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Computers and Music
Meeting held February 12, 2002

Meeting Photos 

Trimpin (that is his whole name) is an artist who creates sound or music producing artworks/sculptures/installations. His work was featured in the April 1999 issue of Smithsonian, and he has received Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships among others. 38 AES attendees had the opportunity to visit the studio-workshop of Trimpin on February 12, 2002, and hear him talk about his work, surrounded by a mind boggling array of electromechanical prototypes.

PNW Section Vice-Chair Lindsay Smith opened the meeting, and had everyone in attendence briefly introduce themselves. PNW Committeeman Bob Gudgel, a consultant to Trimpin, introduced the artist.

With a hint of his native Germany in his voice, Trimpin told how he grew up in Germany's Black Forest, which had devices such as electromechanical organs that fascinated him. He is interested in making creations that generate sounds or music acoustically, rather than synthesized or reproduced sounds through a speaker. He made an exception for an installation in Seattle's EMP (Experience Music Project), which features a 40 foot tower of guitars and other instruments. It can "robotically" play the guitars, but still uses guitar pickups and amps for the sound - which of course, hum. This was quite frustrating for him, and reinforces why he prefers creations which make acoustic sounds. In any event, he operated an array of his futuristic guitar prototypes for the EMP piece, which played a boogie-woogie-blues tune from a MIDI file which operated robotic fret fingers and motorized picks.

He played his portfolio videotape, which showcased several of his installations around the world.

He does not try to imitate human playing with his creations. Audience interaction, and what they see, hear and feel are concerns of his. The philosophy of his works is to create sounds naturally - no mics, no reproduced sound, as you can't recreate the feeling of naturally produced sounds from different locations in a large display area.

On of his early projects was in Berlin, made from a wire recording of speech. The wire was stretched across a room and tilted up and down while a balancing clown figurine rode the wire and played it, backwards and forwards, creating a conversation (some of it backwards). He would later try punched discs and cards as a controller for his works. By the late 70s, he moved on to a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer, and a large16 track data tape drive, and later a disc drive. In those days, these items were expensive.

He related problems with applying for grants. His drawings and descriptions would be submitted for an art grant, and they would tell him to submit it as a music project, and vice-versa. His projects never seemed to fit in, until interdisciplinary grants developed.

ALso nestled in the studio is a player piano - a regular grand piano with 88 electic "fingers" operated from computer instead of a roll. While not an original concept, he has worked to expand the possibilities. Some compositions have been written that humans cannot play, only a player piano. He played part of a compostion by ((composer here, from 40s??)) that Trimpin had worked on converting the original handmade piano rolls into his system.

Another project used an array of little toy pianos with controllers.16 composers had short pieces for the toy pianos. A coin box provided a means for the public to vote for what they wanted to hear. This was real surround sound, as he ran some toy pianos around the studio. This project was open to any composer with a 2 minute standard MIDI file. The coin box showed the most popular (disregarding the wags that tried to feed dimes instead of quarters) 1)John Cage, 2)Liberace, 3)xxxxx, proving that dead composers make the most.

Trimpin's fire organ is a real musical organ where real flames create the air column in the pipes. The flames show the actual acoustic turbulance.

His "Floating Klompen" installation is many wooden shoes with solenoid knockers inside, all set in a water pool, operated by audience interaction.

He finds great inspiration in junkstore finds. Teak milk bottles from a sideshow become tuned instruments. Anodized aluminum pipes become a high-tech marimba.

Drawings were shown of an intallation to go into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport - a sound construction surrounding 80 feet of moving sidewalk.

During the break for pop and cookies, the door prize of the AES Perceptual Coding CD went to Laura Jauriqui.

Trimpin gets much of his materials from surplus and junk dealers around the country. He may buy hundreds of solenoids or servo motors. This is the only way he can afford the research and development. When he sells an installation, parts must be new so they can be purchased for maintenance if necessary.

The EMP project forced him to complete it in 6 months instead of 7 years. "No problem" he told EMP. But he called Bob Gudgel (PNW AES Committee member) to say, "Bob, we have a problem." Even without budget limitations, he is not anxious to do that again. He has a year and a half to develop his current project.

Kinetic art must be engineered to be reliable. On-site field staff are usually not trained to maintain complex devices properly. Kids will be harder on buttons and such than adults. He has to occasionally visit his installations and repair them. Agreements are made for installations that there has to be a maintenance schedule. Engineering problems abound. For an installation with water dripping on drumheads, a special drumhead was needed, and they need to be tuned. The owners don't tune them. There is a problem with optical water level sensors. It turns out the water gets dirty and the sensors don't work. A typical mechanical sensor might have been better. EMP bass guitar picks break after 6 months.

There are always engineering problems to be solved in his works. Creating an artifical piano player is relatively easy, but violin simulation is harder. He once made artificial lips for a horn playing simulation. It was difficult to control the "lips" to get good dynamics. He does not work too deeply in the software, but figures hiring a programmer might have helped this problem had there been money. For the dripping water on drumheads construction, he had to develop valves that could drip reliably, on command. Nozzle material was problematic. Titanium finally worked. Then the air would split the drops as they fell. Using modified water helped. Cold vodka worked well, but was deemed impractical.

Before settling in Seattle, Trimpin was often travelling and hitchhiking from New York to Mexico. He found Goodwill and Salvation Army stores with their amazing wares. In Europe, second hand stores tend to have antiques, and the customer is NOT king! In the US, surplus equipment make it possible to experiment. He had been working set and sound design in a German theater (interestingly, with an American who had a life jail sentence commuted by then-Gov Jerry Brown, with the help of interested playwright Samuel Becket. The sentence was essentially for robbing a bank and wounding someone to support a theater. The story was shown in the 1987 Nick Nolte film, Weeds). He also played woodwind and brass, but developed an allergy to the instruments and had to quit, moving to non-contact music making. During his visits to the US in the 70s, he became convinced that he could best do his work in the US, with its excellent access to junk and surplus. Friends suggested Seattle rather than Salt Lake City, and he had acquaintences in Seattle where he could stay. His friend in Seattle bought an old telephone exchange building and converted it into artist spaces, where he worked until building his current studio 5 years ago.

In the1980s, he worked a month a year fishing in Alaska to support his work, plus doing contract jobs such as circuit board work. One has to send out proposals to get commissions. Only in the last 15 years or so has he made a living at this. He also makes kinetic art donation boxes for museums, to replace the typical plain plexiglass box with a slot. Sometimes he spends periods as Artist in Residence at an institution, such as San Francisco's Exploratorium.

Trimpin and the attendees lamented the passing of many techno-surplus stores in Seattle.

2004 will be Trimpin's 25th anniversary in Seattle. He is working on installing some of his works in an airplane hanger at Sandpoint in Seattle for public viewing. Curtains would separate things, with controlled audience movement, so works are not running simultaneously. He figures he will need at least 2 months or it is not worth it. All too often, a museum will want something installed in a few days, run for a short time, and dismantled quickly.

Reported by Gary Louie, PNW Section Secretary

Last modified 6/29/2002.