West Berkeley composer and 2020 Guggenheim Fellow Ellen Fullman plays her self-invented Long String Instrument. Photo: Robert Szkolnicki

Violinist David Harrington has a gift for distilling musical truths. The first time that Kronos Quartet’s founder heard Ellen Fullman play her self-invented Long String Instrument, he identified an essential but possibly subliminal influence that hadn’t yet occurred to the artist herself.

“This sounds like the blues to me,” he told the Memphis native, who had soaked up Alan Lomax field recordings as a curious teen turned onto Delta blues by British Invasion rock bands. “David saying that to me resonated so much.”

Fullman has come a long way since that mid-1990s afternoon in Austin, where she’d converted a former candy factory into a humming sonic laboratory for her Long String Instrument (LSI). With 100-foot strings that generate an extraordinary array of tones, overtones and harmonics, the LSI has served as an endlessly inspiring vehicle for Fullman’s creative investigations.

Ensconced in West Berkeley for the past 18 years, she was the only Bay Area artist awarded a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship for musical composition. Her proposal centered on a collaboration with Brooklyn’s Jack Quartet, an adventurous string ensemble deeply engaged with just intonation and overtone series.

“Her work is so focused on it, and her Long String Instrument generates these natural harmonics,” says Jack violist John Pickford Richards, who was also a founding member of the acclaimed contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound. “We reached out to her and she invited us to her studio. Composers invent all sorts of instruments from small percussion set ups to electronics, but nothing like an instrument of this magnitude. This is a whole monster of its own, both in size and scope and otherworldly sounds. She uses these enormously long strings, activating the harmonics by rubbing them with her rosin-coated fingers.”

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That monster takes careful care and feeding, and at the moment Fullman has her hands full. After two recent performances in cold climates — her concert schedule is inherently limited by the LSI’s space requirements and the difficulty in transporting it—she was in the midst of making repairs to the LSI’s resonator sound boards. After majoring in sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute she’s no stranger to hand-building objects, but Fullman only started getting serious about woodworking in the last five years. “Being a beginner there’s failure,” she says. “I decided to go all out with trying to benefit from the hundreds of years of research on resonators and musical instruments. It turns out that animal hide glue sounds the best. but it’s also tricky to work with, requiring heating to a particular temperature.”

One major advantage is that the glue is very forgiving, allowing luthiers to steam open seams to make repairs without damaging the wood. “Cello seams open up when cellists travel and it’s very common to be reglued,” she notes. “I’ve learned that gluing pieces side by side should be done using spring joints, that is not cutting a straight line down that seam but an ellipse, and clamping the joint in the center thereby squeezing the edges together more tightly. The resonator repair process has taken me weeks. I’m really missing having a working instrument here at home.”

It’s not surprising that the cello is a point of reference, as Fullman’s partner in music and life is Theresa Wong, a brilliant cellist, composer and vocalist in her own right. They mostly pursue independent paths, but have also worked together in a number of settings. One of their collaborations is due out later this year on the Australian label Room 40. A vinyl release, Harbors is a 40-minute suite “conceived when were both in residence at Headlands Center For the Arts, inspired by the quiet natural sounds from the Bay, the fog horn, animal sounds, the wind. It this piece we worked and toured for five years and then finally recorded.”

Fullman has another album coming out on the Los Angeles-based label Besom Presse, The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom, featuring music she originally recorded for an extended solo work by dancer/choreographer Deborah Hay in 1988. Last summer at a Berlin retrospective of Hay’s career Fullman revised the piece, creating a new arrangement featured on the upcoming album. Over the years she’s put down widespread creative roots from New York City and Austin to the Twin Cities and Seattle, where she was living before relocating to Berkeley.

Supporting herself as a graphic designer, Fullman started looking for greener, friendlier pastures after the bursting high-tech bubble and post 9/11 left few creative opportunities in Washington. Berkeley-reared new music composer/trombonist Stuart Dempster told her she’d find a welcoming community in the Bay Area, and she decided to make the move. At the same time, she was creating a piece commissioned by Other Minds 8 for Kronos Quartet. She premiered “Stratified Bands: Last Kind Words” with Kronos at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in 2002, completing a circle started by her first meeting with Harrington.

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The new work was inspired by the raw Delta blues song “Last Kind Words” recorded by Geeshie Wiley in 1930, a piece Harrington had played for her in Austin eight years earlier. “I wasn’t aware of that song but I was haunted by it,” she says. “I decided I’m going to base this piece on this song, so I took two phrases and interpolated off of that.”

Part of what makes Fullman’s music so transporting is the sense of discovery around each performance. There’s an inherent drama as she moves deliberately between the strings, a sonic high-wire act that generates pleasurably buzzing, fizzing, thrumming tones that almost seem to manifest visibly in the crackling air. She treats the LSI not as a destination but as a half-charted realm to be mapped and explored.

“I’m fascinated by the extended harmony that is possible in just intonation, where chords exist somewhere outside of the definition of major or minor,” she says. “It took years to figure out basic things like how to tune it or amplify it. It’s been a step by step process of dissatisfaction, of feeling it’s not good enough. How can I make it better?”

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....