Gerhard Trimpin -- known since the 1960s by the single moniker Trimpin -- is an internationally acclaimed composer, musician, visual artist, and inventor. A native of Germany who has lived in Seattle since 1980, Trimpin creates extraordinary interactive installations of sound and kinetic sculpture, as well as commissioned compositions for dance, symphony, and opera. He has collaborated with the composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) and with the Kronos Quartet, the Eliot Feld Dance Company, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, among many others. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, and is the subject of the documentary film Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (Esmonde, 2009) and the book Trimpin: Contraptions for Art and Sound (University of Washington Press, 2011). His 2011 opera, The Gurs Zyklus, was commissioned by Stanford University, where he was artist in residence, and funded by Creative Capital, New York. The Seattle Symphony commissioned his site-specific composition Above, Below, and in Between, which debuted at Benaroya Hall in 2015.
Installations, Performances, Commissions
Despite all that, Trimpin was once called "one of Seattle’s best kept secrets" (Strauss, The New York Times). Although thousands have admired Trimpin's tornado of self-playing instruments at Experience Music Project, walked by his elegant 1994 water-music installation Hydraulis at Key Arena, and enjoyed the wind-up-toy wizardry of On: Matter, Monkeys, and the King, next to the rolling walkway in Sea-Tac International Airport -- most have probably never heard of the artist.
At his Madrona neighborhood studio, Trimpin stores boxes filled with newspaper and magazine stories about him in German, Spanish, Dutch, French, Russian, and Japanese (not to mention English) -- enough to daunt the most dedicated researcher. In addition to the performances and commissions documented there, Trimpin is a sought-after instructor and mentor: He has been a resident artist at Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Cal Arts, the Claude Monet Garden in Giverny, France ... the list goes on.
So, who is this wunderkind Trimpin and how did he end up living in Seattle, so far from his native land?
Growing Up Curious
The story of Trimpin’s life reads a little like a fairytale. It's the saga of an inquisitive boy who grew up in the land of cuckoo clocks and mechanical music players. A boy whose talents were sometimes overlooked, who at times throughout his career was doubted and challenged, until a MacArthur "genius" award finally validated his extraordinary abilities to any remaining skeptics. In a 2009 documentary, Trimpin’s sister, looking a little baffled, told a filmmaker that her brother had been a lazy student, poor at school, so how was anyone to know "he had a brain like Einstein or Mozart?" (Esmonde).
Gerhard Trimpin was born in 1951 in Istein, at the southwestern corner of Germany. He and his sisters -- Margarete (now Bühler, b. 1950), and Irene (Riesterer, b. 1963) -- grew up in Efringen-Kirchen, a cluster of villages near the Black Forest, an area where craftsmen, tinkerers, and musicians abound.
Gerhard’s father, Karl Trimpin (1921-2015), was a cabinetmaker by trade and a life-long amateur musician who had hoped to be an artist. That dream ended abruptly when Karl was still a teenager. After completing his apprenticeship in cabinetry, he was on his way to Munich to enroll in art school, when the Nazis drafted him. He had to serve in World War II, but throughout his life remained a pacifist.
After the war, Karl returned to Istein and married Anneliese Bär (1929-1987). Karl’s younger brother married Anneliese's sister.
Karl and Anneliese’s only son was perennially curious. When Trimpin got toys for Christmas or his birthday, he immediately took them apart to see how they were made, then reassembled them. Tools were available in his father’s well-stocked cabinetry shop and Trimpin quickly learned to use them. His father had once built a little waterwheel that played music via a hammer striking sardine cans. By the time Trimpin was 10, he was inventing his own eccentric instruments, strung together with pulleys, clattering with Morse code and high-pitched sounds.
Trimpin’s paternal grandfather, a self-taught maker of things, had built the first radio in town. One day, browsing in his grandfather’s attic, Trimpin discovered The Harper Electricity Book for Boys. Published in 1917 and translated into German, that book was the key to a world Trimpin wanted to inhabit. At the time, he was learning to play the flugelhorn, so he was happy to find a plan in his new favorite book for how to build an "electric trumpet." He then moved on to other exciting applications for fire and electricity (Farr interview).
