High above the Malibu coast sits a natural amphitheater of craggy, wrinkled rock faces centered on an embedded boulder. On a balmy, burnt-orange evening, Billy Close stands near the center, pulling at the air with gloved hands in gestures not unlike those of an airport-tarmac router. Every time he does, an intense hum — oooooooooouuuuunnnngggggg — reverberates off the mountain peaks and through the intestines of the people gathered on picnic blankets. Something glints in the air like a set of web tendrils spun by an enormous spider: wires attached at one end to a massive wooden box that looks from a distance like a church organ mixed with a washtub. The wires lead 1,100 feet up to the rock faces and are fastened with climber’s webbing near a collection of caves that acts as a natural resonator. By pulling the strings, the man makes the mountain moan in ecstasy.
Cut to a crumbling brick theater space in a tagged and trash-strewn part of East Hollywood. Three female dancers from an ensemble called String Theory flit and dive among sparkling webs like water striders across a pond. They coil their bodies and spring, their arms pushing along the 70-foot wires, literally “throwing” the sound across the room. One lies on her back and plays the strings, snaking backward across the floor. With every tug and stroke, the vibrations that emerge from the harp-shaped, hardwood-and-copper resonating chamber onstage are radically different: One player draws out stately melancholy;
two people can simulate chirping crickets, a hurdy-gurdy or a boingy sitar. Any more than three, and the audience becomes mice inside a grand piano, trembling in shock and wonder.
Billy Close and String Theory reside, record, build and practice in, respectively, a small warehouse space in the Palms area of West L.A. and a sun-stippled cottage in Venice. Together and apart, they’ve transformed Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, the L.A. Arboretum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, San Francisco’s Exploratorium, Atlanta’s CNN Center and Seattle’s Space Needle into enormous instruments. They invent “sound objects” with ethereal, playful titles: Curve Harp, Wing Harp, Cyclo Drums, Vertical Harp, Ray Harp and the jaw-dropping Earth Harp — in other words, things few who see them have ever heard (of), but from which people walk away as if they’ve been touched, or at least bopped on the head. “Performance-wise, the long strings are spectacular to look at,” says String Theory co-founder Luke Rothschild. “For writing music, they have a unique sound that can’t be generated on any sampler — I know, I’ve tried.”
Long strings work differently from standard ones. Brushed or stroked lengthwise with a rosined glove, they expand and contract, their longitudinal (or “compression”) waves traveling at freakishly high speeds. Each has a distinct pitch; there are clamps at various points — similar to guitar capos — to alter tunings according to the environment. They have better resonance at longer lengths and stretched just under their breaking points. They revive a little of the primeval awe that music must have once inspired, the rush of religion without the flummery. “With traditional instruments, there’s an expectation of melodic progression,” explains Rothschild. “The long strings, they can hover in space. It allows you to let go of an expectation of time.”
Long-string instruments (also called LSIs or just “long strings”) are descendants of the huge outdoor wind harps of the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, they’re utilized by a small group of American and European composers, including Ellen Fullman, whom Bill Close and String Theory both name as a prime influence. Fullman is a Seattle-based composer/visual artist who started experimenting with sound art at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1978 and built her first LSI prototype in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1980. Fullman cites the Delta blues musicians she heard growing up in Memphis as a major influence. Turns out they were weaned on a contraption dating back to the 1800s called the “diddley bow,” a length of broom wire stretched along the sides of houses (or from floor to ceiling) to pluck while sliding a rock or pill bottle along its length. The diddley bow cut the young chops of the finest blues guitarists — Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Charlie Patton, Elmore James and Robert Johnson on the shortlist — and furnished the nickname of Bo Diddley, who as a boy studied stringed instruments on Chicago’s South Side.
Billy Close formed the Music and Sonic Sculpture (MASS) Ensemble in 1994 with a loose affiliation of like-minded Art Institute of Chicago students that included Luke and Holly Rothschild and cellist Joseph Harvey, who would later split off and form String Theory with other musicians. “When we moved out here, they wanted to take the work in a different direction,” says Close, a mellow-blond, surferesque dude in sandals and paint-flecked pants. “In some ways they are kind of our competition, but I don’t really view it that way; it’s more of a movement of long-string work that’s starting to happen — and that’s exciting.”
Besides Alexander Calder and Christo, Close says his biggest influence was a lecture he heard about Frank Lloyd Wright, which fascinated him with a description (originally attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) of architecture as “frozen music.” In 1999, Close debuted his first Earth Harp, each of which costs around $10,000 and takes three months to construct. From a family of sailors as well as architects, Close uses fishing lines as guides for stringing the harp wire to buildings and canyons. He has created 50 or 60 different instruments including the Archer Harp, built in the image of a bowman shooting an arrow; the 22 Harp, with the number 2 repeatedly melted into its design; and the Sun Sitar, based on a painting of a hot-air balloon by the French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Close recently strung the home of a Michigan man who is slowly losing his sight. “He wanted to have a way for his house to make music,” says Close. “We’ve created walls of strings, so as he walks down his hallway, he just runs his hand along them and they resonate.”
Where MASS Ensemble is a “you are inside” experience, the six-piece String Theory is more of a rock band with classical overtones. This minstrel-like multi-instrumental group has covered Ravel and Tchaikovsky, and is fond of perverse meldings: Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” with the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation,” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” with Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40. Cellist Harvey was raised on bluegrass and classic rock before studying the early liturgical music, baroque fugues and Victorian choirs he adapts and arranges for the others. As a dancer, Holly Rothschild took to the physicality of playing long strings, rehearsing for two weeks using cotton strings instead of wire. “The rest of the group comes in and starts writing the music around the dancing,” she says. “The actual song will be a result of the choreography, so we don’t even know what a particular piece is going to sound like.”
This unpredictability and unwieldiness — it takes from six hours to two days to string the installations — has hamstrung mainstream acceptance for MASS and String Theory. “We don’t know where we want to take it, because we’re going in so many different directions at once,” says Harvey. But both ensembles are accessible, allowing audience members to play the strings after their performances; kids and parents stream like spellbound ants to stroke the giant web with gloved hands.
The strings attract other creatures. “It never fails, and it blows my mind,” says Luke Rothschild. “We set these things up, and within a couple of hours you start seeing these little wispy strands coming out from the strings. I don’t know where those little spiders come from or how they figure it out, but after about five hours, there’s a lot of them, like they’re kind of testing it out for the mothership.”
String Theory plays at the Creation Festival at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday, November 8, from 10:45 to 11:15 p.m., and will have its Curve Harp set up for an interactive installation until 3:30 p.m.; and for a benefit for Foundation for Artist Resources on Saturday, November 15, at Barnsdall Municipal Art Gallery; www.stringtheoryproductions.com.
MASS Ensemble’s Earth Harp will “play” the Ernst and Young Plaza, 735 S. Figueroa St., downtown, Thursday, December 4, 7 p.m.; www.massensemble.com.