Monday, August 27, 2012

Sylvain Piron, Continued

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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.

2 comments:

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