But when it came to schoolwork, Trimpin was selective. His fourth-grade teacher found him hopeless. "She said I never would make it as a construction worker’s helper," Trimpin recalled. "She said in a letter home that something was wrong with my logical thinking. It was quite off." Trimpin agrees he was no model student. "I was only interested to learn certain things and I rejected other parts. I just learned what I needed to learn" (Farr, The Seattle Times).
One of the traits that makes Trimpin’s mind exceptional is that he sees potential in every object he encounters, in every sound he hears. Even as a kid, experimentation was his default mode. If there was a problem that needed to be solved, he would persist until he found the answer. Trimpin combed the town dump for broken radios and other useful stuff. Using salvaged materials, he created an adolescent’s dream machine: He wired his bedroom door lock to a telephone dial. "If you dialed the right number, the door would open," Trimpin said. "If not, an alarm clock would ring" (Farr interview).
Education of an Artist
One subject that captivated Trimpin’s attention was music. He learned to play brass and woodwind instruments, planning on a career as a musician. Here, though, his dreams were quashed.
Let’s imagine for a moment that fairy godmothers exist. Because at age 15, Trimpin developed a mysterious allergy to the mouthpiece of any instrument he tried to play. At the time, he was devastated. But looking back, it's the best thing that could have happened. As if a higher power were telling him that his prodigious talents were not meant to be restricted to the back rows of an orchestra.
Still, what was he to do? In the mid-1960s Trimpin signed up at a school for electro-mechanical engineering with the goal of working in the telecommunications field. Recruiters for the burgeoning industry had dazzled him with talk of radar screens, signals from outer space, new kinds of equipment that could receive information from places unknown. Trimpin was all for it. But when he got there, the skills being taught were blacksmithing, welding, and fabrication.
From there he went on to the University of Berlin, where he earned a master’s degree in social pedagogy in 1979, and continued his studies of music and the arts.
In Berlin, as always, much of Trimpin’s education took place outside the classroom. He was reading, getting acquainted with the music of Charlie Parker (1920-1955) and John Coltrane (1926-1967), going to concerts and theater performances, looking at art. The kinetic sculptural machines of the Dada-inspired Swiss artist Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) caught his attention. Tinguely is best remembered for a contraption called Homage to New York, which the artist unleashed in the sculpture garden of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art in 1960. There, before a crowd of onlookers, the machine flailed, groaned, creaked, spouted smoke and flames, and excitingly self-destructed. This was right up Trimpin's alley. "Tinguely was always, I wouldn’t say an influence, but I was very attracted to his work," Trimpin said (Farr, The Seattle Times).
By then, Trimpin had begun to make his own art. Initially, much of it seems to have been a way of processing his lost career as a horn player: collages, images manipulated in the darkroom, drawings of his own hands and lips, sculptures of his hands -- uncertain what they were meant to be doing now that he couldn’t play instruments with them. "I was seeing, can I actually draw myself, or my hands, playing the flugelhorn? I did all this with my hands: Can I actually make a sculptural piece and recreate my hands of wood?" (Farr interview).
Political commentary and word play attracted Trimpin, too. For one piece, he fastened on the common painting descriptor, "oil on canvas," and made a canvas dripping with motor oil, which he construed as a satirical commentary on the petroleum crisis of the 1970s. "Nobody liked it because it was a mess," Trimpin said, with a hint of satisfaction (Farr interview).
Those were youthful experiments, but the things happening in Trimpin’s studio marked the direction of his future work. He had begun modifying and conjoining musical instruments. One that he called a slide trumpet was achieved by literally splicing together a trumpet and a trombone. "You could alter the tone in a microtonal way," he explained. "You could play the microtonal music with a standard instrument" (Farr interview).
Trimpin also got involved in theater. He worked at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, a former hospital converted to art spaces. It was there that the San Quentin Drama Workshop was rehearsing under the direction of Douglas C. "Rick" Cluchey (1933-2015), a former inmate of the infamous California prison. Cluchey had been serving a life sentence for armed robbery when he saw his first play, performed at the prison in 1957. The piece was the enigmatic Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and it changed the trajectory of Cluchey’s life. He began studying theater, acting in prison performances and eventually -- after his sentence was commuted and he was released on parole -- became a protégé of Beckett in Europe.
