Instruments of memory | April 29, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 29, 2011

Instruments of memory

The artist Trimpin visits a painful past with the help of his original musical instruments

by Rebecca Wallace

Jenny Bilfield, artistic and executive director of Stanford Lively Arts, doesn't usually have to call in the fire marshal when arranging a performance venue.

With Trimpin, though, you never know what to expect. The single-named Seattle artist, a composer and sound sculptor, also invents his own musical instruments, such as the water harp and the fire organ.

The thought of the water harp playing in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium during Trimpin's upcoming performance on May 14, with droplets falling gracefully onto piano strings, didn't sound so worrisome. However, Bilfield wanted to take extra care with the fire organ. In it, Trimpin combines fire and glass tubes; when the warm air moves through the tubes, gentle sound emerges, somewhat like that of a pipe organ.

"It's going to be contained fire," Bilfield says reassuringly in an interview. "This is a very subtle, eerie thing."

Trimpin, apparently, hears music in everything. Traditional musical instruments are just a beginning for him.

One of his most well-known creations is a sort of guitar, in the way that Everest is a bit of a hill. A tower of more than 500 guitars and other instruments is "If VI Was IX," Trimpin's huge installation at the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle. The instruments play and tune themselves, thanks to computers.

At the moment, Trimpin is pondering the seesaw. He's in an upstairs room of The Knoll, the august early-20th-century building that houses Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Standing before Trimpin, framed by a panoramic window, is one of his inventions: the musical teeter-totter.

"It's called 'Schaukel' in German," Trimpin, a native of Germany, muses about the word "teeter-totter." "Somehow it just took on this name."

And somehow Trimpin got the idea to attach speakers all around a rotating object, which rolls back and forth along a 40-foot teeter-totter as the machine sees and saws. On a recent day, the invention is partly disassembled, recovering from a late night at the Modulations electronic music and art festival in San Francisco. But even though the instrument has temporarily lost its voice, its speakers still roll cheerily along.

The idea came partly from trains. "I was thinking, 'What happens when train sounds come toward you and depart?'" Trimpin says. "I wanted to investigate what happens to sound when it rotates around its own axis. Our perception changes, and the pitch is shifting."

Like many of Trimpin's inventions, the musical teeter-totter blends an old-fashioned hands-on element — the seesaw — with a touch of the modern. Here, sound is fed wirelessly into the instrument before it comes out of the speakers.

"You could hook up an iPod, anything, to the transmitting device," Trimpin says.

Next month, Stanford audiences will get to see the teeter-totter and other Trimpin creations in person. On May 14, a world premiere of the artist's multimedia work "The Gurs Zyklus" will be the finale of Stanford Lively Arts' 2010-11 season. It will also mark the conclusion of Trimpin's residency at Stanford this year, which included his winter-quarter class, "New Instruments."

Trimpin is also scheduled to give a free talk on campus May 5 and a May 13 stage tour at Memorial Auditorium before his premiere.

"The Gurs Zyklus" is a work that mixes Trimpin's instruments and music, projected images, recorded sounds, and spoken and sung texts to explore emotion and memory. It focuses on Gurs, an internment camp in France during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The images include photos of victims and drawings made in the camp, with some of the words drawn from letters sent from Gurs.

The piece has been decades in the making. Its roots stretch back to Trimpin's childhood in the German town of Efringen-Kirchen.

Born in 1951, Gerhard Trimpin (who now uses only his family name) stumbled upon a deserted cemetery as a child and tried to puzzle out what he saw as "symbols" on the gravestones. It turned out that the symbols were Hebrew letters, and Trimpin learned that the Jews from his town had been deported to the Gurs internment camp in France during World War II. He was haunted.

Over the years Trimpin kept being reminded of the camp. His musical mentor, the late composer Conlon Nancarrow, had been interned at Gurs during the Spanish Civil War, before the Vichy government handed the camp over to Germany during the Holocaust.

In addition, after Trimpin was profiled in the New Yorker in 2006 and mentioned his interest in doing a project about Gurs, the descendant of a family who had been imprisoned there during World War II contacted him. Victor Rosenberg shared more than 200 letters that his family members had sent from the camp; those words figure prominently in Trimpin's work.

In doing research, Trimpin also traveled to Gurs recently, following the same train route as deportees did in the 1940s. The camp was bulldozed in 1954 and is now "just a forest," he said, but he made recordings of the train sounds and ambient noise to use in his project.

"The Gurs Zyklus" has a local element as well. When Menlo Park resident Manfred Wildmann learned that Trimpin would bring a work about Gurs to Stanford Lively Arts, he contacted Bilfield last year to share his story of being interned in the camp with his family during World War II. Bilfield connected him with Trimpin.

The two men had a lengthy talk, and Wildmann shared drawings that he had made of the Gurs camp as a 10-year-old boy. Trimpin has included the images in his work. (For more about Wildmann, see the story on page XX.)

"The Gurs Zyklus" means "The Gurs Cycle." For Trimpin, the painful link with Gurs has sometimes seemed endlessly repetitive — for him and for the world, he says.

