Contemporary composers are so routinely described as “crossing barriers” and “defying genres” that these tags have become meaningless clichés. But Trimpin genuinely resists categorization.
The familiar labels aren’t much help in trying to define his unusual career. Based in Seattle for over three decades, the German-born Trimpin follows a path that zigzags wildly, unbound by conventional parameters. He’s a kinetic sculptor working with sound, an installation artist, an inventor, an instrument builder who combines the insatiable curiosity of artist and scientist alike with the old-fashioned know-how of a craftsman.
Trimpin’s work can be encountered in museums (the tornado of guitars at EMP), in natural environments, and even in venues like Terminal A in Sea-Tac Airport, where travelers unwittingly activate his 80-foot-long kinetic sculpture of gadgets and instruments as they pass alongside on a rolling walkway. But his latest big project breaks new ground even for Trimpin. Receiving its Seattle premiere this Thursday through Sunday at On the Boards, The Gurs Zyklus is as unclassifiable as the MacArthur “genius” award-winning artist himself.
The Gurs Zyklus places his vision as a composer, inventor, and builder within the context of music theater. Originally commissioned by Stanford University’s Lively Arts program and given its world premiere there last May, the work has been reconfigured as a site-specific work for On the Boards. “It’s being presented as a three-sided staging and will feel very intimate in our main stage theater space,” says artistic director Lane Czaplinski. “You feel you’re inside the work, as in a sculpture, as opposed to on the outside watching.”
The production marks the first time since the early 1990s that On the Boards has hosted the work of Trimpin and of Obie Award-winning director Rinde Eckert, who is collaborating on the theatrical conception of The Gurs Zyklus. It’s an especially good fit, Czaplinski adds, since it represents “that in-between category which is the future of opera and music theater. People don’t yet know quite how to talk about it, but this is what we do at On the Boards.”
The creative process underlying the work, Trimpin explains, was fueled by a desire to transform the inert facts of history and information into “other forms of expression: notation, music, sound sculpture design, and performance.” It also represents the artist’s attempt to come to terms with memories that have haunted him since his childhood in a small town in southwestern Germany, where Gerhard Trimpin was born in 1951. (Long ago he officially lopped off his first name.) He recalls chancing upon an overgrown Jewish cemetery as a youngster and becoming intrigued by the Hebrew inscriptions on the headstones,” which he thought resembled “mysterious hieroglyphs.”
But the fate of the Jewish population was a taboo topic in those early postwar years. Eventually Trimpin learned that in October 1940 the Nazis had rounded up all of the town’s Jews and sent them by train to the internment camp of Gurs. Located to the southwest, in the French Pyrenees close to the Spanish border, Gurs was run by the collaborative Vichy government but had been operating since the 1930s, when the French first used it to control the influx of refugees from Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.
A profile of Trimpin by Jean Strouse called “Perpetual Motion” in the New Yorker in May 2006 caught the attention of Victor Rosenberg. His mother had come from the same hometown (Efringen-Kirchen ) and his uncle was interned at Gurs. Rosenberg contacted Trimpin, offering to let him access to a shoebox full of letters mailed from the camp to his father. This became the trigger for The Gurs Zyklus, which, says Trimpin, “is about the challenge of learning, deciphering, investigating, wanting to know more about what is happening.”
Other remarkable connections from Trimpin’s own experience began to illuminate the past. In the late 1980s he had become friends with fellow maverick composer Conlon Nancarrow, for example, but only later learned that Nancarrow himself had spent time as a prisoner at Gurs in its earlier phase, after fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against Franco’s Fascists. Trimpin decided to retrace the journey from his hometown to Gurs, recording the sounds of the train and the announcements at each stop. And as he was developing The Gurs Zyklus during a year-long residency at Stanford, by chance he encountered a local resident who had been sent to Gurs as a young boy.
All of these links to Gurs became strands of the work, which blends aspects of opera, oratorio, staged installation, and memory play. Its musical and symbolic elements range widely. Clicking castanets mimic a message being sent in Morse code as Spanish Fascists order the assassination of Federico García Lorca. This reference to the struggle in which Nancarrow took part — the score also incorporates his music — ominously foreshadows the darkness descending over Europe. Trimpin’s script and sequence of visual imagery draws from the Rosenberg letters. Along with their despairing reports of everyday conditions, the letters express a poignant hope for release from the camp.
