Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Polkas and How to Play Them

I don't post many polkas (or any, really), but I do play them in the comfort of my home and at dances, and I do love them! They just aren't as interesting to me as the other types of tunes I play (bourrées, mazurkas, waltzes, etc.), so I leave them for others. A recent video by Melodeon.net doyen Clive Williams has had me rethinking this. His performance, below, of two polkas is a thing of beauty, with the left-hand adding tremendously to the colors of these fairly basic tunes.



For my other post on the elusive, well-played polka, check out Rikke van Ommeren.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tune: The Bay Tree

Andy Cutting's "The Bay Tree."
Click to enlarge.
It occurred to me that however I described Alexandra Browne's Diatonic Liaisons, nothing would top seeing an actual page. I asked if she would choose a page for me. She did, and sent me a JPEG, and here it is.

The tune -- "The Bay Tree" -- itself is a brilliant piece of work by the great Andy Cutting, a British accordionist with a true affinity for the continental. The tune is on Cutting's classic duet recording with vielle à roue player, Nigel Eaton, Panic at the Cafe. That recording can be downloaded here.

An Interview with Alexandra Browne

Going through Diatonic Liaisons it seemed to me there must be quite the story behind its compilation. So I e-mailed a few questions to Alexandra Browne which she graciously answered. If you're interested in getting a copy of Diatonique Liaisons, e-mail Alexandra at alexandra.browne6@btinternet.com.

How did you get involved with the accordion?

I loved the sound of the melodeon and its inherent bounce right from the start but simply couldn’t reproduce that with my big, heavy 72-bass piano accordion, so I borrowed a little Hohner Pokerwork from the great Dave Parry, who was playing for Rogue Morris in Oxford at the time, and I was playing a tune within the hour. It just felt so natural and I was in love. So I bought the box from Dave and sold my bulky accordion, never to turn back.

And how did you encounter French music, and come into contact with this extraordinary group of musicians?

I never clicked with the English style of playing, it so often being very chordal on the right hand and with lots of improvisation, both of which don’t suit me. I have always found that frustrating as I love the style.

I got into Continental music and dance through Blowzabella and the wonderful Andy Cutting. I can’t explain why I took to the music so well. Maybe it’s because there aren’t usually that many chords on the right hand!

I came across other professional musicians at workshops in England and France. Meeting the greats was an amazing experience for me as in the everyday world celebrities are inaccessible. Here they were, right in front of me, the musicians whose skill and style I aspired to, and I could speak to them and ask advice! It was an exciting and instructive time.

And how did you decide to do the book?

How Diatonic Liaisons came to be: In the early 90s I used to help a friend with his playing and used Continental tablature to teach him tunes. My friend suggested I should do a music book but I balked at the idea as I was unsure of my abilities. My friend, without my permission, rang Dragonfly Music and got Matt Seattle interested! By then I really couldn’t say no. I must admit I was intrigued by then. I only had the 2-row Pokerwork so wasn’t really up to the job of transcribing tunes by musicians who often had 2 1/2 or 3-row boxes. Fortunately, Andy Cutting put an order through for me for a Castagnari Mory and, after playing for a few months, found I could understand a bit more about what other players were doing and did my best to reproduce it. Andy was a player I admired to such a degree that I had occasional lessons with him. I picked and picked that poor man’s brains, but he was always very patient and helpful. I dedicated my tune ‘The Cutting Edge’ to this finest of musicians.

When I finally got underway with the book I had only a vague idea how I should approach it. I started with tablature but then decided it was too restrictive so kept to traditional music notation, but I wanted to work on ways to portray sounds and bellows actions which took some time. I started with Andy’s stuff which was a challenge I can tell you! Especially "Spaghetti Panic."

I hadn’t studied written music since passing grade eight at 18 years old and now I was in my early 30s, so was very rusty.  My twin sister, Pippa Holister, was a music teacher so she helped me a lot in those early days. Eventually I was working more and more on my own.

Once I became more confident, I contacted the French players to ask permission to use their work and also to beg for demo tapes and written notation. I was really nervous as I was still unsure of myself and my French was dodgy too so I had French friends help me with writing the letters. I had no idea how the musicians would react and if the book would ever get off the ground, but they were wonderful and extremely helpful. They always found time for me even with their hectic schedule. 

I remember phoning Marc Perrone at a workshop; I was very nervous. A lady answered and wandered off to get him. I waited and waited and heard in the distance slow, calm footsteps echoing down what sounded like a passageway. It seemed to take forever and I was getting breathless with nerves. The footsteps got louder and louder and I expected a rather harassed voice to answer. But no, it was, "Ah bonjour Alexandra! Ça va?!" He immediately put me at my ease. What a wonderful man.

I gradually amassed enough demo tapes and notation and also worked off commercial records and tapes (no CDs then!). It was extremely hard to pick out the melodeon from the other instruments but my ear improved over time.

What was it like doing the work of producing the book?

To be honest I hated the work but the idea of producing this book excited me, so after a few years the book was near completion after a number of changes in direction and ideas. Then I went and had a baby didn’t I? It was the worst timing. I struggled to finish the last little details with a baby crying and generally making the demands babies do and I was exhausted, but determined. At last the book was done and a major part of my life over several years had come to a satisfying end. I was so excited.

Only one print run was done and the books were then passed to another publisher after a few months. Only a few books were sold as they were originally very expensive, at £25, but then they were lost at a French festival when the van they were in got stolen. The publisher didn’t want to pay for another print run and I would never have been able to afford to pay for one myself. That was the end. It was excruciating as I’d spent so much time and effort on the book.

But now it's back.

Then came the digital age. So, nearly 13 years after the last book was sold, I took up the challenge and wow, what a success, at long, long last! I could not have done this without melodeon.net. What a brilliant and friendly forum that is.

