Going far on a string and a pair

Special to The Times

String Theory's "harps" are instruments unlike anything King David ever played. Or Harpo Marx, for that matter.

The strings are attached to hollow, shaped boxes or soundboards: The small one, a ray harp, looks a little like a manta ray seen broadside; the big one, a curve harp, is more like a small grand piano tipped onto its side.

On the curve harp, the box is open where the piano keyboard would be, and along each edge of the opening, brass or steel strings wind around wooden pegs set about two inches apart. The really unusual part is where and how those strings are pulled taut: They're stretched from the soundboard as far as 1,000 feet, and fastened by screws to the walls, floors or ceilings of whatever theater, studio or other space you like.

The idea is to make "long-string music," and in the hands of String Theory, a performance ensemble, the ray harp and the curve harp are one part sculpture, one part music maker and one part conversation piece.

Luke Rothschild designed and built the curve harp. His wife dancer-choreographer-long-string-harpist Holly Rothschildplays it, and Joseph Harvey accompanies her on cello. They founded String Theory in Chicago and moved, together, to Venice last October seeking a wider audience for their concerts-cum-performance-pieces-cum-installation art, including one tonight at Hollywood's Met Theatre that will feature the 24-string curve harp.

"I studied piano but I come from a dance background," Holly Rothschild, 37, explains. She is sitting in a sun-dappled room filled with flowers, drums and -- mostly -- a ray harp, whose 12 strings stretch from one side of the space to the other.

"Luke was playing drums and attending the Chicago Art Institute, working with sculptural and visual arts. Joey was studying for his master's in cello." And she was teaching and running her own dance company, Lucky Plush Productions. "We met performing at various shows and galleries, and decided to put these different forms together."

She demonstrates the harp, wearing rosin-coated gloves on her hands and rubbing the length of the strings, one at a time and together, moving fluidly from the soundboard out and back. Otherworldly sounds, a little like a violin on steroids, vibrate in the room.

String Theory didn't invent long-string music. Cologne, Germany-based Terry Fox was creating ritualistic pieces in which he would perform for up to 24 hours with one long string in the 1970s. But it is Seattle composer Ellen Fullman whose work String Theory cites as its inspiration. Fullman says that in 1981, she was the first to create an object, a musical instrument, that used long strings. She doesn't call hers a harp, but it established the basics: a soundboard with strings coming off it.

Since then, Fullman has been awarded a Meet the Composer long-string commission. She has performed at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and has also collaborated with new music composer Pauline Oliveros. Last year she wrote a piece for her long-string instrument and the Kronos Quartet, performing with it at San Francisco's Other Minds Festival.

"Many people are using long strings now," Fullman says. "At first, I thought no one would [play] my work because it's so impractical. Performing space usually requires 50 or more feet, and the installation must be secured into walls or a self-supporting structure."

Although many of String Theory's gigs are commercial -- from weddings to corporate conventions -- their site-specific performances have been seen and heard at the Wilmington, Del., First Night Festival and Chicago's Field Museum, where the ensemble was in residence for a month in 1999, in conjunction with a world-music festival. The Chicago Tribune said the performances seemed like an echo of the Fillmore in its heyday, with "music that sounds Baroque sometimes, anthemic at others."

String Theory's repertory is wide-ranging: A self-produced CD contains forays into pop with original songs as well as experimental music. Then there are the classical selections, including a five-minute version of Ravel's "Bolero" and the Arabian dance portion of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."

Harvey, 31, does arrangements, but the group basically works without a score. Holly Rothschild's harp part consists of single notes, although more than one player can perform on the instrument simultaneously -- and does. Three other performers have recently joined String Theory: Carey LaMothe, performs on French horn, trumpet and harp; another drummer, Stuart Johnson, plays a gourd-like Nigerian instrument called an udu, as well as the cyclo drum (several small hand-held drums clamped together); and Greg Russell vamps on electric guitar. For the Met performance, expect to hear 75 minutes of music ranging from early Renaissance work to a truncated version of Elgar's "Enigma Variations."

Luke Rothschild, 32, says it took him three months to build the Baltic birch and red oak soundboard of the group's 24-string instrument. It's tuned to coincide with two 12-tone chromatic scales, the equivalent of two full octaves of black and white keys on the piano, or a set of 24 strings on a traditional harp. But the physics, Rothschild says, are completely different.

"On traditional bowed or plucked instruments, the string vibrates in a circle," he says. The strings are about the size of bass strings on a traditional harp. On the curve harp, "they vibrate longitudinally, and what you hear is the expansion and contraction of the length of the string, which determines the pitch, not the perpendicular displacement of the string. We rub them with a glove to excite them into a state of vibration, rather than bow or pluck them."

Adds Harvey: "There are tuning blocks at various points on the strings. We'll use blocks at 42 feet for low C at the Met, but the strings continue to the back of the theater."

Each venue dictates the length of the strings, and while different environments have their own acoustic properties, the strings, Harvey says, basically sound the same. It's the visual element that changes, something String Theory refers to as "transforming architecture into theater," a task that requires a bit of doing. "It will take us six to eight hours to convert the Met," says Holly Rothschild, and however beautiful it is, she adds, "it's still functional."

"I like to think of it," chimes in Luke Rothschild, "as a string section from Mars."

*

'Compositions of Sound and Space'

Who: String Theory

When: Tonight, 7 p.m.

Where: Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood

Price: $15

Contact: (323) 957-1152

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