Director Peter Esmonde talks TRIMPIN: The Sound of Invention at SILVERDOCS 2009
The American Film Institute‘s annual SILVERDOCS documentary film festival is renowned for tackling the life and times of iconoclasts, eccentrics and outsiders of all stripes and Seattle-based documentarian Peter Esmonde‘s latest film, TRIMPIN: The Sound of Invention is taking that tradition to a new extreme.
The film, which has already garnered accolades after screening in competition at the SXSW and Seattle Film Festivals, charts the decidedly non-linear life and artistic processes of Trimpin â€“ the German-born creator whose work treads the line between artist and inventor, engineer and composer with pieces described by some as â€œsonic and kinetic gizmos.â€ Filmed over the course of two years, Esmonde’s film gives unparalleled insights into the mind of the notoriously media shy artiste as he tinkers on experimental instruments with the Kronos Quartet, builds a sixty-foot tower of self-tuning electric guitars, works the kinks out of his perpetual motion sculpture (inside of a glass foundry, no less) and builds a set of giant marimbas that convert earthquake tremors into music.
In anticipation of the film’s east coast debut, director Peter Esmonde talked to CultureMob about just how he set about documenting the inner-workings of a reclusive artist for all to see and the mix of excitement and trepidation that comes with screening at the DC area’s largest film festival.
How were you first introduced to Trimpin’s work and what made you pursue him to be the subject of your first feature-length documentary?
PE: I’m fascinated by questions around creative processes, and over the years had heard about Trimpin from very disparate sources – including an artist friend in NYC, and an instrument builder in San Francisco. I loved that Trimpin worked without regard for standard disciplines and frames of reference, and was alarmed (and allured) to learn that a lot of his work hadn’t been properly documented. And when I finally met Trimpin in his studio, I was immediately intrigued by how childlike and at the same time how serious he was.
That pursuit, in and of itself, must have been a formidable challenge, given Trimpin’Â’s reputation for eschewing mainstream media coverage. How did you get him to consent to having his life and work taped for a mass audience?
PE: It was a bit like the nature photographer approaching the wildebeest from 3,000 yards . . . then slowly moving closer. I called up Trimpin out of the blue. Over time, we had some long conversations – about his work, his influences – that made it clear to him that I’d done my homework. As a way of vetting me, Trimpin suggested I talk with a curator he knew and trusted. And I visited him in his studio just to observe and listen – without my camera, without any recording devices. Gradually, Trimpin recognized that I was genuinely interested in his work – and that wasn’t out to ‘do a job’ on him.
PE: I shot over 180 hours of footage over two years, and then licensed additional footage that goes back ’til about 1987 or so. The film was shot cinema-verite style, without scripting, without reenactment, without fixed start and stop dates — which is always extremely risky and sometimes downright nerve-wracking. My soundperson â€“ who has shot a lot for Discovery and National Geographic – would look at me skeptically: “Where’s this going?” “How are you going to use this?” And I’d shrug and say “we’ll see” . . . and keep shooting.
What is difficult to bring a narrative to the film? The avant-garde and multimodal nature of Trimpin’s work strikes me as difficult to chronicle. Did his work influence the feel and tone of the documentary?
PE: Of course, Trimpin’s behavior influenced the style and tone of the film. For someone who always has his ears and eyes open for moments of discovery, a handheld, cinema-verite approach – in which everything is revealed in the ‘present’, everything seems to be happening ‘now’ – seemed most appropriate.
As you’re shooting, you’re always on the lookout for possible narrative threads – relationships and events that both highlight and challenge the protagonist’s beliefs, and serve to support the underlying argument you’re hoping to make. In that context, Trimpin’s collaboration with the Kronos Quartet was clearly central – as was his ongoing investigation with musical spheres.
Speaking of the Kronos Quartet, that group seems like a natural choice for the film’s score and in keeping with Trimpin’s sensibilities. How did they get involved in the production?
PE: Peak Performances approached David Harrington, who is artistic director of the quartet, to commission a piece that would challenge Kronos’ musical assumptions. And David realized that Trimpin was an artist/composer who would do just that. Trimpin and the quartet kindly allowed me to go behind-the-scenes and film the collaboration.
Undoubtedly, any documentarian is always left with footage on the cutting room floor. Are there any of your favorite moments that didn’t make the final cut (but, fingers crossed, will show up somewhere on the DVD)?
PE: Sure. There’s some amazing footage of Trimpin touring Harry Partch‘s instrumentarium. (Partch was an extraordinary American composer and instrumentmaker, and his instruments create truly unique and wonderful musics.) We also shot Trimpin in the wild, recording bat echolocation signals to use as score. (As Trimpin put it: “the bats are the composers.”) And there’s a roundtable discussion with Trimpin’s assistants – each trained in a different discipline, all of them trying to make sense of just what the boss does and how he does it. Each of those sequences will be on the DVD.
Has Trimpin himself given you his opinion of the final product?
PE: I think he was a bit surprised by the scope of the thing – that it was much more than a simple documentary record of his work. And I think he was surprised by how much work it took, and how many hours of filming we did.
As a filmmaker, what is the experience of showing at a large festival, such as SILVERDOCS or SXSW, like? Exciting? Nerve wracking?
PE: Bothâ€¦You hope people show up, you hope they get it — and you keep your fingers crossed for professional projection. (You don’t have to worry about the latter at SILVERDOCS or SXSW.) Still, I have this recurring nightmare of someone at some fest projecting the film on a dirty sheet in the middle of a cornfield, with audio squawking out of an underpowered boombox.
Lastly, what do you expect those who might be unfamiliar with Trimpin’s work to walk away with after having seen the film?
PE: I’d hope that the Trimpin film would enliven its audiences to hear – and view – their own worlds as worthy of exploration. If they leave the theater a bit more curious about their surroundings, and feel a desire to investigate the sounds (and soundmakers) around them, then I figure I’ve done my job.
TRIMPIN: The Sound of the Invention screens this Thursday, June 18th at 6:00 pm at Silver Spring’s Round House Theater and will be preceded by the unveiling of a one of kind mini-installation by the artist himself. A second public screening will follow on Saturday, June 20th at 10:45 am at the flagship AFI Silver Theater.