I thank you all for the success you’ve made this book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tribute: Diatonic Liaisons

Around thirteen years ago I was at the Button Box and saw a tune book, Diatonic Liaisons, by Alexandra Browne. An amazing piece of work, it compiled original tunes by Frédéric Paris, Dave Roberts, Bruno le Tron, Alain Pennec, Alan Lamb, Andy Cutting, Trevor Upham, and Marc Perrone. With eight tunes by each of these worthies, along with extensive biographical notes, this was an amazing, unprecedented collection. On top of that, it was simply beautiful, with the music hand rendered, incorporating unique symbols to capture the particularities of button accordion practice. On any other day, I would have picked up the thing for twice the asking price.

But on that day I was purchasing an instrument and had no excess supply of the ready to get the book.  "Next time," I said, and then never saw it again.

Until a few months ago. Who should show up on Melodeon.net but Alexandra Browne herself, and she doesn't know, but is there any interest in this book ... and there was a lot of interest. A print run was done, and copies were made available (also by PDF), all for a reasonable price. So, I'm recommending the thing unequivocally. If you're interested in obtaining a copy, contact Ms. Browne at alexandra.browne6@btinternet.com.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Abandon All Hope ...

Squeeze circles are abuzz over the newest release from Saltarelle. Its configuration is identical to the Elfique (which is great), but provocatively, the new one is called Inferno. And dammit if it doesn't look very, very cool. The ad copy calls it a 19+2 button box, though it's clearly a 21 button box (which means that the "extra" buttons are at the chin-end of the rows, rather than set aside in the middle). It's 3-voices, with one stop. They say this means you can play it MMM or MLM, but that doesn't make sense, since you'd need 4-voices in order to pull that off. Three voices would mean you could play MLM, MM, or LM. An MMM box would, I have to say, be pretty dang sweet!* I'd be curious to know what the real specs are.

So, an Elfique with a dark paint job, black buttons, and a reference to Dante has got my mouth watering. Pretty sure that tells you more about me than it does about the box, but dammit if it doesn't look VERY cool.

*If all of this tech talk is baffling to you, check out Accordion Speak 101.


UPDATE: Tom (in comments) asked for a better picture of the grillwork on this demonic beast. I found this at the Saltarelle site.


UPDATE 2: I want to stress that I don't work for Saltarelle or get any kick backs, but I find this whole ad campaign very amusing! Check out the front page ad copy below.



Monday, October 10, 2011

Mazurka: Bec à Bec

In my interview with Frédéric Paris, he referred to adapting the repertoire of various instruments to the diatonic accordion. This was back in the seventies when the "tradition" of French diato was being mapped out by the likes of Paris and Jean Blanchard, et al. What struck me was how apt the word "adapt" is to the process of taking a tune found on vielle or cornemuse and making it work on the diatonic box. About a year ago, I started paying attention to this mazurka, "Bec à bec," on the La Chavanée recording, Rage de danse. Here it is:



Just listening back to it now, as I write, I am stunned at just how perfect a piece of music this is. It is heartbreakingly beautiful. Everything I love about French music is there.

But it's not very accordéon-ish. How to make it work on the box? La Chavanée gives us two bagpipes playing single, entwined melody lines -- of all folk musics, I think it's fair to say that tradFrench is the lord of the counter-melody -- and no chords, per se, though a harmony could be sketched out. That's not what I did, though. Rather, I got my hands around the melody, and worked out the bass and chords according to my ear. Here's what I came up with:



Not nearly as majestic as the pipes, but what is?

Click to enlarge
Meanwhile, in Alsace, the doyens of the biannual Pique-diatonique gathering had chosen "Bec à bec" as one of the three new tunes for the October 9 gathering. The sheet music they posted, which included tab and dots, showed that they had "adapted" the tune differently than I did. For example, in the third bar I play an F chord over the "D"-based melody phrase. In the Pique-diatonique transcription they use a "G"-chord. Again, in the third bar of the b-section, the Pique-diatonique transcription uses a G chord, which, with the "F"-natural suggests a G7. I chose an F chord, which, with the "D"s hints at a D minor. Either works. But they're different.

I'm not making any arguments here, other than this: there are any number of choices you make when you adapt a tune to the box. Another example, I notice that in the fourth bar of the Pique-diatonique transcription, they play across rows, rather than down the one row, as I do. I think my playing sounds a little galumphy at that point. Time to try it their way.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hanter Dro

Another Breton tune, learned from clarinetist Steve Gruverman (tune finder extraordinaire). The hanter dro is that rare thing, an intimate line dance. Moving to the 3/2 meter, the dancers snake around the floor, spiraling, encircling, ensorceling the musicians. I try to embody the apparent Breton motto -- "repetition is the soul of wit" -- by matching an entrancing melody with a sweet, innocent harmony. Against current practice, I am a big fan of 3rds in my chords.



The Theme of the Month over on Melodeon.net is Tunes from Brittany and I urge anyone who enjoys that sort of thing to head over for a listen. The tunes and videos being posted are wonderful. Also, Andy of Vermont recently posted a Yann Dour tune played on his 3-row Castagnari Jacky. Check it out.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ridée: Bannielou Lambaol

Here's a tune I learned from Steve Gruverman. My approach to it is informed by the fact that when I typically play this kind of thing for dancers, I'm told to slow down. It strikes me as a charming, mid-tempo piece with a nice, argumentative bit just at the beginning of the B section. I'm willing to be corrected on any statement in this paragraph.


Notice that I still have done nothing about my "accordion face," and that my chin-action on the stops is exactly the reason you should go for switches if you have the chance.

UPDATE: Steve Gruverman tells me I got the temp just right! Well done, me!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Interview with Frédéric Paris

en Français

As I have written, Frédéric Paris has been at the center of my accordion world for over a decade. After the piece I wrote about him in March, he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Thanks to Alex MacGregor and Sylvain Piron for help in translating. Thanks, especially, to Frédéric Paris.
____________________

Q: How did you begin your involvement in music?

  Carnet de Bal... Frédéric and Castagnari
A: I was 11 when I started playing the hurdy-gurdy in 1968. I tried an instrument that was at my grandmother’s and I liked it. I continued alone, and then I took a few courses where I met other kids like me, playing hurdy-gurdy.

