String Theory's Fin Harp

The Straz Center invited Los Angeles-based performance ensemble String Theory to turn the riverside corner of Morsani Hall into a working harp with 200-foot strings.



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Look closely at the design of the wooden harp on the river side of Morsani’s lobby, and you may recognize the shape. Inspired by certain loveable and highly-intelligent marine mammals, Luke Rothschild, one of the founding members of the multi-genre performance group String Theory, designed this harp specifically as an outdoor art/music installation for the Straz Center.

“I knew we wanted to incorporate the Riverwalk and more community engaging work here at the center,” says Straz Center Director of Programming Chrissy Hall. “I’d met the agent for String Theory at a convention, so I asked about the possibility of an outdoor long term installment. The agent put me in direct contact with Luke, and we worked on coming up with a concept that would work out in the elements.”

“I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing, and the shape for the soundboard kind of emerged naturally,” says Luke.

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His creation, the Fin Harp, takes its curvilinear shape from the dorsal fin of dolphins — perfect for Tampa, where dolphins and their calves feed in the Hillsborough River in the springtime. The harp, comprised of cherry wood, red oak, maple, black walnut and shellacked like mad with boat varnish, can withstand the afternoon rains and soaring mid-day spring temperatures.

Installation was a team effort between String Theory members and The Straz facilities department. Using several ladders and a fair amount of derring-do, the teams secured the 14 brass strings to the Straz Center roof, running them the 200 feet to the instrument bolted to a platform on the grass below.

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Outside of the time, financial and logistical constraints of creating a unique, outdoor instrument, another challenge altogether was how to get the Fin Harp on the plane from Los Angeles to Tampa. “The harp needed to be able to come apart and fit into a very specific size keyboard case approved by TSA,” says Luke. “The base of the harp is in 10 pieces and is quite different from what I thought it would be, different from any other design I’ve done before for other harps. So, the soundboard fits into one 88 note keyboard case, the base breaks down and fits into another identical case. The brass wire, tuning blocks and tools go in a rolling case.” Voila! Ready for travel.

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The harp is played by stroking or plucking the strings with rosin-coated gloves which provide the “tooth” (grip) to create a compression wave — a vibration — which resonates in the soundboard.

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Many thanks to Luke Rothschild for the use of his personal photographs, except where noted, and his help with behind-the-scenes info.
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