Taming the Elements with MIDI

Imagine using your keyboard to control the rhythm of water drops. Or using your sequencer to play organ pipes with fire. In a career spanning nearly 30
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Imagine using your keyboard to control the rhythm of water drops. Or using your sequencer to play organ pipes with fire. In a career spanning nearly 30

Imagine using your keyboard to control the rhythm of water drops. Or using your sequencer to play organ pipes with fire. In a career spanning nearly 30 years, Seattle-based sculptor/musician Trimpin has built an astonishing array of experimental musical instruments, machines, and sculptures that do both of these things and more.

Trimpin's specialty is computer-controlled mechanical instruments. He often designs and builds every piece of the instrument, from the special-purpose computers that hold the scores to the finely crafted mechanical devices that make the sounds. In one sense, Trimpin's work is old-fashioned: he never uses loudspeakers or synthesized sound, and the sound always comes from the mechanical action of real objects. In another sense, his work is contemporary: the mechanical instruments are usually controlled by computers using MIDI.

Trimpin often creates robotic extensions for conventional musical instruments such as pianos, organs, violins, and trumpets. But other works are much more fanciful and unusual; Trimpin is continually finding ways to harness elemental forces-fire, air, and water-for musical use. His works are in galleries and museums throughout the world, where they either play pre-programmed compositions or are played by the visitors.

META PIANOContraption IPP (Instant Prepared Piano) 71512, for example, consists of a mechanical superstructure that sits over a grand piano and plays the strings directly using a host of mechanized objects (see Fig. 1). Contraption has four tracks, each with its own set of performance tools. The timbral range of the piano is greatly extended as Contraption bows, plucks, and dampens the strings with the different shapes and materials. The piano can also be played from the keyboard, either by hand, or by using remote control to direct mechanical pistons that push down the individual keys. For this piece, Trimpin uses a Macintosh Classic running Opcode's Max MIDI software.

Trimpin has been especially inspired by the work of expatriate American composer Conlon Nancarrow. In his Mexico City studio, Nancarrow composed and punched piano rolls to create amazing player-piano works, many of which are impossible for human beings to play.

Trimpin's interest in the work of Nancarrow led him to build a device that optically reads Nancarrow's rolls and records the data on a computer for transcription into MIDI song files. Then he built a device that mechanically depresses the piano keys, in order to play Nancarrow's pieces and other demanding compositions. (According to Trimpin, this device is still the only way to play Nancarrow's pieces on a real piano under MIDI control. Commercially available MIDI pianos, such as the Yamaha Disklavier, cannot play pieces as dense and complex as Nancarrow's.)

Nancarrow's work also plays a part in one of Trimpin's more recent creations. Conloninpurple is a set of 84 wooden marimba bars, each coupled with an electromechanical striker and an anodized, purple, trumpetlike resonator. The bars, which hang from the ceiling, are distributed throughout the performance space. Because they are placed throughout a large area, the music seems to move quickly around the space during the course of a piece. Conloninpurple is designed to play not only Nancarrow's pieces, but other works from MIDI files as well.

BACK AT THE LABDuring my visit to his Seattle studio, Trimpin expressed his frustration with using commercially available MIDI devices for his work. The Nancarrow scores, for example, are very demanding because they often require dozens of notes to be played simultaneously. The transmission speed of standard MIDI is not the limiting factor. Trimpin has found that disk-based MIDI sequencers are not able to keep up with the speed and density in Nancarrow's works without disrupting the timing of events.

As a consequence, Trimpin applies the same careful craftsmanship to the control electronics that he puts into his mechanical assemblies. "You say to yourself, 'Why not use commercial equipment, because it exists? It's already designed, engineered, and it's inexpensive.' But then you realize it doesn't really work," he notes. "I have some installations in museums that need to run every day for years. As soon as you have a moving part-such as a disk-drive motor-it wears out. I'm now working to design a flash-memory MIDI sequencer that has no moving parts."

ALL THINGS COMBUSTIBLEA new version of Trimpin's FireOrgan was also under development in his studio. While his studio assistant, Troy Swanson, machined parts in the background, Trimpin demonstrated the operation of a FireOrgan pipe. A normal organ pipe functions by forcing air through a pipe of a particular length, with the length of the pipe determining the pitch. FireOrgan works in a similar way, but the flow of air through the pipe is induced by a flame, just like the airflow through a normal chimney.

Two small pilot lights glow at the bottom of each Pyrex glass pipe. A MIDI-controlled valve turns up the gas on one of the flames, causing air to flow and the pipe to sound. The result is a beautiful, slow onset of each tone. The dancing of the blue and yellow flames is also beautiful, especially at night. As with many of Trimpin's installations, the instrument operates in two modes: one in which visitors can play the organ with a keyboard, and one in which it is controlled by prerecorded MIDI sequences.

ELEMENTAL MUSICComplementing the FlameOrgan are works in air and water. PHFFFT (1992) consists of nearly 200 air-activated instruments: accordion reeds bleeping through tuba bells; duck calls honking through bass clarinet bells, whistles, and flutes. Hydraulis (1994), created in collaboration with Clark Wiegman, is an interactive water wall. The movements of passersby trigger the fall of water; different movements result in different water patterns. The falling droplets strike tuned surfaces, producing correlated visual and sonic effects.

Trimpin's workshop is filled with scavenged surplus metal parts, as well as new, expensive anodized items. He used to work with wood and scavenged metals exclusively, but his success in recent years has allowed him to use more expensive materials. For example, FlameOrgan is made of beautiful materials: clear Pyrex tubes; red, anodized-aluminum collars; and precisely machined brass fittings. "The wood period is over," says Trimpin. "With wood, I can use hand tools to do everything I want to do. With metal I need much more machinery, and when I didn't have much of a budget, I used the cheaper materials. But slowly throughout the years, as the budgets have gotten better, I can demand more."