Q: How did the Chavannée get started? 

A: Chavannée was founded in 1969 by my father who was the village teacher. He introduced his students and other young people from surrounding villages to the arts and popular traditions of Bourbonnais, our region in the center of France. Soon, we met the older musicians and singers of the region and we have since been researching the minstrels, instruments, repertoires, dances ...

Q: Someone told me, “There is no such thing as French Traditional Music. There is Bourbonaisse music, Alsatian music, Limousin, etc..." It’s difficult from a distance to understand these regional differences. Do you think there is such a category as "Traditional French Music?” Do you think it is possible for me to understand "French Traditional Music" without a thorough knowledge of regional differences?

A: Yes, there are regional differences, but traditional French music does exist -- through its atmosphere, melodic themes, its songs, the dance rhythms ... Local or regional particularities exist, but they should not hide a real unity of the French-speaking area.
Fréderic Paris's other great accordion recording:
Rue de l'oiseau

Q: Some of the music you play is very traditional (Carnet de Bal) and some is "traditional music of the future" (De L'eau Et Des Amandes) - how are they connected to you?

A: These records correspond to very different periods of my life. Carnet de Bal is my first solo production from 1984, I was 27! I wanted to share a little known repertoire, suitable for the diatonic accordion and playable by most musicians. De L'eau Et Des Amandes is much later (1995). Most arrangements are by Gilles Chabenat, and I took advantage of the flexibility and the volubility of the clarinet.

Q: You play many musical instruments. How did you start playing the accordion? 

A: I started the accordion at the time of revival of this instrument [in the 1970s] , under the influence of musicians such as Marc Perrone, Jean Blanchard ... I met with traditional musicians in central France. I also adapted the repertoires from other instruments (clarinet, fiddle, cornet ...)

Q: What role do you think the accordion has in traditional French music? In relation to hurdy-gurdy and cornemuse?

A: The accordion brings harmony, it can support or lead. Its attack brings energy to an instrumental group. This is a very flexible instrument.

Q: I noticed that you play a lot of accordions by Castagnari, and I've only ever seen you play the accordion in two rows. Can you tell me why Castagnari accordions? Why not three-row or two and a half? In other words: Why do you play the accordions you play?

A: I tried several kinds of accordions: 1 row, 2 rows 3 rows. The model I prefer is the "2-row 8 bass." I love its intuitive, energetic light. Limitations make it necessary to seek solutions to diversify one’s playing. Castagnari is very reliable. They are instruments of good quality and I work with a very professional dealer-tuner (Jean-Pierre Leray in Rennes). What more? I use 3 diatos: one in sol-do (GC), one in a do-fa (CF) and one in re-sol (DG), all in "8-bass, 2-rows." With these three accordions, I have almost all the tones I need.

Q: In the U.S., Carnet de Bal is an icon for accordion. I bought a cassette of Carnet de Bal in 1999 and I played it until it dissolved. This is a beautiful, clear statement of what the accordion can be. Can you talk about this? Is there a chance to do a reissue on CD?

La Chavanée, including, Frédéric and far too many hurdy gurdies.
I'm kidding! I'm kidding!
A: Some pieces recorded on Carnet de Bal have become "standards" for accordion players and I am very happy about that. At that time - 1984 - I adapted the repertoire of clarinet, cornet, hurdy-gurdy and unreleased songs collected in Bourbonnais (in the department of Allier). I added an accompaniment of clarinet (which I had played for a short time) a little voice and the vielle of Patrick Bouffard. The CD reissue has been requested for a long time. I should take care of this seriously ...

Q: Here is a very specific question: What are you doing with your left hand in bourrées, 2 and 3 beat? It is a very important issue for accordionists in the United States! How should you play bass and chords for bourrées?

A: While playing 2-beat bourrées, I prefer to play long notes in the left hand, alternating chords (no third) and basses, like drones. I am inspired by the harmonium, which I have played since adolescence. Otherwise, bourrées sound like polkas and it's a shame. I find it important to preserve the uniqueness of the 2-beat bourrée. The melodies have "horizontal" aspects. They must be left to unfold like songs, a capella, without chopping the left hand. Contrariwise, the playing in the right hand is at the same time bound and fast with ornaments, like the hurdy-gurdy. For 3-beat bourrées, the left hand accompanies with more traditional "bass - chord - chord," but occasionally, I break this pattern with odd rhythmic combinations. It's a bit complicated to explain, it would be easier with an accordion! I also sometimes get the effect of "drone" as in the 2-beat bourrée.

Q: Each disc of Chavanée is very different, how do you decide what will be done for each?

A: For many years, I choose themes for the records: the river, dance, Christmas ... It gives me different ideas for arrangements. I let myself be carried away by the lyrics (the traditional repertoire consists largely of vocal music). Each song tells a story. Otherwise, I work with musicians I've known for a long time. This is important.

Q: Finally, is there a chance that you and Chavanée visit America in the future?

A: Why not? We are open to any suggestions!



Une entrevue avec Frédéric Paris

in English

Comme je l'ai écritFrédéric Paris a été au centre de ma « planète accordéon » depuis plus d'une décennie. Monsieur Paris a fort gentiment accepté de répondre à quelques questions. Merci à Alex MacGregor et Sylvain Piron  pour l’aide à la traduction. Et merci, surtout à Frédéric Paris.
____________________
Carnet de Bal: Frédéric et Castagnari
Q: Monsieur Paris, comment avez-vous commencé la musique?

A: J'avais 11 ans quand j'ai commencé à jouer de la vielle-à-roue, en 1968. J'ai essayé un instrument qui était chez ma grand-mère et ça m'a plu. J'ai continué seul, puis j'ai suivi quelques stages où j'ai rencontré d'autres jeunes vielleux comme moi.

Q: Comment La Chavanée a-t-elle commencé? 

