06/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Trimpin: Another American Visionary

I made a film called TRIMPIN: the sound of invention out of purely selfish concerns:

I needed to document the most creative person I could find, to discover how they'd managed to survive in this society. And I was lucky enough to find Trimpin.

Trimpin is a 50-something artist/inventor/engineer/composer who's built a tower of 700+ electric guitars; constructed a huge marimba ensemble, triggered by real-time seismic data; created an orbiting, silent musical instrument to perform perpetual motion experiments; collaborated and collided with the Kronos Quartet on a performance for toy instruments; etc. etc.

Imagine: a genius German cuckoo-clock maker who's let his mainspring go wild.

Imagine: Rube Goldberg dreaming Dadaist dreams of automated orchestras.

Imagine: Dr. Funkenstein running amok through your local Home Depot.

Just by the nature of who he is and what he hears, Trimpin (he uses only one name) cuts a wide swath of artistic and musical turf. Working and playing across disciplines, with various collaborators, using multiple methods and media, he startles and amuses and challenges the people around him.

Over years I recorded him doing just that, then reduced the entire phenomenon into a portable, projectable, 78-minute artifact called TRIMPIN: the sound of invention.

Somehow Trimpin has learned how to navigate the lures and snares of a market-mad society. He doesn't have a website or a cellphone or an agent or manager or gallery. He's not using his imagination as a bargaining chip to become rich or famous or more commercial. His working methods do not create greater efficiencies or generate more product. He does his best to ignore the bottom line. And I found all that exemplary.

Of course, Trimpin is not alone in marching to his different drummer; American culture has always bred its sonic visionaries. From Moondog to Mingus, from Thelonious Monk to Meredith Monk, from Harry Partch to Henry Brant, from Anonymous to Zorn: all mavericks making music along the edge of a market-driven society. Trimpin and his fellow artists demand that we view life and its sounds not as artifacts to be purchased, but as dynamic means of exploration, investigation, and perpetual questioning.

In its shilling of lowest-common-denominator culture, mass media has encouraged us to view these artists as irrelevant or naïve or just plain nuts. Almost as a reflex, we've tended to dismiss their work as the product of quirky genius, throw some change into their instrument cases, and/or entomb them alive in museums of outsider art.

But mass media's influence isn't as pervasive -- or persuasive -- as it once was. With greater opportunities to see and hear a wider range of works, we just might open our eyes and ears. We might even find that American culture is far richer, wilder, and more surprising than we've been led to believe. Perhaps it's time to stop viewing this country and its diverse riches through the narrow eyes of a venture capitalist.

I'd like to think that TRIMPIN: the sound of invention could contribute to opening our eyes and ears.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I give you, as honestly as I can, one more unique, American visionary: Trimpin.

Open your ears and your mind will follow.

The documentary TRIMPIN: the sound of invention will have its West Coast premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival before screening next month at the Newport International Film Festival and SILVERDOCS.