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Strings on the Fringe

Fringe Series features acts including Ethel, with ties to rock, and String Theory, with strings that straddle its venues
By Patrick S. Pemberton

The musicians in String Theory are hoping it won't be windy when the group performs at Avila Beach on Sunday. After all, before their Festival Mozaic appearance, they will transform trees into instruments. And trees tend to sway in the wind. "It's better for us if there's no movement whatsoever," said Luke Rothschild, a founding member of the group.

String Theory is one of six acts performing in the festival's Fringe Series, where classically trained musicians play music that isn't always classical. In fact, the festival as a whole features a variety of musical genres, which is why the name was changed this year from the old Mozart Festival moniker.

"The festival, since it started, has always been more than Mozart," said executive director Curtis Pendleton. "(The new name) reflects really what the whole festival is." The weeklong Fringe series kicks off Festival Mozaic with Montana Skies on Friday. The festival's more traditional classical music begins July 18. While the Fringe concerts have been around a while, it was only last year that they took on a greater role in the festival, with longer concerts that take place in the evening. "The quality has made a giant leap, and the variety has made a giant leap," Pendleton said.

Big strings
This year's biggest acts, she said, include String Theory (3 p. m. Sunday, See Canyon Fruit Ranch, Avila Beach) and Ethel (8 p. m. Wednesday, United Methodist Church, SLO), two groups known for mashing classical with various other genres. String Theory is best known for using buildings, cliffs and other large items to create huge harps. "We can go over 1,000 feet," Rothschild said.

In the past they've transformed the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., the Space Needle in Seattle, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall into instruments by connecting resonators to buildings with long cables that act as harp strings. For their concert at the See Canyon Fruit Ranch, they will stretch the cables over the audience, connecting with large trees. "It's the first time we've been asked for a cherry picker," Pendleton said.

While it can take hours to tune the strings, they produce dramatic sounds, which is why String Theory has been called upon to create music for TV and movies. "There's things these instruments can do that synthesizers can't do," Rothschild said.

Rothschild was studying painting and drawing at the Art Institute in Chicago when he came upon long-string music. Later, his wife, Holly, a choreographer and dancer, also learned to play the strings. About five years ago cellist Joseph Harvey joined them to form String Theory. While a variety of instruments — including electric guitar, violin and drums — are featured, the long strings, which can be played by up to five people at a time, are the main attraction. Because they are played at varying lengths, the sound is always a little different, Rothschild said. Meanwhile, dancing is paired with the performance. String Theory plays original music and covers everything from Tchaikovsky to Pink Floyd. And depending on which friends are available, the group can feature anywhere from four to 15 members per gig. "It became a natural network of musicians and dancers that like to work together," Rothschild said.