Perfect Sound Forever


Penderecki's score to "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima"

What's in a Name? And Is "Extended Technique" a Good One?
by Daniel Barbiero
(October 2019)

When writing about contemporary music, I often use the expression "extended technique" to describe the challenging and sometimes extraordinary performance practices this music often employs. I do this somewhat uneasily though, as many musicians and composers have raised objections to the expression. One that's frequently encountered is that "extended technique" carries normative implications that serve to marginalize these performance practices. On one version of this objection, to describe these playing techniques as "extended" somehow represents them as deviations from or distortions of proper and correct technique. A related point would have "extended technique" appear to define some techniques as central or core to the playing of an instrument, and to relegate others to the periphery and thus to lesser importance.

Both points--that the methods and practices that fall under the heading of "extended techniques" shouldn't be seen as deviations from a norm, and that neither should they be understood to be peripheral practices of marginal importance--are well-taken. But reading "extended technique" as implying marginality or deviation may be reading into it more than is warranted.

That what we describe as"extended techniques" are hardly a marginal phenomenon is well-attested to by the frequency with which contemporary music makes use of them. As I have suggested here in previous pieces, the integration into a significant amount of new composed and improvised music of the performance techniques that fall under the category of "extended technique" is virtually routine, enough so to count as what I've only half-facetiously called a New(er) Common Practice.

(I want to restrict the relevance of the following discussion to Western art music and its closer relatives; the development of new performance techniques in jazz-related avant-garde music has a complex genealogy bound up with an expressive purpose that would have to be addressed on its own terms.)

As a historical matter, the development of ever more adventurous and challenging performance techniques is neither peripheral to, nor a deviation from, the evolution of Western art music. Rather, it's an inseparable thread woven into the historical tapestry of Western art music. For example, striking or beating the strings with the wood of the bow--playing col legno--serves as a major technical motif of Penderecki's 1960 "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" for string orchestra. Although considered an example of extended technique for strings, and despite being largely associated with avant-garde works from the postwar period and afterward, col legno playing had been integrated into orchestral practice during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in works such as Haydn's "Symphony No. 67," Mozart's "Violin Concerto No. 5," Chopin's "Piano Concerto No. 2," Holst's "Mars" from the Planets suite, and in works by Mussorgsky, Mahler, Shostakovich and Copland.

On this long view, the development of extended technique just is the development of performance technique, and to describe certain techniques as "extended" doesn't imply peripheral status but rather just indicates that they are the products of a historical process of discovery and development, an ongoing process that extends the range of the sounds playable on an instrument and has been part of a continuous, cumulative process taking place over many years. From this wider perspective, the extension of performance techniques is just a specific case of the more general tendency of formal resources and basic materials in the arts to evolve and respond to changing formal and expressive problems.

An interesting side point, which may not be a side point at all: extended technique does not equate to novelty. Consider one early use of what we now would consider an extended technique for the double bass. Composer Heinrich Biber's 1673 program work "Battalia" called for the strings of a double bass to be covered with a sheet of paper and struck with the wood of the bow. This early instance of prepared double bass and playing col legno is only superficially a case of extended technique proper; instead, here it seems rather just a lone novelty, a special effect for a limited purpose. To truly count as extended technique it would have to have come up as a practice to be used with other practices within an integrated, coherent methodology of the instrument. I would suggest that it is this integration and internal coherence that distinguishes extended technique proper, as another ready-to-hand instrumental resource or material among other ready-to-hand instrumental resources and materials, from the mere special effect or novelty.

If "extended technique" only implied reference to a historical process of development, it probably wouldn't attract much in the way of objections. But there's more to it than that. Most of the objections to the expression "extended technique" stem from an insight and a conclusion extrapolated from that insight. The insight is that "extended technique" is a relational expression; the conclusion drawn is that defining or distinguishing technique that is considered "extended" from technique that isn't, somehow marginalizes the former or otherwise marks it as being in some way secondary or inferior to the latter. Call this "the anti-hierarchical objection.'

That "extended technique" is a relational expression is just built into the grammar of what it means to extend or to be an extension. Something is an extension of something else, or something is modified in some way by being extended. So "extended technique" is technique that is extended in relation to something else--presumably to "unextended" technique. But the nub of the problem isn't simply that "extended technique" is relational, it's just how it is relational, or rather, thought to be relational. That all-important how hinges on defining which techniques are extended and which aren't, and whether this necessarily implicates some sort of hierarchy of value. I don't think that it does. But first, consider some alternative expressions.

We could try to avoid the potential problems of "extended technique" by looking for other possible ways of describing the same thing. One of these might be "unconventional techniques." The idea here is that these techniques represent ways of playing that go beyond the usual ("conventional") ways of playing. Here again, though, we have a relational expression that can raise the same objections, and for the same reasons, as "extended technique." What's "unconventional" could conceivably carry connotations of marginality or worse, illegitimacy. A second potential objection is that the expression is of limited use because convention is a particularly changeable thing: what's unconventional today may be entirely conventional tomorrow.

