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Originally published Friday, January 25, 2013 at 5:01 AM

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Trimpin’s high-tech whimsy takes over Seattle’s Winston Wächter

Altered pianos and a “peepshow” are part of Seattle artist Trimpin’s new show, ‘Klavier-Stücke,’ running through Feb. 28, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibition review

Trimpin: ‘Klavier-Stücke’

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays through Feb. 28, Winston Wächter Fine Art, 203 Dexter Ave. N., Seattle; free (206-652-5855 or www.winstonwachter.com)

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Conlon Nancarrow only wrote two pieces for a prepared piano, the second one being for... MORE

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There are only five works on display in “Klavier-Stücke,” the new show by Seattle artist Trimpin at Winston Wächter Fine Art.

But together they comprise an imaginative universe that feels sufficient unto itself.

The German-born artist, who goes by his last name only, is a pioneer of computer-programmed mechanical instruments. His delightful sound sculptures have turned up at Suyama Space, the Henry Art Gallery and Consolidated Works. His best-known local installation may be “If VI Was IX,” a tower of “singing” guitars at EMP Museum that pays homage to Jimi Hendrix and other guitar heroes.

“Klavier-Stücke: Eins und Zwei,” the centerpiece of the Winston Wächter show, is another inventive piece of high-tech whimsy. It consists of two cannibalized pianos (no keyboard, no hammers — just the strings and sounding boards) rigged up to laptop controls that set them into action.

The installation, Trimpin said while working on it earlier this month, celebrates the centenaries of composers John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow, both of whom experimented with the prepared piano (a piano rigged with gadgets to enhance its sounds). Trimpin worked with Nancarrow toward the end of his life, and Nancarrow in turn was inspired by Cage, so there’s a real sense of lineage here.

“Klavier-Stücke: Eins und Zwei” is tricked out with spike-edged flywheels that pluck the piano strings, magnetic coils that set them vibrating without touching them, and even a small music box, nestled in the piano frame, whose tumbling melody is triggered by laptops hidden from sight.

Gallery visitors activate the piece in a neighboring room where 16 musical scores — each a different color — are mounted on the wall. In front of them, a mobile sensor registers their colors rather than their actual musical notation. With the press of a button, visitors can send color-coded messages next-door, bringing to life a whole variety of strange and delightful piano-interior sounds.

The idea, Trimpin says, was to extend the range of the prepared piano, using technologies that weren’t available to Cage and Nancarrow in their day.

He found most of the instrument’s components years ago at Boeing Surplus, which closed its warehouses in 2007 and moved its business online. “But that’s not the way to shop,” he says ruefully. “You have to be there in person to go through the junk.”

Nearby, “The Rocker” is a purple piano on its side, with metallic balls balanced on its strings. Visitors entering the room trigger a motion sensor that in turn propels the instrument into action.

“That’s also kind of Cage-like — sound by chance,” Trimpin says. “It’s always different, unpredictable, which ball is going first.”

Not everything in the show makes a noise.

“Instrumentarium” is an attractive silk-screen triptych depicting the brass instruments Trimpin used to play before he became allergic to metals 35 years ago.

A second silent piece, “Absit Invidia (no offense intended),” is a devilish piece of work.

“I was a little bit concerned about the future of how artwork is shown at museums,” he explains. The nightmare vision he came up with is of a “masterpiece” covered by a mirror. When you insert a coin in the coinbox at its side, the mirror is raised fleetingly, letting you see the art.

The “masterpiece,” in this case, is by king of kitsch Thomas Kinkade.

“It’s probably making history here,” Trimpin says amiably. “I’m sure Master Kinkade was never shown in this gallery.”

Trimpin points out that his apparatus could operate as easily with the swipe of the credit card as with coins. Either way, he’s sure this “peepshow” approach to viewing artwork is coming soon. With such brief viewing times, he acknowledges, museum visits could get expensive.

But that’s not a problem, he jokes, with “Absit Invidia.”

“For this ‘masterpiece’ it’s enough to have two seconds,” he says. “You don’t need more.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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