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Trimpin at the Ojai Music Festival

June 12, 2009 | 11:27 am


The CD is not over yet. All it needs to get MP3-mad youngsters interested is Trimpin. At least that is how it seemed Thursday as children seated around a giant disc watched in fascination as the Seattle-based German instrument builder/inventor/composer/sound artist/installation artist and all-around charismatic musical genius explained “Sheng High” in the late afternoon in Libbey Park just before the start of this year’s Ojai Music Festival.

Adults were interested, too.  Who wouldn’t be? The subject of a new documentary film -- “On the Life and Work of Trimpin,” which will have a festival screening at the Ojai Theatre on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. – Trimpin has modified his 2005 “Sheng High” for the outdoors and turned it into a major festival attraction. 

It consists of a CD-like disc, eight feet in diameter, that has odd silvery graphics attached to it – the word HELLO, a drawing of a martini with olive, and so on. These graphics are "read" by a revolving row of sensors, just as a CD is by a laser beam, and the impulses are then transmitted to motorized bamboo pipes, which are lowered into several tubs of water several feet away.

The machine is, in effect, an unpredictable aqueous pump organ that mystifies and delights with equal measure. The original “Sheng High” (the sheng is a traditional Chinese instrument, and "high" refers to pitches, high and low) was originally created for an indoor installation. But Trimpin says he discovered something very important by installing the work in the park.  “Dissonances disappear in space,” he told the crowd, “they become natural sounds in a natural environment.”

Thoreau noted the same of bells in “Walden,” and Messiaen built a music out of birdsong that instantly becomes less jarring when we understand the source material. Coincidence or not, the Ojai festival this year has as its collective music director, eighth blackbird, the new music ensemble.

And in case you are wondering, this idyllic setting of concerts in Libbey Bowl (chilly Libbey in persistent June gloom) is not immune to the car-at-concerts phenomenon I recently wrote about. A new Audi and a Lexus compete for buyers on the lawn.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Trimpin demonstrates "Sheng High" in Libbey Bowl on Thursday. Credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times