William Close and the Earth Harp Collective

IMG_8223Story by M. Diane McCormick, Photography by Susan Karlin


William Close has brought his monumental musical instrumentals to the world’s most prominent stages – Cirque de Soleil, Royal Caribbean cruise lines, the Coliseum in Rome and the Super Bowl.

On March 15, the 2012 America’s Got Talent third-place winner will be in Harrisburg, bringing his Earth Harp Collective to the historic Forum Auditorium. The concert celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Silver Academy, the Harrisburg area’s Jewish day school, and benefits the school’s scholarship fund. It’s an opportunity that no one should miss, because the career of William Close is rising rapidly, says Silver Academy 70th anniversary co-chair Myra Werrin Sacks.

William Close is a creator of instruments made from the world’s natural and manmade surroundings. Close, now based in Los Angeles, grew up in Westchester, N.Y. and studied sculpture, music “and a bit of architecture” at the Art Institute of Chicago. He adheres to the belief, first uttered by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and embraced by Frank Lloyd Wright, that architecture is “frozen music.” What would happen, he wondered, if he could turn buildings and spaces into musical instruments?

His first instrument, built in the early 1990s, was a sort of guitar made from exhaust pipe and an elaborate piece of wood. As he experimented with ever-longer strings and tuning methods, he eventually came to create the most famous of his 100-plus inventions – the Earth Harp, not so much an individual instrument as a series of one-time, never-to-be-repeated experiences of giant strings strung from skyscrapers, auditoriums and canyons – played by gloved hands.

Close’s first Earth Harp comprised strings across a valley south of Chicago, in “one of the most fertile sections of the world” known for organic farming, he recalled in a phone interview with Harrisburg Magazine.

In August 2014, he set a world’s record for longest playable stringed instrument by stretching strings 300 meters from a skyscraper to the façade of the National Museum of Singapore during the Singapore Night Festival. He has played at Burning Man Festival and Coachella Music Festival, among many others, and with artists as diverse as U2’s The Edge and minimalist composer Philip Glass.

Having so many different instruments and things to explore make his work “really a fun job,” Close says.

“It’s amazing how big the sounds of the instruments are,” he says. “It’s like having a full symphony at your fingertips. It’s such a great sound. That’s what makes it work. It’s a cool concept but the fact that it sounds so amazing is what gets people really engaged in it.”

Close is a brilliant artist with “so many gifts that have been actualized,” says Sacks, whose niece is married to Close. His appearance at the Forum Auditorium gives Harrisburg-area residents an opportunity to experience those gifts first-hand.

“As soon as we thought to do this, we wanted to use a proper venue to bring as many people as possible who could be touched by his creativity,” she says.

For Close’s appearance in Harrisburg, The Silver Academy is partnering with United Way of the Capital Region. Through the partnership, event sponsors support the United Way in providing tickets and transportation, free of charge, for invited guests from community nonprofits.

The partnership helps make sure that “people in our community will be there,” Sacks says. Some of the recipients will be people in recovery, exposed to “something that could touch and transform them.”

“The harp has a unique capacity to please the soul,” Sacks says. “You can have a spiritual awakening from hearing the harp. I definitely believe this has the capacity to heal people.”

Early in his career, Close would serve as a guest artist in schools, bringing his philosophy of environment-as-soundscape to children. It’s “absolutely possible” to transform anything into an instrument, he says.

“We’ve done workshops where we turned pieces of school furniture into instruments,” he says. “We’ve got all sorts of stuff. People have access to creating sound and music in ways they didn’t know were possible.”

Close will remain in the Harrisburg area through March 16, when he will present a student workshop at the Jewish Community Center. There, kids will learn about the science of sound and be able to play his original instruments. Close says that his background in education makes his appearance at the Forum, benefitting Silver Academy and its students steeped in secular and faith-based education, very special. He hopes through his example to impart to young people that “anything’s possible.”

“One of the things I do with my instruments is try to reinvent or create something new and kind of push the boundaries of what’s possible, and hopefully, some of that comes across to the kids,” he says.

Asked how he balances his increasing obligations for appearances and projects worldwide with his compulsion to create instruments, Close says that the projects themselves often require him to build new instruments. For instance, his Super Bowl XLIX pre-show for the 2015 NFL championship called for “big drum clouds, almost like walls of drums.”

“I basically have to build eight new instruments as part of it,” he says.

At the Forum in March, Close will string his Earth Harp over the recently renovated auditorium, under its spectacular, Art Deco ceiling depicting the heavens and its constellations – appropriate for an instrument whose sound one writer described as a “celestial cello.”

Audience members will also hear Close’s drum cloud, the wearable percussion drum jacket, and the three-necked aquatar, a sort of guitar, bass and sitar all in one. The “amazing singer” Rafe Pearlman will be among the Earth Harp Collective’s ensemble of musicians, Close says.

Before long, Close hopes to unveil an instrument that looks like a giant star, which he’s been working on for two years.

“It’s finally coming together,” he says. “I’m hoping to debut that soon. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to have it for the Forum show. We’ll see.”

Sitting under 3,000 feet of brass strings specially made for the warmth of their tones, audience members in the Forum Auditorium will feel as if they’re sitting inside an instrument.

The attendance of people at his shows creates “the real magic of it,” says Close. “The harmonic beauty happens from the strings, and when people sit beneath that, they feel it. The judges said on America’s Got Talent that you’ve got to be there to experience it.

Sacks says she is thrilled to know that Close is bringing his unparalleled experience to Harrisburg, and that the event will shine a spotlight on Silver Academy (silvveracademypa.org), which “provides more than education. It provides a depth of moral education that is, in my opinion, unparalleled.”

Close tours with his wife, Sarah Werrin Close. They have a son, Phoenix, who’s two-and-a-half years old.

With his love for beautiful architecture and design, Close says he looks forward to seeing the Forum in person for the first time. Setup for the concert will take about four hours, the night before. When the show is done, Close hopes to leave audiences with “the beauty in the music and the quality in the instrument.”

“I hope they’re inspired by the inventiveness and imagination behind it, and hopefully, they’re affected in a positive and beautiful way,” he says. “That’s the goal. That’s my job.”


William Close & the Earth Harp Collective appears at the Forum Auditorium, March 15 at 3:15 p.m. Tickets and information: earthharpharrisburg.com.

Staff Writer

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