TRIMPIN: The Gurs Zyklus
It's around 6 p.m. in Trimpin's studio and we're drinking ice-cold martinis around a small table surrounded by hundreds of books (Huelsenbeck, Kafka, Slonimsky), stacks of records (Liberace! Pac-Man Fever!), cuckoo clocks, cigar boxes, toy pianos, mechanical dolls, maquettes. It's a wonderland.
I am flipping through the Slonimsky book, Music Since 1900 (Trimpin says it's one of his favorites) and come across an excerpt of Marinetti's "Zang Tumb Tuuum," a futurist sound poem filled with typographical confetti of explosive gunfire and other onomatopoeic war-machine music:
these weights thicknesses sounds smells molecular whirlwinds chains nets and channels of analogies concurrences and synchronisms for my Futurist friends poets painters and musicians zang-tumb-tumb-zang-zang-tuuumb tatatatatatatata picpacpampacpacpicpampampac uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
The lid of the cocktail shaker suddenly pops off like a rocket and lands a few inches away in a bowl of pistachios, causing it to resonate like a bell.
"Sounds like E major!" Trimpin says. We titter, but it's no joke: even Stoli becomes a potential kinetic sound sculpture in this world.
Walking into Trimpin’s studio you might, for a moment, mistake it for a puppeteer's workshop. There are marionettes with tangled wires and ropes dangling from the spiral staircase, articulated jumping jacks pinned to the walls, wind-up toys atop teetering stacks of books, large wooden puppets from Cambodia that have mechanical moving tongues, eyelids, even breasts.
When Trimpin oversees a performance like his recent Gurs Zyklus (performed in Seattle at On the Boards), he hovers out of sight, not unlike a puppeteer, operating mechanical contraptions such as his Bunsen burner-fueled Fire Organ from a deck up above. The Gurs Zyklus story is somber: an inquiry into the fate of the Jewish community who lived in the French/German border town where Trimpin grew up. He sourced all kinds of things for the performance: recorded sounds of trains, letters from concentration camp survivors, Morse code used by secret police, even musical transcripts adapted from patterns in the bark of trees growing near the internment camp at Gurs.
The motif of automation, of people as playthings and puppets, unspools throughout the performance. Fate unwinds, out of control, like a tune hammered out on a punctured piano roll. Three women dressed in black WWII-period garments inhabit the stage for the duration of the show, at times like Three Fates spinning the threads of mortal life, other times stiffly operating like helpless automatons or ghosts in a mechanical ballet, riding a train, unrolling lengths of crackling paper, singing lamentations into glass cylinders (another type of organ, its pipes lodged in graveyard dirt, powered by lungs and percussive water drops).
Such elegiac subject matter could easily tip into depressing territory, but there's something akin to childlike wonder, inquisitiveness, even innocence threading through The Gurs Zyklus — and through all of Trimpin's work — that makes it possible to examine such a dark narrative without flinching. It’s a compassionate and mechanically astonishing tale.