Insight comes at strange times. It can arrive with a bang or creep into you, becoming louder and louder until you can’t ignore the truth it’s trying to reveal. I experienced this slow-blooming kind of epiphany on an unseasonably warm, breezy day in February while listening to Ellen Fullman’s The Long String Instrument. It’s increasingly rare for me to sit and listen to the whole side of an LP, but I’d just gotten a vinyl pressing of the music I’d had on a cassette, then CD-R, for a decade, and something about the cloudless sky and a needy cat in my lap justified putting everything aside to reexperience it with full concentration.
Fullman’s music has a unique occupation with time. Far beyond being a static drone, the overtones she coaxes and controls seem to simultaneously move forward, hang back, and spin in three-dimensional space. But for some reason, that day, I was thinking practically; The Long String Instrument inspired me to reevaluate how my own writing and performing could create a similar feeling of moving in simultaneous directions at once. I haven’t been completely successful, but the possibility remains out there, a puzzle box containing new technical and compositional questions that have prompted a new direction for me.
I hadn’t met or been in touch with Fullman before requesting this interview. She was the first to write me back, and the warmth I imagined while listening on that spring-like day was made real throughout our zoom call and subsequent emails about the shape of the interview. Our conversation progresses here—now that I reread it—in the spirit of my understanding of her music: moving forward and backward in time, sometimes spinning in glorious circles as we speak of relocation, collaboration, and the work that needs to be done before we can truly begin to evolve.
NWYou’re my first interview for this issue, and it’s already clear to me that I can’t approach all the artists who have agreed to celebrate our thirtieth issue with the same, stock approach. But my initial idea was to just ask interesting people how they work and how their work is affected by the world around them.
EFSo it’s kind of an overview of where the scene is at and how things going on in the world are affecting the scene.
NWThat’s one way to look at it. I think another way is that I’m asking creative people at different points in their career about their moments of “taking stock.” I’m not the only one that has questioned their life and work, and a lot of our readers are artists and musicians that may benefit by hearing someone like you talk about similar concerns.
EFWell, it’s a funny time right now in that so many difficult things are happening. Obviously the world seems to be in disarray from COVID. And then I’ve never experienced something like this inflation. And I lived through the mid-seventies and everything and the Reagan years. It makes you wonder how do you manage financially?
NWIs that a question you’re asking yourself a lot at the moment?
EFYes, because my income stream just isn’t sustainable. I need to reevaluate what to do.
NWI think of your instrument as so iconoclastic and specific to you that when I see other people playing it, like I did in the video you sent me,1 that it felt different to me. How long have you been working with other people on your instrument?
EFI started working with other people playing my instrument in 1984. David Weinstein was my first collaborator, and Arnold Dreyblatt played my instrument with me in 1985. But it’s on and off. From the mid-eighties through the mid-nineties, I did a lot of stuff with a group playing my instrument with me. And then I dropped away from that because I wanted to develop the articulation, the tone, the timbre. And I think the more I learned [by working on my own], the more sensitive I became as a musician. Part of that was studying Indian music; my sensitivity to timbre and articulation became more sophisticated, I think, and I was no longer satisfied with my sound palette. So, I kind of withdrew and made it a point to practice my instrument just like any other musician would and not think of it as a sound installation, but as a musical instrument. I moved to Seattle in the mid-nineties, and that was really the place where I practiced a lot, because I was around a lot of improvisers, and I wanted to engage, and I was not technically able to change the dynamics of my sound. I practiced touch dynamics, technical stuff.
NWSo that move to Seattle opened a certain path for working on your instrument. Did it also open a door to more gigging in general?
EFI would say that door was opened through Pauline Oliveros, because we put out a duo album [Suspended Music] around then. We recorded it in 1994. It came out in 1998. We each had a commission to write a piece. Pauline brought the Deep Listening Band several times to work with me in Austin, and she wrote an improvised part for me. It was just a shock to try to do that. It was fun, but that was a real leap for me.
NWWhat was the reason for moving to Seattle, if you don’t mind me asking?
EFIt was personal. I had a relationship, and the heat in Austin was getting to me. In Austin at that time, in the early nineties, there was very little interest in experimental music. There wasn’t really the scene that I enjoyed in New York, so the whole idea of doing work in that area was off the map. Any interest in my work came through Deborah Hay’s dance community. And so I thought Seattle would be better, but there wasn’t really more happening there, just a small group of friends collaborating. Career-wise it was static. You’re just out there on the edge of the world. Well, the whole West Coast kind of feels that way.
