Sound artist and Seattle resident Trimpin's new work, "The Gurs Zyklus," will be staged at On the Boards from May 17 through 20, 2012.

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Young Gerhard Trimpin was playing with friends in his native Black Forest village of Efringen-Kirchen, Germany, when he made a startling discovery: a graveyard on the edge of town, with tombstones inscribed in Hebrew.

Now Seattle-based, the internationally hailed artist known simply as Trimpin recently recalled the event.

“We stumbled onto this overgrown place, with stones we couldn’t read. At home I asked my mother, what is that place? She said it was a Jewish cemetery. I said, what is Jewish? I had never heard of Jews.”

The incident would haunt him for decades. And it has inspired “The Gurs Zyklus” (“Gurs Cycle”), a new musical and multimedia piece created by Trimpin and collaborator Rinde Eckert, which opens in Seattle on Thursday.

Discussing his latest work in his Seattle studio, surrounded by musical instruments, art and history books, plastic toys, cabinets stuffed with gadgets and wires and widgets, Trimpin called the work “an act of remembrance” for a lost community.

His mother told him all the area’s Jews were taken by train in the early 1940s to Gurs, a camp in southwestern France, where 7,500 Jewish residents from Germany’s Black Forest region were temporarily interned in primitive conditions by the German and French governments.

At grammar school in the 1960s, Trimpin learned nothing of this, or of Germany’s horrific “Final Solution” campaign that annihilated 6 million European Jews during World War II. “Pages had been torn out of our history books,” he explained. “History basically stopped in 1933,” the year Hitler’s Nazi Party seized power in Germany.

An idiosyncratic composer, inventor, sculptor and tinkerer, Trimpin has left his mark on the Seattle landscape (where he has lived since 1980) with some fantastical sonic contraptions.

“On Monkeys, Matter and the King,” a kinetic musical device constructed from old instruments and toys, is on display on Concourse A of Sea-Tac. His 60-foot tower of hundreds of instruments, mainly guitars, is a major attraction at Seattle Center’s Experience Music Project.

“Gurs Zyklus” taps into the same source of inventive technology and imagination that fueled those works and won Trimpin a coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1997. But “Gurs,” for three vocalists, a narrator (writer-performer-director Eckert), a Trimpin-invented fire organ and other elements, holds historical and a special personal meaning for the artist.

Trimpin, 60, has maintained a lingering curiosity about Gurs, which he viewed as “a mystery town; nobody ever knew what happened there.” And he had a deep desire to create “an act of remembrance” for those sent there.

The camp was initially constructed in 1939 near the Basque town of Gurs as a place to detain political dissidents and refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War. One of those refugees was Trimpin’s late colleague, Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who fought with the anti-fascist International Brigade in Spain, and whose life and music are also referenced in “Gurs Zyklus.”

An encounter with a Jewish German-American, Victor Rosenberg, brought more inspiration. In a 2006 New Yorker magazine profile of Trimpin, Rosenberg read of the composer’s interest in Gurs. Rosenberg shared with Trimpin letters his immigrant father received from German relatives living in the camp.

“From Victor’s shoebox full of letters I learned much more than reading a history of the place,” Trimpin says. “Jews were told to come to the train station with one suitcase, they were taken away and robbed, treated worse than animals. The letters described the rain, the mud, the sicknesses in Gurs, and not having anything to do but sit around waiting for days and days.”

Trimpin says he wondered, “How is a society capable of getting to that point, to do these things? How is it possible?” He wanted to “try to comprehend this through a musical idea that would be a learning and healing process, and always a work in progress.”

“Trimpin has a different way of telling stories,” says On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski. “He thinks of time, of scale, and looks at a place and people through a different lens. He’s a really compassionate, intuitive man, and deeply affected by this subject matter.”

Over the years, Trimpin developed an abstract assemblage of live and mechanical music, integrated with video projections of a train trip he took, retracing the journey of Jewish deportees from Efringen-Kirchen to Gurs.

More inspiration came from Manfred Wildmann, who sought out Trimpin when “Gurs Zyklus” was being readied for its 2011 debut at Stanford University. “I told him, you know, I was on that train,” Wildmann recalled over the phone from his Menlo Park, Calif., home.

“Manfred had this incredible story,” Trimpin explained. “In 1940, when he was 10, his parents said they were going on vacation but they were really being deported to Gurs. Manfred remembered everything about the place vividly.”

Wildmann shared his boyhood sketches of the camp evoking the French Pyrenees landscape and the dreary barracks. In one drawing, young Manfred is stopped by a guard while smuggling a loaf of bread from one part of the camp to another.

“In the overall (Holocaust), what happened at Gurs was a small chapter, so it’s understandable it’s not so well-known,” said Wildmann. “But it’s big when you are in the middle of it.” (Wildmann survived the war in a French orphanage, but his parents and brother were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. He has detailed his family’s story at wildmannbirnbaum.com.)

In the spirit of all of Trimpin’s oeuvre, the evolving “Gurs Zyklus” is more impressionistic than literal, incorporating Wildmann’s memories along with teeter-totters equipped with speakers, two grand player-pianos, computerized camera work and Morse code.

At On the Boards, the audience will be seated in and around the instruments and performers, so “they can follow how the sounds are produced, and how they evolve from the kinetic objects,” said Trimpin.

He also hopes to bring the piece to Germany later. “I cannot tell the whole story of Gurs, but I can tell a fragment. And with this fragment the story will keep going. I am saying, this is what happened. It can never be forgotten.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com