Composer/artist Ellen Fullman began developing her unique instrument/installation/performance art piece “The Long String Instrument” in 1981. This large-scale site-specific work consists of 70-foot-long metallic cables, anchored by a wooden resonator. The performer moves back and forth among the wires with rosin-covered fingers and the instrument produces droney tonalities that cannot be achieved with traditional instruments. The experience of interacting with “The Long String Instrument” has been compared to standing inside of a huge grand piano.
Fullman’s first album, titled The Long String Instrument was recorded during a 1985 residency at Het Apollo Huis in Eindhoven, Holland, and has recently been reissued from the original master tapes by the San Francisco-based Superior Viaduct label.
Ellen Fullman answered some questions about her work via email.
Richard Metzger: It’s tempting to try to classify your work, and your inventions, alongside of Daphne Oram‘s work and her optical synthesizer, or perhaps Delia Derbyshire’s sonic explorations, but I hesitate to do that because it seems almost sexist. Of course, one might also compare your work to, say, La Monte Young’s, or Robert Moog’s or even Harry Partch or any number of men. So instead of doing any comparisons of any sort, let me simply ask you: In what space, or genre do you see yourself working?
Ellen Fullman: I am not very familiar with the women composers that you have cited, but, that is the reality that is acknowledged now more than ever: women’s contributions have often been ignored or appropriated. I find inspiration in this quote from African-American composer George Lewis: “If you find yourself written out of history, write yourself back in!”
From the beginning, I very much took my cues from Harry Partch and reading his Genesis of a Music.
I was at a recital by Meredith Monk some years ago and she introduced one of her numbers by informing the audience that she was inspired to mimic the sounds of the insects that surrounded her sister’s desert home with her vocal cords and that listening to their sounds was a real epiphany for her when it came to developing her unique vocalizing style. Where did the inspiration for your long string instrument come from? It seems like the kind of idea that arrived fairly fully-formed.
Ellen Fullman: In my studio practice, my notebook plays a major role. Opening up the pages, I go into another dimension, much like Alice in Wonderland. In this place anything is possible. I also work on logistics here; my mind oscillates between imagination and design. Alvin Lucier’s installation of “Music on a Long Thin Wire” in St. Paul Minnesota, 1980, inspired me to explore long strings. I lived in a loft space there and extended a string wall to wall. I tensioned it with door springs and used a coffee can as a resonator. I bowed the string near the can, sang into it, filtering my voice. Accidentally I brushed it length-wise and found it produced a continuous tone. I was very inspired by Pauline Oliveros’ album Horse Sings From Cloud and I could imagine many of these long wires, tuned, and being able to play organ-like sustained chords. Mysteriously, neither tensioning the wire further, or changing the gauge of the wire had any effect on tuning.
Soon thereafter I moved to New York City and met Arnold Dreyblatt. I was totally charmed by his ensemble of instruments, his miniature pipe organ and miniature piano, and the sounds that they make in Dreyblatt’s tuning. The feeling for me was, “I want to do that!” I could imagine myself inventing new harmonies and unusual sounding chord sequences. Arnold arranged a meeting for me with Bob Bielecki. Bob explained the basic physics of the longitudinal mode of vibration and set me off on a trail that I have been on ever since.
Unlike most instruments, your long stringed instrument would seem to require an installation. And few instruments can be played by several people at one time. Do you see yourself working more in music or in the art world? Or do you not make that distinction?
Ellen Fullman: Generally, I want to share my work in any context that is appropriate for the installation, with people from the art world, music scene, or the unaffiliated. Settings could be in a contemporary art museum, an experimental rock festival, a university music department, an art school, a new music festival, a music presenting organization that scouts abandoned industrial spaces, etc. I have been fortunate to experience interesting spaces all over the world through doing this project. I feel my work is in-between music and visual art, and not really sound art either; my formal education was in visual art I am self-taught in music. I do like my installation in a visual art context; I like being an open studio, work-in-progress residency installation. I don’t care so much what context I am in – I just want to keep doing the work.
How do you write a score for it? Is musical notation possible?
Ellen Fullman: In the late 1980s, I conceived of a graphic notation format in which timing and coordination of parts are determined by distance walked. This system still functions as the basis for scoring my work today. Numbers placed on the floor under the suspended strings at metric intervals are used as reference points indicated in the score. Transitions can be coordinated based on the time it takes to arrive at predetermined locations, thereby “choreographing” repeatable events to occur at specific locations. My notation functions like a roadmap for the performer, aligning musical events in time and space to coincide with specific upper partial content. Strings vibrate in mathematical subdivisions of the total string length, simultaneously vibrating in multiple modes at once. The performer’s rosin-coated fingertips pass through these subdivisions or nodal points unfolding in a cascading spectrum, dampening the string and sounding partials associated with each passing location.
Over the past year I set about to create a method for preconceiving and composing for my instrument using midi and through retuning sound files. This has become a fluid and productive approach. I go back and forth between analog and digital: of course applying a digitally conceived composition requires adaption on the instrument, but this process has helped me to discover new combinations. I created a sample instrument in four octaves that I can play using a keyboard. I can audition new tunings, chord voicings, and hear and score for the tuning range of future installations before arriving on site. (Tuning in the longitudinal mode is dependent solely on length, therefore each venue has a different tuning range that I need to adapt my compositions to.)
“A group of Williamsburg artists organized a 600-artist exhibit, Terminal New York, in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Red Hook in 1983. I used this space to construct my first Long String Instrument with an acoustic resonator and worked there during the run of the exhibit.”