Like cult hit "Rivers and Tides," "Trimpin: The Sound of Invention" portrays an original mind whose process is fascinating and whose work is uniquely compatible to cinematic capture.

The subject of Peter Esmonde’s debut feature is an unclassifiable artist whose work crosses lines between avant-garde composition, modernist sculpture, wacky performance art and technophile invention. Like cult hit “Rivers and Tides,” about visual artist Andy Goldsworthy, “Trimpin: The Sound of Invention” portrays an original mind whose process is fascinating and whose work is uniquely compatible to cinematic capture. Docu stands a good chance of parlaying fest play into niche theatrical and TV sales.

Attracted to found sounds and tinkering from his Black Forest youth, gentle German Trimpin (he goes by last name alone) moved to the U.S. in 1979 because he “couldn’t believe what high junk you had here” — as he comments while poking through a warehouse selling rusty old machine parts. Out of such detritus he creates whimsical instruments that are both acoustic and mechanical, creating live art that’s nonetheless reliant on such digital interface technology as MIDI.

Among his more spectacular creations is a massive installation of hanging tubular “marimbas” and “xylophones” that create music continuously triggered by seismic activity around the world. Or a 60-foot “tornado” of used guitars in Seattle (where he lives) that automatically play and even re-tune themselves.

He’s also worked with human performers. The limited narrative thread in “Sound of Invention” focuses on his collaboration on a piece with the famed Kronos Quartet, who play modified toy instruments. With their evening changing up to the last possible minute, Trimpin’s neverending torrent of ideas both exhilarates and terrifies the classically trained foursome. Pic’s climactic series of excerpts from the eventual performance captures its unpredictability, if not any overall shape.

A shambling charmer, Trimpin is good company, though beyond some childhood insights, we learn nothing of whatever noncreative private life he’s had. Curators, collaborators, assistants and relatives interviewed here are both awed and amused by his eccentric path. He’s a genius (or at least the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant) who nonetheless proudly shows off a massive file of rejection letters from potential funders who couldn’t begin to fathom just what his proposals were about, or where they fit in the art establishment.

Docu does a fine job of visually capturing the beauty and complexity of Trimpin’s very spatially focused works. At the Mill Valley fest screening, Trimpin, who generally abhors extant recording technologies as too reductive, paid tribute to James LeBrecht’s equally refined sound design.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention

Documentary

Production

A Participant Observer production. Produced, directed by Peter Esmonde.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Esmonde; editor, Rick Tejada-Flores; sound, Matthew G. Monroe, Gabriel Miller; sound designer, James LeBrecht; additional camera, Miller, Nick Doob. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 16, 2009. (Also in SXSW, Seattle, SilverDocs, Vancouver, London film festivals.) Running time: 77 MIN.

With

Trimpin, Kronos Quartet, Kyle Gann, Charles Amirkhanian, Jacob McMurray, Cork Marcheschi, Karl Trimpin.
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