How long is a piece of string? San Francisco-based experimental composer Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument spans 25-metres down the centre of the Sydney Town Hall, barely visible fibres stretched between two timbre frames weighted down with concrete blocks. Small metal weights hang like butterflies at points interspersed across the strings and the numbers one through 24 are marked on the floor at even intervals.

The audience is splayed out either side of the instrument – which Fullman has been developing for over 30 years – the performance of Harbors beginning in darkness and silence as Fullman coats her fingers in rosin. Her duo partner, cellist Theresa Wong, is seated to the side on a raised platform, with laptop and effects pedal.

Theresa Wong and Ellen Fullman perform Harbors, photo by Jamie Williams

Hands clawed across the strings, Fullman begins to walk up the centre of the Town Hall, and pitches emerge from nothing, hums delicately spooling from the silence with the pure timbre of singing bowls.

Fullman moves slowly, with a reverent focus, as the complex sheen of sound fills the resonating chamber of the Town Hall. Darker and lighter shades create a living, hypnotic halo of sound. Some tones linger like pedal notes before disappearing once more into the ether, while others flash brightly for a second or two and are silenced.

Wong’s contributions are so subtle as to go unnoticed at first, glistening harmonics just another texture in the haze of sound, but her amplified cello gains strength, shooting organ-like bass notes through the soundscape and gilding the edges of Fullman’s music with shards of sonic light.

The work evolves. Fullman triggers a motorised spinning disc that hums a drone against a single string, while she brandishes a wooden cross – like the hand control for a marionette – that dangles fibres, which catch on the instrument’s strings, plucking and rubbing against them. As Fullman plays from one end, the strings bob and tremble across the length of the instrument while Wong sprays pizzicato harmonics into the air.

As Harbors fades once more into nothingness, the audience is left with a heightened sense of the space and acoustic of the town hall.

Fullman is the main act, but the Friday night performance opened with Sydney-based pianist Chris Abrahams, whose improvisation on the Town Hall’s organ exploited every facet of the grand instrument, from the throbbing engine-like bass-notes – so low as to sound almost unpitched – to the piercing sopranino recorder sounds of the smallest pipes. Abrahams revelled in beating dissonances and shifting textures before finishing on a series of chords that strobed unevenly, leaving sonic afterglows to ring throughout the hall. If Abrahams’ performance didn’t quite achieve the same level of meditative transcendence as Fullman’s, it was still a fascinating exploration of sound and the capabilities of the massive instrument. Saturday night’s concert will open with a performance by Korean cellist Okkyung Lee.

Long String Instrument is a powerful, immersive experience. The opening of Harbors is particularly arresting, the lustrous sounds triggering an almost physical response. The overall experience, however, is meditative – best enjoyed by those able or willing to surrender themselves to the gradually shifting sounds.

Long String Instrument is at the Sydney Town Hall as part of the Sydney Festival until January 14


It then travels to MoFo in Hobart from January 20 – 22 January and is at The Substation, Melbourne on January 27