A: La Chavannée a été créée en 1969 par mon père qui était l'instituteur du village. Il a initié ses élèves et d'autres jeunes des villages alentour aux arts et traditions populaires du Bourbonnais, notre région située au centre de la France. Très vite, nous avons rencontré les "anciens" du pays et nous avons fait des recherches sur les ménétriers, les instruments, les répertoires, les danses...

Q: Récemment, j'ai écrit un article sur la «Musique Traditionelle Française» mais quelqu'un m'a dit, «Il n'y a pas vraiment de musique traditionelle française. Il y a musique bourbonnaise, la musique alsacienne, la musique du Limousin, etc... » Un américain comme moi a du mal à comprendre ces différences régionales. Pensez-vous qu’on peut parler de «Musique Traditionelle Française»? Pensez-vous qu'il est possible pour moi de comprendre «Musique Traditionelle Française» sans avoir une connaissance approfondie des différences régionales? 

A: I Il existe des différences régionales, mais la musique traditionnelle française existe bel et bien à travers ses climats mélodiques, les thèmes de ses chansons, les rythmes de danses... Les particularismes locaux ou régionaux existent, mais ils ne doivent pas cacher une réelle unité du domaine francophone.

Q: Certains airs de votre répertoire sont très traditionnels (Carnet de Bal) tandis que d’autres peuvent être qualifiés de «musique traditionnelle du futur» (De L'eau Et Des Amandes) – Qu’est-ce qui les relie selon vous?

A: Ces enregistrements correspondent à des périodes très différentes de ma vie. Carnet de Bal est ma première production en solo, c'était en 1984, j'avais 27 ans ! J'ai voulu faire connaître un répertoire méconnu, adapté pour l'accordéon diatonique et jouable par la plupart des musiciens. De L'eau Et Des Amandes est beaucoup plus tardif (1995). La plupart des arrangements sont de Gilles Chabenat et j'ai mis à profit la souplesse et la volubilité de la clarinette dont je joue depuis assez longtemps.

Q: Vous jouez beaucoup d’instruments différents. Comment avez-vous commencé à jouer de l'accordéon?

A: J'ai commencé l'accordéon à l'époque du renouveau de cet instrument, sous l'influence de musiciens comme Marc Perrone, Jean Blanchard... J'ai aussi rencontré des musiciens traditionnels dans le centre de la France. J'ai aussi adapté des répertoires venant d'autres instruments (clarinette, vielle, cornet à pistons ...)

Q: Quelle place tient l'accordéon dans la musique traditionnelle française, en comparaison de la vielle à roue et de la cornemuse? 

A: L'accordéon apporte l'harmonie, il peut accompagner ou "mener". Ses attaques donnent de la nervosité au sein d'une formation musicale. C'est un instrument très souple.

Q: J'ai remarqué que vous jouez beaucoup sur les accordéons Castagnari, en particuluer des accordéons à deux rangées. Pouvez-vous me dire pourquoi Castagnari et pourquoi pas les accordéons à trois rangées ou à deux rangées et demie? En d’autres termes: Comment choisissez-vous vos accordéons?

Musique en Bourbonnais.
Au centre Frédéric Paris.
A: J'ai essayé plusieurs sortes d'accordéons : 1 rang, 2 rangs, 3 rangs. Le modèle que je préfère, c'est le "2 rangs 8 basses". J'aime son côté intuitif, nerveux, léger. Ses limites obligent à chercher des solutions pour diversifier son jeu. La marque Castagnari est très fiable, ce sont des instruments de bonne qualité et je travaille avec un revendeur-accordeur très professionnel (Jean-Pierre Leray à Rennes). Que demander de plus ? J'utilise 3 diatos: un en sol-do (G-C), un en do-fa (C-F) et un autre en ré-sol (D-G), tous en "2 rangs 8 basses". Avec ces trois accordéons, j'ai à peu près toutes les tonalités dont j'ai besoin.

Q: Aux Etats-Unis, Carnet de Bal est un ouvrage de référence pour les accordéonistes. J'ai acheté une cassette de Carnet de Bal en 1999 et je l'ai passée jusqu'à ne plus pouvoir la lire. C'est une belle et claire démonstration de ce que l'accordéon peut être. Pouvez-vous nous parler de ce disque? Y at-il une chance de voir un jour une réédition sur CD? 

A: Certains airs enregistrés sur Carnet de Bal sont devenus des "standards" pour les joueurs d'accordéon diatonique et j'en suis très heureux. A l'époque - 1984 - j'ai adapté du répertoire pour clarinette, cornet à pistons, vielle-à-roue et des chansons inédites recueillies en Bourbonnais (département de l'Allier). J'ai ajouté un accompagnement de clarinette dont je jouais depuis peu de temps, un peu de voix et la vielle de Patrick Bouffard. La réédition sur CD est demandée depuis longtemps, il faudrait que je m'en occupe sérieusement...

Q: Voici une question très précise: Que faites-vous avec votre main gauche sur les bourrées, 2 temps et 3 temps? C'est une question très importante pour nous accordéonistes aux États-Unis! Comment faut-il jouer les basses et les accords pour les bourrées?

A: Pour les bourrées à 2 temps, je préfère jouer des notes longues à la main gauche, en alternant les accords (sans tierces) et les basses, un peu comme des bourdons. Je m'inspire de l'harmonium dont je joue depuis l'adolescence. Sinon, les bourrées ressemblent à des polkas et c'est dommage. Je trouve important de préserver la spécificité des bourrées à 2 temps, les mélodies ont un aspect "horizontal", il faut les laisser se déployer comme des chansons a capella, sans les hacher à la main gauche. Par contre, le jeu à la main droite est à la fois lié et avec des ornements très rapides, comme sur la vielle-à-roue. Pour les bourrées à 3 temps, la main gauche accompagne de façon plus classique "basse - accord - accord", mais de temps en temps, je brise cette régularité par des combinaisons rythmiques faussement impaires. C'est un peu compliqué à expliquer, ce serait plus facile avec un accordéon ! J'utilise aussi parfois l'effet "bourdon" comme dans les bourrées à 2 temps.


