BORN TO BE STRUNG
By Ann Haskins
"Unique" has become such a ubiquitous adjective it no longer carries much punch, so phrases such as "distinctive" or "one-of-a-kind" or "singular" are required to begin to capture the innovative collaboration of dance, music and what its members call "sonic sculpture" that is String Theory. Known for its signature long string harps that can stretch up to 1000 feet, String Theory has long drawn attention for the high caliber of its musicians, including founders Luke and Holly Rothschild, but Holly also has strong credentials as a dancer and choreographer, which has helped to attract some of the best of L.A.'s dancers.
Excerpts on String Theory
by Matthew Duerston
"How to Play a Mountain"
Cut to a crumbling brick theater space in a tagged and trash-strewn part of East Hollywood. Three female dancers from an ensemble called String Theory flit and dive among sparkling webs like water striders across a pond. They coil their bodies and spring, their arms pushing along the 70-foot wires, literally "throwing" the sound across the room. One lies on her back and plays the strings, snaking backward across the floor. With every tug and stroke, the vibrations that emerge from the harp-shaped, hardwood-and-copper resonating chamber onstage are radically different: One player draws out stately melancholy; two people can simulate chirping crickets, a hurdy-gurdy or a boingy sitar. Any more than three, and the audience becomes mice inside a grand piano, trembling in shock and wonder.
...String Theory reside, record, build and practice in, respectively, a small warehouse space in the Palms area of West L.A. and a sun-stippled cottage in Venice. Together and apart, they've transformed Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, the L.A. Arboretum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, New York's Waldorf-Astoria, San Francisco's Exploratorium, Atlanta's CNN Center and Seattle's Space Needle into enormous instruments. They invent "sound objects" with ethereal, playful titles: Curve Harp, Wing Harp, Cyclo Drums, Vertical Harp, Ray Harp...— in other words, things few who see them have ever heard (of), but from which people walk away as if they've been touched, or at least bopped on the head. "Performance-wise, the long strings are spectacular to look at," says String Theory co-founder Luke Rothschild. "For writing music, they have a unique sound that can't be generated on any sampler— I know, I've tried."
Long strings work differently from standard ones. Brushed or stroked lengthwise with a rosined glove, they expand and contract, their longitudinal (or "compression") waves traveling at freakishly high speeds. Each has a distinct pitch; there are clamps at various points — similar to guitar capos — to alter tunings according to the environment. They have better resonance at longer lengths and stretched just under their breaking points. They revive a little of the primeval awe that music must have once inspired, the rush of religion without the flummery. "With traditional instruments, there's an expectation of melodic progression," explains Rothschild. "The long strings, they can hover in space. It allows you to let go of an expectation of time."
Long-string instruments (also called LSIs or just "long strings") are descendants of the huge outdoor wind harps of the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, they're utilized by a small group of American and European composers, including Ellen Fullman, whom ... String Theory ... name as a prime influence. Fullman is a Seattle-based composer/visual artist who started experimenting with sound art at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1978 and built her first LSI prototype in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1980. Fullman cites the Delta blues musicians she heard growing up in Memphis as a major influence. Turns out they were weaned on a contraption dating back to the 1800s called the "diddley bow," a length of broom wire stretched along the sides of houses (or from floor to ceiling) to pluck while sliding a rock or pill bottle along its length. The diddley bow cut the young chops of the finest blues guitarists — Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Charlie Patton, Elmore James and Robert Johnson on the shortlist — and furnished the nickname of Bo Diddley, who as a boy studied stringed instruments on Chicago's South Side.
... the six-piece String Theory is more of a rock band with classical overtones. This minstrel-like multi-instrumental group has covered Ravel and Tchaikovsky, and is fond of perverse meldings: Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" with the Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation," or Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" with Shostakovich's Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40. Cellist Harvey was raised on bluegrass and classic rock before studying the early liturgical music, baroque fugues and Victorian choirs he adapts and arranges for the others. As a dancer, Holly Rothschild took to the physicality of playing long strings, rehearsing for two weeks using cotton strings instead of wire. "The rest of the group comes in and starts writing the music around the dancing," she says. "The actual song will be a result of the choreography, so we don't even know what a particular piece is going to sound like."
This unpredictability and unwieldiness — it takes from six hours to two days to string the installations — has hamstrung mainstream acceptance for ... String Theory. "We don't know where we want to take it, because we're going in so many different directions at once," says Harvey. But both ensembles are accessible, allowing audience members to play the strings after their performances; kids and parents stream like spellbound ants to stroke the giant web with gloved hands.
The strings attract other creatures. "It never fails, and it blows my mind," says Luke Rothschild. "We set these things up, and within a couple of hours you start seeing these little wispy strands coming out from the strings. I don't know where those little spiders come from or how they figure it out, but after about five hours, there's a lot of them, like they're kind of testing it out for the mothership."
String Theory plays at the Creation Festival at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday, November 8, from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m., and will have its Curve Harp set up for an interactive installation until 3:30 p.m. www.stringtheoryproductions.com.
Pick of the Week - Classical and New Music
Compositions of Sound and Space
Okay, see if you can get your arms around this one: "Brilliant brass wires extended out 70 feet over the audience in a symmetrical shape, transforming the venue into a giant sculptural instrument." You have to use your imagination, but then imagination is what it's all about when it comes to String Theory, a group of performance artists and musicians dedicated to "transforming architecture into theater," and theater into a form of new music that's definitely in a class all its own. These "long string" installations, as they're called, become a journey into space by experimenting with the harmonic and acoustic properties of environments. Although String Theory performs on routine instruments like cello, French horn, bass and guitar, they also have invented instruments like the Curve Harp and Cyclo Drums, which create a wall of "percussion and projections" in a brash fusion of design and sound that complements various aspects of the architecture and maximizes the unique sonic properties of each environment. The end result, observes the ensemble, is "a site-specific visual soundtrack." Oh yes, proceeds benefit the MET.