I recently posted a video of “Charlie,” a tune written by my friend and teacher, Sylvain Piron, of Alsace. I sensed I was misremembering it and asked him about it. He recorded this video in response. I was getting a bunch of bits wrong. The tune had “drifted” a bit in my head from when I learned it twelve years ago. So, here’s Sylvain, playing this wonderful French scottish named for Charlie Chaplin.
UPDATE: The Giordy has been sold to a good home. The Corso has gone back to the Button Box for trade toward the Nik. Thanks, everyone.
Breaking from the usual festivities, I’d like to point out that I’m currently selling two accordions in hopes of financing my Castagnari purchase. The first is my beloved Hohner Corso, which I discussed at length here. the second is my little Castagnari Giordi. It sounds like a concertina, but plays like a melodeon. A video of me playing the Giordi is below. Both are well-tended, great sounding boxes in excellent shape. Both are in G/C. I’m asking $500 for the Hohner, and $700 for the Giordi.
In 2003, 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.
|A misty morning in Alsace
Coming into Saverne, France, by train, Bethany and I spot Sylvain and Catherine standing on the platform. Catherine’s already seen us and rushes over. Sylvain walks over, relaxed.
“Ça va, bien!”
And after fourteen hours of travel, that’s all the French my wife and I can muster. They kiss us on our cheeks, which is disconcerting for us. We hug them, which is disconcerting for them. We drive fifteen minutes to their village, Steinbourg, in a boxy Peugeot. The village is very compact, with its church, red roofs, twisty roads, and boulangeries.
“Hey!” I say to Bethany, “We’re in France!” It seems too wonderful. Alsace! In the front seat of the car are two of our dearest friends. I’m far too exhausted to express the joy I feel.
“Gary,” asks Sylvain, “Where are your accordions?”
Their house is in a lane of sandstone homes on the Rue du Maréchal Leclerc. One might easily miss the plain wooden door were it not for the ceramic plaque above, showing the number XXVI along with a stylized accordion. Up the steep staircase, we find small rooms, but lots of them. The interior walls are a sort of pink that doesn’t occur in nature but does occur pretty frequently in French homes. The center of the house is the dining room, with a dark wooden table and any number of armless, wooden chairs — a requirement at musicians’ gatherings. This is a room as much for music as for meals.
On the floor, sitting open in their cases are two Castagnari accordions, and a third, an older Salterelle. Their nameplates tell me they are world-class instruments built by two of the most highly esteemed shops in the world. I’ve not brought my accordions because there is no need. Coals to Newcastle and all that. My own coal — a factory-made Hohner Corso–is markedly inferior.* A good box, but only good.
|Sylvain (right) playing the Benny.
Me on the Salterelle.
Over the past months, Sylvain has described the two newer instruments, which came into his life about a year prior. The first Castagnari is a “Benny” (that’s the model name), a compact three row beauty. Two rows are in the usual French keys (G and C, or do and sol) with a third row tuned to various sharps and flats. The second Castagnari is a “Tommy,” a two-row, also compact, that, because of its size and the sensitivity of its touch, is especially well loved. The Salterelle is the instrument Sylvain has played for years, a “Pastourelle III.” It’s the instrument on his first CD, Tranche de Temps (link to free download). It’s also in the usual French keys, do and sol, with a half row of five buttons giving sharps and flats.
I am especially possessed by it because Sylvain had asked me, given that he had the Castagnaris, would I like to have the Salterelle on a long-term loan basis?
I pick up the Salterelle. This is the best instrument I’ve ever laid my hands on. Certainly it feels better than anything I’ve ever played. I start a waltz, “Sur la bord de la riviera.” Sylvain takes up the Benny. My exhaustion, which had been deepened by a lasciviously rich meal and three glasses of bordeaux, disappears.
*My opinion of the Corso has changed considerably since then. Though I still feel the hand-made boxes are superior in every way, I don’t, if you will, feel that the Hohner is in any way inferior. In short, I feel an extraordinary affection for that accordion.
Just received from the Button Box a Castagnari Nik (G/C) “on perusal.” I’ve taken a turn in my eternal quest for “the last accordion I’ll ever buy,” and gone away from the three-row, full-stop big machines. Saw this on the Button Box web site and just swooned for the idea of a simple, light two-row in the French keys. Also … y’know … Castagnari. Color me slave to fashion.
Under my fingers, the thing feels … like something that ought to be discussed using inappropriate metaphor. It’s just effortless. The tuning (called “American Tremolo,” not sure what about it is American) is very sweet. Even wife Bethany — who is very supportive, but more critical about quality issues than I, and far less likely to fall for an object like this — can’t imagine why I would send it back. So I spent the evening making videos. The first is a French scottish written by Sylvain Piron. It’s called Charlie in honor of Charlie Chaplin. The second is a Breton waltz (don’t know the title), which I got from Daniel Thonon’s CD Trafic d’Influence. Enjoy.
