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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Ellen Fullman & Okkyung Lee - The Air Around Her (1703 Skivbolaget, 2019) ****

By Nick Metzger
The acclaimed composer Ellen Fullman began her work with the Long String Instrument (LSI) over 30 years ago in her Brooklyn studio. For our readers unfamiliar with her work, the Long String Instrument is a 56-string installation that Fullman uses to explore the acoustics of large resonant spaces. Per Fullman's website, the instrument can be as short as 16 meters but she prefers 20 meters or more (it's 26 meters on this recording). Fullman plays the strings with rosined fingers, rubbing them lengthwise as she walks the instrument's span inducing vibration in the same manner as a bow. The instrument itself has its roots in antiquity, back to Pythagoras’ monochord and the study of the vibrating string itself. Alvin Lucier noted as much about Fullman’s work with the LSI in his book Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music, “She (Fullman) said that the activity of its composition had become her personal music school. It led her to read and study as the information she sought got put to use in very practical ways, and that the piece is a microcosm of the history of music.” The sound of the LSI is somewhat relatable to that of a tanpura or shruti in that it produces a continuous harmonic bourdon; however the sound of the LSI is more complex. What's very interesting is the instruments’ gradual shifts in timbre due to the changes in overtones produced based on where the strings are being contacted at any given instant, and the acoustic relationship of the instrument to the space in which it's installed. It's a full, ancient sound that seems almost sentient. In addition to her numerous compositions for the LSI, Fullman also likes to engage in collaborative improvisations with like-minded artists.

On the new release from John Chandler's 1703 Skivbolaget label, The Air Around Her, Fullman is joined by the brilliant cellist Okkyung Lee, herself an acclaimed composer and a longtime favorite of the Collective. Just last year Lee released an exceptional album of improvisations recorded inside the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway, which she filled to capacity with the dense and physical energy of her playing. On this recording the two artists met up in Stockholm for the First Edition Festival for Other Music on February 20, 2016. The LSI was installed within the Kronobageriet, the oldest surviving industrial building in Stockholm. It has been used over the centuries for arms and firewood storage, but the main faculty for the past 300 years has been baking bread for the Swedish military. The cover of the record features artwork by Bill Nace, whose distinct visual signature has adorned several terrific records as of late.

The Air Around Her is divided into two side-long parts, each with its own specific character. The first part swells from nothing finding Fullman’s thick drone of overtones taking the foreground as Lee, using a wide arco here, blissfully traverses the gorgeous soundscape with her dynamic glissandos and squeaking and/or groaning accents. There are passages where Lee begins at a lower pitch than the LSI and then will swoop up into unison, or vise-versa, to stunning effect. Lee is a deft improviser and doesn’t ever compete with Fullman for space, realizing the futility of such an enterprise. To use a metaphor, it’s as if Fullman conjures a vast ocean of sound from her instrument and Lee is the lively penguin, darting playfully and jubilantly in and about her currents. The second part again begins with swells of harmonics and overtones from Fullman, while Lee plays runs of soft notes in pizzicato (this being the major change from the first section). Fullman’s playing is more varied on this part, the shades of haze she stirs up are more colorful and the drone is more dynamic in that there are some discernable peaks and valleys towards the middle of the piece. Lee picks her bow back up for the final quarter of the album, swooping through and around the Fullman’s din, breaking the quiescence occasionally with her forceful cuts of turbulence.


Richard said...

Here's some footage of the LSI:

Nick Metzger said...

Great footage!
Here's another recent album of Fullman's, a completely different style altogether that shows the possibilities of improvising with the LSI: