Ellen Fullman – Through Glass Panes


The notion of an instrument that is up to 31 metres in length may seem slightly preposterous at first, but there is a lot of logic to what Ellen Fullman is doing, and it fits neatly into a continuum of twentieth century music. Like Harry Partch, she invented an instrument that could realise her precise musical vision. She began work on her Long Stringed Instrument, which comprises dozens of strings stretched out over a space, and played with rosin-coated fingers, in 1981. This was a few years after Alvin Lucier recorded his Music For A Long Thin Wire, but Fullman takes the idea much much further.

Unlike Lucier’s, the strings on Fullman’s instrument are necessarily long. They produce sound via longitudinal vibration rather than the lateral vibration common to other stringed instruments, and the laws of physics mean that it is only at these sort of lengths that these tones are produced when Fullman slowly and carefully walks their huge length. And, following in the footsteps of other musical inspiration as Arnold Dreyblatt, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley the intonation she chooses to use is just: the strings are tuned to mathematical multiples of frequencies, all the better to maximise overtones, producing an array of harmonics.

Like Phil Niblock, Fullman has a good understanding of the importance of the performance space, though the relationship goes even deeper in Fullman’s case. Because of the immense length of those strings, it stands to reason that Fullman’s performances take place in some pretty big venues: art centres typically, though one show even took place inside the cavernous spaces of Seaholm power plant. There is a clear symbiosis between instrument and location: the dimensions of one dictate the size and tuning of the other, and the room ultimately becomes a big resonator. Fullman describes her works as event locations: at certain locations, events happen. This can be taken not just as a reference to the building, but also to the specific points on the vast strings from which she conjures the sounds: it is a three dimensional matrix. Titles reflect this close relationship: not only was her collaboration with Konrad Spenger called Ort (“place”), but she has now released two lengthy pieces just called “Event Location”. Both have appeared on releases on Important Records: the first on a split with Eleh, and the second being the closing track on her new album, Through Glass Panes.

Harking back to earlier releases like her debut Long Stringed Instrument album, this latest piece is a good primer to the Fullman sound. Based on one of Dreyblatt’s tuning systems, one designed to produced dissonance as well as harmony, it 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 strings are supported by sitka spruce, the fingers are coated in pine resin, and the locations this music summons in the mind are far less cold, stark or industrial than the performance settings, and much more warm and natural. You can hear precursors of the likes of Richard Skelton’s communions with land and leaves in this sound, the layers piling up and decaying like mulch on the forest floor.

Despite this common thread, over the last thirty years Fullman has continued to develop her mastery of this most singular of instruments, and is still experimenting in order to explore its full potential. On the title track here, she uses the long stringed instrument almost as a percussion device, beating the strings with hand-held wooden boxes, allowing rhythms to cross into the more familiar acres of vast glistening drones. The simplicity of the patterns contrasts starkly to the complexity of “Event Locations No.2”: if that track was an immersion in the forest, this one is a world glimpsed through windows, the panes of a train quietly chuntering round the forest edges, which finally escapes into the wide open countryside once more.

As her prowess has increased, so has her willingness to collaborate, and bring her music into new contexts. The long trombone notes of Monique Buzzarte (on Fluctuations), and the E-bowed guitars of Barn Owl (on this year’s Headlands LP) felt like natural fits for what Fullman does, but other works have pushed her into more challenging – and surprisingly melodic – places. The aforementioned collaboration with Spenger seemed like a bit of a curiosity, being an album of songs, with Fullman deploying a short version of the long stringed instrument (if that makes sense) and actually singing. But this wasn’t entirely without precedent. In 2002, she collaborated with the strings of the Kronos Quartet at the Other Minds festival, producing a suite based on Geeshie Wiley’s 1930s Delta blues classic “Last Kind Words” (which features on the excellent Mississippi Records collection of the same name), each of the seven pieces named after lines from the song. Two of those now feature on Through Glass Panes, reworked as duo and trio pieces entitled “Never Get Out Of Me” and “Flowers” respectively.

“Last Kind Words” is an astonishing record, at once simple and unfathomable, and both of the earth and of the spirit. It seems to speak of a soldier being killed in the war, and of the lingering effects that the event has on his widow – “it never gets out of me”, Wiley says at the piece’s sombre conclusion. Fullman’s treatment lingers on this weighty line, but also brings in her interests in traditional devotional music (one which she shares with Terry Riley): the Indian scales used by the cello being couched in a shimmering tamboura-like drone from the long stringed instrument. Recorded at the Seaholm power plant, “Flowers” (probably a misreading: in the song, the husband seems to say “if I don’t bring you flour, I’ll bring you bolted meal”, though it is a moot point) emerges from amidst recordings of birdsong in the eaves, and lands on the two syllables, digging them over and over and over, while the beds of strings bloom behind. As the song fades from existence, the birds return. From amongst death, new life emerges. And from within her logical, mathematical structures, Fullman has created deep emotional resonance. The long strings of Through Glass Panes stretch right back through the twentieth century, and build many connections. Fullman’s place in the continuum should by now be assured.