The Art of Ellen Fullman and Theresa Wong
The audience had to creep carefully around the performance space, as a constellation of strings were stretched at hip-height from one wall to another. Ellen Fullman had spent the day here, setting up her traveling installation, the Long String Instrument; she had stretched dozens of stainless steel and phosphor bronze strings across the room in preparation for her performance on the final night of Sixth International Conference on Music & Minimalism. The Memphis-born, Berkeley-based composer has been installing, performing, and developing the LSI in various venues around the world for over 30 years. Fullman describes her work as hinging on “the essence of string-ness and the universal spectrum of partials”: once installed, she “plays” the LSI by walking slowly among the strings, her rosin-coated fingers resting on them like a bow on a violin string. The strings resonate through the space in a confluence of tones and microtones and overtones, at once drone-like and constantly shifting.
Fullman started her performance at one end of the space and walked slowly from one end of the room to the other several times, washing the listeners in a graceful sonic ebb and flow. Even as the sounds expanded or fluctuated, Fullman’s physical gestures were minute and tightly controlled. “In warming up on my instrument I struggle with an inner battle between gesture that is show, and gesture that is in service to the sound,” she told me. “If my gesture is only show, the sound is brittle. As I warm up, my gesture becomes more consistently in sync with the bowing speed that allows the string to speak most fully. Once I am locked into sync, the instrument almost plays me.”
Fullman was performing the hour-long piece “Harbors” with her collaborator, cellist Theresa Wong. Wong’s cello tones rattled and hummed and breathed across the space in a startlingly gorgeous juxtaposition with the LSI. When I asked Fullman what it was like sounding her LSI in duet with more “traditional” instruments, she said, “If another musician is out of tune with me, say slightly out of tune, the effect can be a cancellation of my sound. The music is very physical, and I don’t usually enjoy it if I can’t get my instrument to speak. What I hope to achieve is an alchemy that is greater than the individual parts, a miracle actually.” Throughout their performance at the minimalism conference, Fullman and Wong layered the sounds of their instruments into a miraculous soundscape that defied linguistic description. At one point, I realized I was crying.
For her part, Wong said, “Working with Ellen was my first introduction to the rich world of just intonation. When we first started to play together, I often felt like I was horribly out of tune, or that her instrument was out of tune with me! Through our collaborative composing, I have learned so much about the extended overtones of the cello and am constantly sharpening my ears to the beautiful harmonies possible through microtonal tunings.” Wong went on to describe levels of microscopic time: “As the LSI is largely (although not solely) drone based, there is also a very particular tempo in which music tends to unfold. Outwardly, it appears to move slowly, yet in another dimension there is a lot happening and constantly changing in overtone content. I’d say one of the most unique challenges is to enter into this tempo and find the balance between stasis and flux.” During “Harbors,” the LSI seemed to invite meditation even as it propelled forward in its metallic ebb and flow, matched visually by Fullman’s pacing forward among the strings, one foot carefully placed in front of the other.
Before her Long String Instrument, Fullman developed another instrument that played her more than she played it. In her 1980 work “Streetwalker,” she walked around an area of Minneapolis which prostitutes frequented, wearing a skirt that was, quite literally, loud. The clunky skirt was constructed as a sonic instrument, making “a tremendous sound” every time its wearer took a step. Fullman explained that “simply walking pushed and pulled guitar strings attached to my metal skirt in a rising and falling glissando and the strings pulling on the skirt with the restrictions of metal torqued my hips in a mechanical pivot. The Judson Dance Theater aesthetics of the 1960s excited me to make a work that used the ordinary gesture of walking.” In “Streetwalker,” the ordinary gesture of walking becomes inhibited not only because of the metal encasing the wearer’s body, but because of the attention from catcallers that feminine bodies inevitably encounter when walking in public spaces.
This objectification of female and feminine bodies became central to the work: “Another layer of this piece is my personal relationship to skirts. I felt vulnerable, exposed and uncomfortable wearing skirts and had actually been assaulted once in a skirt while walking down the street. So, why not wear one that is like a piece of armor? Skirts draw attention to the female body, so I decided to create a real spectacle of myself, but in an awkward, funny, and unsexy way.” Because of the extreme loudness and cumbersome nature of the piece, “there was no possibility for virtuosity.” The skirt acts a sonic and visual metaphor for the everyday sexism that women experience in all areas of their lives: a constricting force enacting literal bodily hyperawareness and restraint. The loud volume of the metal and guitar strings brings about a multisensory recognition to this objectification, refusing to be silenced in the way that women’s spoken voices so often are.
