Pitch—and picture—perfect 

Sound sculptor Trimpin composes the Clark Fork at MAM

Internationally renowned sound sculptor Trimpin stands in the Missoula Art Museum’s main gallery and asks quite sincerely, “Is this art? Is this a painting? Is this music? I don’t know what the people will think when they first walk in.”

Trimpin is a fascinating man of diminutive, confident stature. The German-born artist/musician/engineer, dressed in a black vest, beige button-down shirt and jeans, with a neatly trimmed beard and longish hair, asks his modest questions with a slight accent leftover from his homeland. The questions themselves are fair, maybe, but they completely sidestep the sheer magnitude of what Trimpin is creating inside MAM.

As he speaks, Trimpin (he uses only his last name) is dwarfed by an enormous topographical map of the Clark Fork River basin, which spans the length of one gallery wall, and he’s surrounded by 30 10-foot-tall tripods. The tripods hold bamboo rods attached to individual motors and contain a reed that’s been tuned to a specific note within a three-octave range. Each of these 30 tripods is situated above a triangular vat of Clark Fork River water; all together, the tripod contraptions take up almost the entire gallery. A narrow, floor-to-ceiling scanning device with 30 equidistant sensors is mounted on a roller in front of the map, and will soon run along the wall, catching light reflected from strategically placed CDs on the map, triggering the sensors to send a signal, via a computer Trimpin designed himself, to a corresponding tripod. This signal will drop the bamboo rod into the water and make an acoustic sound from the air rushing through the reed. When fully operational, the sculpture performs like an organic symphony conducted entirely by a map of the Clark Fork River.

Is this art? Is this painting? Is this music? No matter how viewers define Trimpin’s Sheng High Milltown, it’s certainly an impressive mix of artistic, musical and engineering moxie.

“When they read and listen and watch and get more information about what it is,” Trimpin says, “hopefully they will see what is here. It is about visualizing music. You are seeing and hearing at the same time. It is an acoustic event.”

Versions of Trimpin’s Sheng High have been displayed twice before in Washington state, but he specifically tailored the current installation to correspond with the impending removal of the Milltown Dam. In a project that is part Trimpin retrospective (MAM is the last stop in a two-year tour of Northwest venues honoring his first 25 years in America) and part homage to the dam’s historical importance (the exhibit is affiliated with the Missoula Museum Collaborative’s yearlong look at its removal), the artist sees his role as creating a gateway to discussion. He traveled to Missoula over the summer to visit the dam and get to know the surrounding environment, and he sees a parallel between the founding concept of his sound sculpture—that everything is connected—and the various economic and environmental impacts of the dam and the Clark Fork itself.

“It’s an abstract mural,” Trimpin says. “It is a learning process, just to see how it is all connected. To see how the light from the CD is connected to the scanner and the scanner is connected to the rod. It is a learning process, and my hope is to get a dialogue going over how everything is connected and to ask, why is this [the dam removal] going on?”

The beauty of Trimpin’s sculpture is that it’s rooted in relative simplicity. The scope of Sheng High Milltown seems staggering at first glance—a maze of handmade motors, computers, scanners and music theory—but when broken down section-by-section Trimpin can make it all seem extremely basic.

“It is no different from a player piano,” he says, explaining that instead of using paper music rolls, his invention uses light reflected off the CDs.

All the materials Trimpin employs are handmade or scavenged. For instance, all of the CDs were collected for free from Kinko’s. The motion sensor that triggers the scanner—it moves only when someone enters or moves within the gallery—is a commercially purchased “Driveway Alert” device that Trimpin reconfigured to fit his system. The scanners all run through a simple circuit board that Trimpin hand-made from parts found from junk piles, as are the motors on each tripod. When pressed about how he learned to craft such things, he finally says, “I had to read a lot of boring literature for a while.”

But much of the engineering and sound design comes easily to Trimpin. He started playing brass instruments at an early age under the tutelage of his father in Germany. A skin allergy, however, eventually left him unable to hold an instrument to his mouth, forcing him to find other ways to explore music. His creativity led him to construct spatial sound sculptures and, in 1979, to move to Seattle, because parts for his creations were easier to find in the United States.

Over the last 27 years, and especially recently, Trimpin has become well known for his elaborate work. He’s made headlines for such inventions as a 20-foot-tall tornado-shaped tower of electric guitars that, because of its height, allows the guitars to tune themselves via computer whenever the pitch is off. Seattle curator Beth Sellars organized his current Northwest retrospective and has plans to release a book on his life’s work next year. This past summer he was featured in The New Yorker, and he already has most of 2007 and 2008 booked with new installations. It all makes for an impressive résumé, but getting back to the artist’s original question, is any of it music? What, more specifically, will Sheng High Milltown sound like?

“I don’t know,” Trimpin says with a shrug.

He takes out a few worksheets showing the outline of the topographical map, each marked with musical notes—he calls this a graphical score—based on the map’s high and low points and where he expects to place the CDs.

“I have to make a decision over the next few days, whether the CD is here or it is here,” he says, speaking like a musician tuning his instrument as much as tweaking his composition. “I expect that it will sound different the first day than the second, but this is something I will need to figure out as we go along.”

Trimpin’s Sheng High Milltown debuts at MAM Thursday, Nov. 30, at 7:15 PM, and he will also be on hand the next evening for First Friday festivities from 6 to 8 PM. On Saturday, Dec. 2, families are invited to a morning reception at 10:30 AM. All events are free.


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