s an elementary-school kid in his native Germany, Trimpin was told in no uncertain terms that he was an intellectual dud. "The fourth-grade teacher told...

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As an elementary-school kid in his native Germany, Trimpin was told in no uncertain terms that he was an intellectual dud.

“The fourth-grade teacher told me I was one of the greatest failures. She said I never would make it as a construction worker’s helper,” Trimpin recalls in his lilting German-inflected English. “She said in a letter home that something was wrong with my logical thinking. It was quite off.”

That’s what happens sometimes when ordinary minds are called upon to recognize extraordinary abilities.

Trimpin, now 53, is internationally known as a multifaceted creative force — composer, inventor, sound artist and sculptor — whose work won him a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1997. He has lived in Seattle since 1979. To honor his 25 years in the region, a group of Northwest institutions have launched “The Trimpin Project: A Two-Year Presentation of Sound,” beginning this weekend with an installation of “Phffft” at the Henry Art Gallery.

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Mind-boggling is a good way to describe the zany contraption of skinny tubes, hefty pipes, duck calls, whistles and horns — an automated wind ensemble that produces 200 specifically tuned natural-sound components, no synthesizer or amplification required. Stand at the doorway looking in and the arrangement of shapes has a kind of elegant symmetry. Get a little closer and you’ll see the funky, makeshift splendor of the stuff involved: cardboard tubes painted with a metallic sheen, plywood stands imitating fabricated metal, big orange clusters of long-necked horns like something Renaissance angels would use to announce a heavenly arrival.

Visitors can fiddle the dials of “Phffft” to alter the pattern of air-bursts that create a strange sweet music — and marvel at the intricacies of the mind that invented such a happy aggregate of sights and sounds. Standing in the room with “Phffft” is a joyful thing, like the sensory thrill of a carnival.

Provoking synesthesia

Much of Trimpin’s artwork is hard to categorize and meant to provoke a multisensory experience related to the neurological phenomenon synesthesia, in which the stimulation of one sense creates a joint response in another. For Trimpin, sounds are sometimes accompanied by complex visualizations as well, akin to the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian. He says the visual aspect of his sound sculptures can act “in an abstract way to let the audience see how they comprehend this in their mind.”

The Trimpin Project

Among the exhibitions and events scheduled:

“Phffft” The Henry Art Gallery, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, extended hours until 8 p.m. Thursdays, through Oct. 2 at 4100 15th Ave. N.E. Seattle (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org).

“Sheng High” Consolidated Works, 500 Boren Ave. N., Seattle. Sept. 30-Nov. 27.

“Fire Organ” Museum of Glass, Tacoma. Dec. 14, 2005-April 16, 2006. Trimpin will be artist in residence Feb. 8-12 at the museum’s hot shop.

Archival Investigations” Jack Straw productions, Seattle. Jan. 6-Feb. 24, 2006.

“Shhh” Suyama Space, Seattle. April 28-July 28, 2006.

“Klavier Nonette” Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Vancouver, B.C. June 23-July 2, 2006.

“Klompen” The Frye Art Museum, Seattle. July 14, 2006-Jan. 14, 2007.

“Conloninpurple” Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma. Sept. 26, 2006-Jan. 28, 2007.

In “Fire Organ,” flames inside handblown glass vessels and Pyrex tubing create different sounds, depending on the length of the tube and the temperature of the flame. Trimpin created the piece as an artist-in-residence at Pilchuck in the 1990s and will reinstall it at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass in December. He says the way the piece looks and the way it sounds cause a parallel effect.

“When you add oxygen to flame, it changes from yellow to blue. Then you see this wildly oscillating flame,” he said. “A blind person and a deaf person would hear it and see it, and afterwards you could ask both what they experienced and it would be very similar.”

From doodles to studio

In creative circles, it’s practically a cliché: the cocktail napkin scrawled with a poem or the opening notes of a song. For Trimpin, it’s a way of life. He hordes a folder full of napkins he has saved to initiate new projects, assorted shapes and sizes of paper, even cloth ones, scrawled with musical notes and graphs, images and words. Everywhere he goes, Trimpin doodles. “I have pages and pages about ideas,” he said. “When I’m traveling, waiting somewhere, I never waste any time. My pencil is out sketching. There’s always something going on.”

Seated in Trimpin’s Central Area studio with a large kinetic sculpture whirring above us, surrounded floor to lofted ceiling with books, papers, instruments, puppets, and all the electronic paraphernalia of his hard-to-classify trade, it’s clear he likes to scavenge and save things. But the place isn’t cluttered. Everything seems to be carefully classified and stored. Trimpin jumps up often to get something that will illustrate what he is talking about. This time, he returns with a computer illustration of his concept for “Sheng High.”

Though all the installations in “The Trimpin Project” will be showing locally for the first time, “Sheng High,” is the only newly-commissioned work, an arrangement of 40 bamboo pipes anchoring a forest of tall bamboo tripods that people will be able to walk among. Trimpin’s “score” for the pipes is noted on the wall, and the pipes play as a scanner passes over the notes, represented by CDs.