"I chose the title because in ways we didn't learn anything in 70 years," he says, noting that war and its atrocities have by no means ended. "Last year when I met Manfred, I thought: 'There is no end. There will always be this going on; these coincidences will remind us.'"

Trimpin adds: "Some people have questioned me suspiciously: 'Who is this German doing this (project)? He's not even Jewish.' I tell people it isn't just about the Holocaust — more about this circle of Gurs and me. ... You cannot go through the whole narrative of the Holocaust in one and a half hours. It's more like abstractions of how I saw it.

"For me it was important to work this out in a musical and visual way," he says, likening creation to a healing process. "My heritage has all this heavy baggage. That's something you cannot just shed off."

When Trimpin visited and researched Gurs, he kept coming back to a theme of water. The vision of cold, rainy winters, with prisoners' feet sinking into the mud, stayed with him. "The water was the worst kind of enemy," he says.

Consequently, "The Gurs Zyklus" opens and closes with water. In the beginning, the water organ lets drops fall onto piano strings; at the end, illuminated water drops spell out letters and words, including the names of Jews sent to the camp. When the water hits steel plates, it turns into steam, where images of victims' faces are projected and then evaporate.

With the musical teeter-totter inspired by trains, its rolling speakers will be used to project the sounds of the trains that brought prisoners to the camp: whistles, doors slamming, ambient sounds. The two teeter-totters will sometimes go up and down in time, and sometimes alternate in direction, with the pitches always changing.

The piece also includes excerpts of Nancarrow's music written for player pianos; four vocalists singing and speaking text from the Rosenbergs' letters; and the vocalists singing into the fire organ and water harp. The staging and vocal performances are directed by Rinde Eckert, also a composer, performer and writer.

Ultimately, Trimpin plans to give this performance work another dimension as a gallery installation. Even when the cycle is performed at other venues, duplicates of his original instruments could also be displayed in galleries and tell the Gurs story in another way, he says. "These pieces will have another life."

To ready "The Gurs Zyklus" for its premiere, Trimpin needed not only emotion and inspiration but funding and a venue.

Support came in the form of a grant from Creative Capital, a New York nonprofit that works with artists. When Trimpin attended a Creative Capital seminar on how to find a project venue, he met Bilfield, who was already interested in bringing him to Lively Arts.

Bilfield had heard about Trimpin through other artists and had seen some of his work at the Ojai Music Festival, including a piece in which computer-driven mallets played upon numerous wooden shoes.

"So disarming and playful," she says. "It's really hard in a performance setting to get brilliant and playful in the same gesture."

When Trimpin came to Stanford, Bilfield was even more impressed. "He has a very powerful mind and he's such a warm person, and he's been so kind to students," she says. "You feel the weight of his personal effort as an inventor and a creative spirit, in support of people and in realizing his own work."

Overall, Bilfield said she feels that "The Gurs Zyklus" perfectly concludes the Lively Arts season, which has a theme of "Memory Forward." Trimpin, she says, "has figured out a way to apply a living, breathing context for memories that are difficult, painful, but yet very familiar."

Stanford students have also played a major role in readying "The Gurs Zyklus" for the Memorial Auditorium stage.

Trimpin had already designed his instruments before he came to Stanford — for instance, he showed a fire organ a few years back at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. But during his Stanford residency, many local students helped him with assembly work.

They also assisted in solving problems, such as helping Trimpin build a sensor system to help control the movements of the musical teeter-totter.

In Trimpin's class "New Instruments," both undergraduates and graduate students from many disciplines also learned to design and build their own instruments. And although Trimpin's instruments are often powered by computers, he advises students not to be overly reliant on technology. When he uses a computer to make a mallet hit a shoe, it sounds like a mallet hitting a shoe, not an electronic version of the noise.

"I wanted to inspire the students, to show them how to physically build instruments. Nothing is coming out of a laptop," says Trimpin, who doesn't have a cell phone or a website. "I do hands-on teaching. You have to learn to use tools, build things."

A computer can't replace an honest-to-goodness sound, and a mechanical instrument can't replace a human, Trimpin says. But these new tools can help an inventor, a composer or a sound sculptor to continue stretching the edges of what we consider music.

"When playing a keyboard, we have only 10 fingers, but we can have 88 mechanical fingers playing at once," Trimpin says. "You can also only play a brass instrument so long before having to breathe. But a mechanical bellows system could extend the duration."

"Where are the limits?" he asks. "Ten fingers?" He smiles. "Then add a few."

What: The world premiere of Trimpin's multimedia work "The Gurs Zyklus"

Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 14

Cost: Tickets are $38-$68 for adults and $10 for Stanford students, with other discounts available for young people, other students and groups.

Info: Go to or call 650-725-ARTS. Trimpin is also set to give a free talk at 7:30 p.m. May 5 in Stanford's Pigott Theatre and a free stage tour at noon May 13 in Memorial Auditorium. After the May 14 premiere, he's scheduled to join Lively Arts director Jenny Bilfield on stage for a post-performance talk.

Arts & Entertainment Editor Rebecca Wallace can be emailed at