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Enormous lengths: body, space and sound in the work of Ellen Fullman
A conversation with American composer Ellen Fullman on the interplay between acoustics and space and what it means to play strings—and music—as a performative act.

Ellen Fullman has researched intonation tuning theory, string harmonics and musical instrument design for over forty years. Her main project, the Long String Instrument—two rows of suspended strings, 20 meters long, separated by an empty corridor that the artist walks while sliding her fingers over the strings, creating a multiplicity of tunes—has reverberated inside dozens of architectural spaces around the world. Collaborating with experimental chamber music ensemble The Living Earth Show, Ellen Fullman will present, on April 7, the European premiere of a site-specific performance of Elemental View at Rewire Festival 2023. In this interview, we talk about the motivations that fueled her initial interests, how music and architecture intertwine in her performances and what lies ahead in her experimental approach to the architecture of sound.

Elemental View, Ellen Fullman and The Living Earth Show. Photo: Erin Brethauer

KOOZ You developed the Long String Instrument over 30 years ago. Could you start by sharing what prompted your interest in exploring and expanding the canonical instrument to such an architectural scale?

EF I was looking for something that sounded new to my ears, looking for freshness. I learned of Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire and that prompted my curiosity about what a long wire could sound like. I tried different ways of sounding a suspended wire but accidentally discovered that it could be bowed length-wise when I walked past it, brushing it with my clothing. It sounded a very clear tone. As I worked with this sound, I continued to uncover more and more musical potential.

The identity of a composition always shines through, but the music is adapted to the space.

KOOZ Since then, you have installed and performed LSI in numerous venues worldwide, including religious settings—as the Romanesque Cathedral in Cologne and the Church of St. Merri in Paris—as well as cultural institutions as the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and now the musical festival Rewire. How does each space shape and inform the confluence of tones, microtones and overtones produced? To what extent is the architectural space itself also a protagonist within the performances?

EF Enormous lengths, 20 meters or so, are needed to bring the tone down into a musical range when a string is vibrated longitudinally. Because of this limitation, the installation has brought me to experience many large and beautiful acoustic spaces. The acoustics of the space play an integral role in the quality of my music. That is something that I collaborate with but that I can’t fully anticipate or control—I can only work with it intuitively. The identity of a composition always shines through, but the music is adapted to the space. One of the most direct ways the space influences the work is through voicing. Length determines pitch in my instrument, so bringing a tuning down by an octave requires a doubling of the length. I might change which octave a chord is tuned to, or maybe just change one note up or down based on the length of the room that I am available to work with. The overtones are going to be there in the string resonance no matter where I am, but may be more or less clear. I always use sound reinforcement to bring out these higher frequencies. If the acoustics are really good, I don’t use much amplification at all. Sound reinforcement puts energy back into the room supporting the feedback loop which is resonance to move the air.

Other Minds, San Francisco. Photo: John Fago

New Music Circle, St. Louis. Photo: Theo R. Welling

The narrative was a rebellion against the limitations of traditional female identity by creating an absurd spectacle. There is an element of absurdity that runs through all of my work.

KOOZ In your 1980 work “Streetwalker,” you constructed a skirt as a sonic instrument and wore this to walk around a neighborhood of Minneapolis. To what extent did this first project inform your research and experimentation into the relationship between body, space and sound? In what ways did the project challenge the ordinary gesture of walking the streets?

EF It is not lost on me that in both cases it is necessary to walk to make the sound, but I didn’t set out to make a walking instrument when I discovered bowing strings lengthwise. The Metal Skirt Sound Sculpture was a successful work but limited to simply walking, I couldn’t “play” it. The conical metal form and guitar strings tied to the platform shoes that I wore influenced the way I walked by the constriction it imposed. For me personally, the narrative was a rebellion against the limitations of traditional female identity by creating an absurd spectacle. I continued to search for new sounds that I could compose with, which I found in the long string instrument.While playing the long string instrument, I have liked to think of my body in miniature, moving forward and back almost like the pendulum swing in hypnosis. There is an element of absurdity that runs through all of my work, but this idea of hypnosis is about entering a sensitized mental state of concentration where one can experience and enjoy details of changing harmonics.

Playing my instrument is gestural, tactile. I feel I am molding sound with pressure changes from my fingers, shaping dynamics and timbre.

KOOZ By walking slowly among the strings and playing these with your rosin-coated fingers, you essentially create sound from within. What relationships are established between yourself as a physical performer and the creation of sound? From the perspective of the musician, how does this type of performance differ from that of playing a canonical instrument?

EF I suppose you mean “creating sound from within” to mean that I am inside of the instrument? This phrase also implies to me the depth of concentration that I aspire to when performing (alone in my studio or for audiences) and that I find positively transformational. Playing my instrument is gestural, tactile. Every tiny movement of my body is reflected in the sound, therefore I learned to walk very smoothly. I feel I am molding sound with pressure changes from my fingers, shaping dynamics and timbre. I have internalized a mapping of nodal points and compose with a choreography of specific harmonics by the locations of my body. When I play other instruments, autoharp, guitar, I feel similar things but I have not really learned how to play any traditional instrument. I think strings in general are very tactilely responsive and coming from the visual arts, and specifically ceramics, I feel an affinity and familiarity with that quality.

I feel like one of the next steps will be to write a quartet in this manner, and then delete myself, so that the long string instrument is referenced and implied but missing.

KOOZ How do you imagine your work with LSI evolving in the coming years? Are there any specific places where you would be interested in testing the performance?

EF With my recent piece, Elemental View, I designed a process for composing parts for other musicians, based on what I hear and feel radiating out from the sound of my solo performance. I am applying this technique to string quartet writing, so that the quartet composition supports what naturally occurs in the long string instrument as I play and walk. I feel like one of the next steps will be to write a quartet in this manner, and then delete myself, so that the long string instrument is referenced and implied but missing.

Bio

For over four decades, Ellen Fullman has maintained a singular focus on her project, The Long String Instrument, an installation of dozens of tuned strings fifty feet or more in length which have resonated architectural spaces in festivals across the world, including Tectonics, Athens, The Sydney Festival and the London Contemporary Music Festival. Through her research in just intonation tuning theory, string harmonics and musical instrument design, Fullman has developed a compositional and performative approach that expands harmonic motion through a focus on upper partial tones. Her recordings include: Harbors (Room40, 2020) a collaboration with Theresa Wong, and The Long String Instrument (Superior Viaduct, 2015) first issued on Apollo Records in 1985 and selected as the number one reissue for 2015 by the Wire. In 2016 Fullman was the Distinguished Alumni Speaker and Guest Critic at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her work was cited by Alvin Lucier in his book, Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music (Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

Published
22 Mar 2023
Reading time
8 minutes
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