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Scrapes and Hisses: Extended Techniques in Improvised Music

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This feature on improvised music based on unusual sounds includes interviews with Kyle Bruckmann, John Butcher, Kai Fagaschinski, David Gross, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Bhob Rainey, and Jack Wright.

Scrapes and Hisses: Extended Techniques in Improvised Music

In the past several years, many improvisers have made extended techniques a focus of their work. Extended techniques are unusual playing techniques, like clicking the keys of a saxophone or bowing the bridge of a violin. They are not new in improvised music – they were not even new in the 1960s and 1970s, when improvising musicians like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, AMM, and many others began exploring them in earnest.

What is new is the trend among many improvisers to use extended techniques as the basis of their sonic vocabularies. Many of these players often use extended techniques almost exclusively. One of them, Jack Wright, describes these new uses of extended techniques as follows:

In the early decades of free improv, when new techniques were the mark of a fresh approach to traditional instruments, they were often considered the new standard to be displayed. But at this point I find players using a more integrated technique, where nothing is ‘extended’ because no technique by itself connotes a radical departure.

As with most statements as general as Wright’s, one could argue that there are exceptions. I think, however, that Wright is generally correct – decades ago, extended techniques were used as alternatives to more traditional playing techniques; now, that is no longer the case.

In this article, I attempt to find tentative answers to basic questions about improvised music that is based on extended techniques: How did performers of this music come to play the way they do? What do they think about when they play? What sorts of musical considerations are important to them?

I am not attempting to define a ‘scene’ or a genre here. Many of these players see their uses of extended techniques as means rather than ends. “In general… extended techniques are just a tool for making music… [they are] not what music is about,” Kai Fagaschinski writes. The ends to which these players use these techniques are sometimes quite different. For example, Bhob Rainey’s music and John Butcher’s are very distinct from one another even though they both play lots of extended techniques on the soprano saxophone – Butcher’s tends to be louder and more aggressive, and he tends to use more percussive noises (like slap tonguing sounds and key clicks) than Rainey does.

Also, many of these players also make music that is outside the scope of this paper – for example, Greg Kelley and David Gross play free jazz, Rainey makes electronic music, Kyle Bruckmann plays in a punk band, and Fred Lonberg-Holm plays in so many different contexts that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. I do not mean to pigeonhole them as types of musicians or pigeonhole their music as a type of music, except insofar as it sometimes fits into the parameters of this article – that is, improvised music in which most of the sounds are extended techniques.

All of which is to say that I’m trying to walk a very fine line between recognizing these musicians as individuals with different aesthetic concerns, and finding common ground among them. Part of my way of achieving this balance has been to rely on their own words whenever possible. This article contains excerpts from e-mail conversations with Kyle Bruckmann, John Butcher, Kai Fagaschinski, David Gross, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Bhob Rainey, and Jack Wright in October and November 2005.

Let’s begin with a listening example that makes it clear extended techniques are not merely additions to or “extensions” of traditional playing. Here is a list of all the sounds used in the brief “O O,” from the 2001 album Bhob Rainey / Greg Kelley: Nmperign by the group Nmperign. (I’ve done my best identifying the sounds.)

Listen: Nmperign, "O O"

  • 0:00 Rainey begins making flutter-tongue air sounds
  • 0:13 Kelley begins making squealing sounds with constricted air flow while scraping piece of metal across the bell of his trumpet
  • 0:30 Kelley adds a few sputtered pitches to the existing texture
  • 0:36 Kelley makes high whistling sound; Rainey’s air sounds become more accented
  • 0:50 Both players make accented sounds including air sounds, sucking on the saxophone reed and a few high trumpet pitches; they are accompanied by an unidentified percussive sound
  • 1:05 Accented sounds become more aggressive; Rainey vocalizes into his instrument
  • 1:17-end Texture becomes less dense; sucking sounds and air sounds are accompanied by high-pitched squeaks

With the exception of a few relatively traditional notes, all these sounds are extended techniques.