Q: Chaque disque de La Chavanée est très différente, comment décidez-vous ce qui sera fait pour chaque disque?

A: Depuis de nombreuses années, je choisis des thèmes pour les enregistrements : la rivière, la danse, Noël... Cela me donne des idées différentes pour les arrangements. Je me laisse porter par les textes des chansons (le répertoire traditionnel est composé en grande partie de musique vocale). Chaque chant raconte une histoire dont je m'imprègne. Pour le reste, je travaille avec des musiciens que je connais depuis longtemps. C'est important.

Q: Enfin, y at-il une chance que vous et La Chavanée viennent visiter l'Amérique dans le futur?

A: Pourquoi pas? Nous sommes ouverts à toute proposition!



Monday, September 5, 2011

Last Night in Alsace (Part Five)

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

In 2004, my wife, Bethany, and I were given the gift of a trip to Alsace, France, to visit my accordion teacher, Sylvain Piron, his wife, storyteller Catherine Piron-Paira, and their family. I wrote the following shortly after the trip. It appeared some time later in Wolf Moon Journal, a local Maine literary magazine. I present it here in installments over the next few months. Sadly, we were having such a good time on this last night that no photos were taken!


UPDATE: Just after posting this, Sylvain let me know that Catherine's uncle, Jacques, had taken pictures and sent them along to me. This was the first I knew of them. Amazing.
L'Auberge des 3 Frères


There is a fairy tale element to every vacation - just the exemption from work is a granted wish - but Alsace, accordions, wine, friends and dance has been especially fantastic. The transition from magic to mundane was long. The morning after the last great night. A five hour drive in a rented car, culminating with the particularly hideous Charles de Gaulle airport. The crankiness we felt. The trip back home through the wardrobe is always grayer than the trip out. The night before we’d said our tearful goodbyes to Sylvain, Catherine, and their children. We’d left the Auberge with the dancers still going.

The night before. The last night of our stay. The Salterelle has become very comfortable under my fingers. I play it almost exclusively, and am pleased that it seems happy with me. The tunes feel more natural, my playing more relaxed and commanding. The effortlessness of its touch has built up for me over the week, an accumulating ease. The effects of the wine, similarly, have accumulated over the week, and although I’m not complaining, I know that a monster of a hangover is somewhere in my future.

Food, dance, drink, family at the Auberge.
Sylvain arranged this gig for us at a Marmoutier eatery, L’Auberge des Trois Frères. According to Sylvain, it was a new concept for the area: a restaurant built in a converted barn, with long tables and rustic decorations hanging on the walls. The owner is worried about the success of the venture and is very happy to have us there. He shows his gratitude throughout the night by providing a wide range of drinking options.

Our party includes Sylvain, Catherine, the five kids, Bethany and myself, Catherine’s father, uncle, and aunt. François, the fiddler, soon joins us along with a student of his, Daniel. They rosin their bows and tune as we give the orders for the main course.

“What shall we play, Gary?” asks Sylvain.

What shall we play, Gary?
I begin Bourrée des Gars, one of the first three-beat bourrées I’d ever learned. Very simple and very major-key. Not a lot of mystery, but a lot of drive. Easy. I’m nervous and hedging my bets and smart to do so. The flop sweat comes in buckets. This happens to me in every performance. The first ten minutes are murder, but I’ve come to learn that the adrenaline surge passes quickly. The twitching dread is replaced by a lovely, arrogant fatalism. It’s a risk, I know, but it’s my idea of a good time.

And the crowd’s, too! They’re flying!

“The bourrée is a crazy dance,” said Daniel Thonon. It’s as old as the Renaissance, and probably older, and was a form used by baroque composers in their dance suites. For centuries, then, the bourrée has been whipping otherwise respectable folks into a frenzy. Thus at the Auberge.

Sylvain and François.
The dancers are up and moving. Somewhere, amid the tables, serving staff, wooden pillars, musicians, and patrons, they find the space to do the facing, turning, and kicking required. After the bourrée we do a waltze, a fast one I wrote some years ago. Sylvain puts down his accordion and dances with Catherine. This is unimaginably charming and fills me with a warmth that won’t disappear until we get to Charles de Gaulle.

Many of the people there are friends of Sylvain and Catherine, but most are not. Sylvain sings a number of Alsatian songs. The crowd sings along affectionately and unselfconsciously. It was as if an American crowd were singing “Home on the Range,” and genuinely getting behind the sentiment of the song. It seems foreign to me, and desirable, though I’m probably romanticizing. I hear them expressing their home in the music. They are at home in the music, and they are inviting Bethany and me into their home. She dances. I play. Wine is placed before us, and then more exotic intoxicants. Is it absynth? Sylvain talks, between tunes, about how we’d come all the way from Maine in the United States to play Alsatian music. The Alsatians are very please, almost flattered.

We play for hours. The room gets happier and happier.

Everyone dances!
A short, fat guy gets up to dance. He is a caricature of joyous energy, something out of a Peter Mayle book - or the BBC adaptation of one. Yes, he’s drunk, but he dances through the night, asking one woman after another. They all agree. He asks Bethany. Bethany agrees. When he runs out of women to ask, he asks a bearded gentleman. They waltz until it’s time to do the spin. They can’t decide who will “be the girl!” Brilliant! I start a polka, Polka de l’Averyron, and immediately - within three notes - someone begins pounding the table in rhythm. Holy cow! They drive me on. Sylvain and François join in, and Daniel, and we circle the room. Everyone who is dancing dances. Bethany dances. The short, fat guy. The bearded gentleman. Catherine. Marie. A woman in a wheelchair shouts - I kid you not - “Vive l’Americain!”

