Piano man(ipulator)

- John Threlfall

While the lyric, “Play us a song, you’re the interactive computer-art piano manipulator,” may not strike the same sweet chord as Billy Joel’s original, it is an apt description of the current project by internationally celebrated sound sculptor Trimpin. In a collaborative venture involving graduate and undergraduate students from the School of Music and the combined Music and Computer Science degree program, for the past two months Trimpin’s team has been recomposing five “rescued” pianos into a complex MIDI-controlled art installation that promises a distinctly 21st-century sound.

The final creation, titled (CanonX+4:33=100), will be unveiled at Open Space this month to mark both the downtown gallery’s 40th anniversary and the centennial celebration of avant-garde composers John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow. “The idea was to use some kind of piano contraptions and configurations to mark the anniversaries,” says Trimpin, who credits Open Space’s then-new music program coordinator Kristy Farkas (now concert manager for UVic’s School of Music) with initiating the project.

But don’t show up expecting anything resembling standard piano music. “The pianos don’t have hammers or keys left, they just have the sound boards and strings,” says Trimpin from his Seattle studio. “And we’ve added mechanical actuators, so each piano will be treated in a certain way—on some, the strings will be only bowed or plucked, others are purely prepared with a kind of motorized scraper... and everything is triggered by a colourful wall mural which has a moving robotic arm that scans the images.”

Rather than play a standard melody, the MIDI-controlled pianos will react to the “visual score” represented by the wall-mounted silkscreen prints. “Each piano probably has 10 or 15 different compositions stored,” he explains, “and every time the scanner sees a different colour, it will play part of that composition.“

This isn’t the first collaboration between Trimpin and UVic. As Music and Computer Science degree program co-creator Andrew Schloss notes, Trimpin spent time on campus back in 2004 as a visiting Lansdowne Lecturer. “It was one of the best things I’ve done in my career as a professor. It was so exciting and stimulating for the students,” Schloss recalls. “Trimpin is different from a lot of other artists who come to the university—he is absolutely devoted to working with the students, as well as on his art. It’s more like an apprenticeship, something you can’t learn from the internet or a lecture; you just have to be there.”

Trimpin agrees. “It’s a completely different kind of learning process: you’re not teaching in front of 15 or 20 students, you’re working individually with each of them. It’s not only more intuitive but far more effective in helping them get to the next step—especially in this field, where disciplines of visuals and music and technology cross over. The technology is quite complex—visual arts students may not know how to work with video equipment, and music students have to learn how to make a robotic instrument.”

As an added bonus, Trimpin is giving Schloss and his computer music students—the MISTIC collective—a unique opportunity on the day before the exhibit closes. “We’re going to plug our computers and our instruments into his installation and play it like an orchestra,” says Schloss. “Trimpin is so open to other people experimenting with his sculptures, and that’s very rare.”

Trimpin’s (CanonX+4:33=100) runs March 16 to April 27 at Open Space, 510 Fort St.
 

Photos

In this story

Keywords: piano, music, computer science

People: Trimpin


Related stories