In Performance: Bill Close's musical inventions | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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In Performance: Bill Close's musical inventions

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Since childhood Bill Close has associated sounds with nature. As a boy, he spent a lot of time at a pond near his home. "The wind would blow through long reeds and create tones," he recalls. "The bullfrogs would sing this amazing opera at dusk." Summers were spent sailing on his grandfather's boat in Buzzards Bay. "Sailboats create amazing sounds. Some of the halyards run all the way up and some only run say halfway up, and this affects how quickly they slap against the mast, creating all these neat polyrhythms."

Now Close designs, builds, and plays his own musical instruments. Five years ago he brought home a piece of driftwood and laid it down next to an exhaust pipe. Noticing that they looked alike, he carved the wood into the tuning end of a stringed instrument, connected it to the exhaust pipe, attached electric-guitar strings, amplified it, and "was just blown away." Close has since built 20 original instruments and says that a lot of his work touches both "visually and sonically on the rhythms--the cycles of life" that he first observed while watching the seasons change at the pond.

Interested in a variety of music, Close spent four months studying and recording folk music in Nepal. "I'm very interested in opening people up to the idea," common to many cultures, "that there's this drone or tone that exists throughout the universe." The back of one of his instruments, the Trinity Drone, is a spinelike metal curve. "I wanted to give the thing the presence of a creature," Close says. The instrument has handles that rotate wooden disks that rub against strings, producing a hurdy-gurdy-like drone.

He calls several instruments Close Long Bows, inspired partly by an article about Ellen Fullman, who makes long-stringed instruments. A metal tube rises diagonally from the floor, with strings as long as 23 feet running alongside it. The strings are attached to a base with piano pins, and played by rubbing rosin-covered gloves along them, producing a rich, resonant drone. Mounting the strings diagonally both allows for "the longest length of string in the shortest distance" and means people of any height can play them. The diagonal tube meets a metal arc at its high end; together they recall boat designs. Close thinks of the arc as a spinnaker and the tube as one of the sheets that hold it in place. "It's the idea of relating sound and wind, sound and nature." Close plays his instruments solo and with the MASS Ensemble; in Chrysalis Frieze, choreographed by ensemble members Tatiana Sanchez and Jacqueline Westhead, the group moves about the instruments "as though we're sailing them."

Close's early sonic experiences were "interactive"--he fished the pond and sailed the boats--and MASS's performances are somewhat interactive as well. "We realized that to play the long bows brought out this movement because of the way you run the glove along the strings; you literally have to travel a distance," and that allows people "visual access to the music." Close says that after a MASS concert one group told him that "they actually visually understood what sounds were made, why the downbeat happened when it did--and it was a bit of a lesson because you could visually identify where that sound ends and where it begins."

Close recently completed a musical bench for children, with strings to pluck on its back and chimes to play between wooden slats on its sides. A deaf child, Close says, will feel vibrations while sitting on it. The bench will be installed in October at the Chicago Children's Museum.

MASS will perform Chrysalis Frieze and other pieces at 9 PM Thursday through Sunday, September 7 through 10, at Guitar Plus, 1552 N. Milwaukee, as part of the Around the Coyote festival. It's free. Call 243-2366 for more information. Close's first CD will be out shortly, and starting October 18 viewers will be able to play his instruments at Randolph Street Gallery.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Armando Villa.

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