Gerald Trimble’s Musical Odyssey

Missourian Gerald Trimble has traveled a mystical journey in mastering ancient instruments and blending seemingly divergent musical styles. Along the way he has accumulated rare and beautiful
instruments and an intriguing collection of baroque style chairs.

by Leigh Elmore

Let’s get something straight right off the bat. Gerald Trimble is not a collector, although he possesses a collection of rare and beautiful stringed instruments and a group of Baroque era chairs from which to play them.

Gerald Trimble is a musician who lives most fully when he’s playing the viola da gamba sitting on a William and Mary chair that dates from around 1700. For the last decade Trimble has devoted his creative energy to performing on ancient instruments, which would have been common in the court of King Henry VIII of England, but with an entirely new sound. The viola da gamba is his instrument of choice these days; an instrument shaped somewhat like a cello (but with sloping shoulders), with six strings, gut frets and tuned somewhat like a guitar.

“Seventeenth century jazz is what I play,” Trimble said in a recent interview, only half in jest. His passion for esoteric instruments and exotic musical styles have led the Kansas City area native on quests around the world, whether in search of a specific viol or a musician.

“It has led me on a few adventures for sure,” Trimble said. “The viola da gamba has led me to heartbreak and triumph; it has definitely enriched my life. The combination of feelings that I get when I play these old instruments makes me believe that something greater is working through me.”

Plus the craftsmanship that went into making the 17th century instruments is inspiring to Trimble. “The man who made this instrument had no power tools, no electric lighting, no climate control other than fire; he used hide glue and made the strings from animal gut. That’s simply amazing,” he said.

The proportions of the instrument reflect the classical “Golden Mean” that was expressed in the art of several ancient cultures. “That got me interested in other objects of the period when the viola da gamba was made, which led me to William and Mary chairs. Their measurements also reflect that golden mean,” Trimble said.

His favorites were made by the Huguenots, the French Protestants who were trained in a mystical tradition to put beauty in the forms of what they made. “These chairs are a connection between man and heaven,” he said.

So why get obsessed with chairs when it’s music that drove him?

“I simply thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to sit in a chair from the same era as my instrument’,” Trimble said. “These types of chairs don’t show up that often and when they do, they are not as expensive as you might expect.”

He points to some symbolic ornamentation on one of his chairs. “The top crest rails represent the two pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem.” And, of course, the height, width and depth reflect that old golden mean of perfect proportion.

“It’s almost like I’m living a story like The DaVinci Code. “The quest began years ago and led me to Celtic music and continued to the viols and these chairs where I really found a mystical tradition,” he said. “In our society, the rational has taken over. We’ve lost a lot of the wonder and that’s what I’m trying to reclaim.”

Gerald Trimble’s musical odyssey began not so unusually. He was raised in a family where both parents were musical. He found his way to the guitar and rock music like so many suburban youths, and then to folk music. “I really didn’t know what I was looking for until I took a trip to Great Britain when I was 20. That’s when I was exposed to Celtic music and I knew immediately that I was called to play it.”

Trimble had some early success and put out several recordings in the 1980s. With Dave Brown he created and hosted a weekly Celtic music show on NPR called “Ballads, Bards and Bagpipes,” that was produced at KCUR-FM in Kansas City.

Eolai gan Fhéile, the nom de plume of the author of the Irish KC website, wrote: “Trimble is a very influential musician in Celtic music circles in the KC area, and has collaborated with, among others, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill of The Bothy Band, the late great Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham, and Bouzouki ZoukFest man Roger Landes of KC’s legendary Scartaglen. Somebody has described Trimble as ‘a cross between Planxty and Duke Ellington’ which at least sounds great as a quote.”

While his stature in Celtic music circles grew, his personal quest took him toward something more eastern. “When I was 30 the instrument that I played, a custom-made citern was stolen. That set me on a phase where I turned away from Western music. I began to play stringed instruments from the east, ones that you pluck. But that eventually led me to the viola da gamba, which is a combination of the guitar of the west and a bowed instrument of the east. It’s the only instrument that I know of that’s a product of both cultures,” Trimble said. “I think it probably came from the Moors.”

Unlike the cello, the viola da gamba is played with an underhand bow technique. “When I learned to play with a bow, it suddenly became more lyrical than anything I could achieve by plucking.”

He credits the film “All the Mornings of the World” by Jazzman-turned-director Alain Corneau for exposing the viola da gamba to him. “When I saw that film I was taken.”

The viola da gamba originated in the 14th century and reached its zenith of popularity by the late 16th century, when violins made their debuts. “The viola da gamba kind of faded then, but they do inform each other,” Trimble says. (See sidebar.)

