Cello

Cello

It is a sound-box (not a source point), an anthropomorphic construct full of formal tropes and symmetries concealing essential asymmetries and roguish tendencies. It is a place where resistance and abandon are transcended: the shapes speak of strength and generosity. It is box within a room (it doesn’t like the outdoors), a pierced Janus speaker-cone pointing inwards strewn with taut ropes, an ergonomic marvel designed to brew pitched sounds with eloquence, poetry, and seemingly infinite flexibility.

It is so familiar in this particular role.

The cello is also marvellous at un-pitched sounds and the zillions of in-betweens. It doesn’t know whether one is bowing a stick attached to the bridge or bowing the strings, or if the bowing is up and down rather than across, or if the fingers of the left hand hover somewhere on the strings where natural harmonics cannot be found. Whatever source is put through its time-corduroyed membranes, it still is a cello making these sounds.

Concepts shape the world as well as being shaped by it.

The main purpose of this short text is to question the concept of ‘extended technique’. I want to argue that this wording creates an unnecessary distinction.

Paradoxically, it is primarily a way of not examining what the field of ‘un-extended technique’ might be, so not registering that it is in flux, constantly evolving since its beginnings, and contingent on environment and history in the way any evolutionary process is.

The possibilities afforded by instruments, for all their bumpiness, for all the messiness of physicality, are part of a continuum which echoes the continuum of sound, itself full of discontinuities. Centuries of sustained, constantly evolving practice in the craft of playing, composing, listening, making and adapting instruments, each generation working on the mapping of possibilities in relation to the needs of musical situations contribute at each point in time to a collective, sensitive, sensory virtuosity.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago listening to a beautifully fresh performance of Schubert’s Quintet in C by the Cavaleri Quartet and Nick Roberts. There was the flexibility I pointed to earlier, subtle play between blend and differentiation of the two cellos, to mention only one tiny aspect of this strange cultural and existential miracle which is chamber music.

As the gamut of possible notations is always reflecting and shaping musical thought, to stick to an idea such as ‘extended technique’ in traditional instrumental training and practice runs the risk of separating-off musical material, and placing it in a semi-foreign territory where it can be seen as abstruse, or even anecdotal or gimmicky and ends up becoming performed with indifference (by which I mean, the level of attention to sonic interrelationships becomes lower, the differentiation between the qualities of events and their meaning cruder than in the standard ‘un-extended’ technique).

In various fields of improvisation (not necessarily experimental in intent), and of experimental music (not necessarily improvisatory in its unfolding), attention is paid to the is-ness of sound, to the child-like discovery and the investigation of minute worlds within worlds. There is no extended technique here, just technique, in the sense of embodiment, active relationships with and between materials.

To end, I would like to mention a recent CD recording of a piece which I am quite taken with, ‘Harmonics of real strings’ (2006) by John Lely [on the ‘Another Timbre’ label], a performance on the cello by Anton Lukoszevieze. One delightfully simple compositional idea: left hand gliding as slowly as possible on a string from end to end, bowing right hand making the sound happen. Worlds open, interact, close, materiality bringing an infinitely precise chaos – a musique informelle of the way things are – to the music of the spheres.

It is a piece for cello, and much more.

Photo by Peter David Grant

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