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Fullman, Ellenfree

  • Edmond T. Johnson

(b Memphis, TN, 17 June 1957). American artist, composer, performer, and instrument inventor best known for inventing the Long String Instrument. Originally interested in visual and performance art, Fullman attended the Kansas City Art Institute where she began to incorporate sound into her works, at first through the manipulation of magnetic tape. Her first major work was the Metal Skirt Sound Sculpture (1980), an assemblage consisting of amplified guitar strings stretched between the artist’s shoes and a pleated metal skirt. Indirectly influenced by Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977), Fullman began experimenting with extended lengths of wire in 1980 and gave the first public performance on a prototype of the Long String Instrument at the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis in November 1981.The design of the Long String Instrument has varied significantly over time and in different installations. It generally consists of several dozen stainless steel, phosphor bronze, or brass wires that are arranged in groups stretched horizontally at about waist height. Depending on the specific installation, the wires span from about 15 to 90 metres. At one end the strings are affixed perpendicularly to the soundboards of securely anchored wooden box resonators (designed in cooperation with the instrument maker Stephen Wise). The strings extend to blocks where they are fastened to tuning pins and tensioned just below their breaking point in order to maximize resonance. A brass capo of unique design (originally a C-clamp) on each string determines its vibrating length. Because the sound arises from longitudinal rather than transverse vibrations, string material (density) and length alone determine pitch, not tension (about 18 kg per string) or thickness. Consequently, the strings sound at a much higher pitch than might be expected from their length. Once tensioned, the strings are tuned by means of the capos in a flexible system of just intonation and typically encompass a range of three octaves down from a′, produced by a string with a sounding length of about 3.66 metres. Different string materials produce different timbres and optimal pitches. The basic performance technique involves the player(s) walking slowly between groups of wires while rubbing rosin-coated fingertips along the wires with varying degrees of speed and pressure. Other techniques include plucking the strings and pulling loops of cord along them and rubbing them with shaped blocks of wood, generating rich spectra of overlapping partials. Various sonic effects occur at nodal points along the strings. For her compositions Fullman has developed a notation that indicates articulation and location along the string length. Fullman has installed the Long String Instrument at numerous sites across the USA and Europe and has performed and recorded extensively with it. Another of her inventions is the Water Drip Drum, which uses tiny valves to control water dripping rhythmically onto a metal pan connected to an amplifier.


  • M. Hovancsek: ‘Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument’, Experimental Musical Instruments, vol.13/3 (1998), 28–30
  • E. Fullman: ‘The Long String Instrument’, Musicworks (2003), no.85, pp. 20–28
  • E. Fullman: ‘A Compositional Approach Derived from Material and Ephemeral Elements’, Leonardo Music Journal, vol.22 (Dec 2012), 3–10