Grant Recipients Grants to Artists Music/Sound 2015

Ellen Fullman

Close up black and white portrait of Ellen Fullman, wearing rectangular glasses. The artist has their lips parted and a short pixie haircut.
Photo by Theresa Wong.
  • 2015 Grants to Artists
  • Music/Sound
  • Composer, Performer
  • Born Memphis, TN, 1957
  • Lives in Berkeley, CA
  • Additional Information

I am very grateful for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award. I feel the validation alone contributed to my confidence and motivated me to work harder and to challenge myself by taking more risks. This has been a very intense year of research and composing for me, the results of which have yet to fully manifest... I decided instead to save money, and to try out using upcoming concert venues as temporary studio spaces. I felt that I needed to spend a lot of time working with my new system that doesn't require space, and I might be fully engaged working this way.

- Ellen Fullman, December 2, 2015

Artist Statement

My primary artistic activity has been focused around my Long String Instrument. It is a large-scale installation that turns the space itself into the resonant body of a musical instrument. Many fine wires, from forty to over one hundred, are suspended from wooden resonator boxes mounted at waist-height, to another fixed point, fifty to one hundred feet away, where they are tensioned. Performers walk in pathways between the strings and play the instrument by “bowing" with rosin-coated fingertips. The sound produced is a complex aggregate of overtones, rich and non-localized, like an orchestra of pipe organs. My process as a performer has been to polish and refine this sound through developing techniques of articulation in order to hear further into the harmony of extended partials. As an instrument designer I have worked on each component of the instrument and found incremental success in tone refinement through experimentation with wire gauge and alloy, design of tuning capos, and resonator body. My tablature notation choreographs my movement through the spectrum of harmonic partials along the string length. I physically navigate through this multi-tiered sound world using my entire body with my focus on amplifying the artifacts.

I have composed works for the Long String Instrument, cello, viola, and violin. I created a smaller-scale version of the Long String Instrument that is played rhythmically with a tool that I designed called the Box Bow. This can sound at times like a strummed guitar, and at other times remarkably like a blues harmonica. In my compositions I am very interested in combining abstract, yet tangible, concerns with a folk sensibility.

Along with my composition practice, I have formed collaborations with other musicians: trombonist, Monique Buzzarte; percussionist, Sean Meehan; multi-instrumentalists, Konrad Sprenger, and Travis Weller; and cellists, Theresa Wong, and Okkyung Lee. My focus is in co-composed structured improvisation.

- December 2014


Ellen Fullman has been developing the Long String Instrument, an installation of dozens of wires fifty feet or more in length, tuned in Just Intonation, and “bowed" with rosin coated fingers, for nearly 30 years. Fullman has developed a unique notation system to choreograph the performer's movements, exploring sonic events that occur at specific nodal point locations along the string-length of the instrument. Her compositions, collaborations, and improvisations also explore the acoustics of large resonant spaces. She has recorded extensively with this unusual instrument and has collaborated with figures such as composer Pauline Oliveros, choreographer Deborah Hay, the Kronos Quartet, and Keiji Haino.

With the support of her 2015 FCA grant, Fullman performed Harbors at the Click Festival at the Kulturvaerftet in Elsinore, Denmark, a shipyard turned art center, and Transformer Station, Cleveland; Coffee County Tennessee at Sangerrunde Hall in Austin; The Watch, reprise in the London Contemporary Music Festival at University of Westminster's Ambika P3; and Past The Angels for an ensemble of five, at The Lab in San Francisco. Additionally, Fullman composed Cello Matrix, using cello harmonics and pressed notes at the locations of harmonics.

Fullman's music was represented in The American Century: Art and Culture, 1950-2000 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She has performed in venues and festivals in at Donaueschinger Musiktage, in Germany, Instal, Scotland, Other Minds in San Francisco, the Walker Art Center, and Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors. Her release Ort, with Berlin-based collaborator Jörg Hiller, was selected in the top 50 recordings of 2004 by The Wire (London) and Fluctuations, with trombonist Monique Buzzarté on Deep Listening, was included in the Wire top 50 of 2008, and awarded an Aaron Copeland Fund for Music Recording Program Grant (2007). Her work has been cited by Alvin Lucier in Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music (2012), and by David Byrne in How Music Works (2012).

Prior to her Grants to Artists award, Fullman was the recipient of a Meet the Composer grant, a Reader's Digest Consortium Commission (1993), an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship (1999), a DAAD Berlin Artist-in-Residence (2000), a Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission/National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (2007), and two Center for Cultural Innovation Grants (2008, 2013).

Fullman received her B.F.A. in Sculpture from Kansas City Art Institute in 1979 and serves on the faculty in the department of music and sound at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

Musical notation consisting of numbers and angular lines in black on a white background.
Score for Event Locations No. 2, 2011.
Fullman in a dimly lit room plays the long string instrument: dozens of long, fine wires suspended at waist-height.
Performance still from sent + receive: a festival of sound. Photo by Robert Szkolnicki.
Demonstration of Through Glass Panes, Seaholm Power Plant, Austin, 2020.
Flowers, Seaholm Power Plant, Austin 2010.