Most of the time you’re likely to see and hear a viola da gamba in an ensemble re-creating Renaissance music. “Most viola da gamba people play early music in historic style,” Trimble said. “But I don’t play like ‘normal’ people,” he quipped.

“I play with my own tunings. I have my own way of playing. I’m more of a fiddler,” he says.

His instrument dates from 1708 and he’s always on the lookout for others. Earlier in his life he financed many of his world travels through the proceeds of buying and selling antique rugs, an instinct he developed from dealing with his family’s legacies over the years. So, yes, he does buy and sell viola da gambas and other historic instruments. But he’s selective about who he’ll sell to.

“I want them to go to musicians, not to collectors,” he says, “it’s so important that they are played.

“In the viola da gamba, I’ve found exactly what I want. It’s the type of music that I’m inspired by. Even though it’s English at its roots, you can improvise on the bass line or create a dance tune. That’s where I find the roots of all jazz.

“I play traditional instruments as best as I can set them up. But I’m not trying to be a re-enactor. I’m trying to create a new direction that connects to jazz and the British music of the 17th century. It also mixes in the Black experience, which has helped define our American music.”

“It’s a very mysterious thing for me. It’s a spiritual exercise.”

Part of that exercise is a new CD he’s working on in collaboration with noted percussionist River Guerguerian of Asheville, N.C. His previous releases are now collectors’ items, that are available on Amazon.com including “First Flight,” “Heartland Messenger,” “Crosscurrents,” “Celtic Odyssey,” and “Celtic Cantigas.”

“Nobody else does quite what I do,” Trimble insists. “And I love all these things and all their connections.

What is a viola da gamba?

The viola da gamba (also called the “viol” or “gamba”) is not a fretted cello!

It may look like one, but a cello has four strings and a viol usually has six, like a guitar, or seven. In addition, the viol’s frets aren’t permanently set, like those of a guitar, but are instead made of gut tied onto the neck, like those of a lute, and are therefore movable.

Viols are bowed, like cellos, but the bow is held differently-not overhand, as is a violin or cello bow, but underhand, like a pencil or chopsticks. Viols are also tuned differently than are cellos. Cellos (and violins and violas) are tuned in fifths. Viols are tuned in fourths, with a third between the third and fourth strings, just like a lute and almost like a guitar. Chords can easily be played on the viol with the bow and are often included in solo music.

Like the cello, the bass viola da gamba is part of a family. The smallest, highest-sounding member is a treble viol, equivalent to the violin. Next larger and deeper in tone is the tenor viol, approximately equivalent to the viola. Even larger and deeper-sounding is the bass viol, equivalent to the cello. The largest, deepest size, the double bass, is the only viol played in orchestras today.

Viols have a long history. They were perhaps most popular in the 15th to 18th centuries, from about the time of Henry VIII of England, who played them, to that of Louis XIV of France (the Sun King). Shakespeare mentions them in several plays, including Twelfth Night.

The sound of the viol is sweet and shimmering, quieter than that of violins, violas, or cellos. Viols smaller than double basses are, in fact, too quiet to be effective in large orchestras or big concert halls, which is why they are no longer very common. But many people today love the particular timbre of viols and the Renaissance and Baroque music written for them. Concerts are usually given in small halls or churches, which suit viols well.

The William and Mary style

William III and Mary II reigned over England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689. Mary died in 1694, William in 1702.

William and Mary style has Flemish, Dutch, French and Chinese influences. Huguenot refugees from France were noted as cabinetmakers. The style is characterized by trumpet turned legs, terminating in a hoof, claw, or ball feet, padded or caned chair seats, and Oriental lacquer-work.

The chair backs were high, and rounded at the top with carving, shaped slightly to fit the shape of your body. The banister back chair, with and without arms, replaced the cane back chair. The back legs of the chairs were splayed out at the bottom.

Settees, upholstered or with loose cushions came in the main room. Highboys and lowboys, with six high elaborated trumpet-shaped legs or spiral-turned legs, appeared and rapidly became a favorite of the Colonial craftsmen.

Some of the furniture was made of oak, but the Colonial workmen were finding walnut, maple, pine, apple wood, sycamore and other native woods much easier to use.

Marquetry became an important feature of decoration often the form of elaborate floral patterns, cockleshell and acanthus leaf, or seaweed. Some of the furniture was painted and gilded. Hardware, made of cast brass, became decorative as well as functional.

(Source: Museum Furniture)

See Gerald Trimble in concert
Sept. 29, 2012, 8 pm at
All Saints Episcopal Church at 9201 Wornall,
Kansas City, MO 64114 Enjoy his various performances on Baroque stringed instruments on YouTube.com. www.facebook.com/CelticAndWorldMusic