October 20, 2018

String theory’s huge and heavenly harp

The harp of biblical times could be played in the hand while walking, but the instrument has come a long way since then. On Feb. 19, String Theory, a Los Angeles-based multimedia ensemble, returns to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica with its signature visual-musical element: a Curve Harp installation.

The harp itself is over 6 feet tall, and it’s played on 24 strings emanating from its resonator and extending over the audience from the theater’s stage to its balcony. This “sonic sculpture,” as it’s described in the Broad’s program booklet, is adapted to each individual architectural space — one reason why no String Theory performance is exactly the same as another.

Luke Rothschild, the show’s musical director, acts as the harp-installation specialist. He’s also the husband of the ensemble’s director and choreographer, Holly Rothschild. Luke said the harp is played from the stage “with cotton gloves and rosin dust,” and it is tuned by using blocks to cut off vibrations at certain points along the strings.

“It creates a compression wave, like rubbing crystal glass,” Luke said. “It has a very specific sound, with shimmering overtones that allows us to address any given space and connect to it.”

For Alesia Young, one of the group’s harpists, “the harp is the sonic and sculptural centerpiece of String Theory performances. It’s a stunning visual installation piece that also makes beautifully haunting music.”

According to Danny Moynahan, a performer for the ensemble since 2006, at a recent San Francisco show set in a six-story-high indoor atrium, Holly didn’t let the audience hear the harp’s long strings played until after the first set.

“I don’t remember String Theory ever doing that before,” Moynahan said. “Holly really heightened the harp’s mystique by letting people look at it for a whole set before actually hearing it.”

Along with Joseph Harvey, a classically trained Baroque cellist, Holly and Luke founded String Theory in 2002.

“We were experimenting, looking for new ways to make sounds,” Luke said. “Holly brought the choreography and dance — the physicality and performance aspect, adapting the movement for the strings. I brought the sculptural resonators — the invented instruments with the long-stringed installations, and Joey brought the classically elegant musical vibe. The cello happens to pair really well with the long strings.”

Luke said String Theory is about “collaborating with the architecture” of a given space; the Broad was designed by Renzo Zecchetto Architects and the ensemble has also adapted the harp to buildings designed by Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall), Richard Meier and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others. They have also performed in some rather unusual locations: in a windy and remote canyon in the Mexican desert, before 500 people in a Robert Mondavi Winery fermentation cellar and at an old mining camp.

“I saw them at a weird space downtown,” Dale Franzen, director of the Broad Stage, recalled. “They had taken a found space and put high-level modern dancing into it, with covers and original music. It’s difficult to describe what they are, but they are a unique group.”

Added Franzen: “I asked them to do a show for my opening season at the Broad, and it sold out. I’m bringing them back because it deserved more than one showing. I see them as Broad Stage artists, part of a group I’m cultivating, like Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Globe Theatre. These are interesting artists I see as part of our posse.”

Holly named the ensemble after listening to a lecture by Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist and one of the best-known string theorists. Greene’s use of musical metaphors in his talk set off a spark, and the ensemble suddenly had a name for its concept.

“We were intrigued with the idea of creating this all-encompassing performance experience — cross-pollinating and combining genres of music, dance and visual arts with these giant sculptural sound installations that integrate space,” Holly said. “That also became part of our educational goal. People talk about combining the disciplines, but it doesn’t seem like it is done enough.”

Sherry Fredman, early childhood director of the nursery school at Temple Israel of Hollywood, saw the group perform during a social action event with the school and was impressed.

“The children really responded,” Fredman said. “So we met and discussed how to create a partnership where String Theory might enrich our program — become part of our curriculum. We’re making it developmentally appropriate for different classes by using a rotating schedule.”

Last September, Fredman encouraged Holly and Luke to create a pilot program including various members of String Theory. The program focuses on music, dance and the visual arts, with a thematic element tying into each.

“For Tu B’Shevat, we’re going to work with a lot of elements of nature and imagery from nature,” Holly said. “In March, it will be all things related to Purim. We’ll make groggers, listen to Jewish music and do paintings with marbles.”

Holly noted that members of the ensemble come from strong teaching backgrounds, including work with residents of a correctional facility and with inner-city kids.

String Theory consists of up to 15 musicians and performers, including dancers from the Juilliard School and Shen Wei Dance Arts. The ensemble also boasts a violinist, Julie Pusch, who is a Vienna-trained opera singer as well.

A look at one of the ensemble’s YouTube clips reveals one dancer wearing what appears to be a spiky, Lady Gaga-like skirt.

“We call that the Skirt Harp,” Luke said. “It’s also an instrument — an 11-foot musical tutu, with 11 strings. It is dangerous, though, especially when she starts pirouetting with all these copper and brass spikes around her.”

It’s the kind of edgy and innovative play that String Theory will no doubt revel in at the Broad Stage this week. As the Broad’s Dale Franzen put it, “You have to see it to believe it.”