Extended techniques may be defined here as instrumental techniques that are unusual relative to the time period in which they were used. The phrase is somewhat troublesome to describe the sounds used by the musicians profiled here, for the reasons that Wright suggests in the quote at the beginning of this article. The word “extended” suggests that “extended techniques” are extensions of some class of traditional techniques. But with these players, what might be called extended techniques in other contexts are no longer extensions, since they are more of a basis for these players’ vocabulary of sounds than traditional sounds are. In any case, I will continue to use the phrase “extended techniques” to describe the hisses, breath sounds, squeals and other unusual sounds that form the basis of the sonic vocabularies of these players. While such sounds might be the norm for these players, they are still unusual for most audiences.

It would be pointless (and outside the scope of this article) to try to locate the moment at which extended techniques began to be used in improvisation, since what actually constitutes an extended technique is dependent upon the conventions of the time in which it was made. It is enough to say that extended techniques have been in use for a long time. What is more important is that in the early years of jazz, musicians used extended techniques mostly as decorations to more central musical features, like pitches, melodies and harmonic changes.

There was also, however, an intermediate step between those uses of extended techniques and the ones discussed here. In the 1960s and 1970s, extended techniques and strange sounds began to take on a greater role than before in the music of many improvisers. For example, Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound (1967) doesn’t feature many extended techniques per se, but it does feature a number of small instruments such as whistle and maracas, the primary roles of which are timbral and textural rather than melodic, harmonic or even rhythmic. Much of the album also floats by slowly and with few directional melodies, in the same way that much of the music discussed in this article does. Anthony Braxton’s For Alto, released in 1969, features explorations of squeals and other extended techniques, particularly in the piece “For My Friend Kenny McKenny.” The British saxophonist Evan Parker explored various types of extended techniques, particularly circular breathing, throughout the 1970s. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was another explorer of extended techniques, particularly squeaks, overblowing and multiphonics on, for example, his “New York Duck” from his 1976 album Snips.

The group AMM was particularly interested in extended techniques. Their works were often very long explorations of texture, and the melodies and style of interaction in most free jazz (more on that later) were nowhere to be found. Rather than interacting with one another in a quick, highly responsive way, they often simply played sustained sounds for a very long time. Their works often made lots of room for pregnant pauses, like a lot of the music discussed here (particularly Rainey and Kelley’s work as Nmperign). AMM member Keith Rowe played with his guitar positioned face-up on a tabletop, rarely making traditional guitar noises.

These musicians’ use of extended techniques differs from those of earlier improvisers not only in the frequency with which they used them, but in the reasons why they used them. For example, Rowe says he turned his guitar on its side in order to radically re-imagine his instrument:

Look at the American school of painting, which was very provincial in the 1800s: they really wanted to do something original but didn’t know how to do it, the clue was to get rid of European painting, but how could they ditch European painting, what did they have to do to do that? And Jackson Pollock did it - he just abandoned the technique. How could I abandon the technique? Lay the guitar flat!

Rowe was trying to create an entirely new kind of improvised music, not just use extended techniques to augment the music of an existing tradition. The same could be said of Braxton who, though he has often paid tribute to earlier forms of jazz, has spent much of his career breaking music into categories. For example, his “Language Music” system of improvisation invites players to improvise using certain parameters, such as long notes, accented notes, and trills. Braxton viewed materials that he used in improvised music much in the way composers of early electronic music did when they broke sound into parameters – amplitudes, envelopes and so on. Braxton often used extended techniques because he was trying to break music into its component parts, the way electronic music did and does. Many of the musicians that are the subjects of this article are, as we shall see, trying to do the same thing, perhaps in a more extreme way – to get away from established musical languages and break sound into component parts.


Despite the influence of improvisers like AMM and Braxton, however, it would be wrong to view the musics of Rainey, Wright, and the rest as straightforwardly deriving from the improvised music of the past. Although many of these improvisers (Rainey, Wright, Gross and many more) have backgrounds in jazz and other more traditional forms of improvised music, many have also spent considerable portions of their musical lives exploring other forms of music that inform their work as improvisers. Rainey has a masters’ degree in music composition from the New England Conservatory and he often plays electronics; his frequent playing partner Greg Kelley has no background in traditional jazz, but he studied classical trumpet at the Peabody Conservatory. Bruckmann has a masters’ degree in classical oboe performance from the University of Michigan. Fagaschinski skipped over jazz clarinet entirely; he began playing his instrument as an adult after beginning to play experimental music on other instruments. Such varied backgrounds are very common among these players.

