L.A. Stage Times
LA’s Fling With String Theory Heats Up
by: Jesse Herwitz | November 21, 2013
It’s early in the afternoon on November 1. Luke Rothschild is finishing his set-up for the last of nine performances in a four-week span for String Theory, a performance ensemble he co-founded with his wife Holly Rothschild and friend Joseph “Joey” Harvey. Then he’ll head home, gather his luggage, and along with the rest of the group catch a flight to Dallas, where the band is slated to perform the following day. Immediately following that show, String Theory will fly back to LA and perform as the house band for the 24th annual Ovation Awards.
It has been the group’s “busiest ever” month, says Luke. Still, the work at hand requires careful and delicate attention.
Luke screws the last of a few remaining bolts into the seating of the Circle Harp, a 12-string instrument that he created and built. It’s an integral part of String Theory’s musical sound. After that seating is secured, he will then run the mono-brass filament strings from the main stage of San Gabriel Mission Playhouse to the back of the auditorium - a distance of around 80 or 100 feet - attach them to a destination point there, then tune the strings with a series of circular pitch-blocks. On Sunday, when the harp is played by Holly, the strings will literally be suspended above the heads of audience members.
“We call it a long-string harp,” says Luke. “On the harps that I make there’s either 12 strings or 24 strings — the biggest one has up to 48 strings, but we haven’t ever put that many up.”
The Ovation Awards will be something of a sized-down version of a typical (if the word can be used) String Theory experience, including seven musicians and no dancers. Larger performances have included up as many as 25 classically-trained and well-esteemed ballet dancers or as many as 10 musicians. Still, there is an inherent theatricality involved in spending an evening with String Theory - whatever its current size. That theatricality is a quality that will not go unnoticed in the nearly 1,400-seat theater filled with some of the best Los Angeles theater actors, directors, and producers.
“Every site space is different. And also energetic-flow is different,” says Luke. “If there’s space to get more movement going, then [we] will. So we want to take advantage of as much physical theatricality as is possible in any given context.”
Being able to adapt is a core philosophy of String Theory. How to describe what an evening with String Theory is like to one who has never seen a long-string harp played or a set of ‘cyclo-drums’ (drums hung vertically that spin on an axel and are pounded on with two large drumsticks) is something of a task in itself. Inspiration for each performance is equally derived from classical composers such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, painters such as Kandinsky, as well as dance choreographers such as the iconic Pina Bausch.
“I would describe String Theory as a multi-layered immersive performance environment and performance ensemble. It’s music, sonic sculpture and dance,” says Luke.
Having played for many types of acts in different venues across the country and globe (including a performance for the Prime Minister of Singapore in 2007 and opening for Sheryl Crow at the Grand Cayman Ritz), they caught the attention of LA STAGE Alliance CEO Terence McFarland, who then suggested the group to Ovation Awards musical director David O. Together O and String Theory worked out the logistics. O would help decide on an overture piece and aid them in cuing the music and String Theory would simply play its original music and work its own magic.
“I feel like the Ovation Awards is a microcosm of its own, and in that context we adapted specifically for that,” says Luke. “I think that is a good example of what String Theory does.”
String Theory was built on the backs of its three co-creators in Chicago around 1997. Luke Rothschild and Harvey had moved there to study — Luke from Massachusetts to the Art Institute of Chicago (fine arts and sculpture), Harvey from South Carolina to Roosevelt University (cello). Holly, not yet married to Luke at the time, is a native of Illinois, and majored in business and dance at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Meeting through mutual friends in the Chicago music scene, the three joined their talents to create what would become an early incarnation of String Theory.
By compounding their talents, however, they happened upon something that became greater than the sum of its parts and would take the next 16 years to develop and fine-tune.
“Basically we have these three forms kind of converging,” describes Luke. “Joey brought the baroque cello vibe, I was trying to integrate music into performance with sonic sculpture, and Holly brought the choreography and dance aspect.”
After six years of playing with some smaller avant-garde dance troupes, the trio decided to move west, by way of a 25-foot rental truck, and landed in Los Angeles in the fall of 2002. In Venice, String Theory found a house to both live in and create music from. To this day the house is still used for all music rehearsals.
“Coming out here we were definitely much more strapped for cash. But we were just like, if we’re going to do it, we just need to do it,” says Luke.
One of the earliest gigs for String Theory was also one of the earliest transitions for String Theory into the theater world. In 2003, the group scored a production of Christian Jan Meoli’s The Dadaists for director Harris Fishman (credited as Harris Mann) at the Met Theatre.
“The Dadaists was huge for us,” says Luke. “That made it feel real.”
In addition to the 99-seat stages, String Theory has also played large venues including Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheatre, the Creation Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Broad Stage in 2009 and in 2011. In 2012 the group performed as a trio for the Los Angeles Public Library ALOUD series, opening for a Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and David Byrne (Talking Heads) conversation at the Aratani/Japan America Theater in downtown Los Angeles. (2013). Luke recalls that experience happily.
“The context was we were supposed to be playing while people were entering, but what ended up happening was they opened the doors early. With over 800 seats the place was packed. So we started playing, and 30 seconds into the first piece the whole place erupted in spontaneous applause.” Luke smiles as he recalls, “It was such a great moment, like pouring right into my heart.”
Aside from the String Theory projects, the group’s creators embark on many side projects individually. Luke has scored as many as six documentaries and Holly, who has been choreographing for 20 years, has choreographed for a variety of different social events, most recently an ‘interactive theater’ event at the old Howard Hughes offices. Holly also has had some of her films seen at the San Francisco International Dance Film Festival (2013) and the Dance-Screen film festival (2013).
In addition, String Theory is working on a theatrical piece, currently titled Remembering Water, that will be directed by Holly and is scheduled to open in 2014.
So theatricality seems to be a natural byproduct of String Theory’s talents. Though musical ingenuity is at the core of the group’s work, it is the accompanying visual stimuli (projected films on the walls, stage lighting, experimental choreography) of each performance that truly enhances the aural experience.
Perhaps 2013 Ovation Award winner Glynn Turman (best lead actor in a play, for CTG’s Joe Turner’s Come And Gone), who describes it best when — speaking from the stage that night — he called String Theory’s performance at the awards ceremony “magical” and likened it to what the actors do on stage.
“I happened to be offstage at that moment, because I had just finished playing the big [cyclo] drums or was about to play the big drums,” says Luke. “But when he said it, it made me so happy. He was wonderful and it was a wonderful sentiment. “
Though often lauded for its performances, String Theory has little time to rest on its laurels. To be something of a pioneer in an innovative field is to both enjoy the moment and look forward at the same time.
“I’m very grateful for the wonderful people that we work with. For the creative community in Los Angeles, in general. I really enjoy my work and feel blessed for the family we’ve built around the work.” says Luke. As for the future, “I think we continue to step up our game and work on higher-level projects.”
This year the Ovation Awards. Next year…