Thursday, December 20, 2012

Noël pour l'accordéoniste

Fa la la la la ...

What does l'Accordéonaire want for Christmas?

Je suis content, usually, and I don't spend a lot of time desiring things, and when I do, I make sure it's an important thing that will improve my quality of life.  Something related to accordéons. But Christmas invites the question: what do you want, darling?  Here are four things that seem especially cool to me.

Vent de Galerne: I don't know how it is that I don't already have this CD, but I don't. What I've heard is gobsmackingly beautiful. The latest endeavor by La beloved Chavannée is focused on a nautical theme. There's a lot of synergy between Vent de Galerne and the river boat built by the clan last year. Free samples can be heard over on myspace (of all places), and the CD can be ordered from the Chavs themselves, here.

The Early Andy Cutting/Chris Wood recordings: more stuff I should already have, but they seem to be hard to find, especially on this side of the pond. The relatively few recordings I can get -- Albion, Handmade Life, Andy's eponymous recording, etc. -- have become the soundtrack for this six month of my life. What an amazing thing that two such talents should have found each other in the world.

A Trip to France:  Yeah, well ...

A Wesson Melodeon: I decided some months ago -- probably just moments after playing my Nik for the first time -- that my next box would be a one row in D. I've done a lot of looking, and have gotten my heart set on a box by Rees Wesson in Welshpool, Wales. My goal is to use it to play some of the French Canadian repertoire local to Maine, and to start dipping back into the reels and jigs (flashback to the tin whistle, Irish session days in Minnesota ...) Actually, I've always loved Irish on the one-row (no, that's not me). One-rows also have a tradition in East Anglian music, and, of course, in Cajun music. Here's Rees playing the Bristol Hornpipe:

Oh, my.  That is a beautiful thing that would improve my quality of life.

All right, so I guess I'm not all that great at producing the list o' stuff to buy, a la Oprah or Rachel Ray. Cross marketing? Not for me. One thing I'd like, no one can give me: time to make more music! What do you, dear reader, want for your accordion Christmas?

Maybe I'll do better for New Year's Resolutions ... or Yom Kippur penance.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Castagnari in the Wild

This Nik approached us on a trail in Vaughn's Woods, in Hallowell, ME. Considering how skittish they usually are, this box was extraordinarily friendly and docile. Notice that the straps are fastened, indicating that it may have once been domesticated. Anyone else with sightings to report. Images will be published here.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tribute: Vivant

Vivant:  Derriere les Carreaux / Knife Edge

Before you do anything else, give that track a listen. Careful, though. One can, if one is the type, fall into the beauty of it. Vivant, a duo of fiddler Mark Prescott and accordéonist Clive Williams (who has been mentioned here before, and who is well-known as one of the senior partners over at has an amazing touch. Lyrical, precious, sweeping ... dare I say it? ... pretty. I was going to write more extensively about the recording, but after I asked him a few questions, Clive offered the following, eloquent account Vivant's approach, history, and new album coming up.

by Clive Williams

To stream in its entirety for FREE go HERE
Mark and I met at our local music session, the Vaults Bar Sunday session in Stony Stratford. It just so happened that we both happened to go for the first time on the same session, and happened to sit next to each other, and enjoyed playing together. I did some playing with Mark, and some playing with a fantastic guitarist, Chris Boland who I'd met through GIG CB (The George Inn Giant Ceili Band), and we then tried doing trio stuff together. It was very good, but not long after, Chris relocated to Liverpool and we dropped back to being a duo. A little while later, Mark had a year off doing round-the-world stuff, and when he came back, I got him involved with GIG CB, along with a couple of other fine chaps... and introduced him to the world of french dance music via our GIG CB Gennetines gigs where we go each year. And we did our first CD shortly after, as a way of getting back into playing together as a duo again - that was about 2001!