These musicians also often claim that their music is influenced by music that is not improvisation. Fagaschinski names composers Luigi Nono and Helmut Lachenmann (who wrote pieces which consisted almost entirely of extended techniques throughout the 1970s, such as the 1970 solo piano piece Guero and the 1972 string quartet Gran Torso) as influences. Bruckmann’s list of musicians who influenced his extended technique-based album Gasps & Fissures includes composers György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis, as well as experimentalists like Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock and Bernard Parmegiani. John Butcher cites electronic music as a major influence on his playing. David Gross adds, “I enjoy electronic music and I have tried to reproduce sounds that are more characteristic of electronic music (Luc Ferrari, Gordon Mumma, Bernhard Günter, etc.) than non-electronic…” He also mentions punk rock, noise music, and the music of classical composers like John Cage and Mauricio Kagel as influences.

In the Winter 2003 issue of Signal to Noise, Rainey explicitly argued that although his music may be improvised, it would be wrong to see it as merely a byproduct of earlier improvised music:

This outlook is a misguided historicism that regards improvisation as an idiom rather than a method, imposing a roots-branches-leaves model on improvisers as they appear in chronological order: Derek Bailey at the roots, Jack Wright a branch, perhaps myself a quivering leaf. It disregards an enormous amount of non-improvised influences—from musique concrete to fluxus to sound poetry to techno...Although it would be patently absurd to deny the influence of Free Jazz and European Improvised Music on the current generation of improvisers, I do believe that the improvised music emerging… is significantly different in structure…

Obviously, many musicians claim to be influenced by music that ultimately has little to do with the way they sound. As I will show, however, that is not the case with the musicians cited here – Rainey is right that his and others’ music is not simply “improvised music” in the same way that Derek Bailey’s or Albert Ayler’s is. Extended techniques are part of the reason why.

Let us compare, for example, “Chiaroscuro” from the 2001 album Masses by Spring Heel Jack and the Blue Series Continuum with the first untitled piece from Axel Dörner, Kai Fagaschinski and Boris Baltschun’s 2004 album No Furniture. Daniel Carter, who plays tenor saxophone on the Spring Heel Jack piece, is a free jazz player; Dörner and Fagaschinski (Baltschun plays electronics, and Dörner plays computer as well as trumpet) both play improvised music based around extended techniques, or at least they do here. Both tracks being compared are pieces of improvised music that combine acoustic instruments with electronics.

Listen: Spring Heel Jack, "Chiaroscuro"

Listen: Axel Dörner, Kai Fagaschinski and Boris Baltschun, No Furniture

In the Spring Heel Jack piece, the acoustic and electronic instruments are relatively easy to distinguish from one another. Carter is very clearly taking a solo over mostly electronic accompaniment, particularly at the beginning of the piece. His playing is decidedly melodic, even though the accompaniment is not. A drone on a string instrument that enters about 1:00 into the piece and some intermittent electric noise that sounds like it might be an electric guitar muddy the issue a bit, but Guillermo E. Brown’s frenetic drumming a bit later in the piece also announces itself as drumming, and not as a noise designed to fit into a texture.

On the No Furniture piece, on the other hand, it is very hard to tell where the acoustic instruments end and the electronics begin. Twenty-eight seconds go by before there’s any sound that is obviously an acoustic sound, and even then it’s a non-pitched breath sound with a crescendo that sounds like it is supposed to blend with an electronic figure that appears several times in the first minute of the piece and has a similar crescendo. The only other acoustic sounds that I think I can identify in the first minute and a half of the piece are a flutter-tongued breath sound on the clarinet at 0:46, a breath sound that begins at around 1:00 and crescendos, and the sound of Dörner making a constricted-air-flow sound at 1:17.

The extended techniques that Dörner and Fagaschinski use on trumpet and clarinet, respectively (air sounds, flutter tonguing and so on) disguise the ‘normal’ sounds of their instruments. Their playing is further disguised by the way they employ those sounds: they’re played with relatively consistent air streams, and the three players avoid melodies and the call-and-response moves of most American and European jazz and free improvisation. The influence of electronics on their playing is thus easy to detect because the musicians play in such a way that their playing on acoustic instruments blends with, and is often indistinguishable from, actual electronics.

