Making Noise: Extended Techniques after Experimentalism

Making Noise: Extended Techniques after Experimentalism

A primer on playing old instruments in new ways.

Written By

Matthew Burtne

“Whereas in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds.”

—John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo (1937)

As tonality expanded and exploded in the early decades of the 20th century, performers were confronted with increasingly varied harmonic systems, systems that embraced consonance and dissonance and questioned the nature of order in radical new ways. Twelve-tone, modal, quartal, extended tertian, octatonic, whole tone, polytonal, and various other expansions of harmonic language presented a steady stream of new challenges. A contemporary music performer reading John Cage‘s statement in 1937 may have wondered how this forthcoming musical “disagreement” would further affect the nature of performance.

Pieces like Charles IvesThe Cage (1906), Anton Webern‘s Six Bagatelles for string quartet (1913), or Maurice Ravel‘s Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917) were already pushing the performer’s ability to navigate pitch. As the new harmonic systems were created, performers were adapting by changing their relationship with their instruments, practicing different scales and patterns.

The 1914 performances of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Luigi Russolo‘s Intonorumori noise orchestra had shocked the instrumental world by introducing explosions, whistles, whispers, creaks, percussion sounds, and human/animal voices directly to the concert stage. Russolo’s 1913 writing, L’Arte di Rumori (The Art of Noises) states the proof simply: “Ancient life was all silence. With the invention of the machine, noise was born. Today, noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibilities of men.” Russolo’s belief that a “noise orchestra” was the future of music was realized spectacularly in electronic music. However, a new “intonorumori” was rising up directly within the orchestra itself. This art of instrumental noises was achieved by the so-called instrumental extended techniques.

Following the futurists, many composers brought the noise of modern industry directly into the orchestra. George Antheil‘s Ballet Mecanique (1924), incorporating an airplane motor, is just the most famous of a group of pieces that utilized this technique. Mosolov’s Iron Foundry (1928) uses a rattling thunder sheet throughout, and Varèse‘s Ionisation (1929-1931) uses sirens, anvils, and “lion’s roar.”

Added to this, traditional instruments were being played in unusual ways to embrace the world of noise. The piano was on the forefront of this trend, spirited primarily by composers who performed their own pieces in recitals. Leo Ornstein, George Antheil, and Henry Cowell were three such artists. Cowell’s Tides of Manaunaun (1915), with its massive clusters in the left arm, was followed by his pieces The Banshee, Aeolian Harp, and Sinister Resonance (1923-1925), which took the performer inside the piano for the first time. Cowell’s piano techniques included strumming the strings, plucking them, scraping them, and creating harmonics from the string fundamentals by lightly touching nodes on the instrument. In these pieces, he essentially created a new instrument from the piano.

Extended Techniques

Extended techniques, as may be inferred, require the performer to use an instrument in a manner outside of traditionally established norms. These norms are apt to change as the needs of music changes and as instruments develop. Stravinsky’s high C in the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring, for example, may have been considered at the very edge of the register for the instrument in that context, something approaching an extended technique, but it is now solidly part of the bassoon symphonic repertoire. Saxophonists have seen the F# become a standard feature in recent years to the point that manufacturers added an F# key to the instrument. The saxophone high G, one half step up, remains in the realm of extended technique because it requires study of “altissimo” fingerings. Harmonics on string instruments or brass are not extended techniques but on woodwinds and piano they are. Plucking the string of a violin is not an extended technique, but tapping the body is. Playing a string instrument with a mute is not an extended technique, but attaching tinfoil to the bridge is. In the 18th century, the crescendo itself, called a Mannheimer, was considered an extended technique for the orchestra.

The threshold between extended and traditional techniques is thus fickle. However, we are less interested here with defining this boundary than we are in seeing what lies across it, firmly in the territory of extended techniques. These techniques may be idiomatic for the instrument, but they are not part of standard training. Why? The answer may lie in the concept of unity in Western classical music performance, and the ideal of uniformity in the areas of pitch and dynamics. This uniformity is upheld by the notion of virtuosity, a concept generally refering primarily to dexterity of pitch and applied ubiquitously to all instruments. Extended techniques are messy by design, exploring the chaotic aspects of instruments.

The rush to search out new sonic territories in the 20th century drove the exploration of instrumental sound production. Composers of the European and American avant-garde traditions were intent on utilizing widely different timbres in their compositions. Building on Cowell’s early pieces, John Cage invented the prepared piano (1938), filling it with a multitude of small objects that clank, thud, buzz, clink, and click when excited. The intended and audible effect is a piano with the sound of an infinitely variable percussion orchestra.

