Glenn Hill works on a harp built in the Old-World style, but which will also include 'laser strings' and a digital interface that allows the harp's sound to be processed though a computer. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell

String Theory

Birds twitter from branches atop a leafless tree, their songs mingling with the classical music that spills through the open door of the harp maker's garage workshop.

The real world blending of natural sounds and man-made music reflects Glenn Hill's passion — creating one-of-a-kind, hand-carved harps that do the same.

"I make between six or eight of them a year," says Hill, stroking a harp's carved wooden leaves, an important part of the "Lord of the Rings" motif of this soon-to-be completed, commissioned instrument.

During a 30-year span, the Phoenix harp maker has created about 325 carved and sculpted harps made in single, double or cross-strung versions which can range in price — depending on size and complexity — from $1,825 to $26,000.

Hill's unique harps incorporate traditional acoustic strings, or electric strings and/or laser "strings" to create a wide array of sounds.

"The first thing I do is design the string set," Hill says. "It has to have the right feel, the right tension, the right sound."

Harpists typically will hold the instrument on their right shoulder, plucking the upper register strings with their right hand, and the lower bass strings with their left hand, he says.

"The chords are similar to a piano," Hill notes. "Except you pluck strings toward yourself instead of pressing down on the keys."

Hill also makes "stringless" laser harps with bands of colored light that burst forth in a variety of sounds, or even sights, with the simple wave of a hand.

Breaking the laser beam allows the artist to trigger any of a series of pre-determined/pre-recorded sounds, such as wind rustling through leaves, water rushing over rocks or even the soulful wail of a pre-recorded James Brown. The technology allows harpists to incorporate virtually any sound into their music, Hill says.

In the case of his latest commission, Hill is incorporating a few colored "strings" of the laser technology into the more traditional acoustic and digital stringing of the instrument. Natural sounds will likely be the musician's selection for her laser "strings," he adds.

"She is a Celtic harpist who likes to play music that is nature-oriented," Hill says.

Hill, who admits to having only a "noodling" ability with the instruments himself, built his first harp in 1978 while living at a "yoga-based monastic community" in Santa Barbara, Calif. Although he had never taken woodworking, the community workshop called to Hill.

"I made my first few harps there," he says.

His first harp was made without much knowledge or a good construction plan, Hill said.

"The first harp I made is probably in pieces somewhere out in the desert in Nevada."

But in 1985, Hill got serious about crafting quality, hand-carved wooden instruments when he entered the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. He studied at the prestigious school for two years, he says. It is there he met Yo-Yo Ma, the French-born, Chinese-American virtuoso cellist and composer. Yo-Yo Ma is also highly accomplished on the piano, viola and violin, and the winner of multiple Grammy Awards.

"I learned a lot," says Hill, who moved to the Rogue Valley in 1987 and started making harps full time in 1991.

In 1990, Hill built his first laser-beam harp. He has created two more since then — both are public art pieces.

The first is in the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. Installed as a part of the permanent display in Reading Adventureland, the laser harp sits at the top of a giant's castle.

"That one is carved to look like the giant's harp in Jack and the Bean Stalk," says Hill.

The museum's senior exhibit designer, Kevin Murphy, says Hill's harp is a hit with the kids familiar with the famous fable. Children scramble past a 10-foot-tall giant, climb to the top of the castle, "and play the magic harp," he says.

"They love it," says Murphy. "It's a very popular feature of the show."

Another of Hill's laser harps is at a children's hospital in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

In its simplest form, a laser harp is a light-controlled switch, Hill says. When a beam is interrupted or broken — for example by a hand passing through — a signal is sent to a computer, which serves as the controller unit, Hill explains.

"This beam interaction can trigger sound, lighting, visual images, video, special effects, smoke, pyrotechnics and other digital applications — all in real time," Hill says.

The nature of the sound is dependent on the synthesizer or sampling device, and the amplifier and speaker setup, Hill says.

"If you plug the harp into the back of an inexpensive keyboard synthesizer, you will hear the usual keyboard-synthesized sounds when you play the harp," Hill says. "If you plug the harp into a newer rack-mounted synthesizer, some very convincing sounds will be produced."

Exciting possibilities result from plugging the harp into a computer that is running audio production software, says Hill, playing a snippet of a video. Hill chuckles as James Brown vocals began to play when his laser harp is activated.

Hundreds of scrolling templates adorn the walls in Hill's Phoenix garage workshop. At a nearby table, Hill studies a series of blueprints for commissioned harps which have been paid for — but have yet to be built.

The process of creation is collaborative, Hill says. He consults with his clients, makes the initial drawings, and then sends them to his customers for their input and approval.

Hill points to a blueprint which is about to be turned into a template. Once built, the harp will be painted in vivid hues at the request of the musician, Hill says.

"She wants it to be bright red with no wood showing except for painted imagery and little red rhinestones," he says, with a grin and a grimace.

Hill will follow the harpist's request. But he's making the harp out of cherry wood so if the woman changes her mind about the red paint, the wood will be similar in color, Hill says.

Another harp, also fully paid for, has been years in the design stage. This one will have 34 strings and a unicorn with a flowing mane carved into the top. The notes on the blueprint request that Hill insert citrine or blue topaz stones for the unicorn's eyes.

"I've got a lot to do," says Hill. "Luckily, people understand there is a waiting list for custom-made harps."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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