This blending of acoustic sounds with electronic sounds is hardly limited to this recording; in fact, it is fairly typical for improvisers who use extended techniques as the basis of their vocabularies. Other examples include the Boston Sound Collective, a large group that includes Rainey and Kelley along with tape musician Howard Stelzer; Michel Doneda, Alessandro Bosetti, Boris Baltschun and Serge Baghdassarians’ Strom, in which Baltschun and Baghdassarians play electronics while Doneda and Bosetti play mostly extended techniques on saxophones; Sachiko M and Sean Meehan’s untitled 2003 album, in which Meehan makes sustained sounds on snare drum that mesh with Sachiko M’s sine waves; and so on.

In addition, though extended techniques on acoustic instruments may be the focus of this article, it would be wrong to view these players’ music in terms of a strict dichotomy between musicians who play traditional instruments and those who play electronics. For example, in performances by the duo EKG, Ernst Karel often plays pocket trumpet while Kyle Bruckmann often plays oboe, but the unprocessed sounds of those instruments are rarely heard; both musicians also play electronics. For a second example, on Greg Kelley and Jason Lescalleet’s 2001 album Forlorn Green, Lescalleet uses tape loops to manipulate Kelley’s trumpet sound until it is unrecognizable as a trumpet. Even the usual setups of some of these musicians evade simple description – Rowe’s guitar sound is often so heavy with electronics that it hardly sounds like a guitar; Baghdassarians often plays guitar in addition to electronics, but on recordings like Strom, few obvious guitar sounds are ever heard; Dörner often plays trumpet and computer at the same time; and so on. For these players, the dichotomy between electronic and acoustic really does not exist.


One possible reason that electronic music and improvisation based on extended techniques are intertwined is that timbre (sound quality or color) is a focus for both of them. Electronic music made new kinds of timbre possible; extended techniques, since they are usually based on noise, typically have more to do with timbre than with, for example, melody or harmony. The desire to experiment with timbre is a major attraction for many of the musicians discussed in this paper. For example, Rainey describes his path as a player from John Coltrane-influenced jazz to the music he makes now:

I was always interested in timbre. I just hadn’t been exposed to much music that focused on it specifically… The main bridge to the music I do now was microtonality and the influence of Joe Maneri, who is steeped in jazz but is always encouraging the search for a new rhythm, a new phrasing, a new form. He brought to light some formal elements that I had been struggling with, and the search for microtones on the saxophone brought out timbres that became closer to me than the microtones themselves.

Bruckmann explicitly connects the dots between electronic music, timbre, and extended-technique-based improvised music with regard to his part-improvised, part-composed Gasps & Fissures:

Gasps & Fissures] was quite deliberately an experiment in self-limitation: I asked myself, ‘Hey, I wonder if I can make ’electronic music’ using nothing but my oboes’... At that time I noticed I’d become obsessed more and more with electronic and electroacoustic music than with, say, ‘improv’ or ‘creative music’ in my purchasing/listening patterns... The oboe is a supremely lyrical instrument, but emphasizing melodic invention without harmonic structure would get nauseating pretty quickly; focusing on harmonic structure without a wider instrumental and regristral palette seemed likely to be tedious; delving into rhythm without employing percussion didn’t sound like much fun. Seems to me that electronic music’s greatest gift (and biggest shock, at least initially) was casting such a stark spotlight on the dimensions of timbre and texture -- so that seemed the most fruitful direction to go in. By sticking to extended techniques, I was essentially press-ganging myself into that territory.

Note that Bruckmann sees the use of extended techniques as a way of focusing on timbre and texture and avoiding focusing on melody, harmony and rhythm.

Fred Lonberg-Holm, too, describes the influence of electronic music on his playing:

...Almost everything I do is rooted in the sound world and production process of electronic sound. The classical electronic studio process has always had an effect on how I look at the cello... Oscillators, envelopes, amplifiers, filters, it’s all relevant.

