About 30 years ago in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, there were 20 strings, 50 feet in length, slowly humming a composition by Ellen Fullman -- she thinks.
There might have been more strings; probably not less. And they might have been shorter or longer than she now recalls. But the malleability of Fullman’s Long String Instrument, a site-specific construction she plays by grazing well-rosined fingers along strings she’s installed in any performance space, makes concerts and recordings something of a mercurial event.
That evening three decades ago was set to tape for posterity and issued on LP by a Dutch imprint as The Long String Instrument. In October, Oakland's Superior Viaduct label finally reissued the scarce recording on vinyl.
“There have been a few pieces that I did on tour and was able to replicate in different spaces. It’s all slightly different,” Fullman says, after recently returning to the Bay from an 11-day residency at Iowa’s Grinnell College. “The longitudinal mode is solely based on tuning by length; therefore a longer room offers different possibilities for low frequencies. I adapt pieces not by tuning up into a different key, but by really re-voicing: I have the opportunity to voice this note an octave lower. Do I want to do that?”
During her career, Fullman’s collaborated with a wealth of performers, including former Mills College professor Pauline Oliveros and Japanese noisenik Keiji Haino. But artists from outside the realm of music have come to bear on Fullman’s practice as well. Given that playing the Long String Instrument requires moving through a space that could measure 100 feet in length, choreography is, if not a significant consideration, something the composer at least contemplates in relation to her work.
“With Deborah Hay, it’s not like she’s influenced me directly in terms of choreography,” Fullman says about the one-time member of the Judson Dance Theater, a coterie of artists that during the early 1960s engaged an avant-garde flair for presentation. “She’s had more of a studio practice influence, a philosophical influence. She’s not about moving your arm up and down or twisting your torso. She’s not that kind of choreographer... One of the aesthetic advances that the group found was the use of everyday movement in performance. And I was really attracted to that idea.”
It was that concept leading Fullman to experiment with the construction of a metal skirt -- something akin to Nick Cave’s soundsuits -- that she would wear strolling down the street, summoning a clamorous noise and confounded onlookers.
“For me, what was very exciting about the Streetwalker piece was that I was walking in the street -- I walked in order to activate the sound,” she said. “In a sense, the Long String Instrument is the same thing. I thought [playing it would] be a lot easier. There’s a lot more to it, in terms of articulation -- using fingertips to play it instead of a bow.”
The conceptual evolution necessary on Fullman’s part to move from initiating sound by donning a clangorous suit to walking alongside a bank of strings, coaxing out gentle vibrations, took a bit of time to develop. All these years later, though, there might still be more to uncover.
“I’m never sure along the way -- ‘Did I finish?’ I always feel like there’s more to do,” Fullman says about a career’s worth of articulating art-world theories. “Every time I made a new discovery, it just kept unfolding and growing for me.”
One would think that her dedication to both the Long String Instrument’s voice and her own sense of performance might have resulted in Fullman amassing a concerted following over time. Though she says there’ve been some who’ve expressed gratitude, it's seemingly not substantial enough to result in her work being lionized as an utterly new and codified realm of experimental music.
“I know people have written to me, thanked me and told me that they’ve been influenced by my work,” she says. “But I couldn’t pinpoint specific people.”
It’s that sort of gap in acknowledgement that helped coax Steve Viaduct, proprietor of the label that’s re-released The Long String Instrument, into tracking down Fullman.
“They call them the four big names in minimalism: Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. There’s so much more music,” he says. “It’s definitely an interest of the label to show that not only are there more composers making interesting music, but also ones that are not men, are not white, are not in an academic context, like Ellen. She showed you can approach it from a completely different non-musical training background.”
Fullman might now benefit from being invited to speak at universities or doing some time at Bard College. But the way she got there was to to radically reimagine the presentation of music and motion in relation to an instrument that just didn’t exist before she strode toward invention. Luckily, the composer’s still trying to figure out what next to do with it.