This, two days after the other great moment of my life, is one of the great moments of my life.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mazurka (Auvergnate)

Mazurkas seem to be moving towards the bouncier edge of the spectrum -- more of a dotted-eighth-sixteenth feel. In Pignol and Milleret's instructional books, mazurkas are consistently notated in 9/8! I play this particular mazurka with fairly straight eighths. It's in the "Bal Folk" tune book as an unnamed mazurka from Auvergne (it's number 76 in the blue book). The first recording I heard of it was this track, "Soirée Auvergnate" by Joseph Aigueperse, from 1933.  Here's my take on it:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Youp' Nanette (2-Beat Bourrée)

I've been swamped this summer by work obligations and summer course work. I've also been playing a regular gig at the Theater at Monmouth, a fantastic Shakespearean repertory theater here in Maine (doing a fantastic King Lear this summer). Tonight, I took a break from it all and just played for a few hours. Towards the end, just as evidence of the event, I recorded this 2-beat bourrée. Enjoy.



 Gotta figure out what to do about accordion-face.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Tribute: Musiqu' à Deux

Myriam Lameyre and Jean-Yves
Lameyre: Musiqu' à Deux
Musiqu' à Deux is Jean-Yves Lameyre and Myriam Lameyre playing a panoply of trad France instruments -- violin, accordion, cornemuses du Centre Francevielle à roue, and voice. Each of their recordings presents solid traditional French music played in straightforward, light, delightful, and eminently danceable manner. Primarily this is music of their own regions, Auvergne and Limousin. Put together, their three recordings present the repertoire of the region with brilliant clarity and energy. Here's a classic set of mazurkas from their recording, En attendant l'orage.


Jour de Marché Vol. 2:
En attendant l'orage
The three recordings are available very inexpensively as downloads from iTunes, but also from their own website. The Jour de Marché recordings are wonderful, mixing tradFrench goodness with music from Italy, Ireland, England, Sweden, and other areas.  Their most recent recording, 2 Bals en poche pour danser du soir au matin , Limousin, Auvergne, is a two disc set (again, very inexpensive) that presents a "typical" set of dance music played at a bal from dusk to dawn. 

Here are some bourrées from 2 Bals.



Great to listen to, and great to learn "the repertoire" from.  Check it out.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ask the Dancers!

How's the bourrée?  Ask the dancers.
In response to Friday's post about what it means to play a bourrée well, a number of Mel.net and concertina.net worthies responded that you know you're playing a bourrée well when the dancers are dancing a good bourrée.  This, indeed, is an excellent functional definition of "a good bourrée," and you could do far worse than relying on utility as your criteria for success. I could (and did) quibble about how, while this is dance music, it's not just dance music, but that doesn't change the fact that it's essentially a good point.  Knowing your context -- dance, concert, parking lot -- changes everything.

A number of folks responded, "Get thee to a dance floor!" It has been a while, for a bunch of reasons. It's time to do just that.

Friday, July 8, 2011

What Does it Mean to Play a Bourrée Well?

Thanks to the folks at Mel.Net for the discussions that sparked this piece. More than usually, this post expresses confusion, rather than conviction. Any questions, corrections, or suggestions are appreciated.

How to play a good bourrée?
What does it mean to play a bourrée well? I've been working hard to figure out what one should do with the left hand (bass and chords) when playing bourrées. I'm not sure why this particular tune form is especially controversial, but it is. It's also the defining tune form for tradFrench music, much as the jig is for Irish music. 

That's the project. I'm trying to figure out how to play bourrées well. How will I know when I've succeeded? What are the criteria?

Well, one could appeal to authenticity. As with most traditional art forms one criteria for success is how well your performance matches the normative standards of the art form. In other words, if I'm playing a bourrée, then I'll know I'm doing it well when my performance conforms to the ideal of what a bourrée is supposed to sound like. As with many platonic constructions, it sounds very simple, but there are complications.

Some would argue that there is really no such thing as a "French bourrée." Rather, they would say, each of the many regions of central France has their own normative standards. A bourrée in Limousin is different from a bourrée in Auvergne. There's truth to this, and it can be seen clearly if you watch videos of folks of different regions dancing bourrées. Some are tight and aggressive, others loose and blousy (h/t Chris). So I could choose one region and focus on that, or I could -- looking from a distance -- aim at the larger thing, whatever is captured by the generic term, "traditional French music."

In the 1920s the bourrée moved to the
city and got involved with banjos
and trap drums!
Complicating this is the fact that, while there are regional styles for bourrées and their dances, there don't seem to be regional styles for diatonic accordion playing. I recently asked Sylvain Piron if there was a particularly Alsatian style of accordion playing (since I play a lot of Alsatian repertoire) and he indicated that there really aren't regional styles for the diato. Rather, folks emulate the styles of players they admire (e.g., Marc Perrone, Frédéric Paris). This may be because, while the vielle, cabrette, and the bourrée go back to medieval times, the accordion is much younger, and the wide-spread embracing of the diato is even younger still. Emulating admired players rather than regional norms would seem to be the way to go for this distant, obsessive American. I have access to recordings of players going back to 1925, but there's no realistic way for me to immerse myself in the music of one particular region or another.

And even if I could, normative standards change over time. A bourrée played in 1925 would sound different from a bourrée played today simply because performance practices change. To use the most pressing example, a 3-beat bourrée played in 1925 would have left hands (on chromatic accordions) playing a pretty rigid bass-chord-chord accompaniment. They may even have a banjo (!!!) accompanying with a parallel thump-chunk-chunk. In 2011, however, for many players, the stated goal is to avoid bass-chord-chord at all costs (to paraphrase Stephen Milleret), and replace it with a sort of syncopated, extended, both-hands chording technique.

How to play a good bourrée?
And there's not even a consensus about that. I can hear bass-chord-chord in a lot of current playing and can see it in tablature published by Trad Magazine and Jean-Michel Corgeron. The duo Musiqu' à Deux play their bourrées in a clean, straight, traditional style -- though still different from the 1925 benchmark. The movement that Milleret's a part of (Mustradem) seems more intent on expanding the normative standards of tradFrench music, rather than clarifying them. In this way, Milleret, Norbert Pignol, and their mustradem ilk are the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie of tradFrench, with mustradem being the be bop to La Chavannée's swing. (And by calling them an "ilk" I don't mean to imply that I don't like their stuff. I very much like their stuff.)

