Looking like a handyman with a flair for the surreal, internationally renowned Seattle sound artist Trimpin was putting the finishing touches to his latest project last week.
It’s called “You Are Hear” and consists of three bright-orange listening stations, installed along a concrete retaining wall in Olympic Sculpture Park, that the artist dubs “Music,” “Sound” and “Silence?”
Sitting on each station’s metallic seat, with oversized headphones on both sides, you can hear toy-piano music, or a simulacrum of ocean breakers, or subtle distortions of the ambient “silence” around you.
“You Are Hear” is the latest of the temporary installations that the Seattle Art Museum commissions each summer for the sculpture park. The choice of what to build was left wide open. So how did Trimpin, who goes only by his last name, come up with this idea?
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“I walked through the park and looked at what’s actually really going on,” he said. “As soon as I came in, I noticed that this long retaining wall was kind of bare.”
Looking west from the wall, is a fantastic view of Puget Sound and the Olympics. But Trimpin, perversely, oriented his listening stations eastward.
“I knew I wanted to do something different, in terms of perception,” he said. “You’re not facing this beautiful view. You’re actually facing some urban reality on this side.”
Of the three stations, “Silence?” may be the most puzzling for visitors. You have to bob your head to the left and right, getting your ear right up to the speakers, to even tell if it’s working.
“Of course, there is no silence anymore on this planet,” Trimpin said. “All the sound is literally piped in through a conduit pipe, through plumbing. … There’s a big funnel which is directed into the street, so you pick up just the sound coming from the traffic, from the train.”
Listeners will experience those sounds in real time, but with a marginal delay.
“It will be a learning process for the audience to notice what is actually going on — when they’re patient enough,” he added wryly.
The “Sound” listening station is more straightforward. On the other side of the wall, Trimpin has installed a 10-foot-long PVC pipe filled with small pebbles, connected via a pipe to the headphones.
“When it’s rocking, like it’s a teeter-totter,” he said. “It makes this kind of ocean sound.”
“Music” pipes in notes from an automated toy piano concealed in a box on the other side of the wall. It plays chords and glissandi, sometimes slowly, sometimes speeded up.
“Music coming out of nowhere,” he mused.
Tools in hand, Trimpin still had work to do last Wednesday.
“Today, I’m basically a plumber,” he joked. “I’m plumbing all the parts.”
What’s his aim with the piece?
“Getting your earphones out of your ears and getting your iPod away from you, and learning first what is going on,” he said. “It’s a gradual, very subtle kind of progression.”
One thing you notice at the park, apart from sounds, is smell: the sea-salt breezes wafting in off Puget Sound, the freight-train aromas nearby.
Was he tempted to incorporate smell in his installation in some way?
Not really. He once tried working with smell in the 1980s when the University of Washington asked for his help in incorporating an olfactory element in a virtual-reality helmet they were developing.
“The challenge was you can introduce small doses of the smells — but you cannot get rid of it,” he said. “They would end up being mixed together. … Since then, I thought: ‘No more smell. Smell is done. Just stay with sound.’ ”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org