Ellen Fullman: how to play a 100ft stringed instrument

It’s got 56 strings, takes five days to install, and sounds like a prairie wind. Artist Ellen Fullman talks about why the last skirt she wore was made of metal – and how she negotiates the baggage carousel when she takes her ‘absurd’ instrument on tour

The Long String Instrument is exactly that – and then some. Stainless steel and phosphor bronze strings, 100-feet-long, are stretched taut across a room. Ellen Fullman, the instrument’s creator, places her fingers on the strings, pressing down as she moves the length of the instrument. A droning sound sweeps out like a prairie wind. “I feel like I’ve been miniaturised when I’m playing it,” Fullman says. “My whole body is a finger moving along a fretboard.”

The LSI has been Fullman’s obsession for more than 30 years, but is only now beginning to make waves. Having secured a major US arts grant last year, Fullman has “a very busy schedule” taking it to festivals in Paris and Bologna in the coming months. Its sound recalls Indian raga, with harmonies sliding over one another. Fullman says playing it “can be an ecstatic feeling, a floating sensation. 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.”

The strings are connected to wooden resonators that act like the body of a guitar to amplify the sound. To bring it out further, Fullman rubs her fingers with rosin, the same substance used on bows. In effect, she turns herself into a human bow. The strings are 2cm apart and she can have up to 28 on each of the two sides of the instrument: “The number is only limited by the length of my arms: 60cm.”

The LSI began life in New York in 1983, after Fullman heard about composer Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire. An early version, which featured a single wire with a mixing bowl full of water as a resonator, made “a chaotic, noisy sound”. She worked by day as a bookkeeper and chef to an art materials supplier “who only ate goat meat – these legs of goat boiled in the department where they mixed all the paint”, says Fullman. “He ate very loudly, with lots of slurping, on a desk covered in rat droppings. It was so New York.”

‘I don’t like egotistical thrashing’ … Fullman plays the LSI
‘I don’t like egotistical thrashing’ … Fullman plays the LSI Photograph: PR Image

Born in Memphis and kissed by Elvis as a baby, Fullman went to art school in Kansas and moved to Minneapolis before New York; she’s since lived in Austin, Seattle, Tokyo and Berlin, working as a graphic designer, an electrician and in building maintenance. “It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to feel a kind of financial viability in music,” she says, having now settled in Berkeley, California. “Graphic design gave me skills I’ve used in my notation, and being an electrician demystified some of the equipment I work with. It’s great to feel self-sufficient as an artist, having an idea of plumbing, how to construct walls, how the world works.”

She was also initially a sculptor, making such one-off pieces as the 1980 work Streetwalker: a metal skirt with strings that connect to the wearer’s shoes. “This triangular skirt made me look like a female stick figure, and the strings were puppet-like, so I looked like Pinocchio.” She turned heads walking through Minneapolis. “One man leaned out of a phone booth and said, ‘D’ya need some oil?’ Another asked what planet I was from. I like something funny to be in my work, funny and serious. The Long String Instrument has a ridiculous aspect to it too – it’s absurd!”

And the serious side of Streetwalker? “As a young female wearing a skirt, you’re very vulnerable,” she says. “So the skirt was like armour. I’ve been sexually assaulted in public wearing a skirt. Women always have to deal with being victims – you have to protect yourself. Skirts are also stereotypically female, and the female stereotype is that you are less capable than a male, so I rejected that. It was the last time I wore a skirt.”

In fact, she rejected everything that society expected her to be as a woman, including heterosexuality. “When I saw women serving the food and clearing the dishes the way they do, especially in Europe – taking on that stereotypical gender role – it was enough to make me want to go gay. It’s kind of a crass way to put it. But I couldn’t stand that feeling of being subjected, of being less equal.”

Fullman continues to finesse the LSI. “Sometimes when I’m playing, it seems like something special is happening,” she says. “Other times, it seems more of a failure.” What about transportation costs? Does an instrument this large not need roadies? “I’ve designed it to fit into my luggage,” she says proudly, “and to weigh just under the baggage limit. But I’m not a huge person – and dragging this sack, it’s is not very freeing.”

She laughs. “I sometimes think, ‘Could I have found more mainstream success if I were a man?’ But on the other hand, I am dragging around this 100-foot-long instrument wherever I go. And it requires five days of installation. I’ve got this monkey on my back.”


Contributor

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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