On the recording, you'll hear 3 boxes - mostly the Castagnari Mory in D/G, with the semi-unisonoric layout that makes that A minor drone on the opening track, "After Hours," possible. Try playing that on a standard melodeon! While it doesn't actually give you more chords over a normal 12 bass, unisonorics add a lot of textural possibilities; you can play them normally, drone the bass note, drone the chord, hold a G chord drone while playing D, Bm, C, chord sequences over the top, and all manner of crazy stuff. It's great for developing a bass "story" during a track, like in the Tallis' Canon, where the tune on the melody end is more or less consistent all the way through; it's the bass that varies. You'll also hear a Hohner Model I 1930's box in C/F, on "Carousel," and "Mazurka Rigal," and on a couple of tracks; "Benjamin's," and "Corpus Christi Carol," the melody is played on a Castagnari Lilly in A/D. I've still got all three boxes, and you can see each of them in my youtube videos.

With one exception, Mark's composition, "Julie," the music is as it would be played live; i.e. in concerts we can play these pieces as played on the CD - there are no overdubs or 'special guests' - one of my bugbears is musicians who do a great live act, but when they come to do a CD, feel the need to spice it up by adding a bit of guitar here, a bit of drums there, and before you know it, they've got a sound which is nothing like the magnificent live sound which made you buy the CD in the first place.

So, when we play this stuff out, it's quite similar to how we play it on the CD, albeit that we've both developed as musicians since then, so the nuances will have changed. It's not arranged note by note - we simply listen to each other as we play, and complement each other. It also helps of course that without any guitarist/bass player/etc, I've got pretty much free rein to do whatever I want on the bass end without clashing. We like playing in churches; we do occasional gigs in my local parish church in Stony Stratford, where the acoustic is just amazing - our slower paced stuff suits the natural reverb of the church perfectly. We'll be playing there again, in mid June, when hopefully we should have our long overdue second album ready.

The second album, by the way, will be just like the first; just the 2 of us playing, gentle but sweeping stuff, using the Mory and the C/F Hohner, and again played exactly as we would play it live.

Go to Vivant's bandcamp site to stream the album in its entirety for free. You can also purchase or download it there.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gratitude at 40,000 Hits

In the United States, the fourth thursday of November is Thanksgiving. I love this holiday and love having the opportunity to express my gratitude for the extraordinary blessings in my life, many of which center on the accordéon, its music, and its masters.

  • Speaking of masters, first on the list would have be my wife, who has been generally and genuinely supporting of my accordéon efforts during the course of our marriage. Just as one example, she did NOT send back the Castagnari Nik when it arrived in the post last February, when I was at work. Instead, she sent a picture on my phone, and called me up so I could hear how it sounded.
  • Thanks to the folks who have willingly discussed with me things accordéon related, including Frédéric Paris, Sylvain Piron, Dave Mallinson, Alexandra Brown, and, most recently, Andy Cutting.
  • Thanks to the friends of this blog -- whether they know it or not -- who have been willing to discuss issues with me as I developed posts.  Some have actually written stuff that I've published here. Thank you, Andy of Vermont, Chris Ryall, Geoff Wooff, Owen Woods, Steve Mansfield, Chuck Boody, et many al. Tom McDonald -- despite being a non-accordéonist -- has been a real help just on the blogging and inspiration front.
  • Thanks to! Not enough to be said about that friendly, squeeze congregation's influence on my quality of life! Just today, a quorum from that parish helped talk me off the ledge over a reed that seemed to be going sour.
  • Thanks to everyone involved in the collective effort to bring the "La Bourrée" tune book out, a huge important task! The folks at really stepped up for this one.
  • Thanks to my kids -- Max, Brigid, Emma, Julia, and Sarah -- who somehow think that it's cool that their old man plays obscure accordéon music. They continue showing up to my gigs.
  • Thanks to Amy and Rob, at the Water St. Cafe, in Gardiner, who have given me a place to play regularly in the past few months, so that I could get my chops into shape.
  • Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. Having just crossed the 40,000 hits line, I have no idea, really, who you all are (the occasional comment would go a long way!) ... and I monetize the blog in only a very minor way ... but this blog was started because I wanted to talk about accordéons with people who wanted to listen to me talk about accordéons.  Thank you.

