William Close is getting ready to string a skyscraper. As the inventor of the Earth Harp, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the longest stringed instrument, it’s a task he knows well.
Dressed in blue jeans hitched up by black suspenders over a black button-up shirt, Close eyes the top of the 52-story building that anchors California Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. It’s Tuesday evening and he’s standing on a built-in stage in the bustling office park, squinting through fashionable Ray-Ban sunglasses at the sky. The body of the Earth Harp rests beside him. It is the size of a large rowboat and resembles a wooden whale jawbone.
“The strings shoot up to the top of the skyscraper, so the building becomes both the bridge and the structure for the instrument,” says the Malibu-based artist.
On Friday and Saturday, Close and a band of performers called the Earth Harp Collective will play the harp, along with a variety of other instruments Close has invented, including a three-necked guitar-sitar-bass called an Aquatar, as part of the free Grand Performances summer arts series. The shows are co-sponsored by the i3 Arts Fest, which is taking place in various locations across downtown over the weekend.
Installing and tuning the Earth Harp is a two-day process. On this day, Close is getting ready to drop 42 strings, weighted by water bottles, off the edge of the 700-foot building. His tech, Jonathan Golko, will catch them and attach them to the harp’s main resonating chamber. The following day, Close will tune the harp, a process that he’s got down to a science. He can vibrate four notes out of each string.
“You have to literally reach for the sky and pull the notes down,” Close says of the process of playing the harp. He has played it all over the world, including in Singapore, Shanghai and Portugal, since inventing it in 1999. The harp synthesizes a number of disciplines. It is a public art installation, an engineering feat, a musical instrument and an architectural fascination
The instrument sounds like a cello on steroids — low and resonant. Close literally steps between the strings, in effect playing the instrument from the inside. He wears cotton gloves liberally dusted with violin resin and runs his hands along the strings until they vibrate. Close has a flair for the theatrical, and when he plays, he engages in a sort of primitive, full-body dance.
It’s little wonder that the Earth Harp is a highlight of the iconoclastic arts and music festival Burning Man, which takes place each year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It was there that i3 Arts Fest founder Xandra Myers first saw Close perform and decided she had to book him for an event. In 2015, she commissioned him to string the City National Bank building during a downtown art walk.
The fact that Close has performed in concert halls and public spaces around the world, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the Festival of Lights in Jerusalem and the Field Museum in Chicago, but is little known in his hometown, is baffling, says Myers.
“Los Angeles has so many amazing artists, but seems to not appreciate its own,” she laments. “We’re trying to change that by highlighting their work.”
Close grew up outside of New York and later studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he began to experiment with building wild, avant-garde instruments. He loved music, but he didn’t enjoy adhering to the rules of any particular instrument. If he were to play a real harp, for example, he says he’d try to do it with chopsticks or guitar picks.
His first installation of the Earth Harp involved stringing it 1,000 feet across a canyon just south of Chicago. The experiment turned the entire valley into a giant instrument chamber and resulted in the harp’s name. Close went on to play in concert halls, which required him to attach the strings to balconies so that audiences literally sat beneath the instrument.
In 2012, Close got national attention when he finished third on “America’s Got Talent.”
“I was the first guy Howard Stern ever voted yes for,” Close recalls happily.
Close has created more than 100 musical instruments. He mostly builds them in his home shop in Malibu. He lost everything in a 2007 wildfire, but managed to rebuild his home in the exact same spot. Only this time, he worked with an architect to create a permanent location for one of his Earth Harps. There are openings in the architecture for the strings, which attach to a nearby mountain.
And because it’s Malibu, neighbors might not think much of 1,000 feet of harp strings shooting through the sky.
Everyone who encounters the Earth Harp wants to play it, Close says. Over the years, it has blossomed into “this really beautiful, functional, orchestral instrument.”
Looking to the future, Close is working to organize a skyscraper tour, with hopes of stringing up such icons as the 110-story Willis Tower in Chicago. Such a feat, he says, executed as an act of public art, would become a mighty celebration of the city and its people.
Earth Harp tech and multi-instrumentalist Golko has played it and likens the experience to string theory in physics.
“It’s just the science of sound. When you’re playing an ‘A,’ you’re resonating the frequency and tone of ‘A’ everywhere,” he says. “And if you take my most romantic notion of it, the gravitational weight of the note goes beyond our plane into the universe.”
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‘William Close and the Earth Harp Collective’
Where: Grand Performances at California Plaza, 300-350 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday
Info: (213) 687-2190, www.grandperformances.org