Trimpin: Seattle’s Most Innovative Piano Man

The noted "sound sculptor" unveils two new ways to experience his marvelous work

By Seattle Mag December 10, 2012


This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Seattle magazine.

One of Seattle’s most renowned artists—boasting a MacArthur “Genius” award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an extensive profile in The New Yorker and a documentary about his work—remains largely unknown in his adopted home city. But even those who haven’t heard of sound sculptor Trimpin (who goes by his last name only) have probably heard Trimpin’s work. The 61-year-old German-born composer/inventor/mad musical scientist is the mastermind behind “If VI Was IX: Roots and Branches,” the towering tornado of self-playing guitars at EMP, as well as “On Matter, Monkeys and the King,” the Rube Goldbergian kinetic musical contraption housed in an 80-foot-long glass case on Concourse A at SeaTac airport.

These two highly visible pieces barely scratch the surface of Trimpin’s heralded body of work, which deserves the instant name recognition of, say, Chihuly. Yet there is no Trimpin Museum. He has lived and worked in Seattle since 1980, but tends to fly under the mainstream radar for many reasons: He shies away from the limelight, preferring to devote every waking minute to inventing new contraptions in the cabinet of wonders that is his Madrona studio. Each piece is painstakingly conceived and executed (and often room-size), and he refuses to outsource their construction. He is uninterested in creating something that will “sell” to art collectors, hence, he has no gallery representation, and since his sound sculptures are interactive and kinetic, they require maintenance, a task for which museums generally lack funds.

He does not allow his music to be professionally recorded—he creates each sound sculpture for a specific environment.

Additionally: Trimpin’s avant-garde music, which can consist of carefully timed honks, dissonant chords, scrapes, flutters, clops and crashes, while entirely fun to watch, isn’t what you’d call catchy. And though his work is founded on capturing sounds, he does not allow it to be professionally recorded—he creates each sound sculpture for a specific environment and believes it must be experienced live, in that space, in acoustic surround sound.

All of which makes it especially exciting that there are two new ways for locals to experience Trimpin’s genius. In Seattle, Winston Wächter Fine Art is showcasing a new installation this month—marking the first time he has ever shown his work in a private gallery. Called “Klavier-Stücke” (meaning “piano pieces,” a double entendre like many of his titles), the piece is an homage to fellow experimental sound pioneers John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow (both of whom were born in 1912; Trimpin collaborated with Nancarrow toward the end of his life). Cage is known for his “prepared piano” pieces, in which he attached paper clips, coins, pieces of paper—basically the detritus at the bottom of your purse—to piano strings, greatly altering the sound. Nancarrow’s interest was the player piano and manipulating its roll to create works far too complex for human hands to perform.

A consummate recycler who reconfigures hardware from past installations and pianos found free on Craigslist, Trimpin will use three deconstructed pianos in “Klavier-Stücke” (they may be piled on top of each other). He always adds high-tech computer engineering to his acoustic inventions; in this case, the compositions are triggered by a motorized arm housing a color sensor, which scans a series of silkscreened prints hung on the gallery wall and translates the colors into musical signals. This Dr. Frankenstein approach changes the pianos’ essence and, as he says, “gives them a new life.”

One of the questions Trimpin asks himself about all his work is, “How can I visually represent the music and sync it with the aural experience?” He begins with elaborate sketches of how the sound should feel, given the architecture of the space. These drawings are works of art in and of themselves—beautiful explosions of notes and shapes and colors that magically convey what music looks like.

Another crucial aspect is allowing for audience interactivity. “There has to be engagement,” says Trimpin, who after studying classical music at the University of Berlin earned a masters degree in occupational therapy and invented a keyboard that disabled people could play by moving a lightstick with their mouths. “A listener should explore something they haven’t before,” he says, which is why his artwork includes audience-operated triggers (a joystick, a hand wheel, an iPhone app).

Listeners will get the chance to do such exploration on a regular basis at the other new place to experience the artist’s work: Trimpin’s Mighty Tieton Sound Space, a gallery/workshop/laboratory/performance space in Tieton, Washington, just outside of Yakima. Housed in a former apple storage room in the fruit warehouse that has been converted into the Mighty Tieton arts venue, the Sound Space welcomes visitors to listen to and engage with several of Trimpin’s previous works. This month he’ll complete the installation of “Klompen” (suspended wooden clogs embedded with hammers that knock out a pleasing percussion) and “Phffft” (an active, airborne array of deconstructed duck calls, flutes, heating ducts and pitch pipes). Dubbed a “destination sound art space,” the venue could be the Trimpin museum we’ve always wanted.

Klavier–Stücke: 1/15–2/28. Free. Winston Wächter Fine Art, 203 Dexter Ave. N; 206.652.5855;

Trimpin’s Mighty Tieton Sound Space: Ongoing. $5. 608 Wisconsin Ave., Tieton, WA; Contact to ensure access.


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