Monday, November 19, 2012

La Soufflette (Waltz)

Frédéric Bordois' waltz, from La Chavannée's Le Long de la Riviere (and also in their tune book).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Rondeau at the Hubbard Library

Another tune from my performance at the Hubbard Free Library!

BONUS CLIP:  Talking about the phenomenon of accordéon face. It's not a gormless dysfunction, it's style.

Friday, November 16, 2012

At the Hubbard Free Library

Last night I played a free gig at the Hubbard Free Library, in Hallowell, Maine. It was short -- about 45 minutes was requested -- and cookies were provided. It was a great time!

The room was filled with some very appreciative people who seemed more than reasonably fascinated by the music I was playing. I live so much in the accordéon world that I forget that it's an uncommon -- dare I say, revelatory? -- experience for some. I video taped the whole thing. Here's a set of Scottishes. Notice that even though I've been playing all of these tunes for nearly a decade, I still have a glitch in the last tune. Grumble.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bourrées à Deux Temps

While continuing my conversation with Andy Cutting, I've done a small bit of recording. My own journey with the Nik continues! Here are four two-beat bourrées done in a very straight-forward (bog norme) style. The tunes are La Ruban Bleu, Le Bergére de Coulandon, Le Timide, and Youp' Nanette (also called Bourrée à Six de Briantes).

This Youp' Nanette is different from the other Youp' Nanette, which can be found HERE. All of these tunes except Le Timide can be found in Mally's Bal Folk tune book.

UPDATE: Found this very charming video of a group performance of La Ruban Bleu.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Andy Cutting's Boxes (Pics!)

Discussing his non-collection, Andy Cutting sent along pictures of some of his accordéons. Not pictured are any of the three Mory boxes, which are somewhat ubiquitous in Cutting's photos.

One of the Maxes, the Pokerwork, the Mignon, and ... what is that with
the stradella bass? Is that the Crimean thing from John Tam?

The Oakwood
I also asked Cutting about acquiring a D/G Castagnari Lilly "by accident." He tells the following story:
I ordered a D/G Lilly for a friend. A few months later it arrived. My friend was delighted then a couple of weeks another one arrived. I couldn't very well send it back so I kept it. I now lend it out to people who want to have a go at playing the the box.
This makes a bit more sense than the Lost Weekend I was envisioning -- where you wake up with unexplained accordéons in your home -- and reveals a not very surprising generosity of spirit!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Andy Cutting Interview Part 2: Gear Talk

Part One is Here.

Andy Cutting does NOT have an accordéon collection. Listening to Andy Cutting, one is entranced, of course, by his playing, but one also marvels -- perhaps with a modicum of jealousy -- at the sound of his instruments. I asked Cutting about his instruments. Is he a gear hound? Does he have a collection?

I wouldn't say I was a gear hound at all. I'm primarily driven by playing music on a machine and have the instruments I feel I can best do that. I don't really have a collection, as such. Although my wife would say otherwise! For those who are interested, the boxes I have are:

with the beloved Mory
  • Hohner Pokerwork D/G (my first box which I still play at home) 
  • Hohner one row four stop G 
  • Hohner Club 3 D/G 
  • One of those Chinese one rows
  • A small two row CBA thing that John Tams got in the Crimea when he was filming Sharp
  • Castagnari Mignon Gish, 
  • Two Castagnari Max, one in D and one in A
  • Castagnari Lilly D/G (bought by mistake!) 
  • Castagnari Handry 18 G/C
  • Oakwood (I've no idea what model. It was made for me), two row 21 button, 8 bass with stop for the thirds, G/C Bandoneon (octave) tuned, 
  • Two Castagnari Mory C/F and, finally, 
  • Castagnari Mory D/G (my most used and favorite box)

I also have on long term loan a Marcel Messervier Melodeon in D. So as I said, not really a collection.

How has he come by them? How did he first move beyond the Pokerwork?

I have over the years tried and played just about all the makes of boxes I've heard of. Some fabulous and a few dreadful. When I had been playing a few months I had the opportunity to play a Castagnari and it was just so much better than the Hohner I was playing. So after a lot of persuasive discussion and an approaching 18th birthday, I somehow convinced my parents that I needed a better box. We had been to Bromyard Folk Festival and I had been given a copy of the Castagnari catalogue by Rees Wesson (a fine one row maker). I sat down with my dad with a mind to get a Nik (two voice, two row, eight bass but with hand made reeds). My dad said that from all that I'd been saying, it sounded like I wanted something much more like ... and he pointed to the Mory. I wasn't going to say no, and so, with a bit of translation it was ordered. Several months later (!!) it arrived ... and I hated it! It was so much bigger and heavier than my Pokerwork and I could barely reach the inside row of bass buttons, let alone the stops. I thought about it and knew that I would have to change the way I played. After a few days and a lot of work I totally fell in love with it.

Some items on that list are very intriguing! Two Maxes? Why two one rows? 

When I started playing with Chris Wood it was primarily to play some of the Quebecois repertoire. The only one row I had was in G and not super so I got the Max in D. Later I got the A one so that Chris could play in A. Fiddle players like A. Now I mostly use them in my Solo concerts and a bit with Martin Simpson.
With Chris Wood

And why is the Mory his favorite? Not that this is a hard question ... why wouldn't it be his favorite? But he's got a Handry 18, G/C, the classic big box played by the likes of Bruno LeTron, Didier Laloy, and other Samurai. Why isn't the HANDRY his favorite?

I bought the Handry 18 about fifteen years ago. I really like it but it's just not me. It is in many ways too capable and as I've said before, I love the limitations of the instrument. With the big box it feels a little like cheating. I know it's not, but the challenges that box brings aren't the ones I'm so interested in.

It's interesting that the box is G/C and the rest are D/Gs. Switching between the two can be difficult for some (okay, me) as the center of the instrument seems to shift from the knee end of the box to the chin. What's the method behind Cutting's key choices?

I play in D/G tuning because that is where most of the music I play is pitched. It is the standard in England. I have always tried to play in both octaves. So, I've never thought the difference [between D/G and G/C] too great. When teaching in England I try to get people playing in the top octave and when in Europe I get them to play in the bottom. It's great practice and after a while you stop going eeak, the fingerings different! and just get on with it. 

Most people I work with are amazingly accommodating. I got the C/F box so it was easier to play in D & G minor with the pipes and hurdy-gurdy. If someone wants me to play and it's in a daft key for the box. All it usually takes is a bit of explanation and nine times out of ten they'll shift the key.  The singers I work with have mostly been more than happy to move key's. 

In general, what does Cutting look for in an accordéon?

When trying out boxes it has to have a great action, an even tone across both ends and most importantly for me, have a very good response from very quiet to reasonably loud. I'm not into the bullworker melodeon, loudest is right thing at all. Volume is easy. Subtlety is not. But that of course depends on what you're trying to achieve.

For me Castagnari seem to fit the way I play, or rather, I have learnt to play the way they work, better than any other make I've tried. That is just my personal taste. I would like a Melodie box and would dearly love to try a Bergflodt.

And, as an aside, what about the electronics?

For miking up the box I use an Audio Technica ATM 350 pro and for the left had I use the element off a PZM (Pressure Zone Mic) made by Realistic (or rather, no longer made by Realistic) mounted on the outside of the base plate with the mic looking through a sound hole. This is wired internally to a jack socket. Of the many mic systems I've tried this works best for me.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Andy Cutting Interview Part One

Part Two is HERE.

Andy Cutting was not the first to bridge the channel between English melodeon and Musique du Centre-France, but his work in the 90s -- with Blowzabella and Chris Wood -- elevated the art form. His style is the envy of many (okay, me!) with its effortlessness, flow, and ... rhythmic feeling of levitation? His compositions are intricate and intriguing and they stick with you. A tune like "Spaghetti Panic" draws you in and sparks a compulsion to try and learn it.

