Castagnari Nik Encomium!

Photo by Brigid Chapin.

So I got it. Officially. Paid for and everything. Had to sell two other accordions and Fender Telecaster with amp. Worth every cent. Don’t expect an objective review. Rather, expect a panegyric, an encomium, an elaborate laudation. I have brought the Castagnari Nik home. Paid for it. Begun getting to know it. What a ridiculously effortless ease-of-play it has! Brigid has taken some pictures. Happy.

Happy! Don’t want to appear materialistic. Acquiring this thing, being happy. But I am. The sounds that come out of the Castagnari Nik. These sounds will improve my quality of life. Unfortunately, I don’t have the recording savvy to create a document that will truly communicate how wonderfully sonorous the Nik is. I will be going into a recording studio this summer. Here are two videos I shot, recently.

The first is a classic French Waltz, Belle Bergére (“Beautiful Shepherdess”). The left hand sounds a little honky on the YouTube. Sounds better in person.

The second video is another rendition of The Cheshire Waltz. I wasn’t very happy with the version I shot on the Saltarelle, and then a colleague said, “Bet that would sound great on your Nik.” And it does.

Is it the last accordion I’ll ever buy? That’s a beacon of grail shaped dimensions. This two-row, G/C, MM, no-stops box? This simple accordion … with it’s sweet sound and exquisite, unbelievable touch? Let’s just say, if it were the last accordion I ever bought, I’d be quite okay.

My Trip to Alsace (Part Two)

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.
read Part One

“Daring, come see where we are!”
One thing you need to understand about Bethany and me is that we aren’t ambitious travelers. This is not because we’re indifferent to the charms of a place, but because we’re so easily charmed. The morning of our arrival in Alsace, Bethany woke me up at six, saying, “Darling, come see where we are!” Then she took me on a tour of the backyard, pointing out the unfamiliar flora, taking pictures of the primroses and azaleas. We were amazed.Vive la difference! Admittedly, Bethany does have the gardening bug, but it still goes to show, I think, that we know how to enjoy a place without putting forth a vast amount of “tourist” effort. Our days were most decidedly not packed, and that was just the way we liked it.
Bethany, Gary, Sylvain, Alban, et Romain, in Strasbourg
Over the week, we wandered no further than Strasbourg and spent most of our time in the area directly surrounding Saverne. We saw the Chateau de Haut-Barr in Saverne, the well-kept chapels, and the walking trails. Even the fabled French gastronomical experience we approached lackadaisically — not without care, mind you, but without urgency. Catherine and Sylvain made every meal for us but one. The fair was simple and abundant, with many breads, cheeses, sausages, and wines. One morning we went to a shop, bought sausage, and mailed it to ourselves back home. Another morning Catherine’s father called and told us that we could see some fifteenth-century tapestries if we made it to a particular chapel before 11:00am.  We did, and were delighted both by the tapestries and the docent’s stories.

A tapestry from the 15th century showing hairy men
in the New World
Every day had a nap. These were essential. Siestas are evidence of the highest level of civilization, but they are especially necessary when you’re going to be staying up to all hours. After the sun went down, more wine would be poured, the cheese board brought out, and the accordions taken up. The days were undemanding joys, the nights mild, accordion-accompanied bacchanalia. If this wasn’t the good life, then the phrase had no meaning.

What Are They Playing In Alsace This Year?

Corrupting the youth at the pique-diatonique.
Photo by François

It is with envy that I follow the Pique-diatonique, an occasional gathering of diatoniste and their closest allies in Alsace, France. My friends, Sylvain Piron and Catherine Piron-Paira, are regular attenders, as are many of the players I met while in France. This year’s event takes place on May 29, in the village of Dahlenheim, near Strasbourg.

For those of us unable to attend, I want to suggest that we create a new holiday — Pique-diatonique Day. On May 29, the diatonic diaspora will join in spirit and music with the Pique-diatoniste. Either alone or in groups, gather with baskets, sausage, cheese, and wine (gewürztraminer?), and play a few tunes from the Pique-diatonique Tunebook, Le petit bréviaire du diatoniste d’Alsace et d’ailleurs (clicking gets you to the tunebook). The tunes are given as sheet music, and accordion tab. There are a good number of Alsatian tunes, but most come from all over France, including Brittany. Given time, I’m sure that we, les absents, can come up with other traditions to celebrate our Alsatian brethren and sisteren. Something with storks?

Building Materials

Photo by Knut Utler

In comments on the Accordion Workshop post, the inquisitive TomB wrote:

The most striking thing to me about these photos is just how much metal is inside these instruments. Has that always been the case?

Building materials are not my forte, so I asked my buddy, Andy from Vermont. In very quick order, he replied:

As far as I know, metal has always been used on the part that I would call the pallet rods, which connect the button lever (the part attached to the button) to the pallet. However, the button levers were (and still are, in many accordions) made out of wood. I believe that the pallets themselves were historically made out of wood (and again, still are wooden in many accordions), but some modern accordions use aluminum pallets.

