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Bristol New Music: Ellen Fullman Q+A

In advance of her UK premiere with Konrad Sprenger for the Bristol New Music Festival, we ask Ellen Fullman about the Long String Instrument and her work.

To the unfamiliar, please could you explain what your invention The Long Stringed Instrument looks and sounds like? How do audiences respond to it?

Twenty meters of string will be suspended between the resonator boxes and tuning blocks. With good lighting, this is a beautiful metallic blur of many wires, defining a kind of horizon line, at one-meter height. (Without light, it may be invisible!) The two acoustic wooden resonator boxes are guitar sized, and mounted at one end. When I play the instrument, bowing with my fingertips, I walk. The instrument is bowed length-wise and produces a continuous tone. It sounds a bit like a bowed cello, it will be tuned in cello range. When a chord is played, it also sounds like the Indian tamboura, because of the many overtones. As I walk, my fingers measure off the distances back to the resonator box, producing secondary tones, the overtone partials. It is a very rich tone, and complex. One person playing can almost sound like a string quartet, or a pipe organ. I will be in constant motion throughout the concert, walking in a pathway between two groups of twenty odd strings. Audiences never fail to be amazed by the enormous scale and the beauty and loudness of the tone. It is kind of like magic, acoustic, and yet so loud, and so seemingly simple, a box and wires. 

How did you come to create it? 

My first long wire installation used the idea of a child’s “cup and string telephone”. In my warehouse loft I strung piano wire attached into coffee cans and suspended these with springs to each wall. I bowed the wire and sang into the cans as a way to acoustically filter my voice. One day I accidentally bumped against the wire where my bowing had left a deposit of rosin and discovered a very pure and loud sound. I replaced the coffee cans with mixing bowls filled with water and rubbed the wires with my hands, tipping the bowl to modulate the sound. I wanted to be able to tune the wire but changing the tension did nothing. I knew I needed help from an engineer. I could imagine making music with this kind of timbre, playing chords with many strings. In 1981 I had a meeting with Bob Bielecki. Bob brought the Handbook of Physics, some brass wire and a vice grip. He clipped the vice grip to one of my strings and it changed the tuning. We suspended a brass string and it put out a lower frequency. Bob showed me a chart in the handbook that gave the speeds of longitudinal waves through various metals. The longitudinal mode is set into motion through bowing a wire length-wise, as opposed to the transverse mode of vibration that all other string instruments employ. In the longitudinal mode a compression wave travels back and forth from end to end at a consistent speed. Length and composition of the metal are the only factors in determining pitch in the longitudinal mode, not gauge or tension. The thinnest string will sound the same frequency as a thick rod at the same length if both are made of the same alloy. Waves travel more slowly through dense materials and the slower the wave, the lower the frequency produced at any given length. Bob told me that by using the speed of the wave, divided by the frequency, the length at which to stop the string could be calculated. We decided that I needed to build a wooden resonator box to amplify the strings acoustically.

To those who have never heard a performance of The Long Stringed Instrument, can you give an idea what to expect?

Be prepared to slow down, or suspend time. The walking itself is hypnotic. My performance process is one of deepening concentration. What I am seeking in my music is that point where it feels like a miracle has occurred. I almost feel at these times that the music is playing itself. There are so many things to listen to in the sound of my instrument, and really, what is endlessly fascinating is hearing the unfolding of the properties of string vibration. I tune my instrument based on the overtone series, so that when I play a chord, there are sympathetic resonances. Overtones and timbral changes occur on all string instruments in a similar fashion, only on my instrument, because of the large scale and how it is played, all of these artifacts become very clear and pronounced. I feel that the years of work I have put into this have been to make myself a little invisible. I have polished my performance to enhance the spectrum occurring along a vibrating string length, the way polishing brings out details in a stone, or sanding brings out the beauty of the grain of wood. My movement has become so smooth that if you didn’t see my footsteps, you would think I am on a conveyor belt! Every move I make is done to serve the sound; every movement is reflected in the sound.

'Fullman’s Long String Instrument creates a sense of majestic vastness, its lines stretching off towards an implied infinity. Listening to it, you feel like you are inside some cyclopean subterranean grotto... its bejewelled walls glistening with an alien lustre.' –Chris Bohn, Editor, The Wire

'Fullman’s music is full of rich, swirling tones that can sound like an entire string section playing simultaneously, creating glorious harmonics, pulsations and clashes of sound that fill up whichever space you happen to be listening to it in. For all the logic involved, this never feels like an arid mathematical conceptual project, not even close: instead it sounds like something much more organic. The locations this music sum- mons in the mind are far less cold, stark or industrial than the performance settings, and much more warm and natural, the layers piling up and decaying like mulch on the forest floor.' –Scott McMillan, The Liminal

Tell us about the piece you will perform that was specially commissioned for Bristol New Music.

For Bristol New Music I will perform with Konrad Sprenger and his computer controlled mechanical electric guitar. On the guitar neck, individual solenoid switches tap on each string, and can be rhythmically programmed in meters impossible for a human to maintain. The guitar tuners are motorized and computer controlled, enabling the guitar to gliss to new tunings, or adjust itself when it strays out of tune. Hiller tunes it in open chords, based on my tuning system. The sound of this instrument is folky and finger picked, and at the same time monumental. Each string has it’s own loudspeaker, the six speakers surround the room. Our sound meshes in the space into a complex texture where you might not distinguish the source. One can hear phantom melodic figures emerge out of overtone combinations.

My process of composing includes research of my instrument as an acoustic feedback system. I have observed that the partials content of strings being played on my instrument can be highly influenced through sympathetic resonances. With an introduction of a new tone into an existing chord, either from another instrument or played on the Long String Instrument, previously unheard partials can be triggered to sound, and continue to sound, even when the triggering tone is no longer playing.

Hiller’s guitar is especially adept at eliciting these resonances, as it is precisely tuned.

You will be joined by long-term collaborator experimental guitarist Konrad Sprenger for this performance. What does he bring to your work?  

Konrad Sprenger is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, instrument designer and record producer. His first instrument is percussion, and you can hear this in everything that he does. Quite obviously, what he brings to my sound is rhythm. A beat tracks time, marks it off. I feel it helps in defining changes that are taking place over time in my sound that may be very slowly evolving and subtle to discern. To me, adding rhythm to my music brings the cloud down to earth and into the body.

Ellen Fullman performs with Konrad Sprenger on Saturday 22 February as part of the Bristol New Music Festival. Read more here. 

On 21 – 23 February 2014 Arnolfini, Colston Hall, Spike Island, St George’s Bristol and the University of Bristol present Bristol New Music, a weekend brimming with the best new and experimental music on the international arts scene. Visit the Bristol New Music Website.

Join the conversation @Arnolfiniarts #BristolNewMusic

 

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