Los Angeles Downtown News
The Architecture Of Acoustics
String Theory Plays St. Vibiana's Cathedral, Literally
by Lea Lion
Holly Rothschild reached one arm through the wrought iron gate and slid the heavy bolt free from its lock on the other side. The door creaked open and she stepped into the dappled sunlight of the landscaped courtyard of the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral.
The Los Angeles-based ensemble String Theory brings its handmade harps with long golden strings to the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral for three performances June 8-10.
Once inside the tree-lined oasis, the traffic noises of Main Street seemed to fade into the background. Rothschild ducked through an open archway into the marble-clad interior of the building. She traversed the black-and-white checkerboard floor of a dimly lit, low-ceilinged hallway and emerged into the light-filled sanctuary.
"This is, probably, the most amazing interior space that we have ever performed in," she commented, gesturing toward the dark wooden floor, stark white walls, neoclassical columns and vaulted ceiling.
Rothschild is a founding member of String Theory, a hybrid ensemble of dancers and musicians who stage site-specific performances in unusual venues. On a recent Friday morning, she visited the former Downtown home of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles at Second and Main streets, where her group will perform a trio of shows June 8-10.
Since the religious edifice was purchased, rehabbed and turned into an arts and events venue by developer Tom Gilmore (the Archdiocese relocated to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels), the cathedral (now known as Vibiana's) has hosted numerous live bands and DJs. Unlike their musical predecessors, however, String Theory does not plan merely to perform at Vibiana's. Rather, the group plans to play the cathedral, literally, by transforming it into a giant harp.
"We do site-specific performance installations, so whenever we go into a place we set up these instruments specifically integrating them into the environment or architecture," Rothschild explained. "I think about it as a total performance experience."
In addition to traditional instruments, including cello, guitar, saxophone, violin and drums, String Theory's sound revolves around their signature handmade instruments: the curve harp, the moon harp and the circle harp. These unusual harps feature curved wooden chambers connected to long golden wires, which are unfurled over the audience and clamped to elevated points in the venue's rafters. The effect is a "canopy of sound," Rothschild said.
For the performances at Vibiana's, the harp's bases will be set on the former altar and the strings will be stretched into the second-floor choir loft. String Theory's dancers will perform in the nine wooden confessionals that line the room.
Transforming a building into an instrument is no easy feat, Rothschild noted, and with its high ceilings and stone surfaces, Vibiana's offers its own set of acoustic challenges.
To illustrate her point, Rothschild stood in the middle of the cathedral and clapped her hands once. A loud sound filled the hall and echoed for a moment before fading away.
"There is a six and a half second delay in here, which is going to be challenging for us," she said. "But the cellos, the violins, the long strings, the harps are going to sound really beautiful."
Founded by Rothschild, her husband Luke Rothschild, and Joseph Harvey in 2002, String Theory counts some of the country's legendary locales among its former performance venues.
The 14-member Los Angeles-based ensemble has transformed balconies, bridges and desert rock formations into de facto concert halls. For one noteworthy performance, they strung wires more than 1,000 feet to the top of a Boston skyscraper.
Other past venues include the façade of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and the Los Angeles Convention Center for the 2006 Grammy Awards. The group has also set up shop in landmark buildings designed by architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van der Rohe.
The dates at Vibiana's mark a rare public performance for a group that typically performs at high-profile private events.
"It's an honor to be in a space that's that powerful," said Luke Rothschild, who designs and builds the group's harps. "We are all so affected by our environment and the long strings' sound benefits from a lot of natural reverb, which Vibiana's probably has even too much of."
Luke Rothschild often describes his instruments as sounding like "a string section from Mars."
"They are very spacious, ethereal and have a very unique sonic characteristic," he added. "They are haunting, but very beautiful."
Holly Rothschild and several other musicians play the harps by running their hands down the length of the strings while wearing rosin-coated gloves. Despite the otherworldly sound that the harps produce, the musicians are still able to play everything from 15th century Renaissance music to modern electronica tracks.
Back at the cathedral, Holly Rothschild surveyed the great room for a final time before returning to the courtyard. As she opened the heavy black gate, she paused for a moment, then let it close behind her with a loud, resonating clang.