Bill Close, ready to play the giant space harp.

Giant Space Harp
Joyce Rice

Imagine a harp whose "body" is hills, and whose "soundbox" is the valley between. Or one shaped like a 25-foot sailboat. Or yet another whose column is Seattle's Space Needle!

Now you have an idea of some products of the ingenious mind of Bill Close, founder of MASS (Musical Architecture Sonic Sculpture) Ensemble and inventor of the Giant Earth Harp over a fertile valley outside of Chicago, the Giant Peace Harp "under sail", and the Giant Space Harp enjoyed on Labor Day (early September) weekend 2003 by thousands of Bumbershoot Festival-goers at the Seattle Center.

I hurry through the Bumbershoot (Art-Dance-Theater-Comedy-Film-Literary-Kids-Crafts-Food-Fun-Blues-Hip-Hop-Jazz-Electronica-Indie/Punk Rock/Roots Jam/World) gates, leaving it to my husband, Rick, to find a parking space. It's 7:15 in the evening, time for the day's final Giant Harp concert, and I don't want to miss a note. Bill Close and I have been emailing and leaving voice mails for weeks but have been unable to connect, so Rick and I have driven up from our home in eastern Oregon, determined to talk to Bill and to see what the Seattle Times had billed "the world's largest instrument".

Bill, Chris Woods, fiddler, and Andrea Brook on the Wing Harp.

Bill, a tall, slender, curly-headed fellow, is on a raised platform and finishes his spoken intro just as I arrive. He takes his place in front of the strings, adjusting sturdy black cotton gloves, dusting them with resin. Then he dramatically reaches his hands to the sky, placing each high around a string, and draws them down. A huge, rumbling deep sound emerges, 200-feet worth of sound, a giant's roaring sound, and we are off and running.

On the platform's surface, in front of the low blocky wooden structure into which the strings are firmly affixed, is an elaborate 12' high aluminum archway. MASS Ensemble member and yoga teacher Andrea Brook is at its apex, fastened into a belt that allows complete freedom of movement. Fit and muscular, she hangs upside down, toes toward the sky, her gloved hands playing some of the strings. A quick twist and her feet are pointing east and west, or they are thrust over her head towards her back, but her hands never miss a beat.

Andrea, suspended, playing the giant space harp.

Meanwhile back on earth, Richard Sherwood, a terrific drummer, keeps up complicated and hypnotic rhythms, while an equally talented electric fiddler, Chris Woods, expertly improvises on a melody. Can you see my hair standing on end?

Where did this all come from? The next morning we meet Bill in his hotel lobby to learn more about him and his passion. He studied guitar early on, and composition, sculpture, sound design and performance at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was there that he made his first sound sculptures. His interest in architecture led him eventually to combine his two passions, music and architecture, and, perhaps inevitably, to the first Earth Harp in 1999. Since then he has created harps up to 1100 feet long, inside and outside buildings, up to mountain tops, and…up the Space Needle. Commissions have come from such varying organizations as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Carnegie Melon Science Center and Cirque du Soleil.

When Rick and I stopped by earlier on the day of the performance to do a little up-close investigating, we could see 19 wire strings secured into named (C, D, E etc.) slots in a wooden onstage structure, and angled up to the balcony level of the Space Needle, 200 feet above us. Each string had some kind of capo at different heights. Bill tells me they're called 'tuning blocks'. When the MASS Ensemble team was installing the harp, they cast a tennis ball attached to a fishing pole from the balcony to the stage. Down this line they then lowered each string, the tuning blocks fastened at pre-measured heights of 10 feet to 40 feet from the stage, resulting in the desired pitches.

Back at the show, Andrea now stands before an oversized, but still recognizable, upright aluminum harp called the Wing Harp, but a harp-according-to-Bill. Also strung with tuning-blocked brass wire, its sound is much higher because the strings are nearer normal harp-length. Once again, Andrea plays by firmly grasping the strings with resin-gloved hands and moving them down or up on the strings, which on this harp sound more like a glass harmonica (like rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass), projecting above the other instruments rather than providing the bass foundation of the giant strings.

Andrea as a Body Harp for Cirque de Soleil

At the Cirque du Soleil she will play (and be) the Body Harp. She will lie on her back on a small curved form. On her torso will rest a bridge like a violin's. The 12 strings will be attached on both sides of offstage and pass over the bridge.

Bill Close's imagination seems boundless. He is currently installing stringed creations into a newly designed modern house, working with the architect to bring about the permanent feature. "The homeowner is losing his sight," Bill tells me, so he will be relying more on his hearing to bring beauty into his life. "He'll be able to run his hand along a wall of strings," each one with a movable bridge such as you see on a Japanese koto. "He'll be able to change the tones as he wishes. I'm also installing long strings within the house's stairwell that will have much lower tones."

Bill's not one to keep all the fun to himself, and teaches and lectures about his work at universities, schools, museums and performing arts centers around the country, including Talieson, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where Bill has realized the renowned designer's belief that "architecture is frozen music" with an installation connecting an earth harp up to Wright's main studio.

Actually, to Bill Close, who's rarely accused of thinking small, "the earth is an instrument." A resident of Malibu, CA, Bill built one of his favorite projects to the top of a mountain peak in that town, and called it the Mountain Earth Harp. As he says in their website, "The earth is an instrument, and this project is a symbol of this thought. Perhaps we can treat the Earth as though it were an instrument, keeping it in tune so it is capable of harmony."

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