Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Trimpin

For his first-ever gallery show, the MacArthur Genius chats about his new self-tickling ivories.

By Seth Sommerfeld January 14, 2013

Trimpin at work installing Klavier-Stücke.

Seattle’s most innovative artist is a multihyphenate: kinetic sculptor-artist-musician-inventor-MacArthur Genius. We know him, simply, as Trimpin. His best-known local creation—the towering interactive guitar sculpture If VI Was IXis the strumming heart of Experience Music Project. His works have an otherworldly quality to them, as if plucked from an avant-garde composer’s fever dreams.

Given his the fact that he’s been working on his inventions in Seattle since the 1980s, it may come as a surprise that Trimpin’s latest endeavor, Klavier-Stücke at Winston Wächter, is actually his first solo commercial gallery show. It’s an interactive exhibit of partially constructed pianos that tickle their own ivories: one triggered by a joystick that controls a scanner that reads colorful silkscreen scores, and the other perched on a seesaw-like apparatus that is cued via motion detection. Everything will be on sale, including the two piano installations.

In our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with the innovative artist about the allergy that turned him from a musician into a sculptor, his nonexistent CD collection, and the appeal of lab coats.

How would you describe Klavier-Stücke?

Since we are celebrating the centennial of two important composers—John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow—I focus this installation in memory of their work, expanding their initial experimentation—like 50, 60, 70 years later—using different tools, different technologies, and still working on this idea of changing sounds from traditional instruments.

How are you finding the commercial gallery experience different from your normal work?

I was asked. I didn’t apply or I didn’t beg for it or I didn’t physically ask for it. They approached me to have a show there. For me, it’s no different in the sense that I treat it the same way that I would do any other installation. For me, there is no commercial interest. Of course, there might be some things for sale—like the graphical scores, for example, they will be for sale—but it wasn’t my focus on putting up a show which is for commercial use.

Because of the complexity of your works, you’ve been described many different ways: as a kinetic sculptor, a musician, an engineer, etc. What do you consider your own line of work to be?

First of all as an artist, musician, composer. I started as a musician from a very young age. And through this allergy which developed on my lips and tongue, I couldn’t practice anymore. From musician, it turned into a sculptor, using the kinetics to work still in this field of making sound, but I had to physically disconnect myself from the instrument I couldn’t play anymore. It was kind of through this disease or sickness that I developed a different direction where I still could work with sound, where I could still compose for this kind of instrumentation. I just had to circumvent, somehow, the path and make it still accessible for me to do work in this field.

What is the allergy, specifically?

Basically, I’m allergic to metal. It didn’t matter what the mouthpiece was made out of. Like the reeds, wooden reeds, for example; it was plastic, it was wood, it was metal. It was a reaction to these foreign objects in my mouth. Year after year it got worse, until I had to completely quit.

What is your process for coming up with ideas for your sculptures?

What I always thought was missing in music was the special aspect—that you actually can move sound through space. So it was always experimentation where I would think, Okay, let’s play a certain segment above your level and then drop it down to below your level, like switching certain kinds of properties in space and not just having a stereophonic kind of perception. It’s a multidimensional perception. Our brain immediately can locate the sound from all the different sounds in space, so that was always an interest—to use the space to move the sound through. This only could be done with mechanical or remote-controlled instruments that are precisely being activated; so a few milliseconds later a certain kind of sound could be activated in another kind of location. This was a lifetime interest: using kinetic objects to be precise enough to have this kind of perception going on where you move the sound through space.

What’s the best performance you’ve seen in the past year?

Every time I go to a concert. I never listen to any music while I’m working. I never bought, in my entire life, a CD, so I have to go out there to listen to music. And that’s what I enjoy—when it’s live, when you are a part of it. Every time I go somewhere, it’s always a new experience. Like recently, when the Seattle Symphony was putting this concert series on, [Symphony] Untuxed. Being suddenly exposed to music which is only 50, 60 years old. It’s hard to say what is a favorite or what is not. It’s always a new learning experience to be exposed to, especially contemporary music. Through my studies, I studied a lot of old masters, but since quite some time, I’m more interested to learn about music I never heard before or learning about music which I’m not even familiar with the composer’s name. That was always a focus: listening to living composers rather than dead composers.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

There are several upcoming projects. One is actually here in Seattle for the Seattle Children’s Play Garden. It’s an outdoor musical fence. This place is for children with disabilities, so they can explore how to work on this musical fence with their hands, with their feet, or however they want to activate it. Probably sometime early this summer it will be installed.

If you weren’t a sculptor and musician, were there any other jobs you might have pursued?

I only remember as a kid that I was kind of fascinated with people in lab coats, scientists. Not a particular scientist, just the basic notion of being a scientist.

Trimpin: Klavier-Stücke
Jan 15–Feb 28, Winston Wächter, free

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