The piano has never been the same and has received more creative exploration than any other instrument. The performance notes for George Crumb‘s Makrokosmos (1972) describe in detail specific inside-the-piano techniques using small chains on the strings, plucking the strings in different ways, and carefully damping them. The piano is amplified, bringing the sound from inside the instrument out into the hall. Amplification of small instrumental sounds for art has its basis in late-1940s musique concrète and can be found as an extended technique of live music at least as early as John Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960). A nice contemporary piano example of amplification of small sounds is Marc Sabat’s For Magister Zacharias. In this piece, the Steinway piano key action of lifting the dampers without the hammer touching the string is amplified to an extreme to create a soft, percussive tone—as if someone were playing an autoharp with a heavy metal brush.

The exploration of extended techniques in the 1960s and ’70s resembles a land rush—with each composer, and in some cases each composition, boldly experimenting with some new technique of instrumental sound production. The desire for an expanded musical color pallet led composers and performers to discover increasingly creative performance techniques. Some of these include:

a) Extended Bowing and Percussive Techniques

String instruments can be bowed, and then they can be bowed. Extended bowing techniques include bowing on the bridge, behind the bridge, on the fingerboard, on the fingerboard on the opposite side of the left hand, bowing just at the tip or frog of the bow, applying pressure while bowing, slowing the bow speed until it almost stops, using very light pressure and fast bow speed, bowing with the wood (col legno), bouncing the bow (jete), striking the wood (col legno battuto), and numerous different bowing articulations by starting bow movement in different ways. Krzysztof Penderecki‘s Anaklasis (1959), Polymorphia (1961), and especially Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), contain many of these techniques used in the context of a large string ensemble.

Some composers have called for applying things other than bows to the strings, such as the glass rods used in Crumb’s Black Angels (1970). Michael Bach and Frances-Marie Uitti have worked extensively with curved bows and John Cage’s solo cello work, One8, (1991) was written with one in mind. For some composers, one bow isn’t enough. Uitti has pioneered a way of using two bows in the right hand on the cello. In order to access any combination of strings simultaneously, the two-bow technique can be combined with a curved bow. We also find an example of a performer using two bows in Jonathan Harvey‘s Imaginings (1994) and Julio Estrada‘s Miqi’nahual (1993) from his 1992 modular composition Doloritas. This opens up new possibilities for the bows to interfere with one another in interesting ways.

String harmonics have also been rigorously explored as an extended technique. The 90-minute composition Chronos Kristalla (1990) for string quartet by La Monte Young uses only natural harmonics, with each string specially tuned. Iannis XenakisNomos Alpha (1966) for solo cello presents virtuosic use of the extended harmonic glissando. The “gull” effect in Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (1971) is another excellent example of the harmonic glissando as a special effect. Composers such as Gerard Grisey, Tristan Murail, Horatio Radulescu, and Salvatore Sciarrino have written for very high string harmonics, well beyond the 9th partial. Helmut Lachenmann‘s Pression (1969) for solo cello even calls for the cellist to touch harmonic nodes on the wood of the bow itself while bowing.

Bowing worked so well for the string family, musicians began applying bows to other instruments as well. String bows (especially bass bows) have been used on every possible percussion instrument including cymbals, crotales, tam tams, marimbas, vibraphones, bells, and glockenspiels. “Found” instruments such as crystal glasses, saws, and bowls have also been bowed. Curtis Curtis-Smith, George Crumb, Stephen Scott, Eleanor Hovda, this author, and others have used bowed piano, beginning with Curtis-Smith in Rhapsodies (1972). Eleanor Hovda’s Coastal Traces Tidepools 1 (1997) is a particularly nice example of the technique. The “sound icons” of Horatiu Radulescu are grand pianos turned on their side and bowed by several performers. Radulescu goes furthest in the abstraction of the piano by not even referring to it as a piano.

The EBow, popular since the 1970s with rock guitarists, is a handheld device that applies electromagnetic force to the string that results in a sustained tone. Apart from the guitar, the EBow can be used on other strings such as piano (Maggi Payne, Holding Patterns, 2004) and harp (John Cage, Postcards from Heaven for 1-20 harps, 1982).

But the exchange between bowing and percussion is not one-sided. Percussive techniques such as tapping and plucking have been applied to great affect on string instruments. The body of the instrument can be used as a resonant wooden drum achieving hundreds of differentiated sounds. Pizzicato techniques themselves are numerous and are not limited to the fingers. Plectrums and thin sticks, for example, have been used on string instruments as well (as in Crumb’s Black Angels, mentioned above).