During breaks in his touring, Andy agreed to an interview-via-email. Part one starts with early stories. Later installments will discuss equipment, repertoire, composition, and technique. The conversation is ongoing, though, so if you've got a question for Andy, I'll be happy to pass it on!

Let's begin.
You appeared on the scene in the mid-80s. Could you give me some background: where you grew up? Why folk music? Why the accordéon?

I was born in Harrow, North West London. My parents were both enthusiastic morris dancers and as such, from the age of about four, me and my older brother were taken with them on various morris tours and to folk festivals on most weekends of the year. My parents were also keen members of the local folk club. My brother studied the violin and I found myself learning to play the drums. Just before my sixteenth birthday a friend lent me an old beat up melodeon to repair. I fixed various problems with it and a couple of weeks later I gave it back to him. He asked how I'd got on? I explained all the repairs I had made and he said, "No. How did you get in trying to play it?" I played him two or three tunes and he exclaimed, "That's not fair! It took me about three months before I could play a tune!" I thought maybe I was onto something. He then tracked down an old Hohner Pokerwork and my parents bought it for my 16th birthday. It was only years later that I had realized that growing up around folk music the tunes must have gone into my mind subconsciously so when I first tried the melodeon I was just having to learn the mechanics of it.

When did you realize that you and the accordéon made an extraordinary team? What do you love about the accordéon?

My initial aim was just to be better than the box players I knew. (I was an arrogant 16 year old!) By that I mean, most of the players I knew or saw play would knock out a few tunes in pubs after the morris had danced. Thinking about the classical world there were beginners, amateurs who played in orchestras, people who would rise up the ranks to lead orchestras, professional players and international soloists. It seemed like an unbroken arc. But with the box playing world, that I knew at the time, there were the people who knocked out a few tunes then a massive gap with John Kirkpatrick right at the top with a handful of good players somewhere in between . I just wanted to be able to do more than get through a few tunes. So I set about practicing. A lot. About eight hours a day for nine months or so. I love the limitations of the diatonic button accordion. It makes you think and be creative about the way you achieve the effect your looking for.

Could you describe those early days? What was the scene like where you were? Who were your heroes? What repertoire?

When I started playing I was very much taken under the wing of a great player (Ian Dedic) who used to take me to sessions. He was also not happy just top churn out the same old tunes every week. He was very innovative in his playing and my challenge to myself was to try and emulate what he was doing and maybe even push him a bit? The main session that I started playing at was set up to play anything but Irish music. It wasn't an exclusive thing. It was just that within a ten mile radius you could go to at least two Irish sessions on every night of the week and some people just wanted the chance to play music from other traditions (mainly English). I was lucky to start playing at that time and to have such a good session reasonably close to home. I rapidly got to hear about other box players. Especially ones from Europe. Most notably for me: John Kirkpatrick. Tony Hall, Martin Ellison, Dave Roberts, Roger Watson, Marc Perrone, Riccardo Tesi, Christian Desnos, Michelle Pichon, Serge Desunay and Philippe Bruneau. I started off playing English tunes then learnt nearly all of John Kirkpatrick's record Three in a Row, The English Melodeon. After that I started learning tunes from Mark Perrone, Riccardo Tesi and then most of Blowzabella's repertoire.

Part Two is HERE! Here's a video of Andy with Chris Wood to keep you warm (thanks Clive Williams).  Go to 6:45 if you were wondering what I meant by "levitation" above.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Spaghetti Panic

Andy Cutting is one of the most esteemed accordéonists in the land. If you wonder why, check out this video.

The tune, "Spaghetti Panic," is one of Cutting's best known, in his repertoire for more than two decades. It still amazes. My first reaction, "How???" My second is, "Wonderful!" My third is, "Hey, he gets accordéon face, too!"

COMING SOON: An interview with Andy Cutting! Yes, I'm excited!

