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Originally published Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Trimpin book salutes artist's contraptions, sound

"Trimpin: Contraptions for Art and Sound" is an opulent coffee-table scrapbook of the Seattle inventor-composer's career. A publication party is June 24, 2011, at Town Hall.

Seattle Times arts writer

COMING UP

'Trimpin: Contraptions for Art and Sound'

6 p.m. Friday, Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
quotes Thanks for writing about this affable genius.. So few Seattle-area residents are aware... Read more

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More than 20 years ago, I had the rare luck of encountering the world of Trimpin, the Seattle-based artist whom David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet describes as "an instrument-builder, sculptor, inventor, composer, scientist, and thing-finder."

The occasion was "Circumference," a piece performed on an oval-shaped framework roughly 100 feet in diameter. On it were rigged garbage-can lids, circular sawblades, dryer exhaust vents and other household items, along with more conventional percussion such as timpani, xylophones, tambourines and castanets.

The whole shebang was brought to life through computer wizardry. But the sound wasn't synthesized. Instead, it came strictly from the objects themselves, as dozens of mallets went to work on them. The audience sitting in the center of this timbre machine heard performances of both a Trimpin composition and some Conlon Nancarrow player-piano studies transcribed for it, in an evening of pure technological and musical wizardry.

If Trimpin had never done another thing in Seattle, I would have been left with a lifelong curiosity about the man behind this astounding setup. But Trimpin has been a playful presence on the Seattle scene ever since, installing elaborate contraptions at Sea-Tac Airport, KeyArena and, most famously, EMP, where his tower of guitars, "If VI were IX," pays homage to Jimi Hendrix and other guitar heroes.

Hanging onto the Trimpin experience can be difficult, however. He refuses to allow anyone to record his music. A terrific documentary about his work, "Trimpin: The Sound of Invention," was made in 2009, but won't be out on DVD until the fall.

That makes "Trimpin: Contraptions for Art and Sound," edited by Anne Focke (Marquand Books/University of Washington Press, 200 pp., $40) all the more welcome. It's an opulent overview of Trimpin's career, packed with color photos of one fanciful project after another, many accompanied by comments from Trimpin himself. More than a dozen critics, curators and musicians also hold forth in what amounts to a copious Trimpin scrapbook.

Trimpin was born Gerhard Trimpin in Germany in 1951 and moved to Seattle in 1979, partly because "Americans throw out a lot more of the high-tech junk he uses in his work than Europeans do," as writer Jean Strouse noted in a New Yorker profile of him. The other reason for the move was that while visiting here he met the woman who was to become his wife. They now live in Bellevue.

"Trimpin: Contraptions for Art and Sound" covers his boyhood delight in workshop projects using recycled materials, his fascination during adolescence with the sound-producing kinetic sculptures of Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, his immersion in the 1970s Berlin arts scene, his move to Seattle and his subsequent honors (in 1997, he won both Guggenheim and MacArthur "genius grant" fellowships). Initially a flugelhornist, he had to give up brass-playing because of an allergy he developed to metals.

It's terrific to have the visual record of Trimpin's career that the book offers. But the best thing about it is hearing Trimpin in his own words.

"My work is always visualizing sound," he says. "A blind person can hear the movement and a deaf person can see it. You don't have to understand the science of harmony, sine waves, pitches, and timbres to feel the impact of melodic, percussive sounds."

As for his refusal to allow his music to be recorded, it reflects his feelings about how all music should be heard. His response to one composer who gave him a recording of her work is both endearing and illuminating: "Thank you! I will treasure the memory of hearing your music live, and this unopened CD will be a lovely reminder."

In the case of his own work, it's safe to say that the experience of seeing and hearing it live couldn't possibly be reproduced on an audio recording. Trimpin will surely confirm as much at a party at Town Hall Seattle on Friday, where he'll provide "a musical interlude" on one of his contraptions, along with a sneak peek at new projects he has in hand.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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