Los Angeles Times | String Theory Press

Los Angeles Times

L.A. Times

String Theory on a new thread at the Broad Stage

String Theory, L.A.'s 'big secret,' unravels its latest fusion of dance and performing art at Santa Monica's Broad Stage.
By Jason Kehe, Special to the Los Angeles Times

String Theory, a Los Angeles-based hybrid performance act that combines dance and a kind of sonic sculpture, has little to do with the field of particle physics that gives it its name. However, the two disparate entities do have one striking thing in common — most people have no idea how to explain either one.

L.A. Times

There's no "one-liner elevator speech," as one of its dancers put it. "It just is," said another.

Even Dale Franzen, artistic director of the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, can't quite categorize the root genre of the show. "I don't know what to call it, they don't know what to call it," she said. "It's String Theory; it's its own genre."

Which might be why she has brought it back again. Audience members were "flabbergasted," she said, when String Theory first performed at the Broad two years ago on Valentine's Day. This Saturday, String Theory will reprise that performance — but, because of the protean nature of the show and its creators, it will be an entirely new experience. New movement, new arrangements, a spectacular that has been unwound and rewoven again.

For most performance acts, changing venues means readjusting sound levels, maybe redoing some blocking. But for String Theory, moving from one stage to another means physically transforming both show and space.

For String Theory to work, every venue must be transformed into a massive instrument, a room-sized harp. Strings for that harp will stretch from a 6-foot resonator on the Broad stage, for example, all the way to the balcony ledge. At every venue, that distance is different and sometimes those strings can stretch to almost 1,000 feet — and remain perfectly playable. The harp has been re-created at the Kodak Theatre, Getty Center, L.A. Convention Center and Walt Disney Concert Hall, among other venues.

But the giant harp is just the beginning. String Theory is a fusion of dance, sculpture and music. It's no accident that its three co-founders are each specialists in one of those fields. Holly Rothschild is a trained dancer; her husband, Luke Rothschild, is a sculptor and rock musician; and Joseph Harvey is a classically trained cellist. In 2002, they teamed up to form String Theory, recruiting collaborators from their respective spheres.

The score is defiantly eclectic, jumping from 15th century Spanish Renaissance to pop to modern rock to electronica. And don't overlook the multimedia video elements playing in the background. But the best part is the custom-made instruments, like that harp. In addition to cello, violin, guitar, saxophone, flute, keys, bass, drums and sampler, String Theory performers play on purely invented creations such as the skirt harp, a tutu-shaped instrument with massive poles shooting out from the dancer's waist. Another musician plays a theremin on stilts.

"It almost has to be seen," said Alesia Young, one of the dancers and harpists. "You do it a disservice by finding language to describe it. It's an experience."

Where String Theory breaks from particle physics is in accessibility. Despite its myriad influences and alternately alien and retro aesthetic, the show, Luke and Holly Rothschild insist, isn't some rarefied, self-important, art-for-art's-sake showcase. It is, in their words, "apolitical, utilitarian and blue-collar." Neither of the Rothschilds are precious about the show, which they treat as roll-up-your-sleeves work. "I've never played a show clean in my life, because I'm so dirty from the setup and from hauling pig iron and sandbags and drilling," Holly said. "I've always slapped on the foundation over a bunch of dirt."

According to Luke, their goal is to "communicate pleasure and create something beautiful."

String Theory also engages in educational outreach, and Luke works with the others to score movies. For Franzen, all of this fit right into her mission at the Broad, which is to promote Los Angeles-based artists who are embracing the unique. When she asked Luke and Holly to re-create their show from two years ago, the vaguely love-themed "14 Lengths of Desire," for the Broad's new season, they began deconstructing; Holly, who also directs and dances in the performance, took out old pieces, developed three new dance numbers and worked with a collaborator to add new video elements. It's safe to say that what they're bringing on Saturday has never been seen before.

"They're kind of like a big secret in L.A.," Franzen said. "The rest of the world doesn't know about them yet, and they should."

Los Angeles Times

L.A. Times

writer: Victoria Looseleaf - Special to The Times

"Going far on a string and a pair"

With her drummer husband and a cellist, a curve harpist takes up a lot of space to produce otherworldly sounds.

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 Rothschild plays 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."