BLACK FOREST PRODIGYTrimpin's interest in mechanical tinkering dates back to his childhood. "Working with music and mechanics was a fascination of mine as a kid, because I grew up in the Black Forest [Germany] with all the barrel organs, band organs, and automatic clocks," he explains. "When I was a kid, I made my own kind of music machines. When I was around ten years old, I collected 12 or so old-fashioned tube radios, took the wooden cases off, and stacked them up. Then I connected the dials for changing the stations with one pulley, so when you turned one dial it would change all the stations on all the radios. I would work for days on this pulley system, so that they would all be moving at the same time, on completely different stations. This was almost like rap music."

While many of his later works involve mechanized percussion or string instruments, Trimpin says that early on he was interested only in devices that involved breath and provided simulations of what the human body could do directly. Some of his earliest works were mechanical trumpet players that were actually able to play melodies on brass instruments using rubber lips and compressed air. He rarely shows these works now, on account of their temperamental and fragile nature.

Although Trimpin started out playing brass instruments, he had trouble with his lips and eventually became a percussionist. An encounter with modern percussion music led to another driving obsession in his work: the distribution of synchronized sounds in space.

"There was a percussion group in Strasbourg [France], not far from where I grew up, that performed mostly contemporary work," notes Trimpin. "And I remember hearing a Xenakis piece that used the spatial location of the different percussionists. Each group of instruments was in a different part of the performance space. But as soon as a certain sequence was starting to sound in the round, it was lacking synchronization. From this moment on I was fascinated with spatial sounds. In fact, this goes back to my childhood, when I was with my father in the forest playing duets-I've always had a fascination with acoustic environments."

Mechanical means, and eventually MIDI, have proven to be perfect solutions to the problems Trimpin encountered when he tried to precisely synchronize instruments distributed throughout a space. "My main interest," he says, "was always in using the space as a medium. But then you need some kind of automation. That's why I began using mechanical means to operate the instruments. Then of course when MIDI came out, this was the perfect way to adapt all my hardware and software. MIDI is like a player-piano roll: it doesn't store any sound-it stores information-and it doesn't matter if you hook up a synthesizer or a motor or any kind of mechanical means, because MIDI is still doing the same thing. It's just information about what you want to do, and this was the perfect kind of serial communication I needed to perform all of these tasks with instruments that were placed in different locations."

MIAMI TRIKESPerhaps the ultimate expression of freely spatialized and tightly synchronized music is Trimpin's Miami Klangflotte project (see Fig. 2). For this work, Trimpin created a fleet of six, customized tricycle rickshaws, each equipped with automatically operated musical instruments. Each rickshaw represents a particular group of instruments, such as drums, horns, or xylophones. Wireless MIDI receivers on each rickshaw allow the whole fleet to be played in sync.

One special rickshaw transmits the information to the other five, and the driver of this rickshaw also serves as conductor, transmitting instructions via walkie-talkie to coordinate the movements of the other drivers. "When the bikes are traveling in a clockwise direction around the audience, the automated instruments might be playing sequentially counterclockwise," Trimpin explains. "The audience will experience how sound is moving in many different directions simultaneously."

HIGH-DENSITY SCORINGFor score preparation, Trimpin uses either Opcode's Vision or Mark of the Unicorn's Performer software, depending on his needs. He prefers working graphically and finds Performer's piano-roll notation easiest to use for his purposes. "MIDI is still perfect for what I'm doing; I don't need any more upgrades. Of course today everybody works with audio signals, such as direct synthesis, but I never use any audio amplification, synthesis, or loudspeakers of any kind."

Trimpin's interest in spatialization accounts in part for his complete dedication to using acoustic sound sources, without relying on loudspeakers. "As soon as there are loudspeakers involved, the sound is not the same anymore, because space is the essential resonating chamber, and not this tiny loudspeaker which tries to recreate the environment it was in before. I've never been satisfied with any kind of recorded sounds; for me it's a big distortion when I listen to any kind of recording. For this reason it's not my interest to put any recordings out; my philosophy is that everyone should record this in their brain, and that's the only recording that exists at this moment in this space at this time. These kind of mental recordings shouldn't be destroyed."

THEATRICAL WORKSBesides his prodigious output of mechanical installation pieces, Trimpin has also worked in the medium of musical theater and performance. His work D.R.A.M.A. ohno (1993) intentionally seeks to create in the listener confusion about the source of the sounds they are hearing during the performance. "The audience is confronted with concurrent sound effects which are synchronized with other performance elements in such a way that one is never quite sure what is actually the source," Trimpin explains.

The sound sources include drums played by MIDI-controlled water drops. As the water falls, a strobe light flashes on the drops, creating a visual analog of the sounds. In addition, the dancers in the performance wear specially designed costumes with built-in instruments, including shoes fitted with air pumps and flutes, and armpit accordions. In this way, the movements of each dancer generate specific sounds (see Fig. 3).

(R)EVOLUTIONTrimpin's work continues to evolve as he explores new sonic and technological frontiers. Upcoming projects include a theatrical collaboration with composer Robert Ashley, involving FireOrgan and visual projections on steam clouds (MIDI controlled, of course, by regulated dripping of water drops onto heated plates).

Because Trimpin's works are not recorded for commercial release, the only way to experience them is to catch them in person. This is getting easier to do, as his growing popularity is inspiring more museums and festivals in North America and Europe to commission him.

Tim Perkis is a musician, writer, and engineer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His home page is at www.artifact.com/ perkis.