Anytime Seattle-based sound artist Trimpin unveils new work, we stop to listen. Sometimes it sounds like the chanting of monks, or an eerie duck call—dissonant sounds created by his Bunsen burner–powered Fire Organ. (Watch the video below.) Other times, it’s the mechanized plucking of guitar strings, or the song of tree bark. His kinetic sculptures are the stuff of genius—he is, after all, MacArthur certified—but it’s rare that he dabbles in full-fledged librettos and oratorios, until now.

In collaboration with director and vocalist Rinde Eckert, Trimpin has written The Gurs Zyklus, which he’s calling “a music performance, multimedia installation using sound sculptures and a kinetic set design, along with vocalists and actors.” So…it’s a little hard to describe. At its core is a libretto inspired by found letters from the WWII internment camp Gurs, where the Jews from Trimpin’s childhood home of Efringen-Kirchen, Germany, were sent. The chance discovery of these letters is an amazing story in itself: A man named Victor Rosenberg read a 2006 New Yorker profile of Trimpin and realized that his mother came from the same hometown, and his uncle was interned at the same camp. Rosenberg reached out to Trimpin and sent him a shoebox full of letters from his family during their time at Gurs; the correspondence prompted Trimpin to revisit his own postwar childhood in Germany and the fate of his town’s Jews. He even went so far as to travel by train from Efringen-Kirchen to Gurs, following the same route; photos from that trip accompany the performance.

The Gurs Zyklus premiered at Stanford University last year, where Trimpin had been an artist in residence, and makes its local debut this weekend at On the Boards.

Trimpin: The Gurs Zyklus
May 17–20, On the Boards, $20

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