Sunday, June 11, 2023

New Sounds on an Old Instrument

by Andrea Wallick, cellist 

and Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins

Why does that cello sound like a seagull? How are the sounds I'm hearing coming out of string instruments? It sounds like percussion and overtones. 

If you've ever asked these questions after watching a string performance, the performers were most likely playing their instruments using extended techniques

Watch this George Crumb piece being performed to get an idea of what extended techniques are: 

Ensemble intercontemporain

Those sounds are crazy, right? And they sound nothing like standard classical music, so how are the musicians playing them? And where did George Crumb get the inspiration for such sounds? 

Any method of playing that is unconventional to the standard on an instrument is called an extended technique. Music that is composed today for string instruments most likely uses extended techniques, especially if it is written by a composer trained under a composition class at a university. For instance, here's an electroacoustic piece written in 2017 for the Aspen Music Festival which utilizes many extended techniques, and you can follow along with the score to get an idea of what they look like written out: 

Kaleidoscope performs Screaming Shapes by Peter Shin

Extended techniques are pretty standard now, but they weren't always used this frequently, so let's take a look at a brief history of the development of extended techniques and their involvement in new music. Firstly, in order to have an "extended technique", there must be an understanding of what a "standard technique" is. The basis of what is "normal" on string instruments is changing constantly, and it does not just include long bows on open strings. The first musical development that started to expand the ideas of what can be done on a string instrument came in the 1700-1800s with virtuosic players such as Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) and Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). They were famous in their time for their impressive playing, and the widespread attention came from the fact that very few people could play string instruments in the way that they did. 

Niccolò Paganini
Luigi Boccherini

Though the music they played is still seen today as very challenging, Paganini's and Boccherini's music only uses standard playing techniques in terms of what is composed today. 

Here is Paganini's Caprice Op. 1 No. 5 for reference: 

Salvatore Accardo performs Paganini Caprice Op. 1 No.5

The 18th century was home to the Romantic Era, and in the spirit of Romanticism, string playing moved more towards the dramatic and less towards the simple showcasing of virtuosity, though of course virtuosic pieces were still played and composed.

Here is the opening of the Dvorák cello concerto played by Jacqueline du Pre: 

This piece is highly virtuosic, but the techniques written are still very standard.

Extended techniques started being more explored in the mainstream in the 20th century, which aligns with the massive cultural shift that was happening during this time. Composers and performers started questioning what music is and what kinds of sounds can be considered "music", and a lot of the emphasis in composition shifted from being note-focused to being sound and soundscape-focused. 

Béla Bartók is a massive contributor to this with the creation and usage of the Bartók pizz, which is a technique that allows for a percussive sound. In order to do Bartók pizz, musicians pluck the string, but instead of doing so in a horizontal way to the fingerboard, the motion is more vertical so the pluck allows for the string to hit the fingerboard. 

Here is the fourth movement of Bartok's String Quartet No. 4, showcasing the use of Bartok's pizzicato:

Ulysses Quartet

Bartok's 4th string quartet was composed in 1928, and it is an example of music that uses extended techniques in a way to add to the general sound composition. This was the primary focus of the early 20th century. Extended techniques were used, but instead of being the focus of the work, they added to the soundscape, and they were used with specific notes in mind. Bartok pizz is now considered a standard technique. 

Once extended techniques started becoming more and more developed, there was a whole new world of sound that composers could use, and many chose to in a more concentrated way. This was due to the new ideas that were being formed around music. 

John Cage

The early-mid 20th century was a period of massive social change and development, especially because of World War I and World War II, so people were left distraught with confusion about what normal life is like. Since music is one of the most communicative forms of expression, uncertainty showed itself in music composition as many composers started playing with the concept of what makes music Music. Is it a collection of notes? Does it require a performance? What kind of sound constitutes a piece of music? John Cage (1912-1992), a well-known composer, consistently played with these ideas. He even created a piece where the performance requires a musician to NOT play anything, 4'33". 

Pieces such as 4'33" are an intense representation of the shift in thinking during this time period. In the case of John Cage, there are multiple different interpretations as to why he would compose something like this, but the general idea is that music does not have to rely on specific notes or even specific sounds. It can lie in the act of performing, which is the idea that prompted many pieces including extended techniques to be made. 

John Cage made string music, but his main connection with extended techniques is through his sonatas and interludes for prepared piano. Here is Sonata V: 

Inara Ferreira

Now, getting back to string techniques specifically, George Crumb had a massive influence and a different interpretation of what techniques can add to a piece. Crumb made many works that used interesting effects, such as the seagull effect, which is used in Vox Balance (Voice of the Whale). 

Listen to the seagull effect in this piece: 

Mimi Stillman, flute; Arlen Hlusko, cello; Amy Yang, piano

Here, the thumb and third finger are used to create a finger harmonic, which is moved down the length of the string. The effect is that the harmonics continually descend and start from a high pitch, which sounds like a seagull. In this piece, the specific sounds that are being made are important to the function of the work, which contrasts John Cage's work in the sense that John Cage intended for the act of performance to be the main focus rather than the sounds that are made in performance. Every rendition of Vox Balanae will sound similar due to this mindset, and every sound and second where the sound is played is dictated on the page very clearly. 

Here is what the seagull effect looks like in sheet music: 

In an examination of these three works, it is clear there are three different interpretations of what extended techniques can add to a piece. Bartok created a completely standard piece of repertoire, and the extended technique of Bartok's pizzicato just added to the overall sound quality, not taking away from any of the notes. John Cage created music that did not rely on specificity but instead relied on the act of performance. George Crumb wrote music where specific sounds are made at specific times, and extended techniques are utilized for the sounds they make. 

Now that the general chronological progression of how string techniques have developed has been stated, and it is clear that there are three main reasons why composers use extended techniques, let's dive into some other amazing works that have been created over the years. 

In a similar manner to John Cage, Brian Ferneyhough created a piece of music that is not necessarily focused on the specific sounds that are made while performing in his Time and Motion Study 2 for cello and electronics. 

Séverine Ballon, cello

The sheet music for this piece is insane, and I (Andrea) tried looking at it once and had no idea where to begin. He uses so many markings and notes for the performer, and when I first saw it I thought the sounds would have to be super specific, but when comparing the score to the video I watched, it is clear that the intention of composing a piece like this is not in creating a very specific set of sounds, but it is in the act of performance and the act of dissecting exactly what the composer means. Performing this work requires a ton of effort and specificity, but the performance is seemingly random. I personally do not believe Brian Ferneyhough is looking for a certain output of sound, in the same way, John Cage is not looking for a certain output of sound in his pieces, but maybe this is incorrect. In any case, this piece is awesome. 
part of the score!

Another piece I personally love is Julie-O by Mark Summer. This piece uses the cello as a sort of percussion instrument, and it involves the player hitting the strings of the cello. Here is a video of me playing Julie-O when I was 12!

Andrea Wallick, cello (at age 12)

There are so many amazing string pieces with extended techniques, so I cannot highlight them all, but here are a few more that are definitely worth a listen. 

Matt Liston, cello

Dirk Wietheger, cello

Caroline Stinson and Ieva Jokubaviciute

Renaud Capuçon, violin

Kanghyun Lee

If you want to play string pieces with extended techniques, Fein Violins has great instrument options to do so! Find the right instrument for you:

No comments:

Post a Comment