these individual sculptures I’ve been working on for the last twenty to thirty years will be combined to play together. One of the pieces I’ve called Zyklus. It’s basically a performing piece which involves sound, spoken word, and other aural and visual elements; the libretto is supported mostly by the FireOrgan sounds. I’ve been offered a very interesting space to build it. It’s a 1,600-square-foot acoustically pure studio in one of two huge warehouses that Ed Marquand, of Marquand Books in Seattle, bought in Tieton, Washington, near Yakima. He’s attracting other artists, architects, and designers to live and work there, and create enterprises that can provide jobs and revive the economy of the region.
That’s a whole other story in itself, isn’t it? What inspires you to continue making your sound sculptures?
I could be anywhere–a gallery, museum, junkyard, or forest. During poetry readings–and this happens with concerts, too–like I mentioned earlier, I’ll drift between the sounds of the words, because they’re too abstract to follow. The words, maybe the poem’s description of a room or person, triggers thoughts and images for me, and I come up with my own interpretation and, often, completely new ideas for my work. How involved the poet is, in speaking the words and moving their body, makes a big difference in how far I’ll go with my imagination. I need this kind of stimulation once in awhile, so I go to a performance or reading where I know that for the next hour or so, I won’t do anything except take in what’s before me. Recently, I went to a reading of Alma Guillermoprieto’s, who is also a dancer. She was very expressive with her words, intonation, and bodily gestures. As I sat listening and watching, I could hear musical sequences and rhythms in my head. To me, this is one of the most fulfilling experiences I can have with poetry–when my imagination merges with the combination of the poet’s words, sounds, and movements, and movement of the sounds, all coming out of this human instrument.
Claire Sykes is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her articles on photography and other visual arts appear in Photographer’s Forum, Afterimage, Art on Paper, Camera Arts, Glass, Graphis, Photo District News, Photo Insider, and Communication Arts, among others.
This interview appeared in the Spring & Summer 2007 issue of Poetry Northwest.
Trimpin: the sound of invention, a film by Peter Edmonde, was released in 2009.