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William Close’s Earth Harp Bridges Music and Sculpture

Earth Harp inventor William Close has carved a singular niche combining sound and sculpture to craft new kinds of instrumental art. While his global concerts garnered a celebrity following, accurate recordings eluded him until he teamed with Antelope Audio to more expressively capture the unusual sounds of his creations.

A hush fell over the Burning Man crowd as a man high atop a platform glided gloved hands across several thick strings tethered between the stage-mounted instrument chamber and an architectural installation over 100 feet away. A sound emerged slowly—deep, undulating waves, like a celestial cello—that washed over the audience.

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Burning Man performance

The ethereal concert came courtesy of the Earth Harp, the signature instrument invented by William Close, an installation artist and musician. Over two-plus decades, Close has created more than 100 unique musical instruments, doubling as wearable and sculptural art, from his Malibu canyon studio. (See the gallery above and this link for more instruments.)

“My goal is to combine music, architecture, and sculpture to create new musical experiences,” he says. “For me, it’s about the full experience of creating the instrument, learning how to play it, then building it into a concert. People like the Earth Harp, because it pushes the boundaries of what a musical instrument can be. At its core is a sound so beautifully unique—a harmonic series that sounds other-worldly, like a string section from Mars.”

William Close in his Malibu studio.Photo: Susan Karlin

Close’s singular vision has developed an eclectic and international following. He was featured on America’s Got Talent, has performed with U2’s The Edge, Philip Glass, OneRepublic, and may be working with Don Henley. He’s built instruments for Cirque du Soleil and museums, and performed—often with his Earth Harp Collective of musicians, singers, and dancers—at the Roman Coliseum, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Seattle Space Needle, Shanghai Grand Theatre, Brazil’s Theatro Municipal de São Paulo, Qatar’s Dhow Harbour, and festivals such as Lollapalooza, Coachella, and the aforementioned Burning Man. Last month, a Royal Caribbean cruise launched Sonic Odyssey, a concert featuring his instruments played by other musicians.

America’s Got Talent performance

But accurately capturing the Earth Harp’s large and unusual sound in a recording proved elusive. Then, this past year, he teamed with audio pioneer Antelope Audio—which showcases at this month’s CES and NAMM conventions—for his first Nettwerk Records’ release, Behind the Veil, a synthesis of classical, rock, and world music, connected through the Earth Harp. (Close also released another Nettwerk album, Holidays, last fall.)

Antelope’s clocking technology uses atomic clock generators for more accurate timing of analog to digital conversion. It enabled mastering engineer Marcel James to hurdle the technical challenge of harnessing the Earth Harp’s resonance without losing its subtlety, to both feature and blend the instrument with varying musical genres.

Antelope’s Marcel James in his Los Angeles studio.Photo: Susan Karlin

“It enabled me to bring out the frequencies in the recording that had been a little obscured,” says James, who is also Antelope’s director of U.S. sales. “The Earth Harp is such a full sounding instrument with a broad range. It has these delicate frequencies, overtones, and resonances that, if you don’t have enough air frequency—a super top-end frequency that opens things up—or boost the right amount of mid-frequency, where the vocals and guitars might be, then the Earth Harp can’t glisten on top of the song. Getting these frequencies right was a critical aspect.”

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Beyond the Veil was a breakthrough in Earth Harp recording. “I’d recorded the Earth Harp many times, but the recordings always fell flat,” says Close. “Now, there was an energy and life to the music that wasn’t there before.”

Close performs at the 2011 Burning Man, after a mass yoga session.Photo: Susan Karlin

Early Inventions

Close grew up playing guitars, drums, and even bagpipes, in garage bands, before going on to study music, electronics, music design, and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The first instrument he invented, in the early ’90s, was a harp fashioned from an exhaust pipe strung to a piece of ornately carved wood and amplified. “It was had a grungy sitar style sound,” says Close. “That experience clued me into the idea that I was really onto something, and developed this sculptural, architectural approach to music.

“For my first long-stringed instrument, I ran a string 10 feet, and figured out how it worked, then 20 feet, 30 feet, and learned how to tune and play them,” he adds. “I then proposed a concept called the Earth Harp to a science and arts organization. I mounted a series of chambers to one side of a valley and ran strings 1,000 feet to the other side, turning that alley into a giant harp.”

Close plays the Earth Harp by running gloves with violin rosin along the strings. “You get a compression wave—it’s the same principal as running your finger around the edge of a wine glass,” he says.

(L-R) An electronic processor enhances the Earth Harp’s sound; Playing the Earth Harp by running a rosined glove over the string.Photo: Susan Karlin

He tunes the instrument by placing a tuning block on each string at certain distances to achieve different notes—42 feet from the bridge for a middle C, 84 feet for an octave below, and so on. Added microphones and electronic processing gives it a warmer, rounder sound.

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Things took off 15 years ago when he strung his Earth Harp to the World Trade Center Museum, and he’s been touring it ever since. He broadened his audience with a 2012 run, placing third, on America’s Got Talent.

“It’s exciting to see the world taking notice of the Earth Harp’s legitimacy,” says Close. “That this instrument I created and brought to the planet has a role in musical society.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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