My Melodie has nylon (possibly Delrin) button levers, copper pallet rods, and wooden pallets.  Your Nik has wooden button levers, and probably aluminum pallet rods.  You can check under the grille and see whether the pallets themselves are wooden or metal. [I checked and they are wood. GC] I’ve seen some old bandoneons with wooden pallet rods. The only modern button accordion that I’ve seen (in pictures only) with wood pallet rods is a model made by a French builder, Stephan Le Lan.

An advantage of metal is stability despite humidity changes. If pallet rods shrink or expand, the result can pull the pallets away from the action board, which would result in air leaks and reeds that sound even when the button isn’t depressed.

Thank you, Andy from Vermont!

Lady Cassili’s Lilt

Off topic from the usual French stuff, the Theme of the Month is music from Scotland. I’ve loved harper Robin Williamson for years. This tune, “Lady Cassili’s Lilt,” is on Williamson’s Legacy of the Scottish Harpers.

UPDATE: A listener over on supplied the following information  “Lady Cassilis’ Lilt” is a very old tune (she died in 1642) and was used for the ballad Johnny Faa and the Earl of Cassillis’ Lady, the origin of Gypsy Davy/Gypsy Laddie/Gypsy Rover. It’s most commonly heard nowadays as the tune for the Jacobite song “Wae’s Me for Prince Chairlie.”

Accordion Speak 101: Breton Music

I pulled this out of the Patrick Lefebvre post because I thought it would stand better on its own. Apologies if I’m wrong. As always, comments, questions, and corrections are welcome.

Bombarde and Biniou Duo:
Piercing and Piercing-er

Breton accordion music is not something I mentioned in my foregoing post, A Brief History of French Accordion, and I’ve been chided for it. Breton music, the music of Brittany, is a parallel tradition to the musique traditionelle du centre FranceThe two traditions rarely encountered one another. Brittany is the celtic region in northern France, and its music is characterized by small pieces of melody repeated, repeated with slight variation, and trance-making persistence. About a hundred years ago, accordions joined the Breton musical ensemble, along with the bombardes (shawm) and biniou (bagpipe). When I stumbled onto Patrick Lefebvre in 2003 I wasn’t even aware that there was such a thing as a Breton accordion tradition. But there is. There is.

Tribute: Accordéon Gavotte

Listening to the new (2008) Patrick Lefebvre recording, War Hent Skrigneg (Accordéon Gavotte), I am transported back about five years to my first Button Box sponsored Squeeze-In, in western Massachusetts. It’s after reasonable hours and the accordions and concertinas are still going. Wife is asleep with young ‘un, and I wander off, accordion in hand. In the dining room, I run into Andrew (of Vermont). He’s got a bottle of wine. We set to playing. Very shortly we stumble onto our small, mutual Breton repertoire. “Have you heard Accordeons-Gavotte,” he asks, “by Patrick Lefebvre?” And I had, but was stunned to be asked. Seriously, as amazing as it seems, one does not often get asked about Breton accordion virtuosi. Go figure.

What is so amazing about Patrick Lefebvre, and his tour de force recording, Accordéon Gavotte? Aside from his unrelenting vision (he’s playing solo accordion Breton dance tunes, and that’s what he’s doing) he does things that I’d never heard before.  He varies the tempo, for instance, playing the melodies through slowly, expressively, before moving to dance tempo. Another technique is to add banks of chords to the playing as the tune progresses. By this I mean that Lefebvre will play through the tune with only two reeds sounding, then add a third bank in to increase the depth and emotion. This isn’t difficult, but you don’t hear it done that much. (Perceived as cheesy?) Lefebvre uses the technique to great effect. Building the drama, whipping us into a frenzy, piling the wet-tuned reeds one on top of the next. 
Most impressive, though, is Lefebvre’s use of the left hand. His basses leave you shaking your head, “How did he do that?” Very interesting! Very inspiring! I had a conversation about this with a dance instructor. She found Lefebvre’s playing maddening. With the very interesting, very inspiring basses, she kept losing the one! How could you dance if you kept losing the one?!

One of the things I learned from Andy of Vermont was that one of the ways Lefebvre “did it” (i.e., played so fleetly with such amazing basses and chords) was that he played a chromatic accordion on many tracks, not a diatonic. It seems so obvious, now, but at the time I hadn’t noticed. At first I was a bit crestfallen. I was a bit of a diatonic purist, then — unlike now. (Hey!)  But what is fantastic about Accordéon Gavotte isn’t the technique, or the fleetness, or the easy way with basses and chords. What is fantastic about Accordéon Gavotte is Lefebvre’s marshaling of these elements in a way that is traditional and intensely creative, simultaneously. He makes the melodies shine. His legato sections — intensely sad with fermata — may be the most tragic moments in all music. The shift to dance are equally joyous releases. What’s fantastic about Accordéon Gavotte is the endlessly rich stream of melodies. It’s sequel, War Hent Skrigneg (Accordéon Gavotte), is equally rich. You should get both. They will improve your quality of life.

UPDATE: Here is an excellent article introducing the music of Brittany.

UPDATE 2: You can get War Hent Skrigneg (Accordéon Gavotte) at iTunes and eMusic.