Seattle Symphony commissioned a site-specific piece from Trimpin, the sound-and-motion wizard, and he obliged with “Above, Below and In Between,” which will be performed all around Benaroya Hall’s lobby on Friday, May 1.
Twenty-five years ago, I had the good luck to attend my first Trimpin concert, where his piece, “Circumference,” was performed on a tall circular scaffold roughly 100 feet in diameter. From it hung plastic pitchers, galvanized pails, circular saw blades and other found instruments, along with more conventional percussion — cymbals, xylophones, castanets — all activated by computer.
A rich spaghetti of electrical wiring connected the components of this timbre machine. The audience sat in the middle, and once the Seattle composer-inventor began typing keyboard commands, an antic and enchanting musical landscape burst into life around us.
I’ve been a Trimpin devotee ever since — so it’s a thrill to see him join forces with the Seattle Symphony as its latest composer-in-residence. His new piece, “Above, Below, and In Between,” premieres at Benaroya Hall on May 1 as part of the orchestra’s experimental “[untitled]” series.
Seattle Symphony and Trimpin: ‘[untitled]’
10 p.m. Friday, May 1, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $20 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
“Above” continues the same exploration of how sound moves through space that “Circumference” did — with two new factors. It features nine symphony players and a guest soprano (Jessika Kenney), and the “automated” instruments will be activated by music director Ludovic Morlot using the motion-sensing device Kinect.
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The symphony’s commission asked for a site-specific composition for Benaroya’s Grand Lobby, where Morlot began staging concerts in 2011.
Trimpin, a 1997 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow who goes only by his last name, was born in Germany in 1951 but has lived in Seattle since 1979. This symphony commission, he says, has much to do with the arrival of Morlot as music director. “Suddenly there was a different repertoire available at the Symphony which was way more attractive to me.”
One perk of the “[untitled]” series, he adds, was that you could walk around during the concerts. “So I noticed, at different locations, different sounds.”
The lobby’s semicircle of nine towering columns especially appealed to him. The piece’s live musicians — two double bassists, three trombonists, two cellists, two violists — will stand on the balcony directly over each column, maximizing the lobby’s spatial-acoustic possibilities.
The mechanically triggered instruments, it should be stressed, aren’t synthesizers but a prepared piano, a chime installation and custom-built “reed horns.” The piano is Trimpin’s own baby grand tricked out with “robotic devices” that strike the strings at specified rhythms and intensities.
There are also magnets placed near the piano strings that, without physically contacting them, make them vibrate in an eerie, ominous manner. (“The symphony is quite glad I’m not fooling around with their pianos,” Trimpin jokes.)
The Kinect, which allows Morlot to “conduct” these mechanized instruments, has a 3-D camera that reacts to him raising his arms up and down. Morlot is delighted with the “hilarious” way you turn the Kinect off — by waving your arms frantically at it.
The Kinect was originally designed for use in gaming. “But I try to use this piece of equipment to make music,” Trimpin quips. “No killing, no shooting.”
He adds that it’s very precise — except when a second person comes near it.
“We have to have Ludo on a very high podium, so when somebody walks behind it doesn’t get confused and start the piano.”
“Above” is in six movements with sounds coming from all over the lobby: “The space, the musicians, the instruments — it’s almost like a choir singing.”
Each movement, he adds, investigates ideas that started more as pictorial images in his mind than musical content. He envisaged the chimes, for instance, as “almost like rain coming down.”
On the program with “Above” are three works by George Perle, to be played in the main concert hall at Benaroya with the audience onstage with the musicians.
Morlot sees the two composers as complementary opposites: “Perle being American embracing the tradition and being influenced by European voices, Trimpin being European embracing new ideas from American voices.”
As a student, Morlot met Perle at the Boston Symphony: “I remember having a lot of intense coaching sessions and rehearsals with him. And then I brought one of his big orchestra pieces to the Boston Symphony summer concerts as well.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, who died in 2009, would have been 100 years on May 6. Morlot is programming his “Molto Adagio,” “Critical Moments (No. 1)” and Serenade No. 3 as an homage to him. The latter piece, a piano concerto for chamber orchestra, features soloist Michael Brown who, Morlot says, “masters this music like no one else.”
For Trimpin fanatics, however, “Above” will be the May 1 concert’s highlight, and Morlot clearly shares our Trimpin-mania.
“He’s a big kid,” he says, “and I think it’s infectious. … When people ask me to describe him, I just say he’s maybe the genius that everybody in Seattle ought to know. We don’t quite realize what kind of figure we have here.”