The raw material gathered from his own trip to Gurs — the sounds of the train trip, the innocuous-sounding roll call of place names — provides the “information” that becomes transformed into a powerfully resonant narrative. Even the patterns on tree bark samples taken from Gurs are translated into musical notation, giving voice to these silent “witnesses” of what took place there.
Trimpin also uses instruments he has invented for other pieces, such as the “Fire Organ” — a contraption of glass tubes and Bunsen burners that emits sounds with a texture uncannily similar to the human voice. While interacting with his students at Stanford, Trimpin designed other mechanical elements specifically for The Gurs Zyklus, constructing the most intricate components in his three-storey studio in Madrona.
All of Trimpin’s projects share this one-of-a-kind aura. Yet while much of his work evokes a sense of delighted whimsy with the sheer bravura of its invention — a “Dr. Seuss,” as Czaplinski puts it —The Gurs Zyklus explores a dark past, pushing beyond the expressive limits of conventional instruments and easily digested narrative chronology. The essence of its dramaturgy lies in the metaphorical combinations of sound and visual images, of isolated memories that turn out to be interconnected. Site-specific acoustical perceptions are also integral to the piece.
“These are events that don’t make sense at first,” Trimpin remarks. How to decipher them “is then up to the individual. The audience’s understanding comes from their own interpretation of what they have just experienced.”
As it happens, two more examples of contemporary composers exploring metaphorical connections between sound and image are on the bill for Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO)’s season finale concert this Saturday at the Chapel performance space in The Good Shepherd Center. Titled Music on Paintings, the program features works by French composer Hugues Dufourt (born in 1943) and the American pioneer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Even if you’ve never heard their music, the enterprising Seattle Modern Orchestra provides an ideal entrée: they don’t simply perform a concert but contextualize each piece through engaging commentary.
The first half will present L’Asie d’aprés Tiepolo, a recent piece by Dufourt. L’Asie d’aprés Tiepolo was inspired by Allegory of the Planets and Continents, a gigantic mid-18th-century ceiling fresco Giovanni Battista Tiepolo created for a German castle in Würzburg.
Dufourt found “a sort of preliminary manifesto for the music of our time” in Tiepolo’s global vision — particularly in his representation of Asia and the “specter of speeds” of the fresco’s vast, dizzying composition. SMO cofounder Jeremy Jolley explains that Dufourt’s work moves from a distorted and unstable condition at the beginning “to something much airier that takes you inside, the way your eyes are guided towards the Olympian sky at the center of Tiepolo’s painting.”
While Dufourt’s composition engages with an old master artist, SMO's second piece is much more modern. American composer Morton Feldman was a personal friend of Mark Rothko. The year after Rothko’s suicide in 1970, he was commissioned to write a piece for the newly opened Rothko Chapel in Houston. Feldman’s luminous, meditative music was intended to accompany the space and atmosphere of the chapel itself, not just the Rothko canvases, says Jolley. “He reflects on the whole architecture, the way these paintings were arranged in that space and how to convey all these emotions in music.”
As usual with SMO, there’s no “standard” complement of musicians. Each score calls for a unique configuration: eight instrumentalists for the Dufourt, with the rare colors of bass oboe and contrabass clarinet as well as gamelan-like percussion; Feldman’s piece meanwhile is for viola, celesta, percussion, and mixed choir.
“Each work we perform reflects on the program’s theme in different ways,” says Jolley. “Here it’s the ways composers can interact with painting, and the varied relationships Dufourt and Feldman discovered to relate to painters from the past and present.”
If you go: Trimpin’s The Gurs Zyklus runs May 17-20 at 8:00 p.m. at On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, Seattle, (206) 217-9888. Tickets: $12-20.
Seattle Modern Orchestra presents its final concert of the season on Saturday May 19 at 8:00 p.m. in The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North, Seattle. Tickets: $10-18.