In a later email, Lonberg-Holm elaborated:

The atomization of the sound production process as found in the classical electronic studio had a deep effect on my understanding of construction of sound on the cello in that [I could] see the distance of the bow, the pressure of the bow and the speed of the bow as all separate functions which can have their own settings and envelopes (the way a filter or an amplifier or an oscillator are affected by the same envelope differently and the combined effect of three different envelopes controlling each parameter, etc.)... [F]or me, breaking things down to the smallest components to be taken apart and re-assembled has always been the approach I am most comfortable with.

The “atomization” of sound is a theme that runs through the music of many players who improvise using extended techniques – from Lonberg-Holm to Anthony Braxton, who broke improvisation into lists of particular playing techniques (see above) to John Butcher, who writes that his explorations of extended techniques were motivated in part by his desire to shape the acoustical properties of sound:

I tried to forget I had a saxophone and, in a playing situation, not think, ‘What can the sax do here?’ but think, ‘What musical input do I want to make - what sound, structure, density, etc.’. Then try to find a way of doing it, partly in situ - but more often afterwards, when you remember these things when you’re practicing… It meant really exploring the tiny details of the instrument.

A related point here is that a unifying characteristic of these musicians is that they attempt to re-imagine their instruments as sound sources that may be used to create sounds that are far from their traditional expressive domains. Electronic music is, or can be, far removed from the expressive domains of traditional instruments, but so can other sound sources, such as environmental sound. Lonberg-Holm writes, “I grew up in an era where machines were ubiquitous... [I] want them to be a part of my life and art. The car motor... the air conditioner, the washing machine, the radiators... The cello, for me, is a way to make noises and pitch all under the general heading [of] sound.”

This comment reflects the influence of John Cage, whose music invited listeners to expand their definition of music to include sounds that had not previously been viewed as music. Cage’s most famous piece is 4’33”, in which an instrumentalist sits on stage quietly for four minutes and 33 seconds, inviting the audience to listen to the sounds in the room. Gross specifically mentions the influence of Cage’s music on his work, and it’s clear from listening to a lot of the music described in this article that it couldn’t have existed without Cage’s introduction of a new way of thinking about sound.

For example, Lonberg-Holm and Axel Dörner played on the first release on the Locust label’s Object series, in which performers were asked to “soundtrack” various non-musical objects. Locust says that the intention of the project is to find “audio-visual ties between sounds and objects” and adds that the series “asks players to attempt to search out ties between sound and static, non-musical objects.” Although Locust does not explicitly suggest that these “soundtracks” are representative of what these objects might sound like, Lonberg-Holm and Dörner’s Object 1 nonetheless often sounds much like various types of environmental sound – reviews of the album compared it to “creaks,” “farts,” “blubbery flatulence,” birds, foghorns, flushing toilets and “tongue surgery” and said it sounded “like an engine trying to turn over.” Such comparisons are common in reviews of these musicians.

Rainey also hears parallels between new improvised music and both environmental sound and electronic music, writing in Signal to Noise, “When I hear this music I hear vital work that is playing with frictions between non- or de-signifying environmental ambience and narrative. I hear sonic juxtapositions that had once been reserved for scissors and tape.”

Jack Wright contends that the music described in his article – improvised music that is based around extended techniques – could not have existed without developments in electronics, which opened musicians to new timbres. In reference to what he calls “lowercase” music, which is superficially quiet improvised music that overlaps greatly with the music discussed here, Wright says,

Its origins lie with computer generated music and [have] spread out from there to electronics and extended-technique acoustic improvisation. It can be traced further back to John Cage, who in Indeterminacy III said, ‘If you run across someone who pays attention to sounds, you will find that it’s the quiet ones they find interesting.’ As improvisation, it has been around since the sixties, represented by the English group AMM, but its influence did not spread far, partly since it needed the laptop and other electronics to develop to its present form.

A rough analogy might be drawn here between the broad history of improvised music that led to extended-technique-based improv vocabularies and the broad history of classical music that led to the development of the so-called “spectral” school. With the music of Richard Wagner in the mid- to late-19th century, classical music reached what is commonly called the “end of tonality” – the exhaustion of a particular kind of harmony. In the 1940s and 1950s, jazz reached a kind of exhaustion of harmony with the frenetic changes and esoteric chord patterns of bebop. A dominant type of response emerged to these patterns in both genres – in classical music, Arnold Schönberg developed the technique of serialism, various strains of which were very popular for decades thereafter. In jazz, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and others developed free jazz, which was very popular in the 1960s and still exists today in forms that are relatively similar to its earliest incarnations (see, for example, the Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano example described below).