Trimpin events

Trimpin lecture: 7 p.m. Thursday. The artist talks about his work. Henry Art Gallery Auditorium. Free.

Open Studio: 2-4 p.m. July 10 and 6-8 p.m. July 17. Trimpin will be in the Henry Art Gallery to play his sound sculpture “Phffft” and talk about his work. Free with museum admission.

Local permanent installations:

“If VI Was IX”: 1999, at Experience Music Project.

“Hydraulis”: by Trimpin and Clark Wiegman, 1995, KeyArena, Seattle Center.

“DipTipDip”: 2003, Washington State Convention and Trade Center, Seattle.

“On Monkeys, Matter and the King”: 2004, Sea-Tac Airport’s Concourse A.

Sheila Farr

“Sheng High” is slated to open Sept. 30 at Consolidated Works, south of Lake Union. In 2007, at the completion of The Trimpin Project, Marquand Books with the University of Washington Press will publish a book documenting the entire series of exhibitions.

Fixing “broken stuff”

The abundance of discarded materials in the United States is what convinced Trimpin to move here. In Europe, he says, people don’t throw useful things away. In the late 1970s, he was hitchhiking in the South and got robbed in Alabama. “I had nothing. Police told me I had to spend the night at a Salvation Army shelter,” he recalls. In the morning, after an initial mix-up over his height and weight (which he provided in metrics), they gave him clothing. “It was my first introduction to a Salvation Army store. I was spending hours! The musical instruments, hardware, radios, broken stuff — like, god, it’s heaven. So inexpensive.”

Growing up in Istein, near the Swiss border, Trimpin had the pleasing duty of scavenging the town dump for old radios and other useful stuff. “I was always fascinated by finding small objects as a kid. I was making sculptural objects when I was 10 years old.” He figured out how to hook pulleys together so that when one part would move, all would move, and he added elements of Morse code and high-pitched sound. How did he know how to do it? “I don’t know,” he says.

It makes sense, though, given that his father was a cabinetmaker and musician, and his grandfather built the first radio in town. “There were always tools around,” Trimpin says. He remembers his father building a waterwheel that played music with a little hammer on sardine cans.

“Always average”

When it came to school, though, Trimpin tuned out. “I was always average or below average,” he said. “I was only interested to learn certain things and I rejected other parts. I just learned what I needed to learn.” He avidly studied music and learned how to play brass and woodwind instruments, planning a career as a musician, but at the age of 15, he developed a reaction to some material in the mouth pieces that made playing impossible.

Instead, in the mid-1960s, he signed up at a school for electro-mechanical engineering geared to the telecommunications field, whose recruiters had dazzled him with talk of radar screens, signals from outer space: equipment that could receive information from places unknown. “I thought, that’s something I want to learn more about,” Trimpin said. In fact, what he got was much more basic, skills like blacksmithing, welding, fabrication. Later, he got a university degree in Berlin, studying social work, theater and art.

Trimpin insists, though, that most of his real education happened outside of school — reading, listening, looking, going to performances. Living near Basel, Switzerland, Trimpin was familiar with the captivating kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely, who became famous in this country for his dramatic self-destructing machine “Homage to New York” unleashed by the artist in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. “Tinguely was always, I wouldn’t say an influence, but I was very attracted to his work,” Trimpin said.

No gallery shows

In the music world, Trimpin cites the late American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who lived in Mexico City.

“He composed very complex music which only could be played on player pianos,” Trimpin said. “He has so many tempos going simultaneously, nobody could play it by hand … You couldn’t listen to this music to entertain yourself, sipping cocktails.”

Trimpin became friends with Nancarrow in Mexico and devised a machine that could archive all the composer’s work, and performed with him in 1989 at the New Music America festival in New York. Trimpin’s composition and installation “Circumference” grew out of that performance. Trimpin since was commissioned to compose music and design set elements for choreographer Merce Cunningham’s piece “Installations” performed here in 1996.

Unlike a painter or sculptor, Trimpin doesn’t have gallery shows to sell his art. A museum exhibition, even for an installation that was previously commissioned, requires a big commitment of time and resources just to cover the crating, shipping and time it takes to reconstruct all the complicated visual and sound components.

Trimpin usually gets by on grants and the proceeds from earlier commissions, often using the money from one to help cover the costs of another. When he won the MacArthur fellowship, which comes with a sizeable cash award, many people assumed he was instantly wealthy. “As soon as it was publicized I got so many calls from financial advisors asking what are you doing with the money,” Trimpin said.

In fact, the money didn’t come in a lump sum but in five annual installments of around $53,000, Trimpin said.

“Everybody thought I’m probably rich but all my friends made more than $50,000. I treated it as my yearly salary and didn’t apply for any grants. I financed several projects that no one was funding before,” he said. “The great thing was it was the first time I had a credit card and could call up a company and order something for my work.”

So much for the MacArthur “genius” award putting a person on easy street. But what about that “genius” part? I couldn’t resist asking Trimpin his IQ.

He looked puzzled.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s probably low.”

Sheila Farr:


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