Trimpin: Making music at Stanford from flames, water, tree bark and dark memories of World War II

Artist? Composer? Inventor? It's hard to describe a genius. Trimpin's 2010-11 residency at Stanford finishes with a range of events, including a project of lifelong importance to the creator.

Courtesy of Stanford Lively Arts A detail from the fire organ

A detail from the fire organ, one of the musical instruments in Trimpin's work the 'Gurs Zyklus.'

Tree bark turns into song. A piano plays itself with 88 tiny, computer-powered pistons, powered by drops of water. Notes are splotched so thickly on a page it no longer looks like music. Fire becomes the soft, somnolent drone of Tibetan chanting.

The long-celebrated marriage between art and technology often seems more of a prolonged, overblown engagement – but for Trimpin, it's a passionate amour, as shown by the invented musical instruments and resources he weaves together for Gurs Zyklus, which makes its May 14 world premiere at 8 p.m. in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, in collaboration with director and vocalist Rinde Eckert.

The MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning Trimpin, who is an artist-in-residence at Stanford, describes it this way: "The Gurs Zyklus project is a music performance, multimedia installation using sound sculptures and a kinetic set design, along with vocalists and actors."

Come again?

He tried once more: "Using an interdisciplinary approach, different media are explored by synchronizing speech, voice, sound, video, projections, sculpture and historical elements, including human tragedy."

No wonder people have a hard time explaining Trimpin. Artist? Inventor? Musician? Composer? No tag adequately explains his synesthetic creations. One person said that his music has to be seen to be believed.

In addition to the Gurs Zyklus premiere, a season of events continues this weekend: Saturday, April 9, offers an all-day "Workshop in Kinetic Sound Sculpture" (Trimpin will bring his "fire organ"). The event takes place at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Enrollment, through Stanford Continuing Studies, is limited; there is a $95 fee.

Toni Gauthier/Stanford Lively Arts Trimpin


On Sunday, April 10, from noon to 4 p.m., CCRMA and Lively Arts will sponsor a "DIY Musical Instrument Tailgate Party" on White Plaza. Trimpin will serve as honored guest and grand marshal of the free event, which will feature demonstrations and performances by the Bay Area instrument-building community.

An Aurora Forum program will feature Trimpin in conversation with art and art history Professor Paul DeMarinis at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5, in Pigott Theater. Admission is free.

A free noon "Gurs Zyklus Stage Tour" on Friday, May 13, at Memorial Auditorium will guide participants through Trimpin's new musical instruments on the eve of the work's world premiere.

Here's the story behind Gurs Zyklus: As a postwar child rambling through the Black Forest village of Efringen-Kirchen, Trimpin discovered a forgotten Jewish cemetery, with Hebrew inscriptions that seemed to the boy like mysterious hieroglyphs. At that time, the fate of the town's Jews was a taboo subject, but he learned that they had been deported to a camp in Gurs, in the French Pyrenees close to the Spanish border.

Years later, he continued to explore the fate of his village's Jews in Gurs Zyklus, a project of lifetime importance to him.

At Gurs itself, the barracks and fences have disappeared. Trimpin figured that the sycamore trees around the field are the faithful remaining witnesses to what happened in 1940. Trimpin transformed photographs of the mottled bark of the trees into music – a score for four player pianos.

Meanwhile, a series of remarkable coincidences brought into his circle survivors of the Gurs camp, their families and more than 200 letters, photos and other documents.

Jenny Bilfield, artistic and executive director of Lively Arts, angled to have Stanford sponsor the piece and bring Trimpin for a residency. The emailed response from Sasha Leitman, the facility and program manager for CCRMA, was unequivocal: "OK, to be honest, I would be happy to do cartwheels through a cactus field to help make this project happen at Stanford."

Students are among the beneficiaries of the project, which offers a modern form of apprenticeship. One, Stephen Henderson, called Trimpin "one of the most profound minds in modern history."

"When working with him, what you dream up and what is reality becomes blurred, because everything kind of just feels possible," he said. "I wanted to make a sculpture that sonified water and mixed water with electricity, and it came to be. Learning from him is always an uplifting experience.

"It can be a little intimidating working under a genius, but he is so warm and personable and talkative that the way you think and work kind of just blends with the way he thinks and works. He teaches by osmosis."

Toni Gauthier/Stanford Lively Arts A visitor interacts with a sound installation at the CCRMA exhibit, which showcased the work of Trimpin and his students, at the SOMARTS Gallery in San Francisco.

A visitor interacts with a sound installation at the CCRMA exhibit, which showcased the work of Trimpin and his students, at the SOMARTS Gallery in San Francisco.

Trimpin (he lost the first name, Gerhard, sometime between adolescence and adulthood) is the son of a musician. A lesser tragedy, flipped into triumph, led to his creative destiny: A potential career in music was thwarted by an offbeat allergy to metal mouthpieces. He was forced to abandon a musical career – at least a conventional one.

It was a formative experience in abandoning conventional categories for Trimpin, who has a master's degree in electro-mechanical engineering from the University of Berlin. He migrated to Seattle in 1980. America, it turned out, was a better place to scavenge for the leftover gadgets and technological detritus he needed to create.

Trimpin still takes courses in welding, using machinery and computers. "Sometimes I'm more like a plumber," he said, using "pipes and thermodynamics and all this stuff." His residency at Stanford has included visits to classes in art, art history, product design and music.

The highly polished and integrated result is light-years beyond the usual multimedia shows. Bilfield discusses Trimpin's work in the context of Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total art work," a concept that meshes music, design, poetry and movement.

According to the Seattle Times: "Magical vision and technical ingenuity join forces in his work in ways that haunt, delight and confound. Trimpin's high-tech wizardry isn't computer music per se. What he does instead is use computers to bring familiar instruments and ordinary household objects to unfamiliar life."

For the average arts patron and culture vulture, Trimpin's work raises edgy questions about the future of the arts: What is the line, after all, between art and invention, ingeniousness and creation? Is "Wow!" an aesthetic emotion?

Clearly, words aren't his thing. But scrap metal, car parts, lasers, pulleys, cables and cast-off technological gimcracks are.

He will use them to make contraptions that extend way, way beyond human limitations – for example, a piano that no way could be played by 10 or even 20 fingers. And sometimes he goes beyond natural limitations, too – making even the elements sing.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,