Last night Ellen Fullman gave the first of two concert programs that will conclude her month-long artist residency at The Lab. The focus of her residency has been the Long String Instrument which she has been developing since 1981. The length of this instrument is on the order of about 50 feet spanned by dozens of wires. As with any instrument in the string family, these wires may be tuned by adjusting their respective tensions. However, Fullman has divided the length of many of them with clothespins, many of which have suspended weights to keep them in place. The dividing of these strings is precisely calculated according to ratios involving only the integers of two, three, and five. The resulting melodic intervals form the basis for the tuning system known as just intonation.
The title of last night’s concert was Resonance in Harmony. The implication was that the Long String Instrument would provide “harmonic” accompaniment for two duet collaborations with players of “melodic” instruments. The first of these was Kyle Bruckmann performing on oboe. After a break he was followed by Luciano Chessa performing on the traditional Vietnamese monochord, the đàn bầu. Note the scare quotes enclosing what normally would be traditional musical terminology.
An understanding of the “harmonic function” of the Long String Instrument must begin with an explanation of how it is played. The extended lengths of wire were collected in about four groups separated by “channels” wide enough that one could walk through them. Fullman confined her performance to one of those channels. She coated her fingers with the same kind of rosin that enhances the friction of a violin bow, and she then walked back and forth along that channel stroking selected wires. Each stroke induced a reverberating sound, usually with a fixed pitch and a rather rich harmonic spectrum. In many ways the acts of both performing and listening were similar to the stroking of a glass vessel encountered in a glass harmonica.
It is unclear how much of what Fullman did involved choice-based performance (as when a pianist chooses which keys to press) and how much was simply a product of her ability to induce reverberation on selected strings, both individual and in groups. Often one could see how her tones would induce reverberations in the other strings of her instrument. This was most evident when one could see a slow oscillation of a beat frequency, one of those very low frequencies that arises from sounding two tones whose frequencies differ by a very small amount. There was also the compelling visual element of Fullman’s forward and backward motion through her performing area, which tended to suggest a celebrant of some obscure religious ritual.
Strictly speaking the resulting sonorities had less to do with harmony (even if they often involved the superposition of many different tones with a chord-like effect) and more to do with establishing an ambience. Thus, the prevailing aesthetic tended to recall many of the experiments with “ambient music” explored by Brian Eno and his colleagues. However, while for Eno ambience was an end in itself, for Fullman it was an environment in which her duet partner could improvise. Thus, while her performance for each of the two sets tended to follow the same moves with similar resulting sonorities, each set had its own unique qualities.
Bruckmann’s performance was based on his solid command of a multitude of technical approaches to eliciting wildly different sonorities from his oboe. Much of that technique involved his skill in eliciting an impressive variety of multiphonic “chords,” which always seemed to find the right way to complement Fullman’s “chords.” Similarly, he had a keen ability to match individual pitches from the complexes of Fullman’s effects. More interesting, however, was how he could migrate from one of those pitches to another through a scrupulously controlled glissando. One thus got the impression that Bruckmann was listening closely to everything that Fullman was doing and then using his own instrument to highlight those aspects of listening that registered with him most strongly.
Chessa’s performance was an entirely different matter. Those familiar with his work know that his approach to the đàn bầu has almost nothing to do with traditional Vietnamese techniques for playing it. Rather, his performance was an exploration of the sonorous capabilities of the physical structure of the instrument. Thus, many of the sounds arose from his striking the string with a stiff baton, rather than plucking it and varying pitch through control of the string’s tension. He also held a small electronic device that appeared to be a resonator, capable of emitting frequencies that would induce the vibration of the monochord string. The part of the instrument Chessa used least was the lever controlling the string’s tension, and he used it almost only as an object he could strike for a different percussion effect. (He did briefly explore using that lever to create a vibrato, but that was a very brief exploration over the course of his entire performance.)
The overall result of this duet thus involved the juxtaposition of two distinct and parallel approaches to creating sounds through induced resonances. In both cases the sounds themselves were amplified, but the overall dynamic range was relatively limited. One thus again had the sense of ambient qualities; but Chessa was adding a new dimension to the ambience, rather than establishing a “solo voice” against the “accompaniment” of Fullman’s ambient sonorities.