Very Sound Art 

Just what is Conloninpurple? You’ll have to hear for yourself

Somewhere on Puget Sound there are some tuned tubes, hanging or free-standing, I’m not sure, that make noises—or produce pitches, or emanate predetermined tonalities, if you want—whenever the wind blows. Often, there is no one there to hear them. They were just put in place and then everyone went away, leaving the tubes to harness their sounds and accomplish whatever their cosmic work might be, much as fixed sets of bamboo tubes in ancient China were thought to capture chi, that invisible ether-stuff already floating around everywhere (pre-existent to any human blowing or strumming), the proper snagging of which was directly related to large-scale social harmony or the lack thereof.

The proper art/music term for projects such as the wind tubes on Puget Sound is “sound installation,” which doesn’t sound quite right, although it does take away the New Age patina. The “installation” part, though, makes the whole thing sound overly determined and self-consciously grim. Self-conscious these works might be, but in a good way, in my mind, in that they take the top off the neat space we’ve allocated for “music” in our brains and let whatever is in there skitter out all over the place, pricking our senses indiscriminately. This need not be grim, though I suppose it feels that way for conservative aesthetes.

Which is not what you’d call the artist still known as Trimpin (like the artist-formerly-known-as-Prince, he has one name).

Here are some features of MacArthur Fellow Trimpin’s Conloninpurple, currently showing at the Art Museum of Missoula:

a. Like a Javanese or Balinese gamelan, it is a collection of tuned wooden bars and metal resonators, which

b. can sound almost digitized, but are indeed human-controlled, with the sound acoustically generated (the Trimpin creation, though, does

c. involve an electronic impulse (triggered by the player) which triggers the little mallet that hits the tuned wooden bar which then resonates and is amplified by the trombone-looking metal part, and

d. the whole conglomeration is visually beautiful (if I may simply assert that and not say why), and it is

e. very purple (the name of the exact shade of which you’ll wish you could remember), and

f. it is referred to in the singular.

Instead of “sound installation” you could call the thing “sound art”—but that isn’t great either; it makes “sound” sound secondary to “art,” while obscuring both. It also begs the question of whether this exhibit/event couldn’t just as appropriately have been hosted by the music department at the university or even—here’s an idea—by Hellgate Conoco, if they had a spare garage. Terminology seems to get more awkward and fraught the closer you get to the borders of convention in the art/sound world/sensibility, but the physical borders get more nicely pliable, and more numerous in their possibilities. Maybe to get at an understanding of Trimpin’s sort-of-difficult-to-talk-about “art” (shorthand OK?) it should be experienced—chiefly—and anywhere—preferably—instead of intellectually construed in the more familiar art settings. (There are some people, of course, including me, I guess, who will always find attempts at the second activity lots of fun.)

When I saw and played the Conloninpurple, I tried to turn the volume down, which may have manifested a complete lack of understanding of what the whole thing was about. Let’s see what we can learn from the reactions of others, as recorded in the Museum’s visitor book. (The name “Conloninpurple,” by the way, is in honor of Conlon Nancarrow, a ’50s composer who, within the pull-out-the-stops musical milieu set by John Cage, did complex things with player pianos.)

The Museum’s visitors’ book reads as follows:

“Form or function? Do the means matter?”

“Lookin’ forward...”

“Cool stuff...”

“Fantastic; exalting; art and music, fantastic!...”

“Fascinating, interesting, great, wow! I could spend hours here...”

“Color me purple...”

“Weird stuff...”

“Wonderful! ...”

“I like the Noise!”

How many people say “color me purple,” or “I like the Noise!” in response to the symphony? Well, that’s not important—different sounds, different conventions for their conveyance, different conventions for our response, etc., etc. Seemingly emotive reactions to works like Trimpin’s can, in fact, be intellectual, because Trimpin-like creations—which rely on a minimally structured randomness (or “nonsense as sense,” as Steve Glueckert from the Missoula Museum puts it) are indeed about form, function, weirdness, noise, means, and “stuff.” (Trimpin’s instruments are made from junk—piping, soft drink cans; one of the purported reasons he moved to the United States from Germany is that in the States the junk is more accessible.) I think that what matters in the end is just the way works like Trimpin’s jolt us a bit and make us muse about sound, experience it and think of it as both inside us and “out there.”

See Conloninpurple in the First Floor Gallery of the Art Museum of Missoula through April 19. Call 728-0447.

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