NWI understand that. I grew up in that part of the world.
EFThe weather is just like a cocoon, and you just stay in your zone, indoors!
NWBut you moved there hoping for career advancement.
EFExactly. Hoping. But what can I expect doing this unorthodox thing, requiring a 2,000 square foot space and days to install? I chose this path, and it is amazing that I’ve gotten as many gigs as I have! Good things did happen, though. I had an amazing time working with the Pat Graney Company, I was awarded an Artist Trust Fellowship, I worked with and heard many great musicians: Lori Goldston, Angelina Baldoz, Mathew Sperry, Paul Hoskin, Jessika Kenney, Stuart Dempster, Jarad Powell, Tari Nelson-Zagar.
NWBut it sounds like what happened, ultimately, is that the move gave you time to explore other things. And having that time affected everything that came after it. Is that a fair thing to say?
EFYeah, but life was difficult, because in order to carve out an hour a day of practice—my instrument is a bear to carry around—I was working full time as a graphic designer. And all my money was going right out the door to pay for studio space. It was not sustainable.
NWWhat you do is not versatile in the sense that you can pick up random gigs, but that’s what makes it beautiful and special. I think that’s one of the reasons that people are drawn to the music that you make. But it also means that each of these moves—New York, Austin, Seattle, now the Bay Area—probably affected the way you played and thought about your instrument.
EFEvery city I lived in has influenced my work. I lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I was in Kansas City; I went to art school there. I was in New York City for five years, and I went to Austin for eleven years, and then I moved to Seattle for seven years. And in the meantime, I was in Berlin on a DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst German Academic Exchange) for a year. And then I was also in Tokyo for the Japanese Friendship Commission/NEA fellowship studying traditional Japanese instruments. And every city that I’ve lived in has totally affected what I do and what I’m interested in.
NWDo you feel like the Bay Area is a place that is feeding you in a way the other cities couldn’t?
EFYeah, it does fit my aesthetic here. But I mean, unfortunately, now Mills [College] has collapsed. That was my scene, really, the orbit around Mills. But yeah, there’s this idea of tuning and experimental instruments and all the whole history of what California is known for. It’s good to have access to that.
NWYou’ve talked about studying Japanese traditional instruments and Indian music. Were those subjects you were interested in prior to creating your instrument, or were those things that came from its creation?
EFIt’s the latter. The instrument itself, in a way, is my music school. It happened, and then I realized more could be done with it. And so I just kept trying to develop it. Indian music was a big part of that, and Japanese music was kind of a fun thing that I got into. I had a gig at Super Deluxe in Tokyo, and there I casually heard Ainu music,2 and I just loved how it made me feel; it was so positive, so joyful. I wanted to know more about it, so I just took my chances and arrived there and started researching. Maybe now it’s a little bit easier, but as an outsider, it’s really hard to connect with anyone in Japan to teach you. I found an eighty-three-year-old woman, Tomoko Tomita, who was an expert. I had a translator and traveled to her house out in the suburbs of Tokyo every week and practiced. That was really fun, and that has influenced my work.
NWOne of the things that attracts me to your music is its joy.
EFI am attracted to joy in music. I like Terry Riley. I like Pauline Oliveros’ music, you know? Of course, I like some darker things too, but I do appreciate the ability of music to be uplifting. It can function that way. I think it’s good. We could all use that a little bit.
NWWhat sort of things did you find in Ainu music that affected the music you were making once you got back home?
EFNothing directly. I studied the tonkori,3 but I had already created the box bow, which is that little box that strikes my strings rhythmically. (I had put out an album of songs using the box bow called Ort in 2004 with Konrad Sprenger. And I went to Japan in 2007.) Somehow the feeling of the tonkori rhythmic patterns crept its way into my music; the attraction there reminded me of the
NWAnd with the Indian music, I assume you were studying things that had more to do with tuning?
EFI studied vocal music, and so I learned raag scales. I had a vocal teacher for four years in Austin, Anita Slawek, who was connected with the University of Texas, and I went to her home and had lessons.
NWAnd do you feel like that made its way into the way that you play now or the music you play now?
EFIn a way, I do, because I feel like there was something about the timbre of the tamboura.4 I wished my instrument was, at the time, less jagged and more round in the harmonic voice. And so I just kept doing stuff to the instrument—with the wood and with the wire and with how I touched the string—to move the timbre in that direction. But I also created my own scales based on the principles I learned from modes and raags.
