In Defense of Extended Techniques

I guess extended techniques have kind of a bad reputation these days. They don’t make a piece better, the argument goes. Instead they distract from other, more important musical parameters like melody and harmony. They’re a crutch that composers fall back on when they’re out of ideas. There are some good reasons to feel this way–especially in the context of student works. When composers are in an exploratory phase and are trying out new things, extended techniques can fall flat. But I don’t see a problem with this as long as the student learns from this experience and is able to discern which uses are expressive and which are superfluous.

So I’d like to mount a defense of sorts of extended techniques. Since the field is so broad, I’ll just focus on a few examples from one instrument: the vibraphone.

In George Crumb’s Madrigals, Book I, for soprano, vibraphone, and contrabass, the percussionist creates vibraphone harmonics, plays the instrument with fingernails, and even hits the strings of the contrabass with mallets. Extended techniques are such a natural part of Crumb’s language that it’s hard for me to imagine his music without them. Certainly it would not have the same lonely, ethereal, otherworldly quality. Playing the bass with mallets comes close to silliness perhaps–the bassist alone could probably create a near-identical sound–but in the context of Crumb’s obsession with ritual and spatial relationships, it makes perfect sense.

Christopher Deane’s Mourning Dove Sonnet comes dangerously close to being one of those student extended-technique-omnibus pieces, but the pitch bending trick here isn’t just a facile gimmick. It’s inextricably connected to the lilting mourning dove motive which is threaded throughout the entire piece, and the other techniques, including bowing and harmonics, play an effective supporting role.

On the other end of the density spectrum, Sonic System Laboratory prepares two vibraphones with mechanical devices that generate a non-stop flurry of sound. Sure, there’s not much here in terms of melody or harmony to contend with, but focusing too much on that would be missing the point. The incredible variety and fluidity of timbral transformations rivals that of a much larger ensemble or a purely electronic piece, and is more than enough to sustain interest.

Samuel Carl Adams’s Tension Study No. 1 is perhaps a hybrid of these two approaches. As the piece begins, timbre and atmosphere seem to be the central concerns, with sparse guitar and vibraphone chords occasionally punctuated by other percussion hits. But as the piece unfolds, large-scale harmonic relationships reveal themselves in a methodical fashion that draws you through the silences. Like Crumb’s music, this piece would be far less interesting without the extended techniques, such as the ubiquitous pitch bending that often connects one idea to the next.

Finally, I can’t help but note that “extended technique” is a fluid and elusive term anyway, and with the success of these pieces, it seems possible, likely even, that in five to ten years everything I’ve mentioned here will be considered standard technique, and this article will be obsolete.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Extended Techniques

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    This is very important, specially when you say: “as long as the student learns from this experience and is able to discern which uses are expressive and which are superfluous”.

    That’s why I think is important that young composers think a lot about the act of composition itself and the means at his/her disposal. Otherwise it becomes a manierism used because an aspiring composer “likes” the work of an older colleague.

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  2. Jon

    I don’t disagree with any of your defenses of extended techniques, but I wasn’t even aware that they were something that needed defending. Is this a really new trend or something? My sense is that you see extended techniques all the time, I can’t remember the last time I went to a new music concert and didn’t see any extended techniques. Not to mention my composition teacher is always getting on my case about needing to explore extended techniques for all instruments.

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    1. Isaac Schankler

      I don’t know if it’s a trend but it’s certainly something I’ve encountered a lot in my personal experience. I imagine it’s something that varies a lot from region to region or school to school.

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      1. Jacob

        This seems to be a particularly American attitude, which is sad and embarrassing considering that the great-grandaddy of instrumental investigation (at least for piano) is our very own Henry Cowell. On the other hand, I’ve also run into circles where people will give you funny looks if you write a clear pitch. It seems that both these dogmatic, reactionary attitudes are generational, which gives me some hope.

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  3. Phil Fried

    “…But I don’t see a problem with this as long as the student learns from this experience and is able to discern which uses are expressive and which are superfluous…”

    I believe this would have more to do with the composition than a technique.

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  4. Jack

    The most important factor I’ve noticed as a player is definitely context. If the composer is unaware of the broader musical context in which a technique is executed it will fall flat and there will probably be some annoyed players.

    I’ve seen many examples in large ensemble pieces where players are asked to do all sorts of gymnastics that, given the general volume/activity, pass by the audience completely unnoticed. I’ve also seen examples of techniques that are just way to subtle in their context (such as asking a string player to play “poco tasto” half-way through a soft lyrical passage or asking for one isolated pizzicato to be played “fingernail”).

    The best advice a teacher could give is to have the student ask herself if the technique is absolutely necessary, if it will be heard, and then have her talk to a performer.

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    1. Philipp Blume

      “The best advice a teacher could give is to have the student ask herself if the technique is absolutely necessary, if it will be heard, and then have her talk to a performer.”

      Um, yes… just like any other technique. Extended techniques are only useful when they’re truly intended techniques. And I’d say that’s true for anything at all you might do with an instrument, e.g., have it play some notes. Here, watch:

      - The flute will now play legato F#, E, D# in the lowest register against the full brass section.
      - Ok, is that absolutely necessary?… Will it be heard?… You’d better go talk to a performer.

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      1. Jack

        The point is that when students (and their teachers) fail with extended techniques it is because they are making choices without thinking of these basic issues. They are composing in their mind and not with reality. In simple orchestration, as in your example above, the answers can seem obvious, but with extended techniques the answers get so much more complicated. Was my advice simple? Yes. Was it silly? Certainly not.

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        1. Philipp Blume

          I didn’t say it was silly. Sorry if it seemed that way. I do, however, think the distinction between extended and un-extended techniques shouldn’t be defined in terms of how well we understand how things work.

          It seems to me that when ‘extended techniques’ don’t work, it’s because they are thought of a special, exotic effects (therefore interrupting the flow of musical sense supposedly created by conventional technique) rather than an integral part of a truly e x p a n d e d notion of what’s possible on the instrument. That requires not just familiarity with how a technique is done, but knowledge of exactly how that technique is an ‘extension’ of what’s normally done, and the ability to imagine how that extension can go further, or in the opposite direction, or in a totally new direction.

          Reply

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