Saturday, May 16, 2009

String Theory

Phoenix harp builder searches

for the right sound

Mail Tribune
March 29, 2009 6:00 AM

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-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

Find out more

If you're interested in the harps built by Glenn Hill, call 541-535-7700
or visit

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Progress on New Kind of Harp with Lasers and Strings! ;-)

I am just about ready to start cutting out the beautiful Cherry Wood that I will use for this harp.

And meanwhile I have been ordering in the six green lasers, and other electronics that will be installed in this harp. We have also been working on which external manual midi controller to use with this harp, to allow the harpist to change program settings and all.

Usually my Laser Harp installations are set up with some kind of button array, to allow the Museum patrons ( or just the staff), to push a button to change the programing of all of the Laser beams. But in this case, with this new kind of Laser Harps, with playable strings, which is designed for stage performance, we needed a different set up.

After much thought, We have decided to use the "Behringer FCB1010 MIDI Foot Controller", which has these features:

It has 10 banks of 10 presets, with plenty of storage space. Each preset can send 5 MIDI program change commands and 2 MIDI control commands simultaneously so one can configure an entire synth rack with one stomp.

2 expression pedals independently control any MIDI channel, controller number, and range. The footswitches can also be configured to send MIDI note numbers, perfect for tap-tempo functions. 2 programmable, relay-controlled footswitch jacks are great for switching guitar amp channels via MIDI!

Behringer FCB1010 MIDI Foot Controller Features:

* 10 banks of presets
* 2 expression pedals with freely assignable MIDI channel, controller number, and range
* Simultaneous transmission of five MIDI program change commands and two MIDI control commands per preset
* MIDI note-on commands for trigger and tap-tempo applications
* 2 programmable, relay-controlled switch jacks
* MIDI merge function allows for "soft through" and merging of controller and input data

Among other things this midi foot pedal controller can do with this new type of harp, is to allow the harpist to play a whole series of harp chords and melody patterns with a pedal engaged, and then to send it through the laptop computer, into the software, out the Laser midi controller to allow her to then trigger one of the lasers to play the music she just created, as a continuous background loop to go with the additional harp music she is playing with it. She will also be able to trigger background sampled nature sounds such as ocean waves and bird song, along with videos projected from her LCD projector.

The harpist I am building this harp for will be taking it to Ireland in May. So if you are reading this blog in Ireland, please look for this harp being played by Talia Rose sometime in May of this year! :-)

Laser Harpingly yours, Glenn

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New Ultra-Sonic triggering to be added to my Laser Harp installation possibilities

I am going to be experimenting with another new to me technology, using ultrasonic sound field triggering, to trigger sounds and visual imagery.

This ultrasonic field can be set to trigger from 3 to 60 feet away, and different notes or sounds can be programed to change every few feet. It can also be programed to have a 'no action zone' of whatever size you wish, so that the trigger zone is across a room from the sending/ receiving device. The actual triggering is via moving through the 'field' of sent and reflected ultrasonic sound.The exact sounds and visuals triggered can depend on just how you move your body, arms and legs, and how fast. It was first developed to use with dancers.

It is also controlled, as is my OptiMusic midi controller and software, by a compact midi controller and software that runs on a laptop computer.

This technology could be used to create a sonic field of event/sound/visual triggering, around and before a museum patron even approaches the actual laser harp installation. this would add a deeper layer of experience to the children and adults who interact with an installation, as well as being an way to teach about both Lasers and Ultrasound.

I may seek to use it for the first time in my local Science Museum, Science Works, in a project for 2010.

But first I will buy a set up to experiment with in my Lab/ workshop! :-)


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

King David Laser Harp on Hold again, perhaps latter in March to start !

My King David Project for a Museum in New York is on hold again, but it is under contract, and should happen perhaps latter in March or early April. along with my other Laser Harp projects this harp will be using the OptiMusic midi controller and software.

Mean while it`s back to the work shop ! ;-) I have five custom harps a-building on my workbench right now !


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ancient King David/Egyptian Style Laser Harp

This project is still happening, I am working on the detail design drawings right now. I will be ordering the electronics and laser next week

When I start to build the harp, I will be loading a whole series of drawings, starting with teh rough lumber being used! ;-)


Harp with strings and laser beams! Update!!

Ok, this one is moving on nicely !

The project is progressing, I have the drawings completed and they are with my client for her to look over for approval. We are designing this harp to be played on it`s flat base, or with it placed on top of the mini cabinet that will hold the lap top computer and midi controller set -up. The harp will lock to the mini cabinet with 4 thumb screws, that will be inside the top of the cabinet, and will screw into threaded inserts inset in the bottom of the base of the harp. The cables for the midi signals and power for the 6 lasers will connect to the midi controller and AC power surge protector in the cabinet. If the harp is set on it`s own base then these connecting cables will just go out the lower back sound hole.

