Thursday, May 26, 2011

Trimpin: The Gurs Zyklus

The sound sculptor/composer Trimpin has received a MacArthur "genius" grant, been the subject of a full-length documentary film, and profiled in The New Yorker. His work has been featured in hundreds of installations, exhibitions, performances, and new music festivals around the world. Attending the unveiling of a major, ambitious sound/theater work from Trimpin seemed pretty compelling to me.

I found the May 14 premiere at Stanford of The Gurs Zyklus to be moving and inventive, and, at times, unfocused.

The 75-minute melange attempts to merge Trimpin’s various connections to Gurs (a temporary holding place in France for Jews headed to concentration camps), the composer Conlon Nancarrow, Franco's fascism in Spain, and some personal historical materials furnished to Trimpin.

The work was directed by the highly talented Rinde Eckert, who also performed a central role. There were also four excellent female vocalists/performers (Thomasa Eckert, Susan Rode Morris, Katya Roemer, and Linda Strandberg).

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Trimpin and Rinde Eckert

While Trimpin was developing this work, he was contacted by Victor Rosenberg, who offered the use of a substantial cache of letters and postcards sent by relatives who had been imprisoned in Gurs by the Nazis.

And during Trimpin’s residency at Stanford, he was amazed to be contacted by a local person, Manfred Wildman, who, as a 10-year boy, had actually been interned in Gurs, and who furnished Trimpin with his written observations and drawings made while at Gurs. Eckert’s effective reading of these heartbreaking comments along with the projections of the child’s drawings were likely the emotional high point of the evening. Both Manfred Wildman and Victor Rosenberg attended this premiere performance.

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Victor Rosenberg, Trimpin, and Manfred Wildman

The production also included several of Trimpin’s complex assemblages. There were two shifting teeter-totters, on which rolled revolving multi-sided boxes with several speakers emitting trains sounds from along the route to Gurs. A picture wheel rotated through images from the train route. Another instrument was Trimpin’s Fire Organ (which produces sounds when Bunsen burners pull heated air through tubes).

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Revolving multi-speaker unit on teeter-totter

Trimpin’s wizardry also remotely played pianos, xylophone-like keyboards, and other instruments spread throughout the hall. In addition, at times water dripped from multiple high-up sources into lighted glass canisters, producing both audible and visual results. Three beautiful hanging glass spheres represent Kristallnacht.

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In the past, Trimpin has adamantly preferred that his sound sources be purely acoustic. I was pleased that in this piece, he expanded his sonic palette to include loudspeakers, both within the revolving teeter-totter units and via voices that received some delay/reverb enhancements.

How well does this complex, ambitious undertaking weave together all these loosely connected elements?

The results varied. The reading of emotionally-laden text by the charismatic Eckert was the most directly affecting. There were a number of visually striking moments. There were sections of sonic interest, especially when instruments spatially deployed around the concert hall were all activated.

On the other hand, those unfamiliar with Trimpin, Nancarrow, November 9, 1938, etc. might be confused and not strongly involved. For example, it’s not obvious when the Fire Organ is sounding notes. The complexity of the teeter-totter-revolving-speakers unit could be overlooked, and confining them to the stage diminished the spatial effects experienced by the audience.

Trimpin’s devices, when presented in an installation, allow viewers to inspect them, wander amidst them, read about their intricacies, and become caught up in his elegant, eccentric constructions. But placing them on a stage diminishes their impact. As a result, the production, during the non-narrative sections, seemed unfocused, working too long to fill time. Those hanging glass spheres were quite attractive, but their manipulations by the performers became overly extended and repetitious.

I don’t think a work like this must have a clear, linear narrative structure. A collection of strong music, dramatic staging, and striking visuals can enthrall an audience without telling us a story, such as in the Philip Glass and Robert Wilson masterpiece Einstein on the Beach. But this initial version, The Gurs Zyklus hasn’t found the right combination to create a powerful evening. It feels like a work in progress.

I happen to know that some dramatic stagework had to be omitted for practical reasons. The dripping water streams, for example, can be programmed by Trimpin to display cascading letters and thus spell names, such as Nazi victims in this case. But some concern about potentially soaking the front row audience put the damper on such use in this setting. And that teeter-totter, confined here to the stage, can be much bigger and extend out alongside the audience, which would greatly increase the acoustic envelopment. (Apparently an attentive fire-marshal nixed blocking exits.)

With adjustments, Gurs can be improved. The good news is that future performances are planned for Seattle and perhaps elsewhere.

The gutsy support of this unique work by Stanford’s Lively Arts and its Director Jenny Bilfield has been remarkable. Not only did Lively Arts commission this work, but they also supported a year-long residency by Trimpin at Stanford. There were concerts, Kinetic Sound Sculpture workshops, a public interview conducted by Paul DeMarinis, and a free preview talk and stage tour the day before the premiere, conducted by Trimpin himself. Support of such experimental undertakings is clearly part of a major university’s mission. Kudos to Jenny and Lively Arts.

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