When composer Ellen Fullman and her associates, Jessica Lurie and Matthew Sperry, run their rosined hands along the Long String Instrument, magical things happen. Fullman's Capitol Hill studio is a 79-foot-long cinder-block room with three sets of bronze harpsichord wires strung across it at waist level. The bass strings run all the way from one end of the room to the other, connected to a resonating spruce sound box at one end; the middle and treble strings are attached to another sound box in the middle of the room, and run out to both walls.
The slightest touch releases buoyant, shimmering tones resembling a gigantic zither. A feathery brush of the palm produces a short, bell-like sound that the three musicians play off each other to create syncopations. Walking up and down the strings slowly produces a sustained drone, warm yet brightly metallic, that hovers in the air. A C-clamp attached to each string at a particular point stops the vibration and effectively changes the string's pitch. Unlike, say, the piano, which is tuned so that every key is a uniform half-step apart from the ones next to it—though this makes larger intervals slightly imperfect—the Instrument's strings are tuned in mathematically pure ratios for maximum resonance.
Considering the visual beauty of the Instrument, its tracery of bronze strings and polished, finely crafted sound boxes, it's not surprising that Fullman began her career as a sculptor and ceramist. "Being a sculpture major gave me the freedom to work in any material, including performance," says Fullman, who became seduced by the aural quality of metal while at the Kansas City Art Institute. "I was interested in just listening . . . my whole interest came through the exploration of resonance and vibration."
Fullman moved to Minneapolis in 1981 and began to experiment with metal sounds and recording techniques in earnest. Her first instrument project was the whimsical "Metal Skirt Sound Sculpture." She strung guitar strings from the Skirt's hem to the toes of her own shoes, then attached a contact microphone; the stretching and releasing of the strings made the pitch rise and fall rhythmically as she walked. "I walked down Hennepin Avenue, had it videotaped, and called the piece Streetwalker."
Her first manual contact with wires—rubbing them along their length, rather than bowing or plucking—came by accident. "It seemed like it had a lot of potential," Fullman says. "I didn't understand anything about it technically, and that led me on a very long path." To further explore the relationship between art and technology, Fullman moved on to New York, where she studied acoustics, tuning, recording, and the physical properties of her chosen metals. There she found what studio space she could—at one point setting up her experimental wires on a rooftop—and gave a few performances. But the city eventually proved too distracting: "Either I'm gonna do this crazy project and live somewhere else, or I'm going to enjoy New York City—so I decided to leave. And I had an opportunity to go do a collaboration in Austin, Texas, and I just slipped into living there."
After an 11-year apprenticeship in Austin, where Fullman perfected what she calls the "tactile vocabulary" of her Instrument, she was ready to make music with it full-ime. In August 1997 she arrived in Seattle, eager to add new instruments and sounds to her compositions. "Now I'm in the middle of a community of a lot of very strong improvisers," she says, "people that I don't have to educate in terms of what experimental music is." After a yearlong search for a permanent studio space, Fullman found an ideal location on Capitol Hill, set up her Instrument, and gave her first Seattle performance last November.
Bassist Sperry and saxophonist Lurie, both active composers and improvisers, sought Fullman out separately. Sperry heard Fullman perform on NPR with the Deep Listening Band (the trio of contemporary music earth-mother Pauline Oliveros, whom Fullman had met in Minneapolis; Stuart Dempster, University of Washington trombone professor emeritus and high priest of improvisation; and recording technology wizard David Gamper), and was interested to discover through a mutual friend that Fullman was relocating to Seattle. After her move, Fullman first set up her Instrument temporarily at the old Soil Gallery space on First Avenue, and Sperry was hooked: "It was this electrifying experience. You just feel the music running through your hand, coursing into your arm."
Lurie first experienced the Long String Instrument during Fullman's 1996 visit to Seattle, for a collaboration with choreographer Pat Graney in Magnuson Park titled "Movement Meditation Project." On this occasion, the Instrument's three courses of strings were set up end to end, not alongside each other as they are in Fullman's studio, for a total length of 190 feet. What attracted Lurie was the huge difference between the Instrument's playing technique and the internal, respiratory wind-instrument technique she was used to on the saxophone. "How I go about generating sound is really different than touching a string and creating that kind of resonance. . . . It was an indescribable experience because of my whole orientation of how to create sound."
Fullman's third CD, Change of Direction, just released in late March, includes music from "Movement Meditation Project." For this score, Fullman expands on the harmonic structure used in TexasTravelTexture, an earlier improvisational work created for herself and the Deep Listening Band (recorded on their CD Suspended Music, on the Periplum label). The music ranges from ethereal clouds of sound to delicate, rhythmically intricate dances. Some of this is improvised, and some uses the special notation system Fullman invented, which specifies both the strings to be played and the speed and direction of the players' movements (according to numbered spots on the floor underneath the Instrument).
Fullman's next major project is another collaboration with Graney, slated for a January 2000 performance at On the Boards. She'll perform on the Instrument live, along with prerecorded Instrument sounds; she also plans to revive the "Metal Skirt Sound Sculpture." Her current fantasy is to perform in a hangar at the Sand Point Naval Air Station, with an "orchestra" of 10 or more—all playing the Long String Instrument. *
Ellen Fullman will perform on the Long String Instrument to celebrate the release of her latest CD, Change of Direction, at her studio (1621 12th E, basement entrance) on April 10 at 5.