This past spring, I was fortunate to see Ellen Fullman perform the majority of the pieces that appear on Through Glass Panes at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room. Having not yet heard the actual album at the time, I was transfixed seeing Fullman play with her meticulously constructed, overwhelmingly fragile, and deeply intimate Long String Instrument, a behemoth of an object consisting of a series of strings stretched across the length of a large room and tuned with much difficulty to exact pitches. Fullman brushed her rosin-coated fingers across the strings to produce an immense cluster of bowed timbres, the waves of compact orchestration sounding both reassuringly familiar and strangely alien. The instrument’s resonance could be compared to the drone strings on a sitar or hurdy-gurdy, but there seemed a more dynamic range of texture and overall force. The size of the instrument required her to walk across the room in both energetic haste and careful stillness, the timing of her movements carefully composed as a method to control the dense waves of sound emitted throughout the venue.
Taking Through Glass Panes home, I wondered whether or not I’d have a similar experience with only context and the sounds themselves at my disposal. Indeed, whether one is contemplating Keith Rowe’s deft use of prepared objects to etch barely-there sounds out of his guitar, Robert Ashley’s multimedia sound-art operas, Justice Yeldham’s use of a jagged slab of glass in much the same way a guitar hero shreds on their instrument, or the Incapacitants’ almost spiritual exorcism and contorted harsh noise nihilism, some will make the argument that being present in the moment is the only ‘true’ way to experience art that’s so reliant on physicality for its effect. Thankfully, as mesmerizing and singular as it was to see Fullman utilize her enormous creation in the flesh, the compositions documented on Through Glass Panes are also gorgeous, confident works that find Fullman beyond adept at exploiting her instrument’s fullest potential.
The first piece “Never Gets Out Of Me” sees Fullman performing a duet alongside cellist Theresa Wong. Over its course, both string players carefully weave in and out in succession, giving equal space to Wong’s mournful cello as it contrasts sublimely against Fullman’s meditative and sorrowful drones. The patience and restraint shown in their respective performances result in an effect of impassioned openness, with the distinct sense of melancholy moving at its core.
“Flowers” follows with a comparatively confrontational structure, with cellist Henna Chou and violinist Travis Weller answering Fullman’s consistent waves of almost electrical resonance with colliding modes of dissonance that thus makes up a markedly vivacious experience. The sound of a nest of sparrows, which according to the liner notes was residing in the space used to record this particular track, exists in this sonic space as a wonderful accident, with the very audible chirps of the birds allowing for a paradoxical serenity alongside the more unnerving tension produced by the musicians.
The title piece finds Fullman operating alongside two players using box-bows to play percussive, staccato-like fragments of sound on her Long String Instrument, an action that makes for a sound that distinctly recalls an accordion but with a noticeable glitch-like reverberation. Fullman’s ebbing crescendos act as an ideal contrast to the repetitious patterns offered by the other players, melding two approaches to minimalist performance (consistence and replication) into a satisfying entity.
The final piece “Event Location No. 2” finds Fullman utilizing her instrument in a solo context, and while at this point such an undertaking might appear rather belated in the context of the rest of the album, there’s a pronounced allure in hearing the instrument operate as the overarching spectre of its space. The full range of Fullman’s creation is allowed its own exclusive reach here, and the practiced, meticulous aptitude she displays is astonishing. Interestingly, the composition carries probably the most boisterous disposition of all the pieces on the album, the wavering hums of the strings approaching peaks that nearly overpower throughout its duration.
Through Glass Panes is an exquisitely realized collection, documenting the many gifts of a revolutionary composer at the height of her powers. Such a statement may read as cliché, but there’s something in Through Glass Panes that transcends any obvious contemporary trends or ideology; it’s simply a singularly exceptional work that one can’t help but get lost within.