Trimpin worked for Cluchey designing and building sets for Beckett's Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape. During final rehearsals the playwright himself would roll into town to oversee the productions. Trimpin’s personal interactions with Beckett were limited -- "I painted the steps a very dark gray, but it wasn’t dark enough; you know, stuff like this" (Farr interview). But being involved in cutting-edge experimental theater by playwrights such as Beckett and Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), as well as acting and playing instruments in other theatrical productions expanded Trimpin’s experience and his palette of creative possibilities.
His theatrical work gave Trimpin the idea to sketch out a version of the 1930 Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny that would use no orchestra but instead feature a kinetic set that could mechanically produce Weill’s score. Around this time Trimpin designed a disk, similar to an IBM punch card but circular, that could be used to trigger installations of his handmade instruments. This gave Trimpin the capability of creating compositions with sounds originating from different locations in a space.
Trimpin Meets Seattle
During the late 1970s a young Seattle artist, Diane Katsiaficas (b. 1947), was working in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship. When she returned to Seattle, Trimpin included her on a list of people he planned to stay with on his 1979 tour of the United States. He had been to the States before and been amazed at the easy availability of discarded electronics and other materials difficult or expensive to get in Berlin. So this time he was scouting for a place to live in the U.S. He started out in Los Angeles, moved on to San Francisco -- skipped Salt Lake City on the advice of his San Francisco friends who told him there were no bars there -- and went on to Seattle, where he crashed at Diane’s place.
There he met Jim Smith, a fisherman and entrepreneur who had just bought the Melrose building in the Wallingford neighborhood and was converting it to artist studios. Smith offered to rent Trimpin a 1,300-square-foot space with high ceilings for $150 per month, sweetening the deal by offering to take Trimpin fishing for a month in Alaska, to earn some money. Seattle looked like a good place to settle.
And there was a woman. Trimpin had met the writer and editor Sheryl Ball, and he wanted to spend time with her and her two children, Sara Ball (b. 1970) and Alexey Ball (b. 1975).
Trimpin and Nancarrow
After his U.S. tour, Trimpin returned to Berlin to pack up his studio and attend a major art and music festival called Fur Augen and Ohren (For Eyes and Ears). The roster included Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), John Cage (1912-1992), Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), Laurie Anderson (b. 1947), Nam June Paik (1932-2006), Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), and composer Harry Partch (1901-1974), whose handmade instrument collection is now housed at the University of Washington. Trimpin also met the San Francisco composer and producer Charles Armirkhanian (b. 1945), lecturing on the work of American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). Nancarrow was one of Trimpin’s musical heroes.
Nancarrow made mind-bogglingly complex compositions for player piano, too fast and intricate to be played by humans. Trimpin’s own musical inclinations resonated and he understood the process well. He also knew that the paper piano rolls Nancarrow composed on were degrading over time, becoming too fragile to play. Trimpin had devised a machine that could transcribe and preserve them. He asked Armirkhanian if he could write to Nancarrow at his home in Mexico City and got the address.
Trimpin wrote to Nancarrow and got a brief, polite reply explaining that people from the University of San Diego had already tried this and it didn’t work. Trimpin knew his invention would work, and a few months later wrote again. Another polite refusal arrived.
Seattle and Amsterdam
Berlin festival over, Trimpin devoted himself to moving. He discovered it would be cheaper to send his car to the United States than to ship his belongings. So he packed his stuff in the old Mercedes given to him by his brother-in-law, who told him not to bother changing the oil because the car would be dead in a year. The car shipped out from Bremen to Vancouver, Washington, and Trimpin drove it around Seattle for two more years, without ever changing the oil, until someone crashed into it. Trimpin received a $2,000 insurance settlement, a windfall that delighted him.
Trimpin’s new studio was next door to dancer and choreographer Louise Durkee (b. 1948?), whose husband, Norman Durkee (1948-2014), was a prominent Seattle musician and composer. Soon Trimpin was collaborating with Louise and artist Carl Chew (b. 1948) on a commissioned piece for On The Boards. A reviewer noted: "Like a mad scientist in a haunted house, Trimpin conducted his ghostly orchestra by remote control so that sound floated above, behind and all about the audience" (Alpert, The Seattle Times).
