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!


4 comments:

  1. Gary,
    As I am very much in the wide-eyed infancy of my exploration of tradFrench music, I don't have any great knowledge to share on the topic. I'd just like to say that reading your musings on what attracts you to the music resonates very clear. When I first saw a bourree written out, I wondered, why not just call the thing a waltz? After hearing a few and comparing them, I've begun to think of my twins, one of whom is a bourree and the other a waltz.

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  2. That may be one of the best comments I've ever gotten. Possibly because I have twins, too (mazurka and branle). Why not a waltz? Because it isn't. Even if you do play bass-chord-chord for a three beat bourree, it's not a waltz. It's even clearer when you hear them on cabrette. They are medieval. Pre-harmony. Pre-waltz. Thanks.

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  3. Alternatively your post might be titled, What does it mean to write so well? I really enjoyed the way your words flow with a pleasing rhythm and occasional syncopated side comments. I think this is very well written, as is what I've read of the rest of your blog. Terrific.

    I'm looking forward to catching up on the previous posts and your YouTube tunes as well.

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  4. I'm gobsmacked. Thank you, Doc, most sincerely.

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