UPDATE: Note that the sheet music for "Spaghetti Panic" is in Alexandra Browne's book, Diatonic Liaisons.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tribute: Jean-Michel Corgeron

Jean-Michel Corgeron has been quietly instrumental in the world of tradFrench accordéon music for as long as I have been aware. As a diatonist and transcriber, Corgeron has had an intimate relationship with Trad Magazine, and is credited with inventing their accordéon tablature. This tab system has become one of two standard systems in wide use (the other is from the CADB, a breton accordéonist collective). The first time I saw his name was as the transcriber for Frédéric Paris's Cahier de Repertoire, so influential to my own development.

Recently, via a Facebook update, I discovered that Corgeron had posted the first album by his quartet, Bouffée d'Airs, over on Sound Cloud for free streaming. I urge you to go HERE and check it out. That recording, and much more, can be found at Corgeron's Franches Connexions site.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

My Set List

I'm playing at the Water Street Cafe this afternoon and compiling a set list. At the same time, I've begun recording a CD, and putting together a set list for that. It's interesting that the live set list is much longer than the recording set list (which is continuing to evolve). Tunes that I feel completely comfortable playing in a bustling cafe, don't meet my standards when committed to recording -- and both of those are small subsets of the large group of tunes I play in my living room. So here's the live set list. Links, in some cases, to videos.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Squeezie Scholars

Picture by Dave Fournier
At the final session of my spring class (a research practicum), I and my colleagues brought our boxes to bellow away the brunch time break. That's Josh Ottow on the left, Richard Ackerman on the right, and me in the center. Given that this is an educational leadership program, I'd say the administration of Maine's schools is in extraordinarily excellent hands.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A MADness of Hohners

Some months ago, Lester Bailey posted the below video as a submission for the June 2011 tune-of-the-month, the tune "Lemmy Brazil's No. 2." I've come back to it again and again, ever since. Played on a plethora of Hohner accordions, Lester's vid gives a great sense of the range of sounds the might Hohner brand has -- all of them happy making.

And as a bonus, also from Lester, a pin up of Lementina Brazil herself!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Grandfather's Accordéonist

Updated below!

Going through some family photos, I found this. I'm not sure what exactly what this group is -- a fraternal organization?  a business club? -- and I'm not sure why they seem to have a pet accordéonist ... but that's pretty dang cool! My grandfather, Charles Hinnen, fourth from the right, was around twenty-five at the time, and would have been in Zurich, but I really can't say for sure where this was.

Thanks to Peter Bernard for scanning and cleaning up this photo.

UPDATE: My blogging colleague, Owen Woods points out in comments that the box in this picture is a schwyzerörgeli, a swiss variety of accordéon. I had thought this was a type of club accordéon, but looking at the left hand side of this box it is very örgelish. Woods did a an excellent piece on the schwyzerörgeli HERE.

UPDATE TWO:  I was excited to read the following comment from B.V.:
Hello, this is perhaps the accordion club in Zurich. I am looking for material on this club Zürich-Wiedikon. If you have any other photos, I'd be happy to receive mail from you. Maurice Thöni have led the club in the 1940s. Sincerely B.V.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sylvain Piron, Part Three

Sylvain Piron continues our conversation, discussing the current state of the tradFrench scene in Alsace.

Catherine and Sylvain
The trad scene in Alsace is currently quite busy. I remember the 80s and 90s were much more quiet. There was a bal from time to time. Nowadays every week-end offers at least one opportunity to dance. Public has changed as well and more and more young people are interesting in dancing. The facility offered by Internet has helped the organisers to disseminate information with no cost. In the same way, music groups have increased in number and quality, in the 80s there were only a few groups in Alsace. Now, Accrofolk has listed around 30 groups. This has been the same in all Fance.

Until end of 90s people interested were mainly those coming from the May 68 movement. A big difference since the 2000s is the involvement of young people in this music. Festivals have always been a big France, but they have increased a lot for the same reasons of growing interest.

There has been a movement towards multi-accordéon groups (see Pignol/Milleret, or Accordéon Samurai). Recently Piron joined with Raymond Frank, Flavien DiCinto, and Cédric Martin to form such a quartet.

In fact, we formed a 4-accordion group is just an idea we had with Cedric-Flavien, the 2 youngs, and Raymond-Sylvain, the two olds. The idea raised one day we were joking and playing together. In fact we noticed that young people have a tendency to play fast and punchy while older ones tend to calm and balance the tempi. We thought we could form a group where we play and joke about these differences. Here is a video of the group in action:

Of course, I know Piron best as a teacher, and others have talked about the guidance he's given. He's not entirely comfortable with that. 

I do not feel like an accordion teacher. I just give advice to beginners and take action to encourage them, but I miss two major qualities for a teacher: pedagogy and technicality. My accordion technique is not to be imitated because I have a lot of bad habits. Again it is the sound which interests me, not the way you produce it. Nevertheless, I like to gather people for playing together and share that music. 

What did Piron think when this American aficionado -- that's me -- e-mailed him back in 1998?

I am very proud when you say I was your teacher, but I feel a bit usurping because you where actually your own teacher, I just gave my opinion on what I heard and felt from from your recordings. When you showed up in 1998, I was very happy that my small music home page was something interesting for at lest one American! Thanks to you, I discovered later that a lot of American people where involved in these European traditional musics and that through that practice I had a lot of potential friends in the States.

We very often think here that Americans are only fascinated by themselves and their own existence and way of life. The fact that a young guy, lost somewhere in Maine, was attracted by my music was really a great pleasure and surprise in the same time, a sort of miracle thanks to the web! I am a bit joking but not far from reality of my feelings at that time.

What does Piron think of the future of tradFrench music?

About future of trad French music, I would like it to remain a practice linked to dance more than to market! That means to keep the spirit of it away from commercial purposes. On one hand it is fair that professional musicians can live decently from their art but on the other I do not wish that this music become fashionable and loses its roots and fundamental role: to make people experience the great value of sharing dances, songs and musics.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sylvain Piron, Continued

Part Two (see Part One and Part Three)

Sylvain Piron continues his conversation as it ranges over a number of topics: instruments, song, and Alsace. 

At the end of Part One, Piron was playing inexpensive button boxes. When I met him in 1998, he had a wonderful 2.5 row Salterelle. The new instrument made a difference.

Piron with Benny
About instruments: getting the Saltarelle Pastourelle III was really a big step for my playing. It was the first accordion of quality I ever touched, with a large range of possibilities of sound and notes. I should have bought such instruments much before 1995. When beginners ask me for advice about buying an diatonic I would always advise a good quality instrument, even if a bit more expensive, you will immediately get good sensations which is incentive for improving. And if at the end of the day, the accordion is not for you, you will always resell it better.

When my wife and I visited Piron and Catherine in 2004, Sylvain had three Castagnari accordions, a Benny (tuned G/C/acc) and a Tommy (D/G) and a Giordy (G/C).

Chapin with the Salterelle, Piron with the Giordy, daughter Marie on flute
I am a Castagnari man! Yes! The first reason is the sound, the second the weight of the Benny, Tommy (and Giordy!). I like the sound of these accordions and their flexibility, their very light weight helps to get punchy attacks of the notes and allow you to use a lot push and pull which is the strength of diatonics.

He also plays many other instruments.

I am interested in the sound, and not so much in speed and virtuosity (too late for virtuosity for me anyway!). Catherine has the same approach and that leads us to buy new instruments just for their capacity to bring a special atmosphere by their sound. I use flutes, bagpipe, nickelharpa, épinette des Vosges, ocarinas. Catherine uses flutes, psalter, shruti box and tried hurdy-gurdy as well. 