Artist lectures and master classes at Cornish College of the Arts offered Trimpin another place to interact with top talents in music and performance. At Cornish, Trimpin met composers Cage, Anthony Braxton (b. 1945), Stuart Dempster (b. 1936), and others.
From 1985 to 1987, Trimpin and Sheryl, now married, packed up and moved with the kids to Amsterdam. Trimpin had been given a "dream job" in the electronic music department at the Sweelinck Conservatory -- basically, he said, "getting paid for being me" (Farr interview). Trimpin got a studio and steady paycheck for continuing his work interfacing acoustic instruments with computer electronics. There he created his seminal visual and sound installation Klompen, comprising 120 suspended Dutch wooden clogs, with mallets in the toes, connected by concealed wires to a computer. These charming percussion instruments could be programmed to play anything from hip-hop to classics, activated by a quarter dropped into a slot. (Trimpin has since reprised the installation in other locations, including the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.)
Nancarrow Comes Around
At his Amsterdam office/studio one day, out of the blue, Trimpin got a phone call from a local performance venue saying that Mr. Conlon Nancarrow -- in town for a performance with John Cage, Elliott Carter (1908-2012), Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), and Alvin Curran (b. 1938) -- would like to see him. Not tomorrow, but right now, this afternoon: It was about this machine he had invented.
Trimpin, unprepared, had Nancarrow come to the conservatory where he had a piano, his machinery, a midi paper roll scanner, a monitor, a Yamaha music computer keyboard, and other equipment. The only piano roll he had on hand was a tango, but he was able to demonstrate how he could feed the paper through his machine and the optical light sensor would register each punched hole in real time. The computer would translate and recreate the score, so Trimpin could play the music back, speed up the tempo, if required, or run it backwards.
"Nancarrow just sort of looked and said, 'Wow,'" Trimpin recalled. "He slowly realized this actually works and was so impressed and flabbergasted and totally confused, because how can this work?" (Farr interview).
Nancarrow asked Trimpin to come to his studio in Mexico and transcribe the deteriorating paper rolls of his music. Trimpin was glad to. But when he got there, on first try, they encountered a problem. After scanning an initial piece, Trimpin played it back for the composer, who shook his head. He heard anomalies in the composition.
"He could hear a few notes are not correct, out of like hundreds of notes played," Trimpin said. Baffled, Trimpin examined the rolls and discovered that when Nancarrow had punched the wrong note and made a correction, he used scotch tape to cover the hole. On a player piano, air pushes through the hole to activate the note, so tape corrected the error. But Trimpin's machine used an optical sensor and light penetrated the translucent tape, causing the wrong note to sound. Undaunted, Trimpin packed up, went home, and redesigned the device.
The following year he returned to Mexico with a new machine that used suction, like a player piano, to activate the score. Thus began a friendship and collaboration that endured until Nancarrow’s death, with Trimpin making annual visits to Nancarrow's house, where the two would talk philosophy, food, foreign travel. They spoke the same language, in art and life. "We had so much to talk about, so many things in common," Trimpin said of the secretive and sometimes reclusive Nancarrow. Charles Armirkhanian noted, "I don’t think there was ever a moment when it was a student/teacher relationship. They were colleagues from the very beginning" (Esmond).
Through Nancarrow, Trimpin met the composers James Tenney (1934-2006) and Henry Brant (1913-2008), and from these lions of twentieth-century music, he absorbed much. Later, he acknowledged his appreciation, dedicating his site-specific Seattle Symphony composition Above, Below, and In Between to Nancarrow, Tenney, and Brant.
Trimpin and Nancarrow performed together at various events, and his association with the great composer brought increased recognition. In 1989, when Trimpin shared the stage with Nancarrow at the New Music America festival in New York, a critic noted, "Trimpin is the seducer of the two. ... his fascinating system of pulleys, belts and electric motors ... enchant the eye as much as the ear" (Holland, The New York Times, 1989).
Work and Recognition
Through the 1990s, Trimpin's resume is dense with performances, installations, and residencies, most of them far from his Seattle home: he debuted work in Spain, Belgium, France, Austria, New Zealand, Germany, Newfoundland, Switzerland, Mexico, and cities across the United States. Appreciation was growing for his work in his hometown, too. When he first performed the entrancing, joyful sound installation Circumference, a 100-foot-diameter circle of contrived instruments with the audience seated in the center, the response was "Wow" (Upchurch, The Seattle Times, 1990).
