Daisy and I used to go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music during every Next Wave Festival. This was long before Happy was born. We saw Tom Waits and Robert Wilson collaborate on Alice, Time Rocker and along with William S. Burroughs, Black Rider. We saw the Kronus Quartet and Pina Basuch, and Laurie Anderson, all of whom may have played together, at one time or another. These shows were some of the most visually stimulating musical experiences of my life, rivaled only by watching a cricket bow his legs like a tiny cellist, tripping my face off on mushrooms. I get the sense that String Theory might give that cricket a run for its money. Squonk, and De La Guarda, and the Blue Men group, and of course Cirque de Sol have always been shows that could come at you from all angles, attacking all your senses. You'd walk out of one of these shows silent in reverence. As you crossed one Manhattan avenue, and then the next you could still taste all the crazy and amazing things you just heard and saw. I imagine String Theory shows might be just like that. I've scanned the list of their past performances and it doesn't look like they make it out to NY too often, or at all for that matter. So it's no surprise that I haven't seen them. Of course any reason to get out to the art rich soil of California, is a good enough reason for me. Musical Projects like String Theory are so vivid in the way they sound and the way they look, the memories they burn into your brain last a lifetime. If you spend a dozen minutes absorbing String Theory, you'd swear you'd already seen them. That's all it took me, after that I was completely captivated.
How much of what your show is, is visual. Obviously the instruments that you've created and the room you're playing in at the time, necessitate to some degree what the installation will look like, but beyond that is there a conscious effort to make your environment as visual as possible? If so where does that sense of visual esthetics come from? I say all this, knowing your art background.
Luke Rothschild (of String Theory):
I would say probably over 50% of the show ends up being visual. The majority of the impact on an audience member is visual, but that impact is definitely compounded and fortified by that powerful music, plus the concept of the installation. We definitely try to create any given installation in the most visually impact full way possible for that location. It varies hugely, as far as the mileage we end up getting out of the string. Like if it's a really large outdoor installation at night, and we hit the strings with a lot of light perpendicularly from underneath, then they glow in the night sky, and BAM it's really great.
Conversely, if we happen to be in a beige conference room without robust production value/stage/lights/sound system etc, the effect can be quite a bit less impressive. Though everyone always gushes after the show. It's just hard for us personally not to compare one context to another. Each show and installation are so vastly different from each other.
I find that with projects like yours the sight and sound of the overall experience are closely connected. How much do you draw from your interest in the visual arts, when writing the music, when designing the shapes of the chambers, and when creating the performance space?
This an interesting question. I think basically we do the best we can on each individual front, understanding that as the separate areas converge in the performance, they will fortify each other. I design the instruments to look and sound great on their own. We write the music, and we arrange the music to sound great by itself, but as we are arranging pieces, we take into account where the viewers' focus would be. Like should there be a dance solo during the cello solo or not. Also, since we can never know what physical context (performance venue) it will occur in, we just try and do our best in separate contexts.
With the exception of Dance, the movement of the Harpists is choreographed by Holly, and she takes into account the vast experience she has on the long-string Harps, such as how to adapt the movement to the rake (angle) of string installation, and how to keep minimal passages visually interesting etc.
Also, when I finally design the installation for any given space, I take into account all the performance activity that will be going on, and try to design an installation that will look and sound GREAT, combining and accentuating all the positive aspects of what we have to offer.
How much preparation goes into transforming a venue into along string instrument. What's the process you go through, from the scouting out of a place, to designing what to do with that space, and then of course, to performing in it and with it?
There are a couple different ways that it goes. If its close by I can do a full on site survey, I bring my measuring tape, a camera, and my brain. This always works best because I can get up on the roof or wherever and really test out the surfaces we will be attaching to, and I can see what potential obstacles might need to be dealt with. If the site is in NYC or Hungary (etc) I encourage the client to help me do what I call a "remote site survey". They take many digital photos and measurements for me, and I look at floor-plans and talk to engineers and producers etc. This usually works out just fine. Otherwise if they want me to come in person I charge them a flat fee for myself on top of the group's performance fee.
So I always try to design the most visually impact full installation possible within any given environment. Then we bring with us everything we need to execute the installation as quickly and cleanly as possible. These items include (beyond the Harp, wire and tuning blocks) drywall screws and a cordless drill, nylon ratchet ties and band clamps, many different clamps ranging from 1 1/2 to 32 inches, 12 foot (or other size wood beams) two by fours with white felt padding on one side and 12 small eyehooks on the other, a bunch of clear rubber tubing, tape, shims, and even on occasions we REALLY try to avoid, up to 1,000 pound sand bags or gravel when there is no alternative for securing the Harp to the stage.
Even though the content of your shows are somewhat consistent, the way in which you execute them must vary from venue to venue. That must keep things fresh and interesting, so even when you've played a song one million times, is it a unique experience each time? Practicing for a performance can only prepare you so much if the 'life' of a room changes every time you play.
Ain't dat the truth! Almost always this aspect is very gratifying, and never the same way twice.
Do find yourself writing songs based around what you know you're able to do with these long string instruments, or do you adapt the strings into pre-exsting songs?
It happens different ways. A lot of the time we just write the songs we want to write, and if it's clear that they fit into the context of the performances, then we arrange them for that. If not, then they rest get recorded but not necessarily performed, put in our library to be applied to future TV/film scoring projects.
