Sylvain Piron, Continued

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.

A Conversation with Sylvain Piron

Part One
Sylvain Piron
Sylvain Piron – diatonist, piper, nickelharpa-ist, dancer, and singer – has been a central figure in the traditional French music and dance scene of Alsace for years. He might deny that, but ask any of the dancers and musicians around the scene, and the level of their esteem will be clear. I met Sylvain in 1998, as recounted here, and it’s safe to say that, more than any other person, he is the reason I play this repertoire on this instrument. The lightness and feeling of his style – playing and singing together – is the bedrock of my aspirations (if something that light can, in fact, be a bedrock …). For this reason, my gratitude to Sylvain and his wife, Catherine Piron-Paira, is immeasurable.
Four of Piron’s CDs — Par coeur, Tranches de temps, Fleur de ciel, and Le plume et l’anche — are available for free download here
The interview was conducted entirely in English.

Gary: Could you tell me when and how you got started playing?
Sylvain: I started to play diatonique during the holidays of 1977 near Saint-Malo in Brittany. My [first] wife had been offered a Hohner 2915 few years before. It was sleeping in our flat, waiting to be played. My wife was a violinist and had learned two or three tunes on the 2915, not more. We took it with us, as I had the idea to take profit of holidays to give it a try. Within two days I was able to play 2 or 3 tunes, not very well but already danceable! I remember having started my playing with “En avant blonde,” a famous waltz played on record by Marc Perronne at this time. Since that, even if I had some periods where I played less, I never really stopped playing.
What was the diatonic accordéon scene like in those days?
The traditional music movement (called musique folk), at this time was led by groups like Mélusine, la Bamboche and Malicorne — all coming from the revival movement born after May 68. In Alsace there was Le folk de la rue des Dentelles, a famous group who started to reintroduce old forgotten tunes and dances. At this time there were two generations of diatonists, the elders being more than 60 years old, people who used to play in villages. They usually had big and heavy 3 row Hohners. The second generation was young, like me at this time, people of the revival movement. We did not have a lot of relationships with these old players as their style and repertoire were not really the same. Most of them (in my regions, Normandy and Alsace at least) played musette style or songs of the beginning of 20th century. We, the youngest, were much more interested by older  musics, collected in the 19th century for most of them. We were very few diatonists at this time, maybe less than five in Alsace and a few tens in France.
What was your repertoire at the time?
Sylvain, the blur in the middle, leads the dance
The first tunes I tried to play were from Centre France and Alsace. As I said before, it took me a short time to begin to play, but a long time to play correctly! That is a strong point of this instrument: you can get a result rather fast, faster than with violin or bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy. Even so, you have to work a lot to get a good feeling, a right tempo, a light bellow squeeze, a soft touch, in one word: a good sound! 
As my technique on accordion was improving I began to play with Heidi (my wife at this time) who is a good violinist. We began to play at friends’ parties, and also in the pedestrian streets of Strasbourg, with Pascal, a friend violinist as well. I enjoyed a lot to play like that and to, sometimes, make people dance in the streets. We played mainly Massif Central, Alsace and Breton and Irish tunes but our choices were based on music and not on dance at this time.
Dance is central to what you do, now.  When did you start focusing on that?
Sylvain Piron and Charles Gonfalone, back in the day.
In the late 80s I began to play from time to time in small bals organized by the school of my children. But it remained a bit confidential and not really open to public. In the late 90s I founded a group with two friends, Raymond Frank and Charles Gonfalone, the group was named “les Abandonnés” in double reference to a Cajun song by Moïse Robin and to the fact that we were all alone, “abandonnés,” without any girl friends around us at this time. My involvement in music for dancing increased a lot when I met Catherine, and when we started a dance workshop ten years ago. In fact, I started to lead the bal in a more official way at that time, rather late in my practice of accordion.
Sylvain with Raymond Frank, in Alsace

My attraction for traditional music and dances was in fact very old. When I was about 15, we founded in my village in Normandy, a group to do folkloric regional dances. It was for showing on stage, not for the bal. But that experience was very positive, and I discovered the richness of our heritage. That probably influenced me in the choices I made later.

You mentioned other players around at the time. Who were your primary influences?
Perlinpinpin Folk, with Marc Perrone.
When I started to play accordion Marc Perrone became rapidly a reference for me. He was at the origin of the diato revival and his style fascinated me: light, délicate, subtle, fits to the dance, not too fast, with a very sensitive touch. The result is a very expressive music which drives you in a delicious mood. Marc’s play is transparent, and his personality is that of a very generous man and musician. Very few musicians have this generosity, a fundamental quality for a musician.
Marc often tells the funny story of having gone in the 70s to Paul Beuscher music shop in Paris (close to Place de la Bastille), and, having asked — “What is this instrument on the top of the shelf?” — he was told, “Accordéon diatonique, but nobody knows how it is played.” Marc tried and immediately bought it and learned it within a few days.
I had a similar experience around eight years after in the same shop — this would be the end of the 70s. I went there to buy my own accordion after having started on my wife’s. Eight years later, diatonic was still not known … The guy in the shop was surprised by my interest for that thing. There was only one choice: a Pier Maria in D/G. I was not aware of tonality differences at this time. I bought it, 2000 francs ($400). Back home I saw that its tonality was totally different than Heidi’s one in C/F actually.  The Pier Maria stayed again for a while on shelf … It is several years later, as I was more familiar with singing and playing, that I discovered that D/G tonality was very suitable for my voice.
Part Two is here! Part Three is here! To read more about my 2004 visit with Sylvain Piron and his family in Alsace, go here.

Jac Lavergne: Musikadansé 3

This video features amazing playing from diatonist Jac Lavergne, in duet with cabrette player, Sandrine Lagreulet. Nearly a year and half ago, I wrote a tribute to Jac Lavergne, box player and guiding spirit of the Compagnie Léon Larchet. Among his many projects are the Musikadansé duets with Langreulet, filled with “bourrées d’Auvergne, Cercle circassien, scottish, valse, marche, mazurka ou encore polka.” A stunning video, just thrilling! A clinic for any box player who wants to play with a devastating left hand and a rock solid rhythm.