Awards began to materialize. In 1994, Trimpin got a surprise call that the New York Foundation for Contemporary Arts was sending him $25,000, an unsolicited grant. Trimpin used the money to help purchase a vacant lot in the Madrona neighborhood, where he built his own studio. Other grants came in from Apple Computer, the Seattle Arts Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, On the Boards, Western States Arts Federation, and The Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, among others.
Art museum curators and public art collections began to take note. Portland Art Museum commissioned Trimpin in 1992 to build the sound sculpture Phffft -- an automated wind ensemble of pipes, tubes, whistles, horns, duck calls, you name it, that Trimpin devised from found objects -- and in 1994 Trimpin, collaborating with Clark Wiegman, created Hydraulis, a movement-sensor-triggered water percussion instrument, installed in the east lobby of Seattle’s Key Arena.
In 1995 the Merce Cunningham Dance Company commissioned a score from Trimpin, which the company debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and later performed at the Paris Opera. The Cunningham Company brought Installations to Seattle in 1996, where, just before the performance began, an earthquake rocked Meany Hall.
The following year Trimpin’s world was rocked again when he received a MacArthur "genius" award, with five annual payments of more than $50,000. Trimpin could finally pursue his work without financial worries. He got his first credit card. That year he also received a long-sought Guggenheim award.
In 2005, to celebrate Trimpin’s 25th year in Seattle, independent curator Beth Sellars organized "Trimpin: 25 years of Sound Sculpture Installations," an appreciation by a constellation of Northwest museums and performance venues. Eventually the project -- which included both new works and earlier ideas and installations -- extended into a second year and included the participation of 11 institutions, among them the Henry Art Gallery, Frye Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, and the Museum of Glass.
While that project was unfolding, the Kronos Quartet commissioned Trimpin to compose something. The result was 4 Cast, a mind-stretching collaboration that, when it premiered in New Jersey, had the four classically trained musicians vamping like rock stars, sawing away on toy instruments, and channeling music from other sources through sensors and wired instruments, while Trimpin directed from a bank of computers in front of the stage. As Kronos founder David Harrington put it, "He enlarged our ideas about instruments and sound by always asking, 'What if...?' I felt that for a time Kronos was a layer in Trimpin’s elemental imagination" (Trimpin: Contraptions for Art and Sound, 187).
Ideas for Trimpin’s next major project had simmered for decades. As a child, Trimpin had come upon an overgrown Jewish cemetery outside his village. He learned that during the Nazi era, the Jews from his town had been sent to an internment camp at Gurs, near the Spanish border. This haunted him and decades later Trimpin discovered that during the Spanish Civil War his friend Conlon Nancarrow also had been interned at a camp near Gurs.
When a 2006 New Yorker profile of Trimpin mentioned that, he received a further surprise: the descendent of a family who had been interned at Gurs contacted him and offered to share a trove of family letters detailing life there. That fusion of imagination, memory, coincidence, and historical fact became the basis for Trimpin’s opera The Gurs Zyklus, directed by Rinde Eckert, which debuted at Stanford University in 2011 and showed in Seattle at On The Boards. One reviewer described the multi-layered production of music, video, fire organ, projections, player pianos, percussion, and voices, as "a cabinet of wonders" (Swed, Los Angeles Times).
In 2014, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra invited Trimpin to be composer-in-residence. His multi-media composition Above, Below, and In Between -- a site-specific composition for an eccentric ensemble of symphony players, automated instruments plus a soprano vocalist, conducted by Ludovic Morlot -- debuted on May 1, 2015, in the Grand Lobby of Benaroya Hall -- a thrilling, total immersion experience that left the audience roaring approval.
As of 2016, Trimpin’s career is still very much a work in progress, with the artist engaged in commissions and exhibitions at venues around the globe. He exhibits his work in Seattle at Winston Wächter Fine Art. Based in his Madrona studio, Trimpin also maintains a warehouse studio and storage space in the Central Washington orchard and artisan town of Tieton.