We create songs and compositions as a vehicle for the visual side of the performance as well. Like Holly has this beautiful piece that she was choreographing ("Darling Lydia") and she wanted us to create original music for it. So I took the exact tempo of the piece she had been using in the dance studio, and loosely referenced the vibe, and wrote a really pretty new piece that we all arranged together. So for that one we really created the music as a vehicle for this specific dance. It really turned out very beautifully, and was very much a group effort.
And yes, we definitely arrange pieces around the Harps. They are very strange instruments, and behave very differently than any other ones we have in our arsenal. The tones are long, but take a long time to get going, so we are very conscious not to try and achieve very active or fast arpeggios (or the like) in this slower more languid sounding instrument. We take into account its particular behavior and sonic characteristics. Also, we have some pieces that we perform that have no Harp at all in them to give the ear a rest and make the set more dynamic.
I love the idea that the strings are played by dancers. I've played music all of my life and always felt the most connected physically to music, when I was playing it. I think the great musicians are the ones who crawl all over their instruments, violently attacking it and then making love to it. Do you view the dancers as another instrument? Are they the visual representation of what the music would look like if you could see it?
Amen. Yes, in many ways the dancers end up being the visual representation of the music, and the physical personification of the sounds emanating from the resonator. They are definitely the thing to watch, the eye (and therefore ear) goes to them immediately. But it's cool that they are not performing on every piece; we like to keep changing things up. This also allows the intensity of a cello solo to have its own visual focus, as well as the insane and raucous Cyclodrum solos, etc.
How did String Theory come to be? Do you remember the moment of inception, when you thought that creating instruments within the spaces you played, using long strings, was the what you should be doing? Was it a gradual evolution to that point, or did it come to you all at once in a rush?
The evolution of String Theory was an organic and gradual amalgam of ideas and art forms, combining slowly and developing into what we are today. The way it developed was in Chicago, as I was working with friends in the arts and music, and we were developing invented instruments. As these instruments began to take form and become really usable, we wanted to combine them with performers with different types of music and performance backgrounds. We started working with Joseph our cellist, and then we started working with Holly and others in the dance community and we were inspired by the convergence of these forms. We were creating something new and we continued to develop it. So I came from a fine art/sculpture background (Got my BFA at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago), Joseph studied classical Baroque cello at Roosevelt University, and Holly was in multiple dance companies at the time and had studied dance and choreography all her life.
There were definitely some "Eureka!" moments along the way as we had epiphanies about how things fit together. But also it just took a lot of time and work and experimentation before we were able to get to something like what we have now.
The three founding members Holly Rothschild (my wife), Joseph Harvey (our cellist and web guru) and myself moved to Venice CA in October of 2002 and started String Theory as a business partnership and performance ensemble. We have been so blessed to have organically found all these AMAZING and talented String Theory members out here in LA. I have played with hundreds of musicians, and String Theory players are literally the best I've ever worked with. We have people from serious Jazz backgrounds, classically trained musicians who have studied in Vienna, self-taught savants and many other variations. Our dancers come from Julliard and Baryshnikov's dance company as well as Shenway and other World Class companies. So we really have compelling performers to bring the whole concept to life at a very high level.
What is the Stone House? What was it like doing the soundtrack for a project this large? Its got to feel pretty good. Fill me in on how you got this gig, and how you go about turning your music into the backdrop of a film.
The Stone House is Sony Picture feature film in the Psychological Thriller/Horror genre. They may actually be changing the title, the producers and director are kind of haggling over this right now. We'll see what they end up deciding on.
It's been an amazing experience working on this film. It's our second feature (the first one was Cat Dancers, an HBO feature length documentary that may be getting a theatrical release this year, otherwise it will be broadcast only on HBO)
But "Stone House" is our first narrative feature. It's still in post production, and in fact was just re-edited a bit, so I have a whole bunch more work to do on it! In a way its nice that the project has been getting pushed back, because instead of 3 weeks, we've had more like 3 months to work on it. It turns out that the whole special effects aspect is taking a lot longer then originally planned but that's great I've got time to make a cooler score.
The way we got this film is probably not so uncommon. I don't really know what other people's experiences have been. All I know is that we really wanted to get into this industry and it is a hard nut to crack! We still don't have an agent, and I don't see us getting one anytime soon, and its really hard to get work even if one HAS an agent. But we have been very fortunate. We have been able to do what we were hoping, in that we have been able to parlay the interest generated by our performance ensemble and transfer that into generating interest in our music for picture/broadcast and score work. Of course it helps that we are vastly talented, easy to work with, and are not yet demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars per project. But none of that really guarantees anyone an iota of work in this town anyway.
Sometimes it seems to move slowly, but really, we are SO LUCKY because it is so tough to crack the nut. No one will hire you if you haven't already done a film, so how do you first do one? Luckily for String Theory the Stone House director, Alex had a composer he usually worked with who recently quit, and we were suggested at just the right time. But really, it was still a long shot. I did not expect to get the job.
Was it just your songs the filmmakers were most interested in, or were they also intrigued by the sound of the long string instruments, and the idea behind them?
Alex was mostly interested in sonic environments we could achieve, and he was really wowed by the myriad applications of the sounds of the long strings but there was A LOT more instrumentation and even a lot of soft synth generated material that he wanted from us. So it has been a real pleasure to explore further sonic possibilities than I would have initially planned on doing. It's opened up the String Theory sound palette a lot. Personally I wish there had been more interest in the songs but none of the original String Theory songs appear in the film. All of it built from scratch for the score except for a few choice picks from our library that got temped in and then stayed.