In comments, the inimitable Tomb asked the following question:
Alright, Professor Chapin, here’s my latest in what will be a long line of questions from a novice. The history of the bellows that you’ve published so far seems almost entirely centered in England and France. This goes against my (assumingly incorrect) impression that Italian, Greek and Spanish folk music (maybe I should just say Mediterranean music) always seemed to have some sort of bellows wheezing in it somewhere. Are the European southerners the thieves of their northern cousins’ genius?
Thanks for the question! The classic, great names in accordion making are Italian (Castagnari and Salterelle, for example) or German (Weltmeister and the ubiquitous Hohner). This is an almost criminal oversimplification, but it serves for the moment (Andy?). The type of accordion I play has two rows tuned a fifth apart (G/C). This is called a Vienna tuning (more colloquially, “quint tuned”). England, Ireland, and France have great accordion traditions, very visible in the US. But there’s also a great Scandinavian tradition (hello, my Minnesota friends) that I need to learn more about, and an Eastern European tradition. In short, every musical tradition from the Caspians to the Andes, including your Mediterranean faves, has some sort of squeezebox going for it.
Very often, the traditions adopt piano or chromatic accordions for their purposes, or they stay in the diatonic world but modify the instrument to suit their needs. Estonia, for example, has it’s own type of accordion called a Lõõtspill. On this side of the Atlantic, Quebec, Louisiana, and Tex-Mex each have a well-developed characteristic style. And this doesn’t even get into the concertina thing.
So why am I focused on mainly France, and some England? Well, aside from accordions themselves — which are, you must admit, very clever — I am especially fascinated by (enamored with? obsessed on?) the repertoire of Central France, Alsace, Brittany, England, etc. Thus the focus of this page. It’s a small slice of squeeze-world, but it’s where I’m choosing to live.
Over on Melodeon.net denizen Lester Bailey has announced that he’s hung his shingle as an accordion repairer and tuner. Certainly, if you’re near Wendover Bucks (UK) and you find you’ve got a melodeon in a state of disrepair I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Tune-a-Rama. If not, I would still urge you to the site to read the stories of Lester’s melodeons. Very charming, it’s like a phenomenology of melodeon acquisition. Elsewhere on the site, Lester has recordings and videos of himself and his various melodeons playing Morris dance tunes.
Another 3-beat bourrée, which I recorded in 2008. This is a very characteristic bourrée, with recordings of it going back to the 1920s and ’30s. Back then accordionists roamed Paris in unruly bands, terrorizing the population with massive chromatic boxes. This tune goes under a number of titles that all “sound like” On d’onoren Garda or some such. I’m told that it means, “Where shall we tend the sheep?” or, more plausibly, “The Sheep Fold.”
The bourrée is the signature dance of Musique Traditionnelle du Centre France. This isn’t the baroque bourrée of Bach and his suites, and it’s not the jazzy bourrée of Jethro Tull. The bourrée of the Massif Central is a thing about to erupt. It is chaos imminent. Two lines face each other, and seem ever on the verge of colliding. When I took an accordion lesson some years ago, Quebecois multi-instrumentalist Daniel Thonon told me, “The bourrée is a crazy dance! Crazy!”
Here’s a set with a 3/8 bourrée followed by a very fast waltz performed by me in my living room. The waltze I learned from a La Chavannée tape, Cotillon, about ten years ago. The bourrée is in the Massif Central Tune Book (OP) compiled by Mel Stevens. I should mention that for years I have lived under the impression that the waltz I play here was, in fact, a bourrée. Thanks to Chris Ryall at Melodeon.net for disabusing me of that notion. I’m not sure why I thought it was a bourrée, since my sources all list it as a waltz, but there you go.
(for the inimitable Tom B.)
A friend made a comment a few weeks ago indicating that those who are not Of the Bellows may have difficulty grasping the lingo of the box. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “thus is the fate of squeeze-muggles.” Then I read a sentence in another friend’s accordion blog, and it shocked me into sympathy. Describing a sort of uber-box, Andy, at Melodeon Minutes wrote, “It was a Gaillard, 4-voice — yes, 4-voice — in D/G, tuned LM-MM+, with two switches behind the keyboard.”
All I need is a Gaillard accordion,
two rows in G/C, three reeds,
a wet tuning, and the truth.
“Good Lord,” I thought, envious, “That’s quite a thing!” Then I imagined the uninitiated perusing that line (maybe the boys at Homeland Security) wondering, “What kind of thing?”
Then, in my own paean to the Hohner Corso, I found that I’d described the red, pearloid wonder as, “A wet tuned French-sounding box.” Holy Cow! Is that even legal in New England?
