Contraptions and Sound Ideas

Trimpin Brings His Musical Machines to Ojai

by Josef Woodard

Last year at the historic, ever-provocative Ojai Music Festival, the unexpected highlight of the festival came early, when the Bugallo-Williams piano duo performed dazzling live human transcriptions of the “Studies for Player Piano” by Conlon Nancarrow. The celebrated, late, great American innovator created remarkable and complex music from the 1940s through his death in 1997, painstakingly punching out rolls for his player pianos in his Mexico City home, where he expatriated after suffering political and musical oppression.

Ojai’s tribute to Nancarrow continues at this year’s festival, running from June 8-11, mostly at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl. This year’s Nancarrow homage comes courtesy of one of his most famous fans, the unique composer, and installation and sound artist, Trimpin. Tonight at Libbey Bowl, Trimpin will “perform” some of Nancarrow’s human musician-defying scores with an elaborate apparatus that takes the data from Nancarrow’s original rolls and “plays” them, via the computer MIDI language, on a grand piano for a live audience to hear. Trimpin also presents his interactive installation piece “Conloninpurple” at the Ojai Valley Museum.

Though he remains an ardent champion of Nancarrow’s music, Trimpin is becoming evermore a name to be reckoned with on his own. “Once in a while, when I’m asked — like at Ojai — I perform his work on a regular piano, but lately, I’m more involved in public artwork and different kinds of installations, not just related to Nancarrow’s work.”

Trimpin (he has just gone by one name for many years) recently spoke from his workshop in Seattle, a space where he spends long hours tinkering with concepts, circuitry, and other implements and materials of a new kind of sound-art sculptor.

Considering your interest in music, machinery, and inventing your own methods, it makes sense that you would naturally become fascinated with Nancarrow’s work. Was it something of a “light bulb” moment when you discovered his music? Yeah. When I heard it for the first time, in the late ’70s, it was on a radio program. I could immediately hear that this music was more spatial music and that’s what Nancarrow always tried to do — to have it more separated. But, of course, he could only use player pianos. I was immediately fascinated with his music, which was the reason I got in contact with him. In the beginning, he was a little bit suspicious. He said, “Well, other people have tried before to transcribe this information in a computer database.” But of course, they used the scores he was writing, and the scores are not really representing the time information that was punched into the paper roll. It was too difficult to transcribe it from the notation into a computer program. That’s the reason I used the original player piano rolls to capture this information in real time.

It is part of the fabric of your art to design the machinery on which the music and sound are made, isn’t it? Right. Since you cannot get this commercially or buy it off the shelf, you really have to invent and develop this kind of machinery so it can do what you’re trying to do, and not be limited to whatever an engineer was thinking would be enough.

You are also presenting “Conloninpurple,” an interactive sound installation at the Ojai Valley Museum. Can you explain what that is about? That is based on five octaves, 60 different pitches, of wooden bars. It’s almost like a xylophone. These tuned wooden bars also have specially tuned resonators on top. “Conloninpurple” is an installation where you are walking through the instrument, and it surrounds you. So you can have acoustical movements going on. They are above your ear, below your ear level, or in different locations. It’s exploring the sound-in-the-round phenomenon. Also, the visitor can play the instrument and explore what’s going on when you move the sound through space. It’s named after Conlon Nancarrow. I once asked him what his favorite color was and he said purple.

You’ve had such a unique artistic life, so far. Has it proceeded in a way that has surprised you? Well, certain projects go on for years and years. It’s mostly like work-in-progress. Since I have to do everything on my own, that’s the reason it’s a slow process of developing certain ideas. It takes time and one project sometimes feeds other ones. I’m always working on multiple projects simultaneously. Sometimes, it takes a year or two to complete an idea, from the concept to the finished project. I’m doing a lot of musical scores, graphical scores, but they turn into installations. Each piece has a score. Everything is written. Of course, it’s a little bit different than the conventional score, but that’s what my work was always based on — building the instrument and composing for it.

Is part of your artistic process similar to that of an inventor and an engineer, solving problems in creating the piece? Right, but I don’t really see myself, really, as an engineer or as an inventor. Of course, I always have to learn on the job. It’s more like realizing the concept and, in doing so, you have to learn how to drill holes or build this kind of instrument. All of the disciplines are somehow involved.

4•1•1 Trimpin’s machine will perform selected “Studies for Player Piano” by Conlon Nancarrow, Thursday, June 8, at 8 p.m., in Ojai’s Libbey Bowl. Trimpin also shows his interactive installation “Conloninpurple,” at the Ojai Valley Museum. Call 646-2094 or visit

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