In 1956 Francoise Truffaut wrote how “the film of tomorrow will be more personal than a novel and autobiographical like a confession or a secret diary (…). The cinema of the future will be an act of love”. Trimpin: The Sound of Invention is exactly this: a pure act of love. 

The film – I had the pleasure to watch it during the just ended 53rd edition of the London Film Festival – is in fact a homage by the director Peter Esmonde to the creative genius, artist, inventor and musician Trimpin. The film has been shot with an approach to cinéma-verité and it is the result of two years shooting, with many travels by the director to Seattle (where Trimpin has been living and working since 1979) and a travel to Germany, i.e. the artist’s place of origin. Esmonde managed in time to win Trimpin’s trust, since he is backward in being filmed and had lived quite unpleasant experiences with other productions, that wanted to focus more on his foolishness and extravagance than on his person, aiming almost at making a mockery of him.

The film did in no way follow an inflexible script or prefixed shooting dates. This could have undoubtely been a riskier method, but in this case it gave breath to the relationship developed between director and artist, respecting the creation and playing times of some projects, such as, for example, the cooperation with the Kronos Quartet.

I should recognize that this film introduced me a work and an artist, I had never heard about, but I became interested in just a few minutes after the beginning of the projection. In fact, how could it be possible not to love a person who says to have left Europe to scout around for junk and in one of the first sentences of his film states: “America has a lot of junk!”

Trimpin was born in Istein, Efringen-Kirchen, a little village in Germay near the borders of France and Switzerland and emigrated to the United States in 1979. He tells about how during one of his travels to America – he used to spend his summers hitch-hiking in the country – he has been victim of a robbery in which he was robbed his backpack, wallet and passport. The police who hold him on remand brought him to one of the Salvation Army shops to give him a change of clothes. Right in that moment the artist, astonished and motivated by the huge quantity of odds and ends available in America, decided to go and live there.

Trimpin’s initiation – if we can use this word – to a different approach towards sound happened when he was still a young boy. In his film, he remembers of how, at the age of eight or nine, his father (an ebonist and music teacher) brought him early in the morning in the Black Forest. In that occasion, Trimpin began to listen to sounds in a new way and managed to hear sounds he had never heard before.

Together with this special ability to hear, since his childhood he also has been showing an incredibile curiosity and inventive ability. The interest raised in him thank to a book discovered in his grandfather’s library – Elektrotechnisches Bastelbuch (a children’s book to build electronic elements) that explained in one chapter how to build an electric trumpet, joining together elements of different musical instruments and other tools. This brought Trimpin on a way, which would have been a constant in his life and would have changed step by step in his work.

In that first phase of his creative developing process, the artist of German origin learnt how electricity works and how it can be used on instruments. His grandfather also built elementary transistors which gave out electronic sounds and Trimpin found them in a drawer. This was his first experience of electronic music and engeneering. For a certain period, Trimpin played brass instruments, until a strong allergy to metals stroke his mouth and throat and bound him to give up playing. However this did not discourage the artist and inventor from finding alternative ways; the child promised to himself to carry on in his life experimenting and fulfilling the same dreams and interests he had in his childhood.

The artist/inventor still loves to spend his time in his office, looking for new methods and ideas to combine instruments and other objects or trying to create new sound machines. Therefore in the film we often see him intent on creating – in an office packed with objects and drawings full of electronic pieces and folders with graphical scores. The beginning of his research has always been the sound produced by a traditional instrument. From there on, he began to explore how sound spreads in time and space. Peter Esmonde stated that entering his studio is like having access to his brain. Trimpin is a vulcan of ideas.

In the years, the artists created many installations and projects, showed in museums all over the world. He received the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award and a Fellowship Award at Guggenheim. Using the advanced Midi method, he managed to save the music of the American musician Conlon Nancarrow; moreover he cooperated with artists such as the legendary coreographer Merce Cunningham or, as said, the Kronos Quartet. His graphical scores are themselves wonderful works of art, that probably only the author itself can read.

Among his works of art, I would like to remember Sheng High, i.e. an installation created in 2009 for the Ojai Music Festival, in which the author make use of a principle typical of the Chinese world of thousands of years ago. It is a sound sculpture that interacts with a natural element, in this case water, and whose main character is a sophisticated system of shaking bamboo woods. Another project titled Klompen, developed for The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, is made of 96 Dutch clogs with a little hammer inside hanging in the air through a thread and which diffuse a rhytmical symphony controlled form a PC.

Trimpin creatively investigates acustic music in relationship with space. For example, he tried to move the listening process form a horizontal situation (see the orchestra which is always placed in front of the public) to a vertical listening. Everything can be a new invention for him. In the film, we can see how Trimpin stored on many shelves different slide projectors: he explained that he wanted people to live his same experience and to feel – and not only watch – the slides, as he does.

Entering Trimpin’s world is like entering a real magic laboratry, where experiments end with a new acustic creation. We can enter it thank to Esmonde’s work. Then it is up to the public lapsing into fantasy. I am very fascinated by the author’s infantile, but at the same time serious and professional approach. In my mind, I make an immediate association with Michel Gondry in the cinematographic world. Both are extremely creative, with a brain full of ideas and imagination running rentless, exactly like children’s brains.

The film has therefore been so stimulating, that after leaving BFI I found myself trying to discover the many sounds of the city while waiting the bus on Waterloo. It has been a new experience and for the first time the screech of the bus brakes at the bus stop turned into a new sound for my ears. The same happened with the sound of a door that was opened at my entrance. Everything surrounding me was like a newly written symphony. I left London South bank with a smile on my face and an orchestra of sound I had never heard before


[1] ‘Le film de demain m’apparaît donc plus personnel encore qu’un roman, individuel et autobiographique comme une confession ou comme un journal intime (…). Le film de domain sera un acte d’amour’ – François Truffaut, published in the journal Arts, May 1957.