The stereo /mono sound connection will be via two jacks on the lower outside of th eback of the sound box.

My client has requested that the base of the pillar to have roots that will spread out over the bottom end of the sound board. this is easily done, and I have done this on other carved harps I have created.

The harp and cabinet will be made of Cherry wood, with a solid Spruce sound board on the harp. The Spruce I use is 30 years air-dried, to be very stable. It also has very narrow tight growth rings. Both of these aspects help this tome wood to produce the very richest sound possible.

The harp will weigh only about 18 to 20 lbs , even with the pillar and neck carved with tree/branch/ leaves carving.

I just ordered the midi controller and software from OptiMusic in London, and will be ordering the 6 green lasers, and the indiviual string transducers from RMC Pickups in Berkley CA.

I will be picking out the Cherry wood next week to start to build!

Let em know any questions or thoughts that you have !

This new type of harp is patent pending.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another new project !!:-) Strings And laser beams !!

OK, now this one is a first, a combination laser harp, and a harp with strings too !

The commission is for a 33 string acoustic-electric harp with 33 individual RMC peizo transducers, that also has 6 low-powered green lasers built-into the harp.

Four of these laser will be set in-line, below the bass harp string, #33, making them 'strings' number 34,35,36, and 37, and the other two will be installed, with one on each side of the sound board. The ones on the sound board will each be aimed down, from the top end to the bass end, running just above the surface of the sound board, down the middle of each side.
All six will be aimed at optic sensors that have filters over them to just admit the laser light, so the harp can be played in even the brightest lighting conditions, with no false triggering of the sensors, when the laser beams are blocked by the players hand.

OK, so why lasers on an acoustic -electric harp ?? Well they will be used by this harpist to trigger background natural sample sounds like ocean waves and bird sounds in the woods, the wind in the trees, etc.

The lasers will also be used to trigger video and still images projected with an LCD projector. This will be done with the custom OptiMusic midi controller and software I use.

The harpist will also have 6 floor pedals available to allow her to change the programed sounds and visuals for each piece of music she plays, and to also trigger other lighting changes on stage as well.

The harp itself will be carved like a tree trunk, with branches and leaves, out of Cherry wood, with a solid Spruce sound board. But it will weight less than 20lbs.

This new harp design is patent pending.

Let me know what you think !


P.S. Here is a press release about this project! :

First of A Kind New Type of Harp Has Both Laser Beams, And Harp Strings.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Project! : Laser Harp styled like an Ancient Egytian Harp carved to look like a part of an Olive Tree! ;-)

I have a new commission, for a Egyptian Style Laser Beam harp. This harp will be installed at a location to be-revealed, when it is open to the public, latter in 2009. The harp will have seven low powered green lasers. It will be installed with low level water based fog in action, giving the occasional pulse of vapor, to make the low powered lasers to be more highly visible in normal lighting conditions.

I will be posting pictures of it`s construction, when that gets under way latter in January.

Here is one of the concept drawings for this laser harp. I will be carved from multible layers of figured Oregon Myrtle wood. this is the same tree as the Bay Laurel Tree.

It will be carved to resemble an section of an olive tree w/ branch. There will be some carved leaves and olives on smaller branches, on the upper part, with some gilding. Myrtle wood has a very nice golden brown/silver/and even purple color, with lots of fiddle back figure.

This will be a fun project, with completion coming in April 2009 ! :-)

Glenn J. Hill

Children`s Hospital Laser beam harp

I just installed in Sept 2008, a custom designed and crafted a laser beam harp with 8 red lasers, for the "Children`s Hospital of the King`s Daughter`s", in Virginia Beach Virginia.

The harp which is the size of a lap harp, is attached to a self-contained electronics cabinet. The cabinet which is secured to the floor of the hospital lobby, contains the lap top computer, midi controller, power supplies and the stereo sound system .

The harp is made of highly figured Maple, dyed purple, and the cabinet is natural Maple. The lasers are low powered red 5mw, totally safe ones.

This laser harp is set to be at a comfortable child height, for the children to play when they come for exams. It can play any kind of sampled wave file or synth sound, as single notes, play-to-end sequences or as loops that keep playing till the beam is broken again. There are all kinds of combination ways to trigger the sounds as well. the software and midi controller are made for me by OptiMusic, and are fully programable, state-of-the-art in capacity.

Here are a couple of shots showing the cabinet open to show the computer/with the software showing and the other electronics.

Here is some video , showing the harp and the sounds it can make, in action!