Interestingly, the limitation of my instrument is that I can’t play glisses—and I love glisses so much. They’re where the expression is. I really enjoy working with a musician who can gliss. Theresa Wong on our album, Harbors, for example, where a gliss may flow over the kind of overtone bed is interesting compositionally. Incidentally, that album is co-composed, as is Fluctuations, my album with trombonist Monique Buzzarté. They both composed their own parts.
NWWould you ever want to look into finding a way that you can gliss?
EFIt’s not possible. I already know. I’ve looked. No, you can’t do it.
NWThis is the sort of thing I find so interesting about the creative process. You tried to find a way on your instrument to gliss, and it couldn’t be done. So, now you’ve found this other way, by adding other people to the process, and that addition changes the way that you work. It’s the idea of limitation being a possibility for growth.
I want to talk a little bit about the economic stuff you were talking about in the beginning. I think there are a lot of people going through this right now.
EFI think it’s a crunch right now.
NWIt’s a very personal question, but in conversations I’ve had with friends who have been playing for a living, they’re coming up against that same feeling of unsustainability.
EFYeah, I don’t really know what to do. It’s difficult to keep the work going, but at the same time, I’m backlogged. I’ve got stuff that I really need to fulfill, and once I do, then things perhaps will flow better.
I am committed to write a string quartet for JACK Quartet. And I don’t have a music background, so I’m finding other ways of working with sound and midi to come up with notation that they can use. The process is kind of daunting. For example, I have my tuning world based in ratios, then I will apply the Extended Helmholtz-Ellis Just Intonation (HEJI)5 accidentals to standard notation, which JACK can read. And then I have found that none of the more sophisticated sounding Kontakt midi instruments are tunable with tuning scripts. I use Scale Workshop6 for generating tuning scripts, and then work in Pro Tools collaging real-time recordings of my instrument with midi instruments. I ended up just using a sine-tone because that’s the only precisely tunable sound I could find to use. I decided to make a series of sine-tone “instruments” mapped to twelve-tone scales so the notes would fall out onto the staff notation in more or less the correct position. Then, when the tonality shifts in the piece, I compose with a differently tuned sine-tone instrument rather than laying out the pitches in a long chromatic list that has no relationship to the piano keyboard. There are all of these technical aspects, getting the sine-tone in the correct ranges for viola, cello, etc.; importing the midi performances into Dorico;7 assigning Kontakt midi instruments to those files and adding the HEJI accidentals to the notes for play back in tune in Just Intonation. I’m dealing with putting in place all of this structural stuff in order for me to be able to write a string quartet. That’s my choice. It’s my problem, but it’s a nightmare. I also really feel the need to diversify. Once you have been awarded all the fellowships that can be applied for, there are only project grants and commissions. There don’t seem to be any grants available for a commission to compose a work for myself to perform my own music.
NWI think institutions value the composer/performer package but not enough to give them money yet. But there is something valuable in having to go through the process you’re going through now to write that piece, something that changes the end result. It’s kind of like the move to Seattle and how it changed the way you approach your instrument. I’ll be interested to see what that process is like for you when you finish, how you feel about it, and what the music ends up sounding like. Is that something that you’d want to do more of now that you’re kind of deep in that process?
EFYeah, I think once I establish some sort of a working method, then I could do more. That’s the thing. It’s sort of like a bottleneck for me. It’s like I’m thinking that I can’t really apply for any grants to do another composed project until I finish this one. I will need to have a successful work sample before I can move forward.
NWIt’s also almost like you have to find a way to explain the language that you speak so that other people can understand it. It’s a very valuable process, but I’m sure it takes a ton of time to make that translation.
1 From Elemental View with the Living Earth Show (Andrew Meyerson and Travis Anderson). The full-length performance as well as excerpts can be seen at Fullman’s site: ellenfullman.com/elementalview
2 Traditional music of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan who were removed from the mainland to the northern island of Hokkaido. It uses multiple musical forms such as short, simple ballads and epic poetry to orally transmit cultural rules, tales,
3 A five-string plucked instrument used in Ainu music.
4 A long-necked, fretless Indian lute.
5 A collection of graphic accidentals used to indicate justly tuned intervals and their cents deviation from equal temperament designed by Marc Sabat and Thomas Nicholson. For more info go to plainsound.org
7 A music notation software.