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Friday, September 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Visual Arts

Trimpin's creativity plays out at ConWorks

Seattle Times art critic

For the past several weeks, the gallery at Consolidated Works served double duty as a workshop and sound studio for Seattle artist Trimpin as he strung together the final stages of his first major new sound installation since the 1990s. When we dropped in for a preview, there was Trimpin, with two fat carpenter's pencils poking from his vest pocket and a shopping cart bristling with odd paraphernalia nearby, ready to improvise the final notes of his electronically activated, multifaceted instrument, "Sheng High."

It's a beautiful thing. The forest of tall bamboo tripods and 60-foot wall mural of shiny disks Trimpin calls "Sheng High" is hard to categorize but easy to love. Each tripod suspends a bamboo cylinder from it like a pot over a campfire. As sensors pass over a score on the wall, they activate the individual cylinders, which plunge into receptacles of water. This forces air through reeds to produce specific notes.

Ingenious? Naturally. But that's just the most obvious aspect of "Sheng High," an invention that has been in the works for four years and owes its soul to a 5,000-year-old Chinese instrument called the sheng. Trimpin says that in the 17th century, a European tourist to China was intrigued by the sheng and brought one home. The exotic Chinese reed instrument sparked the idea for such diverse European instruments as the accordion, the harmonica and the pump organ. And a couple of those instruments play a role in "Sheng High," too.

"I'm using a lot of accordion and pump-organ reeds," says Trimpin, citing his habit of collecting and salvaging old instruments. "I've had them since years and years."

"Sheng High" makes its debut tonight with a celebration starting at 8 p.m. Also on the lineup is jazz musician Paul Rucker's "Wall of Pieces," an interactive exhibition of drawings and compositions by Rucker that features recordings by more than 100 musicians. He and Trimpin will both be present for the opening; Rucker will perform on the cello.

Honoring Trimpin

ConWorks' "Sheng High" will surely be a high point of The Trimpin Project, a two-year tribute to the sound artist, inventor and MacArthur Foundation fellow who has made Seattle his home since 1979. The Trimpin Project, organized by independent curator Beth Sellars, kicked off in July when the Henry Art Gallery opened Trimpin's sound installation "Phffft" (which runs through Sunday).

Visual arts preview


"Sheng High," a kinetic sound installation by Trimpin, and "Wall of Pieces" by Paul Rucker, opening celebration at 8 p.m. today with food, drink and music; $10. Both shows continue noon-6 p.m. Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 2-8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, or by appointment, through Nov. 27, Consolidated Works, 500 Boren Ave. N., Seattle (206-381-3218 or www.conworks.org).

Note: Trimpin performs at ConWorks with the Seattle Chamber Players, 7:30 and 9 p.m. Nov. 16; $15, $12 for members and $10 for seniors and students (ticketwindowonline.com).

If you haven't yet experienced Trimpin's art or don't quite get what it is about, The Trimpin Project is aimed at recruiting you to a unique and joyful approach to art that allows sound and vision to resonate together. For those who are already Trimpin fans, the series serves up a broad array of his mind-boggling creations. Expect to hear a lot more of Trimpin over the next year and a half, as a group of Northwest museums and alternative art venues present a survey of his multimedia artworks and host concerts of his music.

You'll be reading more about him, too: The New Yorker magazine has plans to publish a feature on Trimpin later this fall. And at the end of The Trimpin Project, Marquand Books with the University of Washington Press will publish a book documenting the entire series of exhibitions.

Trigger effect

Meanwhile, count the awesome "Sheng High" as a must-do part of the fall arts season. In fact, it's just waiting for you to walk through the door. "Sheng High" activates each time a person enters the gallery, triggering a motion detector that prompts it to begin playing. "Playing," in this case, means setting in movement a scanning device that passes over a seemingly abstract design that, in fact, is the musical score of the piece: an arrangement of CDs and strips of recording tape running along a wall of the gallery.

A complete scan of the composition takes about 20 minutes.

Those CDs and recording-tape strips function as "metaphoric memory," says Trimpin. Think of it as a player piano score, but in this case, each line of the score connects to a pipe, which produces a pitch through one of those salvaged reeds.

The first part of the composition is designed to create both a striking visual pattern and a particular set of musical chords.

But as the scanner continues across the wall, both the visuals and the arranged sound begin to break up. Trimpin improvised by disrupting the scanner with strips of audio tape and fragments of CDs in uncalculated patterns. He designed the piece for 30 pipes, but the wall at ConWorks is only tall enough to accommodate 27 lines, so in this first installation, three pipes will be assigned notes that double up with others.

For Trimpin, such flexibility is a practical matter. "In all of my installations, I don't just design for a particular space because they have to fit other places as well," Trimpin said. When "Sheng High" is reinstalled next year in Pullman at the Washington State University Museum of Art, Trimpin will arrange the score on a wall that is 30 feet longer than at ConWorks — and you can bet he will use the extra space to try out new sounds.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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