Five years ago, William Close's house in Malibu caught fire and burned to the ground. This was even more devastating because his life's work — a collection of giant, almost sculptural instruments, including something he calls his Earth Harp, painstakingly constructed over the past decade — acted as kindling. And all of this happened just six months after his marriage ended.
“The whole hill was on fire,” says Close, 42, sipping iced tea at PF Chang's in Santa Monica one recent Saturday, dressed in a stylishly slim button-down and suede ankle boots. His eyes crinkle. “That was an intense part of my life.” He would later wow the America's Got Talent judges on national television, but that was well down the line.
Instead of retreating, however, he called in family — one uncle is a boat builder — and threw himself into rebuilding and making his instruments better. “Everything was wiped out. It was the ultimate edit. I don't know that I would've taken that step if they hadn't all been eliminated,” he continues.
Close grew up in the countryside just outside New York City. He spent a lot of time on sailboats and his mother, an architect, would give him broken objects to fix or dissect. He played both guitar and percussion and became fascinated with bagpipes in his late teens.
“They're so bizarre and tech-y. You have to pull the reeds out, put vodka in there, take your hairs and put them in each reed, then put it back together and tune it. It sparked the idea that I could create my own instruments,” he says.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, he studied sculpture and sound design, erecting huge steel animals and making “weird audio pieces.” A girlfriend gave him an exhaust pipe as a birthday present, and he turned it into his first instrument, a harp.
In late 1999, he created the instrument that would later earn him Howard Stern's praise this summer on America's Got Talent, the Earth Harp. Commissioned by an arts and science foundation, he mounted a series of chambers on one side of a valley near Peoria, Illinois. Then, he ran strings 1000 feet to the other side, turning the valley itself into a huge harp. “It was known for being one of the most fertile areas in the world, and I was a bit of a hippie, so I thought that it being birthed there was really cool,” he says with a laugh.
He wound up stringing places all over the world, from the Winter Dome at the World Trade Center to Seattle's Space Needle to the Arch of Constantine in Italy — sort of like a musical Christo, who, along with Philip Glass, are his inspirations. Playing everything from his own compositions, Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” or Led Zepplin's “Kashmir,” he looks for pieces that are symphonic but also connect with audiences on an emotional level.
Producers from America's Got Talent sought him out. When he made the cut, Stern poked fun of him — until he laid down the first chords of his piece. After he played, the audience freaked out and Stern apologized and became his biggest champion. In fact, he thought Close would win, as did many who followed the show.
“So did I! That's what was so mean about it. I kinda wish the judges hadn't said I was gonna win,” he says.
He came in third place, but he now has a residency at the Palazzo in Las Vegas and finished redoing his house, which he built on the ashes of his old place in Malibu. Four months ago, his partner gave birth to their first baby in the hot tub in their living room. His name? Phoenix.