William Close tells the crowd at City National Plaza that he's still figuring out the logistics of his latest Earth Harp.
Over the years, the Malibu-based artist has built a number of these large, stringed instruments. He has taken Earth Harps to theaters from Philadelphia to Shanghai. He has played one attached to a building in Singapore, for which he earned a nod from Guinness World Records for “longest playable string instrument,” and in Black Rock City for Burning Man. He even performed with the Earth Harp on television. You might recall Close, the subject of an L.A. Weekly profile in 2012, and the Earth Harp from his long run on America's Got Talent that year.
Things get a bit complicated when the Earth Harp meets a skyscraper, which is Close's plan for his Thursday night performances for Downtown Art Walk. For this project, the Earth Harp extends above the courtyard for about 700 feet and is attached to the roofline of the City National Bank building. Unlike a theater performance, the strings jut up into the air instead of extending out at an angle from the base.
Moreover, as Close explains by phone a few days before he began installing the project, some of the tuning boxes that he uses need to be affixed to portions of string a few hundred feet about ground level. “I've devised a technique where I can mount the block and then pull it up in place,” he says.
That's not all, though. “The other challenge is just walking to the edge of the roof and looking down,” says Close. “That is just one of the freakier things you'll ever do, be on a skyscraper and look over the edge.”
Looking up from the courtyard, the strings seem to disappear as they creep closer to the sky. With a hard squint, traces of the lines become visible in what's left of the daylight. Otherwise, it is as if they vanish a couple hundred feet off the ground.
The project, part of VisionLA Fest's “Climate Action Arts Festival,” has been in the works for months, and Close installed the Earth Harp last Sunday. On Wednesday, he and the Earth Harp Collective performed a preview set at the end of the workday. The crowd was still dressed in their 9-to-5 gear and more people looked down from the windows of the surrounding buildings. A few onlookers stopped by to see what was going on; one passer-by said he recognized the Earth Harp from Burning Man. Even the crowds waiting for buses took notice. It's hard to ignore the Earth Harp. It's deep, mournful sound resonated across the courtyard.
At ground level, the Earth Harp is an imposing physical instrument. The chamber, which looks a bit like a gondola, sits on an elevated portion of the stage. Close stands in the center, twisting and turning his body as he runs his gloved hands up and down the strings. The gloves are covered with violin rosin, the dust of which occasionally flies from the stage like a snow flurry.
Close has invented more than 100 instruments, among them a Drum Jacket and a Drum Orb, but the Earth Harp is perhaps his best-known creation. He built the first one with 1,000 feet of string stretched across a valley. To date, his favorite is the Earth Harp in his home studio in Malibu. The strings extend to a nearby mountain.
Close's Earth Harps are tuned to sound similar despite different settings, but they also play with the surrounding environment and architecture in ways that will remain with the audience beyond the event. “Whenever they come into that place again, they'll remember that experience,” he says. “I get a chance to shift people's perception and experience of the piece of architecture.”
For some numbers, Close plays solo. For others, he is joined by various members of the Earth Harp Collective: drummer Richard Sherwood, violinist Shaina Evoniuk, guitarist Thomas Hyorth and vocalists Rafe Pearlman and Morgan Sorne. Together, the music they create is otherworldly. A cover of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah,” with Pearlman on vocals, is gorgeous, even angelic.
The music is almost too perfect for a neighborhood like this, where the foot traffic is heavy as people head out to catch a bus or a local happy hour. It's orchestral without sounding too old-fashioned and occasionally dance-y without sounding like a nightclub. It's an accessible spectacle.
The Earth Harp's appearance downtown will be memorable to more than just the audience. Close is looking forward to having the chance to show off his latest installation to local friends and family.
“There's sort of this cliche,” says Close. “If you live in Los Angeles and you make your living performing, a lot of times, you never get to perform in Los Angeles for some reason.” The Earth Harpist is making sure that his hometown show is one downtown art walkers won't forget.
William Close's Earth Harp will be on display and in performance tonight, Thursday, Dec. 10, during Downtown Art Walk, at City National Plaza, 515 S. Flower St. One-hour performances will begin at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.