Extended Techniques—Who needs ‘em?
—Written by Jason Hall, writer/clarinettist, in conversation with François Houle
It’s back to school time again and the world’s music schools are greeting a fresh crop of inquisitive young musicians eager for the new. Or are they? Clarinettist François Houle teaches at Vancouver Community College and the University of British Columbia and, for such a respected contemporary musician with decades of experience, he sometimes finds it hard to move his students beyond the traditional canon of playing practices and repertoire. They just want to learn the standards. Where are the young musicians pushing the envelope?
I checked in with François to find out what arsenal of contemporary techniques he relies on as a New Music clarinettist. His response: “Pretty much everything under the kitchen sink”, which is to say that he’s either learned techniques to keep up with the “ever-expanding sonic palette of contemporary music” or he’s developed techniques on his own out as he pushes the envelope for himself. I admire his unbound curiosity.
“The term extended technique is a bit misleading”, he says, “It implies anything outside of conventional approaches. This state of mind only induces a resistance to playing beyond the confines of established musical norms.”
I recall a lengthy list of techniques that are considered extended in one way or another, but of course players and composers are always finding new ways to extend the instrument:
- Breath attacks
- Circular breathing
- Composite fingerings
- Double clarinets
- Double tonguing
- Effects processors (including microphones)
- Key noises (without blowing)
- Ornamentation and multiphonic trills
- Slap tonguing
- Super altissimo
- Vocalizations (singing or humming through the instrument)
I asked François to describe a piece of his that includes several extended techniques and he directed me to “Circulaire” from his 2006 Aerials album. Like François, “Circulaire” is French and the name contains several jeux de mots. François described “Circulaire” as meaning anything from inner circle to continuous renewal or even circular (as in a flyer you get in the mail). The piece “Circulaire” is entirely improvised but its structure circulates around collections of non traditional fingerings in which each finger is assigned a task it must perform. “Every time you play it, it is different”, he said, “The improvisation follows the same idea of fingerings assigned tasks that create non traditional fingerings, but details change each time it’s played.” In “Circulaire”, François employes circular breathing, alternative fingerings, and multiphonics.
Clarinet DNA Project
“Circulaire” points to a bigger project François is up to—one he calls The Clarinet DNA Project. François, well aware of standard fingering charts needed to play conventional repertoire, was looking for fingering charts that went further. “Starting with a low E”, François said referring to the clarinet’s lowest note, “and opening each finger above one by one, how many different notes can I produce?” The Clarinet DNA Project’s aim is to answer that question. Some fingerings create standard sounding notes while others open the door to extended techniques, so he’s mapping out all possible non traditional fingerings on the clarinet to create a compendium.
Question: How many keys on a standard Boehm clarinet?
Answer: 17 keys (and 6 rings)
Question: How many single venting hole possibilities are there on the clarinet?
Answer: 20 (only counting the ones that are physically possible) look at this very elegant diagram!
In “Circulaire”, he starts on the lowest note, but raises upper fingers to create different effects. “That’s where I'm cutting the bore open”, he says figuratively, essentially nutshelling his Clarinet DNA Project. “Circulaire” is to some extent an application of his Clarinet DNA Project. It also starts on the low E he opens the index finger on the right hand (the “Bb” finger) and depending on how hard he blows he gets either an overtone or a multiphonic. And of course, there’s the circulating part, which produces layers of effects. “As long as they cycle…” François said emphasizing one of the few constraints in the improvisation.
When I first listened to “Circulaire”, it sounded to me like a splatter of notes—at best like a Jackson Pollock canvas with all its random drips and spills. Now, through François's use distinct extended techniques and his methodical approach with The Clarinet DNA Project, I am beginning to appreciate the intrinsic order and purpose in the music. “Circulaire” now swirls with rich tapestries of colour. Rather than the Jackson Pollock metaphor, François laughed when I suggested “Circulaire” reminded me of this installation art piece: