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The Earth Is Transformed Into a Musical Instrument With the Extraordinary Earth Harp


Earth Harp is a musical invention that takes the environment as its main element for the musical creation.

In music we are more or less used to the existence of a handful of instruments. We immediately recognise the sound of a guitar or a violin, popular for centuries, the sound of a piano, a flute and sometimes, we can also recognise the instruments native to the culture we live in.

Perhaps that is the reason why the invention of a new instrument comes as a surprise, because its mere existence proposes the renewal of a panorama in which familiarity is the norm. William Close is the eccentric designer of Earth Harp, an extraordinary machine that transforms the most obvious physical properties of our environment into music.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Close defined his Earth Harp as:

A string instrument that uses its environment to create the instrument. So a typical scenario for the Earth Harp is that the chamber or the resonator of the instrument would rest on the stage and mount on the stage and then the strings would run out over the audience and attach into the balcony of the theatre or the architecture itself. So it actually uses the architecture to create the instrument.

With said characteristics, the harp can reach 10 or 3000 metres, a variable length that affects the sound of its strings, which at the same time can vary between 16 and 22, depending on the place where it is mounted.

In terms of its technical operation, Close plays the instrument using strings covered in violin rosin, pinching each string and running his hand along them. According to him, this movement is “pushing the vibration in the molecules of the string. It’s referred to as a compression wave”, which is an analogous sound to that of a moist finger passing over the brim of a wine glass. “In that situation you’re actually vibrating the material itself, and that’s what’s happening with the stings of the Earth Harp.”

The name of the instrument —sublime and symbolic at once— was circumstantial, since it emerged the day that, after many previous experiments and models, Close obtained the cooperation of some scientific and artistic organisations to create a giant harp. He then made his way to a valley and mounted a series of resonators and strings that were 300 metres long. “So it turned that valley into a giant harp. It was the world’s first Earth Harp,” states Close.

There’s been so much experimenting with it. One of things I find when I invent an instrument, very often it doesn’t work right away and I actually have to try different things and figure out how to get it working. And then I have to learn how to play it and that’s part of the fun too.

Evidently, this is an exercise of self-reference that transforms the container into the content. It is also an unusual incorporation of the contingence of musical interpretation: if there are already minimal variations, many of those imperceptible, every time a piece is interpreted (the strength of the fingers on the keys of a piano, the inclination of a bow on the violin, the anatomy of breath in a flute), in the case of the Earth Harp, these are joined by the particularities of the environment, if this sounds on top of a mountain or in the interior of a cave, in the Coliseum or in the Grand Theatre of Shanghai.

Now, Close’s next project is to incorporate a thousand strings into his harp and simply “let people experience that”.

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