In classical music, a new type of music, often called “spectralism,” arose. It was a response to the dominant paradigm of serialism, and it was based, as George Benjamin put it when describing Tristan Murail’s music, “…on physical, acoustic properties of sound itself, rather than on any artificial abstract theory.” Spectralist composers tended to be particularly interested in the overtone series, and they are interested in exploring timbre by manipulating the overtone contents of sounds. Their explorations of acoustics went hand in hand with developments in computer technology.

Like spectralism, the music discussed in this article emerged outside of a response (free jazz) to the exhaustion of a particular kind of harmony; it explores timbre to a great degree; and it went hand in hand with developments in electronic music, as Jack Wright notes:

In Europe today often the only door by which acoustic players can expect to get on stage--when they are not brand-name players--is through association with an electronics player. A river has been formed naturally by two streams of current interest--on the one hand, a fascination with the details of the smallest sounds, with the exact space between sound, explored through extended techniques on acoustic instruments. On the other, the interest to experience the widest parameters of sound, which can be done more effectively through electronics than with any single acoustic instrument.


As Rainey indicates, the influences of environmental sound and electronic music on the music discussed here run deeper than their influence on the sounds themselves. Extended techniques demand to be treated in unique ways; for example, they can’t be strung together into melodies the way a series of notes can. Performers of the music that this article is about have adopted different strategies for organizing extended techniques and interacting with other performers who use similar sounds.

Rainey frames his approach to interacting with others in terms of what he’d like to avoid:

People in groups often behave in predictable and disappointing ways. Interaction in all manner of improvisation can clearly illustrate this: theatrical improvisations degenerate into childish conflicts, musical improvisations culminate in a kind of pre-linguistic bickering, etc. My interest lies in digging through all of that dull humanity, being cognizant of those points where the gravity of habit or a plea for attention can suck everything interesting out of the music.

In Rainey’s music, patterns of interaction are difficult for the listener to detect. In free jazz, the patterns of interaction are often very clear to the listener – a musician plays a melody, another plays a variation on or answer to that melody, and so on. This is, of course, a generalization, and sometimes it doesn’t hold, particularly when free jazz gets very loud. But it’s often true.

Take, for example, the beginning of “In Walked Lowell” by saxophonist Paul Flaherty and drummer Chris Corsano, two New England free jazz players who are very much in the tradition of Pharaoh Sanders, Joe McPhee and Albert Ayler.

Listen: Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano, "In Walked Lowell"

Corsano complements Flaherty’s variation on the opening phrase of the piece at 0:04-0:06. Corsano then diminuendos as Flaherty seems to be ending his phrase at 0:09, then quickly gets louder as it becomes clear that Flaherty plans to continue. Both players seem to slow down as Flaherty repeats a phrase at 0:13-0:14. Corsano then fades away as Flaherty ends his phrase at 0:25.

This sort of interaction requires very quick reactions by the players. It also is generally possible to understand in terms that are familiar to students of Western music, such as melody and accompaniment, phrases, and so on. Even when free jazz interaction is not as clear as it is here, it is usually quite linear and phrase-based – a player plays a series of notes that move from one musical place to another.

The music described in this article is usually not so easy to understand in those terms. In much of it, the patterns of interaction are different and, to my ears in 2006, less intuitive. Often, musicians’ individual lines combine to form what might be metaphorically described as passing clouds. A musician plays a long sound or series of short but similar sounds, while another begins and ends a long sound or series of short sounds at a different time.

Take, for example, a short excerpt from Bhob Rainey, Michel Doneda and Alessandro Bosetti’s Placés dans l’air (which translates as “places in the air,” making the cloud metaphor particularly appropriate).

Listen: Bhob Rainey, Michel Doneda, and Alessandro Bosetti, Placés dans l’air

Two of the three soprano saxophonists play sustained sounds with entrances and exits that are staggered against one another. The third saxophonist stays in the background playing jagged, repeated breathy noises. It almost sounds as if the third saxophonist is oblivious to the first two, and the first two are using similar sorts of sounds, but are not unified in their timing.