So, what does it mean? With apologies to Andy, I’ve decided to use his exemplar sentence to explain some of the naming conventions of accordions.
- Gaillard: That’s the name of the maker, Bertrand Gaillard, of France. Highly esteemed. Other makers are Castagnari, Salterelle, and Loffet, to name just a few.
- 4-voice: Button accordions — aka, melodeons — generally have more than one reed for each note. Each reed is a “voice.” Two or three voices are normal. Four is extraordinary in a multi-row box because of the weight. Each voice requires an entirely separate bank of reeds.
- In D/G: Button accordions are diatonic, meaning they are designed to play in specific keys, rather than all keys (like a piano). In this case, the outside row plays in the key of D, while the inside row (the one nearest the bellows) plays in the key of G. Different types of music have differently keyed accordions that are most common. British music tends to favor the D/G melodeon. French music the G/C. In Irish music, B/C and C#/D accordions are all the rage. There are fantastic exceptions to all of these generalizations.
- Tuned LM-MM+: This means Low Medium-minus Medium Medium-plus. Is that clear? Back to the four voices. Each reed for a particular note is not tuned to the exact same pitch. Say that the note being tuned is A. The main reed will be tuned dead on pitch. This is the Medium reed. The Low reed will be tuned a full octave below, filling out the sound. The Medium-minus and Medium-plus will be tuned slightly above and slightly below the Medium reed, creating a sort of tension that is generally pleasing to the ear — similar in function to vibrato for other musicians.
- Two switches behind the keyboard: These allow you to turn on and off entire banks of reeds. So you can play all four reeds, or just the M reeds, or just the low reed. That it’s a switch behind the keyboard makes it simple to, for example, throw open the flood gates and engage all the reeds the last time going through a tune, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Not that you’d actually do that, though. It would be vulgar.*
- A wet tuned French-sounding box: So, back to the LM-MM+ thing. When tuning the reeds, the further apart the tuning, the “wetter” they are said to be. Some types of music call for a “dry” tuning, with the reeds tuned relatively close together — Irish music, for example. Other types of music call for “wetter” tuning, French and other continental musics, for example. The late Richard Morse, founder of the Button Box, explained the wet/dry situation here, at Hans Palm’s Accordion Page.
So there you go. Suddenly it all makes sense, hey? Additional resources for this can be found at Wendy Morrison’s Guide to Squeezeboxes, and, at Melodeon.net, Steve Dumpleton’s excellent Voices and Tunings FAQ.
Further questions, comments, or corrections are welcome.
*This is sarcasm. I love vulgar.
UPDATE: Found this video on YouTube demonstrating wet and dry tuning differences. The guy is something of a character, but he makes his point.
|Me and my Hohner Corso. Love.
Among the folks corrupted by my accordion influence are those who I’ve actually lent one of my older accordions to, either at my suggestion or their request, so that they might “give it a try.” The truth is, you can have your amazing hand-made Italian or French accordions, but the Hohner brand has brought more people to the bellows than could be counted. At this very moment, an unsuspecting colleague — a mandolin player, no less — is falling under the sway of the red pearloid, squeeze machine, a Hohner Corso, two-row G/C box that I lent him some months ago. This mirrors the way in which I got my hands on my first box, a Hohner Pokerwork, A/D, lent to me by the widow of a deceased accordionist. Out of such beginnings …
The Corso was my primary box for years. A wet tuned French-sounding box, the Corso was perfect for the music I was learning: the bourrées, mazurkas, waltzes, and polkas of the Massif Central region of France. Early on, I committed the arrogance of recording a CD with the Corso. The cover photo, shot by my wife, Bethany, shows clearly just how besotted I was with that accordion. God Lord! I was a happy guy. The music on the CD pains me a bit. I consider it to be a bit of a “trunk novel” situation. But the vision in the music was solid. I was interested in playing French music in a simple, straight-forward way. Even back in 2002, I was aiming for Accordeonaire. On the CD, The instrument sounds great, and that’s what this post is about: the Mighty Corso.
|Aunt Lisle with accordion 1929 (?)
To give you an idea of the sound, here’s a cut.
“Aunt Lisle’s An Dro” is actually a pair of An Dros (a traditional Breton dance), with the first being traditional, the second being a composition of my own in honor of my Great-Aunt Lisle, who played accordion (but not An Dros), or at least had her picture taken playing an accordion.
UPDATE: Rikke van Ommeren in the “Polka Groove” post is playing a Hohner Corso — better than I ever have or will. I love my Salterelle, but the Corso was in no way an inferior box.
UPDATE II: Here’s a picture of me playing it for students in my first year of teaching at Hall-Dale High School. I was a hairy guy.