Thursday, March 15, 2012

Appreciation: Daniel Thonon

Daniel Thonon was a first contact for French music for many North American players. Residing in Quebec, the multi-instrumentalist -- accordéon, pipes, hurdy gurdy, recorders, harpsichord -- was one of several key members of Ad Vielle Que Pourra, which was a featured group on the Green Linnet label, and their sub-label, Xenophile. Being associated with Green Linnet during the Celtic music boom of '90s brought them into my sights. I was playing Irish flute and whistle at the time, and, honestly, had a narrow view of what music ought to be. Hearing Thonon and crew rip through their "New French Folk Music," much amazement ensued. Worlds opened up.
Daniel Thonon, with the accordion that came
after the legendary Mory

Ad Vielle Que Pourra used traditional French instruments to produce a music that blends tradFrench, Breton, and Quebecois music. There are also touches of Parisian bal musette, and even some baroque. (Thonon is an impressive harpsichordist.) But rather than producing a sort of "more eclectic than thou" folk music, Ad Vielle Que Pourra produced music with a focused vision that captivated me. Perhaps this was because almost all of the music was original, thoroughly in the style of trad. 

Throughout his time with Ad Vielle Que Pourra, Thonon played a bit of everything, most prominently the vielle à roue. I was not a box player at the time, and didn't notice in that context what extraordinary things he was doing with his Castagnari Mory. In 1997, Thonon released Trafic D'influences, a recording that focused on his box playing. It has since been re-released as the less-obscurely titled, Master of the Diatonic Accordion. Again, worlds opened up with this set of mostly original-in-a-traditional-style played on a two and a half row, twelve bass, beautiful sounding instrument. (Aside: when word got around that the Mory had been destroyed in an airline baggage accident, more than one player bowed their head in grief.)

When I moved to Maine in 1997, I met Matt Szostak, a hurdy gurdy player and builder from Camden. I was just beginning my accordéon journey, hearing La Chavanée for the first time, and Matt was a fantastic resource for me.  It also happened that he was friends with Daniel Thonon. Matt put me in touch with Daniel, and when I took a trip to Montreal in 1999, I drove out to Daniel's for a lesson on the box. I can't say for sure what I learned there -- other than the fact that Daniel Thonon is a fantastic, generous person, and a great teacher. Daniel's approach to the lesson was to watch my very rudimentary playing and make kind suggestions. "Have you thought about this?" or "Did you know you could do this?" Without being able to say exactly how my playing changed, I improved tremendously in that hour and a half. Certainly, I came away encouraged, enthused and loving the box and French music more than ever.

I haven't heard much out of Daniel Thonon's camp in recent years. Listening to his catalogue as I write this piece, I can tell you I very much would love to hear more music from him. There are no videos of Thonon playing box on YouTube, but here's a vid of an accordéon group in Helsinki playing one of Daniel's compositions. If you notice in the comments section, Daniel himself "liked" this.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Free Bass Greensleeves

In discussing the three-row, eighteen-bass technology and its implications the other day, I had completely forgotten the free bass option.  Instead of the usual chord-bass set up (in whatever configuration), the box has a greater number and wider variety of bass notes. Today, Italian diatonisto Mauro Savin pointed me to his YouTube site, whereon I found this version of "Greensleeves."




Friday, March 9, 2012

Mazurka de Comptoir

Here's a mazurka I learned off the compilation, Accordeons Diatonique en Bretagne. On that recording it was played by Christian Desnos. I don't know if that makes it a "Breton" mazurka or not, but it's a good tune. For more mazurkas, I invite you to go here and here. Also, you can check out Melodeon.net's "Theme of the Month" -- featuring mazurkas -- from some months back.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Neil Postman and Accordion Technopoly

Neil Postman:  Not an Accordionist
Over on the Music and Melodeons blog, Owen is crafting a series of posts on the perennial query, "What is Folk Music?" At Melodeon Minutes, home of friend Andy from Vermont, the new Castagnari on-line catalogue is being gone over with the loving eye of a critical friend. Meanwhile, another friend's blog, God and the Machine, has a piece on the late Neil Postman, not an accordion player, but a hero of mine.

Postman, in his books Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, argued that technologies have ideologies.  In other words, a new technology encourages some possibilities (values) and discourages others (devalues).  The automobile, for example, values mobility and individualism, while devaluing stasis and communitarianism -- to paint with criminally bold strokes.

It struck me that this applies to accordions, as well.

Discussing the Castagnari family of boxes over on melodeon.net, one member recommended the evolving 18-bass system, in general, as "amazingly liberating," and pointed to its prevalence in the current wave of tradFrench players who rarely "play it straight." And he's right, of course. A three-row, 18-bass instrument can play in any key, and can produce the extended harmonies required for "jazzing up" the old tunes. It allows for an enormous amount of freedom.

Bruno LeTron, 3-rows, 18-basses,
and the Truth
Postman would say that the existence of such technology does more than allow for the possibility of, say, extended harmonies on the accordion. Rather, the existence of the technology is an ideological argument for such extended play.  We know this, he would say, because of the value judgements we make. Diatonic accordion playing that moves through a variety of keys or introduces chromaticism is seen as more virtuosic. It tends to be more valued. Players who can perform in such a way -- players of the Mustradem collective, for example -- are the stars of the genre and shape what defines "good" tradFrench playing.

(Before getting to the next paragraph, I want to make it absolutely clear that I love the music of Bruno LeTron, Didier Laloy, Norbert Pignol, Stéphane Milleret, et al. I am merely making an observation about how available technology impacts values. I understand that I am over-egging the esoteric pudding. It's a good time for me. Are we clear?)

The Handry 18: Maybe this is
the last accordion I will
ever buy?
When I bought my Castagnari Nik (the last accordion I'll ever buy?) I made the conscious decision to eschew the expansive ideology, opting instead for the two-row, eight bass ideology that does play the old tunes relatively straight. Perhaps it's a recognition of my own limitations, but an over-abundance of choice is, to me, the definition of chaos. Is this luddite-ism? Is it cranky-old-fart-ism? Is it a deep, abiding, jealousy? Or is it just me making a choice about what boundaries I'll choose for my music-making life. Ideologies are boundaries, after all. There's still so much to learn from Jean Blanchard! The technology I've chosen has an ideology that allows me to focus on some things while setting aside others. It ties me in to a tradition and repertoire I love, and in its particulars greatly improves my quality of life. Color me content -- at least until I can get my hands on a three-row, 18 bass ideologue.