Gross surprisingly admits that he doesn’t listen as actively when he plays this sort of music as opposed to free jazz:

When I’m playing… what I would call ‘lowercase’, my ideal environment is one where I don’t have to worry about [or] actively listen to what other people are playing, in a sense. I can just do whatever I want to do. Ideally it’s a ‘free counterpoint’. Otherwise, my main concern when I’m playing with other people is to try and be aware of giving enough space and being aware of the ‘composition’ (the piece as a whole, the general shape/form and the things that I have already played).

At a purely local level, this may generally be true, since intense, light-speed interaction might, in some of these players’ views, invite them to act in the “predictable and disappointing ways” Rainey mentions. During a recent trip to the University of California-San Diego, Rainey advised one group of student-improvisers to ignore their first impulse and wait for another one before playing. He wanted to encourage students to be aware of their impulses and what they meant.

Later, he led another group of improvisers through exercises in which one section of a short improvisation was to be played in a manner that sounded non-reactive and “incidental.” He later volunteered that he did this because he felt that improvisers’ desires to make every moment of an improvisation great made whole improvisations less thrilling than they might otherwise be. In Rainey’s view, many improvisations tended to follow repeating sequences of bursts of excitement followed by lulls as players got tired, and his strategy of trying to avoid greatness during part of a piece could help make a whole improvisation better overall by avoiding that pattern.

This last anecdote is a good example of what I believe many of the improvisers discussed in this article to be doing. Rather than concentrating on quick, ultra-responsive interaction, which is not well-suited to their aesthetic outlook or to the sounds they use (since different extended techniques generally do not combine well with one another to form continuous melodic lines), they instead focus their energies outward, concentrating more on form and the overall consistency and unity of their soundworld.

For example, Fagaschinski writes, “I work mainly in projects where we worked a lot together and developed a musical character, or at least I hope so. A lot of things there are at least kind of pre-set by the collective experience.” The same could be said of Rainey and Greg Kelley’s duo Nmperign, which has existed in various forms since the mid-1990s. Though performances of their music are always different, their soundworld is very clearly defined, and their music often sounds as if they are playing some sort of open-ended classical music with a modular form. Kyle Bruckmann sums up this approach in reference to his part-acoustic / part-electronic duo EKG: “The band itself is practically a ‘meta-composition’ achieved through a few years worth of collaborative exploration, improvising, and post hoc mixing and editing.”

Lonberg-Holm also says in that his improvisations with Dörner, local-level interaction is subservient to more general considerations. He also adds that the soundworld he and Dörner create is based on years of playing together:

Axel and I don’t play ‘free.’ If we did, I wouldn’t want to do it. Freedom would imply that from moment to moment choices would be made without consideration of the architecture established before we even start to play and definitely require we discard the information from moments earlier... we work on the things we have been working on for years. In the case of playing with Axel, one thing that makes it satisfying and worth continuing to do... is that we keep on subject.

At least in many cases, then, these improvisers’ energies are focused more on overarching issues, such as form and the creation of a coherent soundworld, and perhaps not as much as some jazz players, such as Flaherty and Corsano, on issues of moment-to-moment interaction.


The issue of drawing limits – deciding what sorts of sounds and approaches are appropriate or inappropriate for a given context – is an important one for improvisers who make music that uses extended techniques as the basis of its vocabulary of sounds, in part because many musicians who use extended techniques this way do so in order to defy expectations or avoid what they see as tropes. As Lonberg-Holm puts it,

I am free to say what I like in this ‘interview’ and yet I probably won’t tell you… something about how I feel about the death penalty... In the environment with Axel... I don’t choose sounds that would be considered ‘ordinary’... as they are perhaps too pregnant with expectations of harmonic and melodic developments which we are purposely trying to evade. By keeping the sounds as ambiguous as possible (or trying to) we are more free to work outside the expectations one might usually have.

