Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Originally, Ellen Fullman, an experimental Memphis-born American composer, instrument builder and performer, thought she’d become a visual artist. Fullman, who kicks off the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Performing Arts Series with concerts on Sept. 24, 25 and 26 at the Transformer Station in Ohio City, hoped to follow in her father’s footsteps.
“I always anticipated becoming a visual artist,” says Fullman via phone from her Berkeley home where she’s lived for the past decade. “My dad was an artist, and I identified myself as an artist ever since preschool.”
She’s certainly ventured from the visual art world and is now known for her Long String Instrument. An installation of dozens of wires 50 feet or longer tuned in Just Intonation and “bowed” with rosin-coated fingers, it produces a variety of other worldly and exotic sounds that resemble classical violin or an entire string section for that matter.
Over the past few decades, Fullman has collaborated with composer Pauline Oliveros, choreographer Deborah Hay, experimental-minded classical music group Kronos Quartet, and Japanese musician Keiji Haino. Her music was represented in the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibit The American Century: Art and Culture, 1950–2000, and she has performed in venues and festivals in Europe, Japan and the Americas, including Instal, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Other Minds, the Walker Art Center and Donaueschinger Musiktage.
Growing up in Memphis, she says she always loved the Memphis sound and liked many of the city’s rock groups that drew from the blues. She subsequently immersed herself in field recordings she borrowed from the library. “It wasn’t a formal study but just a pretty intense interest,” she says of her teenage years.
She eventually would attend art school where she was introduced to performance art as a genre.
“That was really exciting for me,” she says. “I wanted to be able to create a sculpture and then work with film and audio to create an environment around it.”
Her senior year of art school, she developed an amplified metallic skirt that she says wasn’t something that was playable. “It just kind of operates,” she says. “But I really became interested in musical articulation and interacting with something in that way.”
Post-art school, she moved to the Twin Cities. At that time, the Walker Arts Center presented New Music America, a program/festival that introduced her to the community of experimental music. “I loved that so much,” she says. “I moved more and more in that direction and basically became self-taught.”
After moving to New York in 1981, she gravitated to the city’s experimental music by going to downtown venues where she could hear cutting edge artists perform. At the time, she lived in now-trendy Williamsburg, which she describes as a “raw place,” and participated in a show in which 600 artists showed their work. There, she built one of the first versions of her Long String Instrument. She’s worked with the 70-foot (21-meter) instrument ever since.
For her three shows here in Cleveland, she’ll perform a piece that she co-composed with cellist Theresa Wong.
“We mapped out the extended harmonics available on the cello and the resultant pitch material when you press down on those harmonics,” she says. “Taking that as our pitch world, we composed a piece that’s about an hour long. There are five movements that look at as a subset of this pitch set. We work with different ideas in each movement. Wonderfully and ironically, I spent lots of time mapping these partials and intervals that are all in just intonation, which is natural tuning outside of Western tuning. After all this work, I came to discover that the Chinese gugin, which is a Chinese zither that works with both harmonics and pressed notes, is based on the same principles.”
She says it’s an “ironic discovery” of an “ancient thing.”
“It’s nice for Theresa, who is Chinese,” she says. “She can rediscover her roots on her classical instrument and go back to her heritage. We have our ideas of structure, and they don’t really relate to the gugin, but that’s okay. Some of the sequences of the piece we’ll play in Cleveland are pre-composed and some areas involve improvisation. It will be somewhat different each night.”
Outside of giving a lecture at Oberlin about three years ago, Fullman has never been to Northeast Ohio, so the Transformer Station concerts will mark her debut as a performer.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she says, adding that her father attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. “I’m excited about what the Cleveland Museum of Art is doing with its Performing Arts Series.”
Ellen Fullman, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24, Friday, Sept. 25 and Saturday, Sept. 26, Transformer Station, 1460 West 29th St., 216-938-5429. Tickets: $25, clevelandart.org.