Flutist and composer Robert Dick's approach to music is often called "extended technique." A catch-all term for anything non-traditional, it also includes avant-garde approaches to playing any instrument. For the flute, extended techniques include tapping the keys in a percussive way or playing entire chords at once in clusters known as multiphonics.
But nearly everything the New York-based musician does is an extension. His embracing of improvisation has helped to loosen the stodgy side of classical music that focuses on performing just the notes on the page.
"Most classically oriented people think that improvisation means jazz," says Mr. Dick, who will visit Pittsburgh to perform solo works and with the local new-music group Alia Musica. "It might, but it certainly doesn't have to be. I improvise in the context of the piece itself." For him, it is not a case of being radical but being true to the music and to the sounds he hears in his head. Improvisation is also about returning to approaches to performing that got lost in the late Romantic period.
"The 19th century was a cannibal and it continues to munch away," he says. "I and others are doing our best to free ourselves. The sensibility of the complete musician who is a composer and performer got lost. I think that is an aberration and needs healing."
Mr. Dick's biggest contribution to the field is another extension, this one physical, that he has invented for the flute. Called the Glissando Headjoint, it replaces the standard headjoint at the end of the instrument with one that allows for seamless glissandos. It allows the mouthpiece to slide up and down, changing the pitch smoothly and precisely.
"It does not replace the flute with a slide whistle," he says quickly. "You have added to the entire flute an explosion of possibilities without losing anything." He created a prototype in 1992 and in the past decade has perfected it. "It is now at that irreducible minimum. It can't get any simpler." He has sold about 100, but composers are starting to write for it, which will be the test as to its future.
"It also changes tone," he says. "An A natural [note] played normally has one basic fingering. With the Glissando Headjoint there are four fingerings and each has a very different timbre. It is not just sliding around, although that is undeniably cool."
The flutist has a certain maverick cool factor, too. There's the rebel bit: "There were various close-minded musicians who gave me flack but there were many who were open minded who said I don't understand what you are doing but keep doing it. I never felt I was in a battle, but presenting new music and new technique has always been a challenge historically."
Plus, Mr. Dick has been inspired by Jimi Hendrix more than famed flute player Jean-Pierre Louis Rampal. Mr. Dick's "Lookout" (1989) is based on '60s-'70s rock, his "Fish Are Jumping" (1999) on 12-bar Chicago blues and his "Air Is the Heaviest Metal" (2008) is a riff on Metallica. He will perform all of these solo flute works in his Pittsburgh appearance.
But nothing gains you more cool points than having jousted with that most traditional of flutists, James Galway, who has little use for extended technique. "We have had public, gladiator-style exchanges over the years," Mr. Dick says with a chuckle. "I would like to thank him for using my name and I would encourage him to keep it up." But the two are now friends, even though they will never see eye-to-eye on flute technique.
In his concerts here, Mr. Dick will perform a new work with the mixed-instrument makeup of Alia Musica. Actually, his "Meristem," for solo flute with seven instruments, was written in 1986, but the composer recently revised it to include an improvised duo between flutist and percussionist. "Meristems are the tiny leaflet clusters at the tips of branches, and it is they that control the plant's life cycle -- when to bloom, when to seed, etc.," he says. "The music is meant to convey intensity, joy and ecstasy."
At key points in the small concerto, Mr. Dick asks the flute to blow out multiphonic chords that fit with the entire ensemble's notes. "The flute wraps around the ensemble," he says. "But the chords are not part of a tonal harmonic system. I am not a system guy. I just play with it by ear."
Just like the rest of his music accomplishments.