Well Strung

An Austin artist makes a stringed instrument of monumental scale.

Austin artist Ellen Fullman won’t ever have to worry that her musical invention will play second fiddle to another instrument. At eighty feet long—and with a commanding pipe-organ boom—Fullman’s “long-string instrument” dominates her east-side warehouse space, which could easily hold at least two orchestras. The slight 33-year-old graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute hasn’t decided how many strings the contraption has: “The number keeps changing, but it’s about eighty.”

Despite the intensity of sound that the instrument produces—a full-bodied continuum from zitherlike blaring to the languid sawing of an enormous cello and the mellow piping of a clarinet—it is modestly low tech. Steel piano wires stretch from four resonator boxes at one end of the room to pins on a tuning block screwed into the wall at the other end. At various points, a C-clamp bites into each .013mm wire—utilitarian frets that govern the pitch of the quivering strings. Shorter, faster-vibrating sections turn out an insistent soprano whine; longer strings deliver a monumental bass sensation. For the occasional harplike pluck, some wires are anchored to the floor with black twine, which keeps them from bouncing and tangling. “It’s all really simple,” assures Fullman, “and based on the laws of physics. The sound the instrument produces depends on how a string vibrates.”

 Playing it calls for a group effort. Fullman and two confederates station themselves near the resonator boxes and, reading off a bulletin board—size score pinned to the wall, get set for fifteen or twenty minutes of intense activity. With their fingertips securely caressing the wires, the three resemble Lilliputians as they slowly traverse hither and yon along the lengths. Their dreamy choreography speeds to scurrying during agitated musical moments, then slows to a trancelike stroll during adagios, as the music swells and billows through the room. Not only has Fullman had to invent a notation system to accommodate the logistical necessities of performance, but she has also had to compose music that is appropriate to her instrument. So don’t expect to hear a rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” on the long-string instrument. “The sound is so radically different,” says Fullman, “that it amounts to a new form of music.”

Fullman has been intrigued by vibrating strings ever since she heard about someone amplifying San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. “At first, I was playing suspended strings with a bow, like a violin,” she says. But one day in 1981, she brushed up against the strings, which were patinaed with a residue of rosin. “The screech was deafening.” Because the rosin increased the friction, Fullman got a vivid sound that was the catalyst to develop and improve the device.

Despite its size, the instrument is portable, and Fullman has toured with it across the United States and throughout Europe. The four Pullman case—size resonator boxes are packable, and the artist keeps an extra set of strings wound up on spools for trips. Lately she has been working with the joyfully quirky Austin band Poi Dog Pondering on a sustained background for one song and also on another cut, both for a future album. Upcoming performances will be at the Candy Factory (1513 Manor Road, Austin) in late January and at DiverseWorks (1117 East Freeway, Houston) in early February.

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