When I first met David Harrington in 1996, he asked me to listen to “Last Kind Words”, a delta blues song recorded by Geeshie Wiley in 1930. This song has haunted me ever since. David told me my instrument sounded like the blues to him. I work in just intonation, a natural tuning system using small number proportionate relationships. The naturally occurring seventh partial in the harmonic series is flatter than the seven in equal temperament. This interval is known to musicians as the "blues seven".
I am fascinated by the extended harmony that is possible in just intonation, where chords exist somewhere outside of the definitions of major or minor. The middle section, “Drifting Areas”, is a series of seven "songs", each built around the mood of the chord and based on one of the vocal phrases from “Last Kind Words”. One chord melts into the next, some pitches remaining the same. The middle five sections use a tuning system that composer Harry Partch would call seven limit “Otonality”. The pitches are generated from multiplication, the overtone series is included in this pitch set. The first two and last two sections use pitches that are generated by division, Partch's “Utonality”; you can think of it as a mirror image mathematically from the overtone series, or the "undertone" series. In the overtone series, you can hear the "upness" of tones stacking on top of themselves; utonality seems to be oozing downward.
The sound of my instrument is rich in overtone content. As in any string instrument, different overtones are more pronounced at different locations along the string length. There is a choreography in my performance, based on locations that I have discovered to be interesting. The variations in overtone production can seem to transform a single chord into different chords. These transformations unfold as I walk, back and forth along the string length. This movement can be heard in my sound, almost like a river moving past, always changing, always remaining the same.
Special thanks to Ingrid Beirer and the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch-dienst (DAAD). "Ellen Fullman
The composition and world premiere presentation of this work made possible by a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission. Construction of the Long String Instrument was accomplished with the assistance of the staff of The Exploratorium.