If authenticity is a question mark, then the next logical criteria for bourrée goodness would be aesthetics. To quote Le Duke (Ellington), "If it sounds good, it is good." That's true, but it's not especially helpful; and it's not especially helpful to put aesthetics and authenticity in opposition to one another. The fact is that I don't want to simply play music that sounds "good." There's a lot of music that sounds good. I have chosen tradFrench l'accordéon diatonique for specific reasons that go beyond whether it's "good" or not. Something about the instrument and repertoire suits me and my psychology. There are associations that come up when I play -- rural, France, pre-modern, friendships, happy, obscure. The emphasis towards community. The emphasis away from radical individualism. The music serves others (dancers). Being a part of this tradition means being a part of something larger than yourself. The truth is that, to some extent, authenticity is important to me.

Does this help me know how to play a bourrée? If it sounds good it is good? Not good enough. How authentic is authentic enough?

UPDATE: Ask the Dancers!


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bourrée: On d'onderon garda

As always, any corrections, additions, or questions are appreciated.

I was listening to one of the first bourrées I'd ever learned, "On d'onderon garda," and realized I had this tune in a number of versions. I listened to them all and found it a fascinating exercise. Thus, here are a number of different versions of this ear-worm of a tune. Check out the sheet music, as well. (There's a difference in how some play the second bar of the A section. Some play it as here, one-and-two-three, others play it as one-two-and-three. Choose wisely.)

I first heard this tune about twelve years ago, played by Sylvain Piron on a Castagnari Giordy, a tiny accordion with a concertina-ish sound.



Sylvain and I, about to perform On d'onderon garda
at the Trenton Grange
I quickly downloaded the sheet music, which Sylvain had posted on his site. Later, when he visited the United States in 2002, we performed the tune together at the Grange hall in Trenton, Maine.

Sylvain's light touch on the tune did not prepare me for the version I heard on a compilation called, Accordeons en Aubrec. This is pretty hard-core Auvergnat playing on the five-row, chromatic button accordion -- the squeeze-instrument of choice for tradfrench music for most of the twentieth century. Note the spelling change of the name.

Christian Bessiere, "On Onarem Gardar"


As a counter-weight to this accordion-ish-ness I thought I'd include a version of the tune on French pipes, the cabreta d'amor, performed by José Roux. On this instrument, the tune becomes a completely different beast. This recording is especially nice because it's done in duet with the chromatic accordion and bells. Pretty much the classic Auvergnat sound. I only regret I couldn't find a version on vielle à roue.

José Roux, "Ont tirarem garda?"


[UPDATE] In another vein, a fellow over on concertina.net pointed me to this recording of the open session at the George Inn, featuring members of the George Inn Giant Ceili Band (GIG CB) leading the festivities. Members include Alan Day (concertina), Mel Stevens (pipes), and Chris Shaw (melodeon). I invite you to bask in the experience of living in all that sound, the pipes right there, multiple hurdy gurdies, fiddles, conversation, glasses clinking, and you drinking. The melodeon player has place his ear against the box in order to hear it! Marvelous.



[UPDATE TWO] Alan Day, of the GIG CB, has posted a solo concertina version of the tune on his YouTube. It's a delightful rendition that shows that, while it may sound "concertina-ish," the Castagnari Giordy is not a concertina. Alan does some very interesting things with the rhythm and chords. Take a listen.



Finally, here's a reposting of my recording of this, made about three years ago on my Salterelle Pastourelle.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Trip to Alsace (Part Four)


In 2004, my wife, Bethany, and I were given the gift of a trip to Alsace, France, to visit my accordion teacher, Sylvain Piron, his wife, storyteller Catherine Piron-Paira, and their family. I wrote the following shortly after the trip. It appeared some time later in Wolf Moon Journal, a local Maine literary magazine. I present it here in installments over the next few months.

Clink-clink! Celebrating birthdays.
Conversation happens between the music. Wednesday night, the night after the dance, was the birthday of Romain (nine) and Gabriel (nineteen). We ate their favorite foods, sang to them, and gave presents. Afterwards, of course, we drank wine, ate cheese, and played music. At some point, a pause ensued. We began discussing the whole European situation (you know ... that). Sylvain, in his non-accordion life, works for the Council of Europe. The European Union constitution vote was coming up, making everyone tense. Most people I talked to were pro-Union, but anti-constitution. Maybe this was was an accordion-related bias. As a historian it was a fascinating moment to visit.

More interesting, though, were the discussions of the Amish and cheese.

The Amish, if you are unaware, are a Christian sect based in Western Pennsylvania. If you've seen the Harrison Ford movie, Witness, you'll know that they reject many of the modern conveniences of our lives, feeling that God did not put us on the Earth in order to avoid work. Visiting their lands -- and there is a pretty lively tourist industry devoted to this -- is like stepping back into the nineteenth century, a time of no automobiles, no electric lights, and primitive medicine. society

At one point, Marie, who was twenty-five, realized that the Amish were raising their children like this, forcing them to live in this "cult" setting without the benefits of the larger, modern society.

Le gâteau
Honestly, I can't even remember how the Amish came into the conversation, but suddenly the table bristled. Neither Bethany nor I have very strong feelings about the Amish or their parenting practices. In a typically American way, neither of us want to live that virtuously, but we're glad somebody does. Marie, however, was incensed. The family began speaking French very quickly, and the aural subtitles they'd provided all evening abruptly stopped. Marie scowled and punctuated her rhetorical points with quick gestures. Sylvain spoke with authority, very slowly, asserting his rhythm to the conversation. The children watched, and Catherine tended to us, serving gâteau and tea.