With “Streetwalker” and the Long String Instrument, Fullman makes accessible her personal bodily gestures and experiences through their sonification; she “gets inside the sound” in a way that minimalists of her generation aspired to but rarely accomplished. Fullman brings her own bodily experiences to others through her music and sound installations, successfully doing what she said author Audre Lorde did in prose: “Audre Lorde described herself as a ‘fat, legally blind, black lesbian woman.’ How many more strikes against one could a person have in society, and yet she prevailed. Read her autobiography, Zami. In Zami, Lorde brings me into the experience of life inside her body. Yes, she may have been angry, but she doesn’t exclude me, the reader, a white woman, with her anger. On the contrary, Lorde was generous and had a sense of humor about it all. Sometimes being on the outside allows one to do more interesting, outsider work.”
Reading Zami wasn’t Fullman’s only advice for navigating the sexism of the contemporary music scene. Another of her recommendations: “As a female, really try to imagine a world where 95 percent of the curators, label owners and lists of artists performing in festivals are female, and this is what is normal. And just really realize that this is what men feel when they go out into the world to do things.” Fullman acknowledged that, due to the normalization of patriarchal attitudes towards non-cis-males, there lies the danger for internalizing these prejudices: “But we only have control over changing ourselves.” In refusing to accept, much less internalize, misogynist notions of feminine embodiment, Fullman maintains a positive outlook. (She has also refused to wear a skirt since her “Streetwalker” get-up.)
Wong’s personal aesthetic is based more on “sculpting vibrations”—whether sonic, visual, or olfactory—rather than sounding them through the body-as-instrument. For Wong, sound is never the sole or primary focus: “As I have a background in design, I am always considering how we are affected by sensory input around us, like the color and shape of an object, the forms of a typeface or the tactile surfaces in an architectural space (and why not include smell and taste...?). There is something about tapping into the ineffable and synesthetic qualities of our experiences that speaks to me.” Inspired by the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan, Wong believes that the “music” of a person lies not only in the sound of their voice but in “what they put on their body and their actions”: ultimately, everything about them.
Wong brings this colorful, multisensory perspective to her art objects, which resist objectification in the same way that her partner’s amplified skirt embraces it. “Rose Arrest” (2016) is a graphic score amalgamating sight, sound, and scent. In Wong’s instructions she writes:
“‘Rose Arrest’ can be realized by an individual or with multiple people.
1) Procure a citrus flower, a cardamom pod, and a stick of Palo Santo. If these are unavailable, the scents can be imagined.
2) View one card at a time and breathe in the associated scent. The citrus flower can simply be smelled, the cardamom pod must be smashed, and the stick of Palo Santo shall be lit so the scent emanating is that of the smoke.
3) Listen to the sound of inhaling the scent and then the exhalation of that breath while perceiving aroma and image fully. Repeat if desired.”
For Wong, the art object becomes an ephemeral, personal experience as the sound of one’s breath and the scent of the flower are experienced in real time. Wong’s “Rose Arrest” performs the internal process of sensory intake and awareness, while Fullman’s “Streetwalker” performs the awareness of the external force of the male gaze.
When I asked Wong the same question I had asked Fullman, she had a tongue-in-cheek reply: “Can you imagine asking, ‘Do you have any words of advice for young men navigating the sexism of the contemporary music/art world?’ ” She went on, “Yes, there is a huge discrepancy on the playing field. As filmmaker Jill Soloway says, over the millennia, men have just made so much stuff and it’s been recorded into history. Women need to make lots more stuff and also be recorded into history to start to shift this imbalance.” Even though women have “made stuff” like musical compositions, they have been overlooked by the authors of histories and canons, who are typically white men. (Consider the fact that Ellen Fullman herself is rarely mentioned in histories of musical minimalism, despite having innovated a portable drone installation.)
Drawing from the recent movie “Hidden Figures,” based on the lives of three African American women working for NASA during the 1960s, Wong commented that no matter how hard we have it now, it must have been even more difficult for these women: “In lieu of what’s happening today in our political and social atmosphere, it’s easy to protest and march on the streets, but it’s even harder to do the difficult work each day of organizing, creating, corresponding and persevering to be an artist. That is in itself a great act of rebellion and resistance.” ¶