Bert Turetzky‘s book, The Contemporary Contrabass (1989), is a wonderful guide for composers and performers. More recently, Allen and Patricia Strange‘s The Contemporary Violin (2001) has shown itself to be an excellent contemporary resource for extended string techniques.

b) Extended Blowing and Muting

Extended techniques for winds and brass include disassembling the instrument and playing various parts independently. Mouthpieces can be played alone or tapped like a small percussion instrument. With the mouthpiece alone or with the full instrument, all the extended embouchure effects are available, such as flutter, double, triple, or slap tonguing, a variety of articulations, playing the mouthpiece upside down or biting the mouthpiece and blowing (single reed instruments), bending the pitch with the embouchure, and various vibrato effects such as changing speed or wide vibrato.

With the instrument assembled, the full length of the tube offers a veritable playground of extended techniques. Colored noise can be obtained by blowing air through the instrument and changing fingerings. An unbelievable variety of multiphonics can be produced by singing while playing, using alternate fingerings, half valving, overblowing, or changing the embouchure in combination with special fingerings. Microtonal effects can be obtained by using “rips” or “smears” (fast movement between notes), “bends” (alterations of notes by loosening or tightening embouchure), and alternate or “false” fingerings which produce micro-changes in pitch and timbre. Harmonics have been used to good effect by overblowing a fundamental pitch. Luciano Berio‘s Sequenza VIIb (1969) for soprano sax uses a wide range of these extended techniques in rapid succession.

When the full length of the tube is not enough, composers have resorted to pedal tones (brass) or even to extending the tube by adding an extension such as the PVC pipe used in Judith Shatin‘s Sea of Reeds (1997) for clarinetist F. Gerard Errante.

Circular breathing allows for many techniques to be sustained over long periods of time. This author’s works for saxophone ensemble, such as Portals of Distortion (1998) and Endprint (2004), employ circular breathing over sustained trilled multiphonics.

The bell of a brass instrument has been used as an effective percussion instrument for rattling, knocking, and tapping effects. Brass players have also explored extensive use of mutes in combination with speaking and singing into the instrument and varied articulation. The Berio Sequenza V (1966) for solo trombone offers numerous examples of these. Mouthpieces from other instruments such as saxophone, clarinet, or oboe can be played on brass instruments creating strange hybrid instrumental sounds.

Robert Dick‘s The Other Flute (1989), Bruno Bartolozzi’s New Sounds for Woodwind (1967), and Harvey Sollberger‘s “The New Flute” (1975) are excellent text resources.

c) Extended Vocalization

No instrument has played a more prominent role in developing extended techniques than the voice. Theater, song, speech, emotion, and the body converge here making it the most resource rich. Extended vocal techniques include expressions such as panting, whistling, breathing (as an audible effect), hissing, sucking, laughing, clucking, barking, screaming, not to mention talking, yelling, and whispering. Almost every vocalized element found in life has been employed musically. We need look no further than Stripsody (1966), a composition by the singer Cathy Berberian. The comic book-like score asks the singer to express a wide range of emotions and sound effects in close succession. In the 1960s, Berberian was renowned for her facility with extended techniques and her performances of works by Berio, Cage, Ligeti, etc. defined a genre of experimental vocal music.

The mouth can also be obstructed in different ways while singing—by the hand, objects, or resonators such as drums, pianos, etc. Meredith Monk has used this technique to interesting effect. Joan La Barbara has beautifully employed a subtone growl (a very low, scratchy sound made by forming an Ôa’, loosening the throat, and producing a low rumble) in her pieces Rothko and Erin. Extremely high singing created by constricting the throat and inhaling has been explored by Haleh Abghari in this author’s Animus/Anima (2001). Voice multiphonics or harmonic singing, a technique prevalent in music of Tibet and Tuva, is considered an extended technique in Western music. It is used in this way in Hans Werner Henze‘s Versuch uber schweine (1969), for example.

The vocal cavity can be extended using resonators. Some examples include singing into the piano while the pedal is depressed, singing into drums (such as the bass drum in Animus/Anima), or singing into resonators such as Brenda Hutchinson‘s Long Tube performances with electro-acoustics.