When the fire died down, I sorted through the bits of conversation and gathered that Marie had objected, on principle, to lives being dominated by religion, but objected much more strenuously to children's lives being dominated by religion. When this domination led to the withdrawal of the child from the larger society, they saw an evil. This would be like a parent's telling their French child that he or she is no longer French. In France, the nation is the communion of saints, and exile from it is an unpardonable sin that the state should not allow. File this conversation under French/Americans:  Ways Different.

Then we discussed cheese.

Catherine and Sylvain
Sylvain is a man who likes his cheese. This is a commonplace. I know -- the French and their cheese -- but I had never seen la joie de fromage acted out in front of me. It only occurs to now how appalled he and Catherine must have been looking over the cheese section in our American supermarket, with it's paltry array of flavored brie. Their cheese board was a humble masterpiece, filled with products of local farms, strong smelling but delicate tasting. At their table, I understood for the first time just how exquisitely red wine and cheese complement each other.

Sylvain had traveled throughout Europe for his job and had tried a number of local cuisines. Many of the countries had passable cheeses, even admirable cheeses, but none equaled the cheeses we had on the board before us. Nobody cares as much about their cheese as the French, implied Sylvain. It's a type of dark, gustatory nationalism that we'd all recognize. In the States, for example, the comparison of New Jersey, New York, and Chicago pizza is not a conversation to be taken up lightly. So when Sylvain extolled the undeniable virtues of his cheese, it was not a sense of contention that led me to utter the following question.


"But what about the British," I asked, "they're very fond of their cheese." I knew this because I had seen Wallace and Gromit. "Wenslydale?" I said.

"The British?" He said with a provocative glint in his eye. "That's not cheese."

Next episode: back to the accordions.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Quebecois Tunes

I don't usually do second-degree blog posts, but Andy in Vermont has uncovered a web site devoted to Quebecois tunes that looks amazingly good. The link is over at his Melodeon Minutes.

I should mention that when my French pals were here, they quietly chastised me for doting on their European French tradition while ignoring the lively Franco and Quebecois traditions right on my doorstep. I do enjoy Quebecois music -- though my time playing Irish trad has made me wary of reels. Does this mean I'll need a one-row accordion in D?

Friday, June 3, 2011

La Marianne (with my Dad)

My Dad (aka Parker Chapin) and I don't get to play together that often, so it was especially nice to be able to record this waltz with him. It's from Frédéric Paris' Carnet de Bal cassette. I remember we played it together for the first time a few years ago at a cousin's wedding.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Photos from Alsace

Sylvain sent me these group pics from yesterday's Pique Diatonique day. Looks like a great day was had! Here in Maine, I did not have a picnic, but instead Americanized it to a bar-b-que. Coming soon, pictures of me playing pique diatonique tunes while burning meat! UPDATE: More photos from this year's event can be found at the Pique Diatonique archive.



Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pique Diatonique Tomorrow!

Sylvain Piron
Tomorrow is May 29, and therefore time for the long awaited Pique-diatonique in Dahlenheim, Alsace. Though, I'll be thousands of miles away, I plan to have a picnic tomorrow and play a bunch of tunes from the Pique-diatonique tunebook. To get into the spirit of things -- pour les absents -- I thought I'd post recordings of a few tunes from that tune book. The first two are MP3s by the inestimable Sylvain Piron. The first is a traditional piece that I've heard in a number of versions, "Le Maitre de la Maison." The second, "Le Chemin," is a mazurka written by Sylvain himself.

Sylvain Piron, "Le Maitre de la Maison"


Sylvain Piron, "Le Chemin"


Sylvain's albums are available as downloads for free here.

Finally, I thought I'd include one of my favorite Pique-diatonique waltzes -- actually, one of my favorite all time waltzes -- "Sur les Bord de la Riviére." Played on my Salterelle, this was my second post on YouTube, four years ago.




So that's the plan. Find a picnic. Record some accordion tunes. Ready, set ...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

French Tunes Wiki

What it says on the box ... a French Tunes Wiki.
I still remember the thrill of finding that first huge collection of French tunes on-line and realizing what joyful music lay in front of me. For me it was Sylvain Piron's Tradfrance site, containing hundreds of tunes in a variety of formats. Jack Humphreys -- a denizen of the Bristol/Bath French sessions -- has taken this into the collaborative realm by establishing a French Tunes Wiki, whereon folks can add, edit, etc. and, doing all those things that wikis do, tap into the French trad crowd wisdom. It's still in the beginning stages, and there are a few too many ads for my taste, but this could be A Great Thing. I will be contributing and utilizing. Well done, Mr. Humphreys.

Monday, May 23, 2011

One-Row Goodness

Castagnari Max, One-Row
Diatonic Accordion players speak affectionately of the warmth or lift generated by the push/pull action of their boxes. It's better for dancing, they might say, or, it has a character to it that's different from (read better than) chromatic or piano accordions. I don't believe that this is always true -- Patrick Lefebvre's chromatic playing has plenty of lift, rhythm, and character -- but when played well ... wow ... one-row, pushing/pulling accordions can really get a little somethin' somethin' going.

Andy from Vermont recently posted three recordings of himself playing Quebecois tunes on his Melodie one-row in D and I find myself completely besotted. Go see for yourself. Wonderful.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Playing the Low Lonesome Reed

One of the things I love about my Salterelle Pastourelle III is its three banks of reeds on the right hand, tuned LMM (see Accordion Speak 101 for a complete explanation). My Castagnari Nik has a lovely, light, willowy sound, with its MM reeds tuned Tremolo Americano. But the low reed on the Pastourelle gives that intrument a lush fullness that knocks my romantic socks off. I very much enjoy having the choice of that full sound, and also having the choice of playing the low reed all on its own.  It gives the instrument an entirely new character not to have all three reeds blasting away. This might be a case where putting in some stops -- rather than "pulling out all the stops" -- will lead to a better outcome. A close, intimate sound.

Here's a recording whereon I feature the low lonesome reed as voice on the Pastourelle. The tune is a waltz found on a recording by La Chavanée, Le Long de la Riviére. The tune was written by Philippe Prieur, cornemuse. It can be found in "the pink book."