Inventions of Memory: Trimpin and the Gurs Zyklus Arrive On the Boards

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Courtesy Stanford Lively Arts


The Gurs Zyklus is basically about remembrance.”

So says Trimpin of his latest piece at On the Boards. Some people have called it an opera, some have called it a sound sculpture, some have called it musical theater, some have called it theatrical music. Whatever one chooses to label it, The Gurs Zyklus is most certainly a work by Trimpin and one that continues his exploration of sound and how sound itself tells a story.

It is easy to be seduced by the superficial elements of Trimpin’s work because his visual ideas are quite spectacular. After all, who can deny the pure imaginative quality of a player piano made up of a Macintosh Performa that remotely controls one hundred mallets striking Dutch wooden clogs for sound? Or how about the Exploratorium’s Tinkerer’s Ball exhibit in San Francisco with a complete set of Javanese gamelan gongs suspended in mid-air by elecromagnetism? Or the Experience Music Project’s “Guitar Tower” where scores of guitars both electric and acoustic all play as one instrument, auto-tuned and controlled by computer?

The spectacle, however, is not the end but the means. Says Trimpin, “What I’m trying to do is go beyond human physical limitations to play instruments in such a way that no matter how complex the composition of the timing, it can be pushed over the limits.”

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Going beyond human physical limitations was also the goal of composer Conlon Nancarrow, whose story is one of the main themes of The Gurs Zyklus. Nancarrow, who was himself a “resident” of the Gurs camp (interned there by the Spanish Fascists rather than the Nazi Fascists who later dominate The Gurs Zyklus), dedicated his composing career to a paragraph taken from Henry Cowell, himself an inventor and musician like Trimpin. In his book, New Musical Resources, Cowell discussed his Quartet Romantic, an extremely difficult piece to play–so difficult, in fact, that being written in 1917 it was not even recorded until 1978. The rhythms of the Quartet Romantic are extraordinary, to say the least: the piece opens with the quartet playing rhythms of 4 against 5 against 6, then moves to polyrhythms of 18 against 27 against 36 against 45. Cowell remarked that:

These highly engrossing rhythmical complexes could easily be cut on a player-piano roll. This would give a real reason for writing music specially for player-piano, such as music for it at present does not seem to have.

Nancarrow took this to heart and spent the next fifty years of his life composing music exclusively for player piano, divorced of human physical limitations. In The Gurs Zyklus, Trimpin includes various rolls of player piano scores to represent the work of Conlon Nancarrow and his memory of the town of Gurs. He also ties in the story of Federico Garcia Lorca, shot by Fascists, with Nancarrow’s story in an equally oblique fashion, using a set of automated castanets typing out the Morse Code that would eventually spell Garcia Lorca’s death sentence quite literally. All these sounds are combined, too, with Trimpin’s own environment of noises derived from the bark patterns of the trees near the town of Gurs. Each layer of sound overlaps and interacts also with the purely visual array of invented instruments like the fire organ and Trimpin’s own films of his trip back to the Gurs camp by train.

It is easy to chalk up The Gurs Zyklus as a Holocaust story, and indeed this has been the way the piece is pitched to audiences ever since its premiere at Stanford. Nothing in Trimpin’s oeuvre is ever so simple, of course. The story begins well before World War II and treats more than tried and true Jewish themes but rather ties them in with the larger story of Fascist Europe and the program to erase not just European Jews but all of history and memory that did not “fit” the Fascist vision of the world. This neither started nor stopped at the Holocaust but continued well into the 1970s under Generalissimo Francisco Franco in Spain.

Pairing the work of Trimpin with narrator/director Rinde Eckert seems so obvious and appropriate one can only wonder at the mystery. Mr. Eckert is no stranger to On the Boards, but he is a long time gone: last I saw him there was 1995 for The Idiot Variations.

Mr. Eckert is an extraordinary performer and well-known for his work off-Broadway and in film. His function within the piece is as a guide through the human stories that might seem at first blush to be overwhelmed by the not-quite-human environment and instruments that decorate the stage. Yet, too, in spite of their mechanical appearance there is a very human element beneath all these. The text is based upon actual human-written letters by people interned at Gurs, and the steady counterpoint of female voices and figures is ever-present.

“Think of it like an installation, a theatrical installation,” says Mr. Eckert. “The idea is to set up the story and sort of let the music and the whole environment wash over you. There’s something of the innocence of play in that operation, because you don’t ask it to be more than it is.”

An excellent approach, not just to Trimpin’s fantastical works but to any work of art.

May 17–20, 8 pm // On the Boards, 100 W Roy St, Seattle // Tickets $20, available here

Filed under Music, Performing Arts, Visual Arts

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net