Review: Ellen Fullman – Through Glass Panes

Twenty years on from when she first crafted her “long string instrument” – dozens of 20-metre wires “bowed” with rosin-coated fingers – Ellen Fullman continues to re-assert her synonymy with it. I’ve been shamefully oblivious to her work up until this point (even her collaborations with the likes of Pauline Oliveros and Keiji Haino have managed to pass me by), but Through Glass Panes has finally enlightened me, as well as encouraging me to delve deeper into her music.

The sound of the instrument itself is compelling and utterly gorgeous, most often lingering as bleak and slow drones round the edges of the recording. It adopts a graceful yet razor-sharp presence that overlaps in a series creeping harmonies, buzzing with both physical and atmospheric tension – cutting clean horizontal lines through the clouds of birdsong on “Flowers”, while offering an immersive emotional cradle for the mournful lead lines on “Never Get Out Of Me”.

But it’s not until the closing 20-minutes of “Event Locations No. 2” that these slow-moving metallic drones are truly permitted to adopt a dominant role. Emphasis is shifted onto timbre and the sense of space the recording provokes. Unchanging yet ever-morphing, latching onto the stasis of eternal movement, the tones scrape against eachother in a ceaseless display of harmonic friction – the strings sound uneasy and agitated in the company of one another, yet the overall effect is beautiful and somewhat meditative. But other than these string drones, the soundscape feels relatively barren. The listener feels transported to a clinical and hard gallery space, occupied only by the performers and the instrument itself. It’s a very vivid effect.

Unlike the other three pieces, the title track utilises rhythm as a central force. It hops in light steps – at first sounding inappropriately upbeat, and then breaking into jittering rhythmic mantras that find a suitable place in amongst the drones. But as with “Flowers” and “Never Get Out Of Me”, it doesn’t penetrate quite as deeply as the closing piece. Through Glass Panes works best when emphasising the sonic qualities of the long string instrument, rather than focusing on the melody and structure of the compositions themselves.

But as a first-time listener, I’m completely oblivious to what has come before in Ellen’s discography. Naturally, one must wish to experiment and progress with their instrument after two decades of working with it, and this would warrant the various compositional and textural embellishments present on Through Glass Panes. Don’t get me wrong – all of these pieces are powerful and beautifully made – it’s just that one of them seems to strike a more intense connection than the rest.