Rainey adds that to focus on the classes of sounds themselves (extended techniques) misses the point:

Observed from the vantage point of the music and not the instrument, what traditional techniques do you imagine I could include? By which I mean that much of what I have in terms of extended techniques has come from the pursuit of a certain music, not from the pursuit of the techniques themselves. In that sense, the techniques are not extended, they are integral.

Nearly every musical performance must be guided by limits, at least implicitly. But limits seem especially important in this music since playing only (or mostly) extended techniques can seem counterintuitive to any schooled musician – musicians trained in any Western tradition are taught to make music around notes, not noises.

I once played in a concert in which I was asked to create a series of extended techniques that would mirror the actions of a dancer performing with me. It was fairly easy to figure out which extended techniques to use. But it was extremely hard to play them in order without stopping to think, even though they required much less precision to perform than, for example, a C major scale. For most trained musicians, to play mostly or only extended techniques during an improvisation involves a rejection of that which comes easiest. Bruckmann seems to agree: “… I attempt to focus intently within a specific context. I felt I’d explored (and continue to explore) other musical parameters elsewhere; Gasps & Fissures was quite deliberately an experiment in self-limitation.” Wright adds that he learned from Rainey and other musicians to play in such a way as to avoid “letting the gut instinct rule.”

Gross says that defining himself as a player involved a process of stripping away ideas as well as a process of accumulating them:

...I think what we think of ‘music’ is really a historical bias. ‘Music’ just seems that way because that’s what we’ve learned it is. So, for me a challenge in playing is to try and unravel my own pre-conceptions and still try to create something which interests me... There was a point... when I realized that if I was going to ‘have my own sound’ that I would have to stop playing certain things and remove techniques/sounds rather than simply accumulating as many ‘things to do’ as possible.

I also asked several of these players if they every felt frustrated by the limits of extended techniques themselves, reasoning that there is a limited number of extended techniques available on each instrument and a limited range of manipulation for each. Gross replied that he does worry about this. Fagaschinski wrote, “I think the possibilities on an instrument are (almost) unlimited. The only problem is that most of the possibilities sound so stupid and awful or, maybe worse, just boring.”

But Lonberg-Holm reacted somewhat defensively, perhaps with justification. “The more you study any thing, the bigger it can become. Would you ask the same question of Alvin Lucier? ... [Lucier’s Vespers] could be described as inanely small or become the whole universe... for me, I think the latter.” He later added, “I still don’t understand why pitch is for you an endless world where as noises are limited. Noise is for me just a collection of frequencies that are un-analyzable by the ear. Therefore, there are gradations and, as with any instrument’s timbral signature, [noises are] mutable and transitory.”

I now think that these sentences cut to the heart of the matter. A lot of the variation in these musicians’ playing takes place in elements of the music that are not on the page – not in notes or rhythms, but in noises. For me as a trained musician and, I think, for most Western listeners, the possibilities of music that depends heavily on the elements that are described by traditional music notation seem great because they’ve been mapped out so clearly and because we’re used to hearing them. We’re not as used to talking about noise or identifying subtle changes in timbre. For example, in the description of the Nmperign piece at the beginning of this article, I had no trouble identifying large changes but lots of trouble with small ones, and the description of the sound that I gave reflects only the main changes.


Improvised music today features lots of music whose players use mostly extended techniques. This music has its roots partly in the earlier improvisations of AMM, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and others who explored extended techniques, but also in electronic music, environmental sound and modern classical music. They use so-called “extended techniques” in such a way that the sounds they use are no longer extended in the sense of their being extensions of ordinary technique, but rather form the basis of a vocabulary of sounds unto themselves. These players have developed unique ways of organizing these sounds and interacting with one another.


1. Rainey made this comment in reference to an article about Jack Wright’s music that used the term “reductionism,” which is often used to refer to improvised music that is, at least superficially, very quiet. Rainey was not specifically referring to extended techniques in improvised music. However, the area of overlap between music that is sometimes described as “reductionist” and the music described in this paper is so large that it makes sense to apply his comments here.

2. Future generations will, of course, hear this music differently. As Wright notes, “I can imagine someone listening to Rainey a few years from now and thinking he is too sentimental; he would fall prey to the next batch of hard-assed youth. It is all human stuff, it just takes time for people to assimilate it.”

By Charlie Wilmoth

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