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Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument: decades in the making, always in motion

Originally trained as a sculptor, Memphis-born artist Ellen Fullman has gathered an impressive résumé over the years, taking on jobs as a bookkeeper, electrician, graphic designer, personal chef, and in building maintenance. But at the centre of this patchwork of jobs, one constant has always remained in place: the passion for her own creation, the Long String Instrument (LSI).

For over four decades Ellen Fullman has been touring with her self-engineered Long String Instrument. A sound installation that consists of a metres-long ensemble of strings ranging from 16 to 30 metres, that more often than not spans the entire cross-section of the concert hall, dividing in half the crowds that come to see Fullman perform. Inevitably, that will also be the case when Fullman and her LSI occupy The Hague’s Nieuwe Kerk in April at Rewire 2023. During which Fullman will present the European premiere of the site-specific performance Elemental View together with experimental chamber music ensemble The Living Earth Show. This show will be Fullman’s newest feat in her quest to understand the instrument she has built – one that is going through a never-ending process of experiment and transition. Even Fullman herself is not quite sure if the work will ever be finished: “I’m never sure along the way — ‘Did I finish?’ I always feel like there’s more to do. Every time I made a new discovery, it just kept unfolding and growing for me.”

As a consequence of this interminable process, the version of the LSI that will be on display during Rewire 2023 is not the same as the one that Fullman originally devised in the 80s. The LSI is a project which started out small and grew decisively during its foundational years; over time it has grown to include the 136 strings that will be present during the Elemental View show. Yet, it all started with one simple string, inspired by the work of experimental music composer Alvin Lucier and his oscillator-driven installation named Music on a Long Thin Wire. Lucier’s fully automated instrument consisted of a single wire which spanned the distance between an oscillator and a horseshoe magnet, creating a continuous soundscape. It inspired Fullman to take the idea a step further and explore the musical qualities of not just a single wire, but an intricate and complex set of strings. Fullman told The New York Times she started out “from something that was very raw: just one string, and more of a noisy thing. But I saw potential for it in musical tone.” A potential that was also noticed overseas by the legendary Dutch composer Paul Panhuysen, who was the director of the Eindhoven-based centre for experimental music Het Apollohuis at the time. Panhuysen also experimented with LSIs in the early 80s and invited Fullman in 1985 to the Netherlands to document the sound of her unique creation. During her stay at Het Apollohuis, Fullman recorded with Arnold Dreyblatt her debut album on a version of the LSI that consisted of about 20 strings, measuring 15 metres. The original pressing of this has become a highly coveted record and is a showpiece among collectors.

Since these early days a lot has been added to the LSI’s structure, but a lot has also been taken away, as the instrument itself is always in motion. The wood used for the resonance boxes at the end of the strings has changed, the string material varies, but also the number of strings and their length are not absolute, due to the LSI’s site-specific characteristics. This undefined nature of the LSI opens up plenty of room for experimentation and is the catalyst for Fullman to both challenge the instrument and herself, once a certain mode of performance is fully developed. Luckily the long-stringed set-up makes it a highly adaptable instrument, always raising new questions about artistic decisions as Fullman explained in an interview with QKED: “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?”

The adaptability of, as well as the importance of context to, the LSI have left people grappling with ways to describe its sound palette, as it never sounds quite the same across different iterations. To some it resembles the sitar sounds that define Indian raga because of its gliding sounds, others have likened it to the overwhelming qualities of the pipe organ or even described hearing it as being like “standing inside an enormous grand piano.” For Fullman herself, who stands inside the instrument during her performance, the name tag does not matter as much as the spirit it triggers. In conversation with journalist Ben Beaumont-Thomas she points towards the “ecstatic feeling” or “floating sensation” it brings about. “Music is bigger than me: there are pitch relationships, shapes of notes beautiful beyond the level of human expression. I like that feeling of being a conduit. I don’t like egotistical thrashing. I like trying to give a gift.”

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