The fact that all instrumentalists have vocal cavities, not just singers, has not escaped the attention of composers. Vocalizations while playing, singing into instruments, and talking have entered the world of instrumental music technique as well. Crumb’s Black Angels communicates its numerological structure in part through counting out loud in a variety of languages. And his Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) (1974) for two amplified pianos and percussion uses vocal effects such as whistling and singing.

In Haleh Abghari’s stunning performance of Georges Aperghis‘s Recitation 8 (1977-78) for solo voice, she is coughing, singing very high notes, and talking—the intensity level growing one stanza after the next. The sounds are widely varied and their isolation and difference are magnified by the fact that they come from one singer. Yet despite the disjunctive content of the material, the patterns of difference are both amplified and grouped into a perpetual motion of timbre, and we begin to accept this collection of sound as the nature of this voice. Through extended techniques, the score activates and opens the voice of the soloist. Comparing this performance with the version by Martine Viard, we perceive how the score is personalized differently for each singer while the core of the composition remains. The music opens the timbral space, effectively drawing out the unique qualities of the voice.

After Experimentalism

Thus we arrive at the fundamental strength and limitation of extended techniques: These resources personalize the instrument, drawing out its unique qualities. Because the effects exist at the threshold of instrumental playing, they are apt to be extremely subjective, depending on the particular performer and particular instrument. While they are controllable, the aspects of control may be different for each performer.

After the 1960s and ’70s, the exploration of new techniques fell somewhat out of fashion. Some pioneers turned to more traditional styles. Penderecki—who created some of the most intense extended string music ever, followed by his detailed explorations of orchestral sound mass in De Natura Sonoris 1 (1967) and 2 (1971)—turned to more traditional writing. The same was true for Henryk Gorecki and Hans Werner Henze. To this day, extended techniques are often taught historically in music schools as merely endemic of 1960s experimentalism, or they are not taught at all.

However, a group of composers continued to refine and develop the lexicon of instrumental playing. Some of these include the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, the Romanian Iancu Dumitrescu, and the Americans Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros. Performers such as Evan Parker with saxophone, Vinko Globokar and Stuart Dempster with trombone, and Joan La Barbara and Thomas Buckner with the voice are just a few artists who have taken extended techniques beyond experimentalism. These days the lines between composer/performer, composition/improvisation, and instrumental/electro-acoustic are frequently blurred. Indeed much of the most interesting work with extended techniques in the 1990s appeared not in classical concert music but rather grew out of free improvisation and computer music. The world inhabited by the improvising performer has allowed for deeper development of many of the techniques discussed above. Performers are able to unlock a single technique and open it for careful exploration, creating differentiations of sound from what may be considered a single device. The cello improvisation pieces of Hugh Livingston, for example, using over 100 differentiated pizzicatos is an example of this exhaustive approach. Where a composer would write “pizz.” in the score, Livingston, as a performer, can translate this marking into a rich timbral space.

With the integration of technology into instrumental performance, a very interesting switch gradually took place in orchestration. In the context of synthesized sounds, extended techniques are useful for blending acoustic and electro-acoustic media. The two are idiomatically integrated through the implementation of extended techniques. In the early years, composers utilized extended techniques to expand the pallet of sounds beyond the confines of traditional modes. But in a world of electro-acoustic screeching, beeping, glitches, blips, and drones, instrumental extended techniques take on new meaning. They are employed precisely because they are instrumental. In fact, as we have discussed, they capture the essence of that particular instrument, drawing out its unique timbre, its grain. These techniques are no longer an “other,” disassociated from the instrument as some noise invasion. They are rather part of the sonic context of the instrument.

After experimentalism, noise has been embraced into the fabric of instrumental music. Timbre has gradually been elevated to the level of pitch and rhythm, to the point that timbre can function as the core of a musical structure. While this is most clearly heard in the arena of electro-acoustic music, it has also occurred in instrumental music. Because of the extended techniques left to us by the 20th century, instrumental performance is well prepared to face the new music, to explore this art of noise in deeper ways.

Matthew Burtner is a composer, computer music researcher, and performer. Originally from Alaska (b.1970), he is currently Assistant Professor of Composition and Computer Music, and Associate Director of the VCCM Computer Music Center at the University of Virginia. His recent music for instrumental ensembles and computer technology explores ecoacoustic, polyrhythmic and noise-based musical systems. His music has been recorded for Innova (USA), Daco (Germany), The WIRE (UK), Centaur (USA), and Euridice (Norway). His writings have appeared in the Journal of New Music Research, Organized Sound, and Leonardo Music Journal.

Thanks to Brian Sacawa for pointing out the corrections to this article which have been incorporated into this text.