Extended Techniques: Resource for New Sounds or Cheap Gimmicks?

Jean-François Charles, Electroclarinet 1

As a listener and student of classical music, I’m obsessed with new sounds on acoustic instruments. To me, instructing a performer to do something radically different with their instrument, if effective, illustrates both a high level of creativity and a deep understanding of not only the mechanics of the instrument, but the actual physics at play behind production of sound. Be it the ghostly breath of a multiphonic on a tenor saxophone, the metallic screech of a bowed cymbal, or the haunted shriek of a cello bowed behind the bridge, these sounds can bring a new life and depth to a composition, effectively employed.

I will admit in my own work, I have used extended techniques sparingly, and then almost exclusively in woodwind parts or bowed percussion. As a woodwind player (and spending a few years in a percussion ensemble), I’m more aware of what is and what is not possible on those instruments than I am on others. However, as I find myself at times struggling with the limitations of sounds available in my bag of tricks I have begun a fair amount of research into what sounds composers have elicited from instruments and how they were used in their compositions.

Wikipedia defines extended techniques as “performance techniques used in music to describe unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional techniques of singing, or of playing musical instruments to obtain unusual sounds or instrumental timbres.” While this is a good general definition, what is an “unusual or unconventional” technique changes and evolves over time. For example, while altissimo (extended range) on the saxophone was an extended technique in the instrument’s infancy, it has become expected that any serious student of the instrument be familiar with it. Up to a written double D or E has become commonplace in the literature (though many works require a higher range than even that).

Now, I’m aware that I have been preaching the praises of extended techniques which seems at odds with the article title. I have had several professors, and have met more than a few perfomers that are of the contrary opinion. This is how the instrument is played, and to ask to do anything odd is a cop-out on the part of the composer. Some feel that it’s just a cheap gimmick used to make the work stand out. Others feel that many extended techniques are harmful to the instrument or the performer.

I certainly won’t disagree that sometimes composers have used extended techniques in a very gimmicky way. Take for example this saxophone piece by Maurice Whitney, titled “Rhumba.” Written for saxophone virtuoso Sigurd Rascher, this work features altissmio to great effect (at that time altissimo would have been considered outside the bounds of the average performer), but he also chooses to include a technique called slap-tonguing (around 1:49) where the tongue closes and releases the reed with such force it creates an auxiliary “pop”. While the effect in itself is interesting, the use here seems to almost detract from the merit of the overall composition rather than enhance it.

Finally, some works that use extended techniques as an integral part of the work to create an effect, contribute to the musical idea, or in some cases, make up the whole of the piece.

First up is The Banshee (1925) by Henry Cowell. While not exactly new music, the effect here is startling to say the least, and no discussion of piano extended technique is complete without touching on Cowell’s contributions. In this work, the performer is instructed to stand at the crook of the piano and sweep, strum and pluck the strings, while another performer holds down the damper pedal.

Henry Cowell - The Banshee

As far as I know, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I (1958, rev. 1992) for solo flute is one of the first uses of multiphonics (more than one note) for a woodwind instrument. The practice had been around for brass for some time, with Carl Maria von Weber instructing horn players to play one note while singing another. However, unlike brass instruments, where a multiphonic is generated by humming one note and playing another (therefore producing more than one true sound), multiphonics on a woodwind are a sort of an “aural illusion”. The instrument isn’t producing multiple notes simultaneously, but is cycling through the different audible pitches so quickly the ear hears them as a single sound. Multiphonics aside, this work uses the flute to its full capability including unusual tone production and flutter-tonguing.

Luciano Berio: Sequenza I per flauto solo

Warbles, screeches, vocal gyrations and whoops dominate the music of Meredith Monk and “Travelling” from Dolmen Music (1979) is no exception. Over an oscillating ostinato in the piano, her vocal techniques evoke a primal energy in a way that is wholly unique to her style.

Travelling - Meredith Monk

George Crumb’s music is full of unusual sounds for almost every instrument imaginable and Black Angels is no exception. The string quartet is asked to tap on their strings with thimbles, bow over the fingerboard, and explore the extremes of their range. This piece is divided into 3 parts, and I highly recommend switching to 720p and full screen so you can easily follow along with the score.

Click here for part II, and part III.

So in the end, what do you think? Are extended techniques gimmicks and parlor tricks, or are they a tool composers can use in their music to enhance the experience for both performer and listener?  What are some of your favorite pieces that use extended techniques? Leave a comment, and let us know.

Born and raised in Texas, Tai Livingston graduated from Cameron University with a Bachelor’s in Music Education in 2004, where he studied composition under Michelle Coletta, Elaine Ross, and Greg Hoepfner. In 2005 he began graduate studies at the University of Texas, where he studied with Donald Grantham, Yevgeniy Sharlat, and Russel Pinkston. You can follow him on twitter: @texancomposer