Filmmaker Peter Esmonde talks about capturing the elusive sonic artist at work.
German-born, Seattle-based artist Trimpin finds art in the most unconventional forms. Part sculptor, part music composer, part installation artist, part inventor, Trimpin’s genius has seen him awarded the prestigious Macarthur Fellowship, not to mention cult acclaim for his boundary pushing invention of new instruments, large scale installations, utilisation of found sound, and innovation in the methods of creating art. He also remains largely unknown; his newsworthiness limited to evening bulletins about by “crazy kooks”, and is often underestimated with the clichéd term ‘genius’. Peter Esmonde’s documentary, Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, seeks to break down the stereotypical view of an artist like Trimpin, showing the banal inventiveness of the man while also capturing the wonderment that Trimpin’s innovations engender in his audience. In the process, Esmonde manages to publicise a marginalised artist, and place him within a wider context of twentieth century art.
Esmonde had started off studying literature, but fell in love with film instead. A turning point for him was a film lecturer he had at university. “It was really the first time in my life I met a real artist who was a filmmaker. For me, coming from a lower-middle class background from New York, I really had no knowledge of artists and what they did. It was the narrative possibilities, watching people like Godard, Makavejev, Kluge, it was like ‘oh my god’.”
For a long time, Esmonde was only aware of Trimpin peripherally. “Back in the 90s, I was teaching at New York University and I was very interested in precursors to software. I was talking to an arts friend of mine and she suggested if you’re interested in this stuff, you should talk to Trimpin. This is in the mid-90s, the web was a relatively new thing, so the only thing I could find was this man who looked like he had walked out of the Old Testament.”
Esmonde’s career ended up taking a more corporate route though, until he needed a change. “I ran screaming from the corporate office, and thought I need to make a film about the most creative person I can find. In an environment like America, which is increasingly consumerist, increasingly looks at everybody in a very shallow way, it’s all about what you produce or how famous you are, or how ostentatiously you consume. I needed to find someone who flew in the face of that.”
Esmonde believed those who were creating their own instruments and those experimenting wildly fit the brief he had set. He asked artists “who do you look to? Who influenced you? It was interesting because the name Trimpin kept on popping up.”
Trimpin, however, wasn’t necessarily keen to be the subject of a documentary. “From the get-go, it was very difficult to get him agree to being filmed. He was just really interested in working in a studio, six days a week, ideally more than twelve hours a day. For him, it was ‘why do I need this?’” Prior experience with television crews had also scarred Trimpin.
Esmonde says “I was persistent, I hope without being aggressive. Over time he got the sense that 1.) I had done my homework, and 2.) our conversation began to be not so much about his work, but about John Cage, Merce Cunningham, the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, this whole era of American maverick composers, Harry Clark people like that. At that point he realised I wasn’t out to do a job.”
After meeting Trimpin (he pretended to be in Seattle to meet a friend—they had previously communicated via telephone), Esmonde’s original conception of the project shifted. “I initially thought, maybe this is a short. But I really thought this might be a feature. He is singular, he is unique, he is also very charming and charismatic, not in a way he’s fronting a persona, that’s just the way he is.”
It also led to Esmonde becoming increasingly in awe of Trimpin. “When you first start doing research and meeting people, you hear ‘oh he’s a genius’. And I think ‘genius, oh please, come on’. That term gets bandied about a lot, and misused a lot. But it was in these odd ways, where you’d be in the middle of doing something or asking him a question and I just realised he had these realms of knowledge and that they were in many ways encyclopaedic, and different encyclopaedia—like the encyclopaedia of electric engineering, of automata, the twentieth century art movements. These were all at his fingertips. It’s not like he’s throwing his ego at you, but I wouldn’t go mano-à-mano with him. The thing is his point of view is so singular it remains fascinating.”
Trimpin’s background incorporates a number of different strands, all of which made Trimpin a particularly elusive subject. “I would go in with expectations, particularly around design: how does this guy think, does he think like an architect, a 3-D sculptor, or a musician etcetera. I really had my theories but they’d always get changed. He would approach stuff in the most cockamamie ways sometimes.”
Trimpin’s singular approach of creating art also posed its challenges when it came to trying to film it. “A lot of times, even during the film I gave up. Let’s turn that camera on and follow and see what’s going on. There’s a scene in the film where he’s walking down the hall in a Kronos Quartet rehearsal, and he goes into the kitchen and starts playing with the pots and pans. I had no idea what this man was doing. It was in the morning, so maybe he was making himself an egg. I’m rolling tape here of a conversation and he starts banging away and he’s off and running. That happened quite often.”