Sylvain and Catherine with Nickelharpa and Psaltry
I must say again that sound makes my interest in these instruments. I do not master them at all. I just try to play very simple things that sound, that is the trick, when I touch a new instrument I am searching a good sound before trying to play a tune on it. I strongly think that to produce one nice note which sounds is much more effective than hundreds of notes poor and not in place.

Song is a central part of Piron's music -- hear Sylvain's recordings, here. When did Piron begin matching music and song?

Music and song are intimately bound for me. It's true that in France a lot of traditional dance musics are with words, and in Brittany and Centre France a lot are chansons à répondre, where a leader first sings and people repeat afterwards. Catherine and I like very much these sort of songs for dance, and we often use them in bal and workshop. It brings a special atmosphere of sharing music with dancers.

I started to sing with accordion very early as I considered these two components not to be split. At the beginning it is a bit difficult to play right hand, left hand, and sing at the same time. It took me a good amount of time to coordinate these 3 aspects. I still have big difficulties to play a second voice on right hand while I am singing the first voice. The tune must be very simple for succeeding in that exercise!

If I remember well, I managed to sing with accordion by starting to hum with my right hand, the same melody, no words, and progressively I added words and finally basses. For me, voice remains the royal musical instrument. I am much more relaxed with my voice than with my accordion. So much that if I make a mistake with accordion -- it occurs very often! -- I cover the sound with my voice. It is a trick I use very often. I told you once that to give more energy to dancers I like to suppress bass and keep only melody of the accordion, there is a trick which gives even more energy: to keep only singing and suppress totally the accordion.

Now, Piron is very strongly associated with Alsace, but he originally came from Normandy. How did he develop his connection with the eastern region?

Sylvain 1960
I was born in Normandy and lived there until the age of 20. I next went to Paris for my studies and began to work there. It is a job opportunity which moved me to Strasbourg in Alsace in 1976. I did not play accordion at this time, just flute and a little guitar. I discovered step by step the rich heritage of Alsace, its dialect first of all. In the 70's there were still a lot of people who spoke Alsatian and you where first addressed in Alsatian in most of the shops, even in cities. It was fascinating for me, coming from the "inner France" where centralization had done its job for ages eradicating the local jargons. Alsatian language was very alive and spread. This is unfortunately no more the case now, even if a lot of people still speak and write in Alsatian. 

I also discovered the regional music and dances, thanks to groups like Folk de la rue des dentelles, Geranium, and individuals like René Eglès and Jean-Pierre Hubert. I must say a word on Jean-Pierre Hubert. He was a science-fiction writer and a traditional music and dance fan (funny association!). I was playing accordion for a few months and he was himself playing for a few years already when we met and quickly became friends. I learnt a lot of tunes from him. He was one of my models even if he was not my teacher. His way to consider tradition as a living heritage, open to others and not closed on itself influenced me a lot. The fact that he was born in '41 in Alsace during the Second World War, the fact that he lived in Wissembourg, very close to German border, made him a man of dialog between people and cultures.

Sylvain with Roland Engel at Summerlied music festival in Alsace
Another thing surprised me at this time: what people considered as traditional music in Alsace was made of German music played by brass and reed bands! It was German music, not Alsatian music! The really old musics had been forgotten by the several layers of successive German occupations. The work of Folk de la rue des dentelles, Geranium, and others was to make those old tunes live again. And the pity was that there were not a lot of tunes remaining in the archives and in people memories, compared to the heritage left by other regions. A few dances remained as well. Nowadays thanks to creative people this heritage has been enriched by more recent compositions in music and in dance. What I like much in this repertoire are the collective dances and the 5 or 8 or 11 meter tunes.

In August, Sylvain and Catherine joined their friend Roland Engel at the Summerlied festival in Alsace. Does the traditional music have a following in Alsace?

The concert we gave on 15th August was in the frame of a music festival. The organizers wanted to promote traditional songs and musics and we were very happy to do that, but I must say that these musics are not as popular as rock, pop or even american country music... The festival is strongly supported by the Region of Alsace and other regional institutions. There is a clear political will to promote local creativity and exchange with the German neighbour regions.