Ellen Fullman

Listening to it, you feel like you are inside some cyclopean subterranean grotto… – The Wire, May 2008

To mark the upcoming release of “The Headlands”, the collaboration between guitar behemoths Barn Owl and sound artist Ellen Fullman, Fluid are pleased to be able to present a discussion with Fullman on her Long String Instrument and some insights into the recording process.

In 1981 Fullman began developing the Long String Instrument, an installation of dozens of wires fifty feet or more in length, tuned in Just Intonation and ‘bowed’ with rosin coated fingers. Fullman has developed a unique notation system to choreograph the performer’s movements, exploring sonic events that occur at specific nodal point locations along the string-length of the instrument. She has recorded extensively with this unusual instrument and has collaborated with such luminary figures as composer Pauline Oliveros, choreographer Deborah Hay, the Kronos Quartet, and Keiji Haino.

She has been the recipient of numerous awards, commissions and residencies including: DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program residency, Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission/NEA Fellowship for Japan, Meet the Composer, Reader’s Digest Consortium Commission, Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship, and artist-in-residence at Headlands Center for the Arts.

Her music was represented in The American Century; Art and Culture, 1950-2000 at The Whitney Museum, and she has performed in venues and festivals in Europe, Japan, and the Americas including: Instal, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, Other Minds, the Walker Art Center and Donaueschinger Musiktage. The Wire selected “Ort”, recorded with Berlin-based Jörg Hiller, for inclusion in their top 50 recordings of 2004 and “Fluctuations” (with trombonist Monique Buzzarté) was included in their top 50 of 2008.

San Francisco Bay-based audio engineer and performer The Norman Conquest conceived and produced “The Headlands”; in addition to recording Barn Owl’s “Ancestral Star” (as well as Porras and Camaniti’s recent Digitalis solo releases) he has also worked with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Blixa Bargeld and Gregg Kowalsky.

It’s a booming and visceral exercise, made so in part by the chosen recording location of San Francisco’s Headlands Centre For The Arts, which provided the eponym for the title. Those amongst you who were taken with “Ancestral Star” would likely be interested to hear how Barn Owl’s signature guitar sound is filtered through a recording of this instrument, an innovative creation that takes up an entire room in size and generates electrical drones that cover almost the entire range of human hearing.

Fullman took some time out over the New Year to talk about the Long String Instrument, recording with Theresa Wong, Barn Owl & The Norman Conquest, and also some upcoming releases for 2011.

How long did it take to design, test and construct the first version of the Long Stringed Instrument initially? Was it a burst of frenzied inspiration or did it take a long time?

This has been an ongoing process, with focus on different aspects along the way. Initially, in 1980, it was an accidental discovery through experimentation with bowing longs strings. In 1982 I held a meeting with engineers Bob Bielecki and Steve Cellum where I learned that tuning is determined by the type of metal used in the wire and by length, and not through tension or gauge. After meeting composer Arnold Dreyblatt, I was influenced to produce the sound acoustically and set about designing the resonators.

I have used the same resonators since 1994, fabricated by Stephen Wise. David Weinstein influenced me to explore just intonation tunings which has been a very long journey, and I feel tuning has such a huge influence on the timbre of the instrument that it is like instrument design. The basic configuration of the instrument was determined by 1985. Since then my main focus has been on developing performance technique and on designing a style of composing that makes sense for this instrument.

Are there different version or iterations of the setup, or does it remain the same?

The configuration is basically comprised of a “walking drone” instrument, with strings suspended from resonators on either side of the performer. The strings are aligned horizontally in a row and each resonator holds about 22 strings, (about maximum arm extension). The other element is the “box bow” instrument, a double-sided resonator with strings extending in both directions and played by two performers facing each other. These instruments are set up in parallel, which aids in the communication of performers and is also utilitarian in terms of suspension.

How much work is required to set it up for a performance? When recording, does it require extra time to get it exactly right?

The installation set-up requires a minimum of about three days before a concert. I secure the resonators and tuning block on framing and then suspend the strings. There are seventy strings altogether. Tuning is a two-person operation and takes about 3 hours. I am working to reduce my set-up time requirements through the design of a spooling system to wind and unwind sets of strings, but it is not yet fully functional. Getting the performance of my music right does take time, equally for performance or recording.

I find that it takes me time to warm up, after about an hour of rehearsal a transformation happens in my sound. I can describe this as going from a cold metallic quality to a warmer rounder sound that I feel I can mold like clay with my fingertips. It may be impossible to really convey the visceral nature of the sound this instrument produces in a recording. It is like being inside of a musical instrument, the whole room is the resonator.

The Norman Conquest’s style in recording this project was not about trying to get a natural sound but about creating something new, an object of the recording itself. He picks up less apparent timbres and frequencies through unusual microphones and placements. For example speaker microphones were placed directly on top of the resonator boxes. The speaker microphones capture extremely low frequencies that are not normally heard with traditional microphones. Norman had recorded my instrument previously in the same space so he was prepared in his approach and no adjustments or retakes were required.

How did the Barn Owl project come about?

Norman had asked Theresa and myself to do this recording collaboration, as Theresa and I were working in a really spectacular acoustic space at the Headlands Center for the Arts. The Headlands is housed in what used to be an army fort; our room had once been the basketball court. The walls and ceiling are solid redwood, the floor, maple. It is truly like being inside of a musical instrument. Norman has worked with all of us individually and it was his concept to put this group together.

Did you rehearse the material, or was it improvised?

There was no rehearsal.

We chose a root key for each piece and went with it.

Had you worked with Theresa Wong before?

Yes, Theresa and I have collaborated on “O Sleep” an improvised opera that she directed. Theresa plays cello on a duet that I wrote for us, “Never Gets Out of Me” which will appear on my next release. We also have started a trio with Margareth Kammerer of The Magic I.D.

What plans for the next year?

In 2011 I will release an album of my compositions to coincide with my performance at Issue Project Room’s new Livingston Street space in Brooklyn on May 22. I am also planning a video release of “Event Locations No.2”, which uses miniature wireless spy cams mounted on my wrists. There are other projects in the works that have not yet been confirmed.

Important Records have plans for a CD release of “The Headlands” in the future. The vinyl release, limited to 500, officially launches on the 11th of January, and some of the limited edition white vinyls may still be available for preorder.  Also of note is the impending release on vinyl of a split Eleh/Ellen Fullman LP, available for preorder on Boomkat and at Important Records also.

Thanks go to John Fago for the use of his stellar photography of Ellen at her instrument at the Other Minds Festival in 2002.

Further information on the Long Stringed Instrument is available at Fullman’s website, as is a complete CV of her recorded work.


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