Monday, March 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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(Toy) piano man makes a big sound from tiny keys

Seattle Times staff reporter

Exhibit preview

"Klavier Nonette," 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, through April 27, Jack Straw Productions, 4261 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle, free, 206-634-0919 or

Trimpin harmonizes with his coffee mill every morning — he hums along with the grating, alto screeching of the grinding beans.

He hums a third or a fifth above the whir of his vacuum cleaner, too.

The sound sculptor says this helps dilute the "sound pollution" caused by most household appliances. And finding melodies in the most unmelodic situations is a habit he's had his entire life.

As a child, Trimpin remembers watching bonfires in Germany every winter but hearing entire symphonies and choruses when he looked into the flames. He would ask his friends if they were hearing the music, too. They would look at him funny and say "no." Now, the 51-year-old musical inventor knows that his imagination had something to do with the melodious fires. But he's still convinced the wood wasn't just crackling. It was wet and it was whistling.

"I was always, even as a kid, trying to visualize sound," said the Seattle-based Trimpin, who goes by the one name. "Hearing and seeing was always synchronized in some way. But there wasn't enough to explore, so I had to build an environment."

Hear a toy piano

Listen to a sample. (:44)

Real (756K) | MP3 (172K)

His latest environment is an installation of nine toy pianos, each perched on colorful platforms of different heights. They're programmed into a computer to play automatically any one of 41 original compositions at the drop of a quarter in a makeshift jukebox nearby. You turn the dial to the number you want — No. 40 is Trimpin's composition "WORXOK" — push "start" and watch the pianos play themselves.

The installation, titled "Klavier Nonette," is on exhibit at Jack Straw Productions' New Media Gallery through April 27. When visiting the show, it's best to stand in the middle of the room to hear all nine instruments equally — 216 keys total.

"Constantly the sound moves with the space," Trimpin said. "The whole idea is to add another dimension. This whole project is exploring what you can do with sound and space. Our listening is based on our ears — left and right — but our brains perceive from all directions. Top, bottom, everywhere."

Eerily discordant

The purely acoustic sound is eerily discordant and stark at times. The pianos aren't in tune with each other — and sometimes not in tune at all. But they can't be adjusted and Trimpin isn't concerned with perfect harmonies anyway. He just wants visitors to listen and notice the many directions of sounds.

"When you listen, you come up with your own interpretation of the physics," he said. "It's completely up to the audience to explore in their mind what they perceive."

More than 40 composers sent in original scores to Trimpin during a call-for-composers held for the installation last fall. Christi Denton, a composer from Berkeley, Calif., found it intriguing to play with the idea of music coming from all directions.

"And it's a lot of fun to hear how differently toy pianos are going to sound out of tune," Denton said. "Writing for toy pianos is difficult because it's only two octaves, and also nobody would consider writing a piece for nine toy pianos."

Trimpin's other works, which dot some of the city's most prominent landmarks, also mix spaces and sounds.

Dip Tip Dip, a 40-foot-high water and wind sculpture at the entrance to the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, plays with the scene and sound of water flowing through kinetic pieces.

Water is also the main element of Trimpin's "Hydraulis" at the entrance to KeyArena. The 60-foot-long piece features a dark-blue background that makes the dripping water look like crystals against light.

Visualizing sound

"In a sports arena, nobody would listen to sound because it's so noisy," said Trimpin. "So I try to visualize the sound of water dripping down to create certain kinds of images."

His guitar installation at Experience Music Project, "If VI was IX," revives more than 700 discarded guitars. About 30 of them play themselves. The repertoire includes everything from Scottish ballads to rock 'n' roll.

Trimpin, who moved to Seattle 23 years ago from Germany, is working on a piece for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The installation, heavy on gears and pulleys and small musical contraptions, will glide alongside a people mover (a flat escalator).

Young Chang: 206-748-5815 or


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