Long String Instrument

Sydney Town Hall, January 13


Sydney - January 13, 2017: The Long Stringed Instrument at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)
The Town Hall becomes an instrument.Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.)

Our ears are cunningly designed to detect a sound’s source. Perhaps the greatest wonder of Ellen Fullman’s long string instrument (LSI) – so called because of its 25-metres length – is that it fooled the ears. The vibrating strings were too long to have a source “point” (other than an elevated PA), making for a delightfully disorienting experience.

Fullman’s creation has some 56 metal strings, with wooden resonators at one end. The strings are configured in two batches with an aisle between them so she can walk the length of the instrument caressing the strings with hands coated in rosin. The resultant sounds seemed both ethereal and organic enough to be part of the natural world: the music of the spheres, if you like, or perhaps the hum of insects – an impression reinforced when her collaborator, Theresa Wong, made bird-like noises on her cello. More prosaically it could whine like wind in a high-rise balcony rail, or drone overlapping tones reminiscent of a tanpura in Indian music.

Conceptually Fullman’s music is naive, her background being as a sculptor rather than a musician, so she comes at it from a design perspective, without the baggage of knowledge. Nor has she sought to attain virtuosity on her instrument, being content with a shimmering world of shifting overtones.

Sydney - January 13, 2017: The Long Stringed Instrument at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)
Chris Abrahams on the Town Hall’s mighty organ. Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

Wong crafted spare improvisations against the LSI, whether using ponticello techniques to thicken the harmonics still further, or adding fluttering pizzicato notes to Ellman’s eerie drones. Had Wong been more assertive the LSI would swiftly have been relegated to background. Yet I could not help wonder if the LSI’s ultimate potential was barely being scratched, and whether it might have been even more miraculous unamplified.

This duo was preceded by a solo improvisation from Chris Abrahams on the Town Hall’s mighty pipe organ. After an extended opening of almost excessively polite minimalist music, Abrahams had the plethora of grey pipes growling and churning across the instrument’s phenomenally wide frequency and dynamic range, until the room was engulfed in a maelstrom of sound.