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Mass Ensemble

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MASS ENSEMBLE

Bill Close, guiding force of the Movement and Sonic Sculpture (MASS) Ensemble, has built all the collective's unorthodox instruments--including the distinctive Close Long Bows, a pair of graceful 25-foot metal frames bearing nine strings apiece. Recently he installed what he claims is the largest stringed instrument in the world--the Earth Harp--on and around the northwest corner of the Field Museum. Its 24 brass strings, which range in length up to 400 feet, fan out from an amplified wooden resonator on the lawn to the edge of the museum's roof; in a strong wind they ring without being touched. Including its overtones, the Earth Harp has a 12-octave range (a grand piano covers less than 8); a single string can produce a rich variety of warm or brassy timbres, depending on where it's touched; and the vibrations of the longest strings are more like physical presences than notes. Close has created over 50 stringed "sonic sculptures" since graduating from the School of the Art Institute in 1992, inspired by avant-garde instrument builder and composer Harry Partch. Rather than Partch's 43-tone octave, however, Close favors pentatonic scales; the Earth Harp actually uses an ordinary major scale. Five years ago he founded the MASS Ensemble with choreographer Tatiana Sanchez, and the group's performances usually include modern dance, cello, percussion, and flute. The pieces mix neomedieval and Celtic sounds with global-village-style tribal rhythms; they can soothe or throb, and in stretches feel like incidental music for Xena: Warrior Princess. Though not compositionally groundbreaking, they make interesting use of the fascinating sounds of Close's hyperbolic instruments. One new piece, a bouncy roundelay called "Big Strings," calls for both the Earth Harp and the Long Bows; another, "Song of the Earth Harp," highlights the subterranean drone of the harp's longest string. Every day this month between 11 and 3, museum staff and ensemble members will demonstrate the harp and help visitors play it themselves; performances will also take place throughout September. Saturday, 1:30 PM, next Saturday, September 18, 1 PM, next Sunday, September 19, 3 PM, next Tuesday, September 21, 5 PM, and Saturday, September 25, 8 PM, on the northwest lawn of the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt and Lake Shore Drive; 312-243-2366 or 312-922-9410. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Karen A Peters.

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