Logistically, Esmonde wasn’t helped by the fact he lived in San Francisco, while Trimpin lived in Seattle. This meant filming would take place every six weeks or so. “The studio would always look different because there was always something else going on. Trimpin was as happy as a kid in a candy store. The first thing Trimpin would say is ‘hey Peter, have a look at this, and this.’ A lot of times I didn’t have the gear up and running. I learned after the first time, I’d set up with the sound guy outside, and knock on the door with the camera on the shoulder and camera rolling.”
Esmonde was heavily influenced by the cinéma-vérité approach, which meant he stepped back to allow Trimpin space to do his work and simply tried to observe. However while editing, Esmonde felt compelled to add a couple of scenes that offered a different perspective of Trimpin. One was a scene in which Trimpin visited the barber. This came from when “I would show sequences and people would go, ‘what’s this guy like around normal people?’” Another late addition was Trimpin going through his reject letters. “I talk to people about Trimpin and they’re like ‘oh he got the Macarthur, he doesn’t have to worry about money.’ Oh what, they’re just flinging millions at this man? And also, this whole thing of a notion of a genius, of this instant success, of everyone kow-towing which is absolutely not true. He was living hand to mouth for some time.”
The film captures some of Trimpin’s installations, a process which decontextualises the installation from the space and time that the installation was conceived under. “That was a big issue, there are so many installation artists, most of them have relented, but initially in the 70s and 80s, really refused to have their work videotaped or filmed. Now they’re getting older, they go there has to be some kind of record. When we came down, Trimpin was not crazy about the idea of having his work recorded, I basically said ‘I’m not naïve about this, I’m not pretending that the meaning is transparent, and that going to a Trimpin film is as good as going to an exhibit. What I’m doing is representing the very finite way, and a very flat way, putting people in a darkened room, it’s a representation of your work, and I say it openly, it’s no way a substitute for it.’” Esmonde adds that Trimpin was never interested in preserving his work.
The film is also structured around a performance by the Kronos Quartet of Trimpin’s work. However, Trimpin didn’t approach the concert in a typical manner. “Here’s Trimpin with these scores that no rational mind can read, and not only that, but pulls their instruments out of their hands and gives them toy instruments. That’ll cause some anxiety.”
Esmonde’s next project continued with the music theme: in this instance, he filmed another maverick musician, Ellen Fullman, as she played a twenty-metre long string. The project forced Esmonde to change his filming methods. “She’s very introverted. I really wanted to document this, but how am I going to do it? I thought I’m not going to get close to her or get very intimate. So I thought ‘bugger the cinéma-vérité, it’s not going to get very far. There are these walls I’m not going to be able to get through, and I had to try and jump over that and be really subjective, and really focus on eyes, really focus on hands, try to create an internal landscape.”
Esmonde acknowledges that his documentary making is shifting away from the cinéma-vérité approach. He states that he is interested in working with documentary like Kluge, Godard or Makavejev did with this film, i.e. changing the rules of grammar. “There’s a lot of stuff in documentary which hasn’t been examined. Look at documentary photography, the people doing that work have really done some amazing things with the assumptions behind it. Now what is happening with things like Youtube, documentary is getting divorced from its original moorings in things like sociology and anthropology. Especially now with the kind of documentaries that are really popular in the States, they’re brazen polemics, the Michael Moores. I’m like ‘oh please, I’m bored to hell with that’. ‘I’m going to find a topic, I’m going to find the best exemplar of a person caught between a rock and hard place, and paint them as a victim, and maybe at the end have them try and find a bit of personal dignity’. Come on. No, maybe thirty years ago, it was fresh.”
Esmonde’s changing view of documentary stems from witnessing Trimpin’s left field approaches to making art. And as Esmonde’s fascinating documentary shows, Trimpin’s unpredictability paid great dividends in terms of creativity and result. “That was really part of the impetus. I really had to go out there and see someone marching to their own drummer and working in novel unique ways. People like that, and Ellen, are in their own way very courageous. It ain’t like they’ve got healthcare, it ain’t like anybody is paying their salary. To me it’s very inspiring, certainly as a filmmaker it’s ‘take no prisoners, let’s go’.”