Other possible nomenclatures might include "advanced" as opposed to "basic" technique, or "augmented" versus "foundational" technique. But these are liable to raise objections of the anti-hierarchical sort, although it does seem uncontroversial that the practices that fall into the category of "extended techniques" are generally the sorts of things one learns after having mastered more basic ways of playing an instrument. In this connection, "basic" and "foundational" do not imply "normal" or "proper"--as opposed to "improper"--but instead represent stages in the acquisition of technical skills. It shouldn't be controversial that the acquisition and effective use of some skills is more difficult than others, and that they may require the mastery of other skills as prerequisite. As a practical matter, "advanced" often does describe extended techniques, with the caveat that not all advanced technique is extended (and not all extended technique is necessarily advanced).

In sum, all of these alternatives, like the expression they're candidates to replace, have one thing in common. All are relational expressions that imply one term as a point of reference in relation to which the second term is defined or distinguished. And so it would seem that we're back to where we started.

Robin Hayward

Could we come up with a better expression by replacing "extended" with a non-relational term? In a 2012 interview, microtonal tubist/composer Robin Hayward--himself a consummate user of extended technique, even if the expression isn't entirely to his liking--suggested that "intrinsic technique" would be a better designation than "extended technique." And it's true that, as he argued, there's nothing that extended techniques realize that aren't already intrinsic to the instrument. That one can invent and apply these techniques just demonstrates that the sounds they produce were already implicit in the instrument to begin with--they were always already there to be discovered and coaxed out of it, given the right insight and touch. At the same time, though, it's just as true that these resources, intrinsic as they are, do have to be discovered and coaxed and that the appropriate techniques to realize them do have to be invented. This historical or dynamic dimension of technical development is better captured by "extended technique" than by "intrinsic technique," in that it just is this process of discovery and invention that can be fairly described as consisting in an extension of existing technique into new territories. The difference here is the difference between availability and possibility.

Consider that what's intrinsic in the instrument is what it makes available to a player to use. Availability is something latent, before it becomes an actual possibility that can be taken up and used. What renders the available into the possible is its becoming part of a project, whether that entails meeting a need of some sort, or just satisfying a certain curiosity (curiosity is a project driven by a kind of need--not necessarily a specific, material lack that needs to be filled but a more general sense that something more can be had of something, whether or not it has any immediate practical use). I would guess that the expansion of technical resources has been as much the result of experiment and wondering what can be done with an instrument as it has been the result of needing a specific kind of sound or gesture that a new technique would have to be invented in order to provide.

But what if the problem with "extended technique"--and the other relational terms mooted above--isn't that it's relational per se, but that it's an interpretation too far to conclude that its being relational implies marginal or secondary status in comparison to what it is it's related to? Isn't it possible to accept that "extended technique" is a relative expression without having to accept that it relativizes the techniques it designates in a marginalizing or subordinating way? To see this, we need to see what it is about the relationality of "extended technique" that seems bothersome.

If "extended technique" and the other relative terms leave us uneasy, it may be because there is a specter haunting them: the specter of the Common Practice Era. The set of techniques to which other techniques appear to be extended, unconventional, advanced, augmented or the like is the set of techniques developed for music of the Common Practice Era and consequently for what has come to be called the standard repertoire. But rather than seeing extended technique as designating something peripheral to the techniques associated with Common Practice Era music, why not see it instead as designating an expansion or broadening, and above all an enriching, of the technical resources developed for Common Practice music? That, I submit, is what is really implied by the "extended" in "extended technique."

Although the alternatives to "extended technique" suggested above can be useful for referring to post-Common Practice performance practices, "extended technique" has established itself as the more or less standard expression. As a matter of historical usage, "extended technique" is a more or less understood, more or less generally recognized way to refer to those techniques, largely invented and developed during and after the second half of the twentieth century, that were meant to extend the playability of instruments for the purpose of expanding ("extending") the range of sounds and timbres performers can produce with them.

In other words, the expression may not be ideal for describing what's obtainable from an instrument or instrumentalist strictly in terms of what the instrument is capable of, but as a description of the technical possibilities available to contemporary performers as the result of a historical process--the discovery of resources that may well have been intrinsic to the instrument, but nevertheless needed to have been recognized and efficacious techniques invented and developed in order that these resources be realized in practical form--it seems to me to be both reasonably accurate and useful. And by accepting that "extended technique" represents a renewal, broadening, enriching, etc., of the techniques developed for Common Practice performance, we can see the relationship between "extended technique" and Common Practice technique in a different light. We could even see the Common Practice era techniques as somehow deficient in light of the rise within modern and contemporary music of new formal and expressive demands, and thus in need of the renewal, broadening, enriching, etc. that "extended techniques" bring. Now that would be an interesting way to frame the relationship: a transvaluation of values in which the hypothetical roles of center and periphery would be reversed and the traditional hierarchy turned on its head.

The upshot is that what we refer to with the expression "extended technique" isn't peripheral or somehow improper; rather, it's central and proper to many strains of music in the post-Common Practice Era. Envisioning the relationship between Common Practice era techniques and "extended" techniques in this way might even lay the specter of the Common Practice era to rest, or at least deprive it of its ability to haunt and frighten. "Extended technique" may not be ideal--descriptions of controversial phenomena rarely are--but to answer the second, not-quite-rhetorical question of the title, it may be good enough.

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