The sound of 60

Times Staff Writer

Seven-year-old Hannah Cohen and her brother Brandon, 9, first touched the strings tentatively, almost afraid they would break the one-of-a-kind musical device.

Then with exuberance, they swept their hands across the unusual 60-string harp to help launch a 60-hour Los Angeles celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary.

The instrument is designed in the shape of the Hebrew letter samech, which represents the numeric value of 60. It was created by Venice artist Kingsley -- he goes by one name -- as a colorful high note of the commemoration that ends tonight with an Israeli-themed show at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

The 600-pound stringed sculpture was a centerpiece of a musical event Friday night at Sinai Temple on Los Angeles' Westside following Thursday evening's debut before 200 people at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church.

Many of those taking turns at strumming the 8-foot-tall harp in Beverly Hills were unaware of the significance of its shape, which loosely resembles the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team logo. Kingsley was eager to explain the design.

"It's a real piece of sculpture that's built to last, not a prop piece," said the tall, white-haired mixed-media artist. Kingsley describes himself as "a contemporary conceptual artist" who "is at times philosopher, master craftsman, painter, sculptor, engineer and a graphic artist, reflecting the complexity of our culture on a grand scale in a vernacular for the common man."

Having previously designed conceptional pieces around musical instruments, Kingsley was tapped to create the harp by composer and producer Craig Taubman, an organizer of the 60-hour celebration. The artist said the samech shape was a natural for the instrument.

One of 22 Hebrew letters, the samech has an S sound, said Kingsley. "By divine design, it has a value of 60."

The harp has an amplifier and a computer hidden inside that records the sounds created by its players. Covered by oil-painted canvas, the sculpture took 30 days to build out of plywood with steel and aluminum interior bracing, he said.

The interior engineering allows the sculpture to handle the tension created by its 60 strings -- tuned to the key of C.

"Not that there's any tension among the Jews," joked the 58-year-old artist, who is Jewish himself. "But there's a lot of subtext to this. It's about resonance more than tension."

Beverly Hills resident Adrea Caren, who is Jewish, said the Presbyterian church was a fitting setting for the harp sculpture's unveiling. "People are so hungry to make peace with each other. Here, you've opened the door," she said.

Bill Keeton, music director for Christ our Redeemer Church in Irvine, brought a 20-member group from his church's choir and band to perform at the Presbyterians' Israel birthday event, organized by the group Let My People Sing. He was impressed by the harp's symbolism -- and its sound.

"It has a good tone. You can tell it's tuned to C," said Keeton, a keyboardist.

Young Brandon Cohen is taking piano lessons as he prepares to launch a garage band with three of his friends. "We have four people and a band name, 'The Bad Boys,' " he said.

His mother, Wendy, listened with surprise as Brandon confided he once opened his piano and plucked at its internal strings. "This harp has a softer sound," he said.

As the Cohen children ran their hands across the strings, their father described the samech harp as a perfect metaphor for Israel's tenacious survival -- which has been marked with violence and vocal debate, inside its boundaries and outside.

"One note is just a sound. All the strings are strummed and it's music," said Brent Cohen, a software company president who lives in Santa Monica.

Israel's 60th year evokes emotional and divided opinion worldwide, with some criticizing the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians and conflicts with other nations in the Middle East.

But there was a more positive view of the young country's past and its potential future for those in Los Angeles celebrating the anniversary with Kingsley's improbable harp.

Said Cohen: "It's like Israel, where a cacophony of opinions has been turned into a beautiful chorus."


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