Tribute: Vivant

Vivant:  Derriere les Carreaux / Knife Edge

Before you do anything else, give that track a listen. Careful, though. One can, if one is the type, fall into the beauty of it. Vivant, a duo of fiddler Mark Prescott and accordéonist Clive Williams (who has been mentioned here before, and who is well-known as one of the senior partners over at has an amazing touch. Lyrical, precious, sweeping … dare I say it? … pretty. I was going to write more extensively about the recording, but after I asked him a few questions, Clive offered the following, eloquent account Vivant’s approach, history, and new album coming up.

by Clive Williams

To stream in its entirety for FREE go HERE

Mark and I met at our local music session, the Vaults Bar Sunday session in Stony Stratford. It just so happened that we both happened to go for the first time on the same session, and happened to sit next to each other, and enjoyed playing together. I did some playing with Mark, and some playing with a fantastic guitarist, Chris Boland who I’d met through GIG CB (The George Inn Giant Ceili Band), and we then tried doing trio stuff together. It was very good, but not long after, Chris relocated to Liverpool and we dropped back to being a duo. A little while later, Mark had a year off doing round-the-world stuff, and when he came back, I got him involved with GIG CB, along with a couple of other fine chaps… and introduced him to the world of french dance music via our GIG CB Gennetines gigs where we go each year. And we did our first CD shortly after, as a way of getting back into playing together as a duo again – that was about 2001!

On the recording, you’ll hear 3 boxes – mostly the Castagnari Mory in D/G, with the semi-unisonoric layout that makes that A minor drone on the opening track, “After Hours,” possible. Try playing that on a standard melodeon! While it doesn’t actually give you more chords over a normal 12 bass, unisonorics add a lot of textural possibilities; you can play them normally, drone the bass note, drone the chord, hold a G chord drone while playing D, Bm, C, chord sequences over the top, and all manner of crazy stuff. It’s great for developing a bass “story” during a track, like in the Tallis’ Canon, where the tune on the melody end is more or less consistent all the way through; it’s the bass that varies. You’ll also hear a Hohner Model I 1930’s box in C/F, on “Carousel,” and “Mazurka Rigal,” and on a couple of tracks; “Benjamin’s,” and “Corpus Christi Carol,” the melody is played on a Castagnari Lilly in A/D. I’ve still got all three boxes, and you can see each of them in my youtube videos.

With one exception, Mark’s composition, “Julie,” the music is as it would be played live; i.e. in concerts we can play these pieces as played on the CD – there are no overdubs or ‘special guests’ – one of my bugbears is musicians who do a great live act, but when they come to do a CD, feel the need to spice it up by adding a bit of guitar here, a bit of drums there, and before you know it, they’ve got a sound which is nothing like the magnificent live sound which made you buy the CD in the first place.

So, when we play this stuff out, it’s quite similar to how we play it on the CD, albeit that we’ve both developed as musicians since then, so the nuances will have changed. It’s not arranged note by note – we simply listen to each other as we play, and complement each other. It also helps of course that without any guitarist/bass player/etc, I’ve got pretty much free rein to do whatever I want on the bass end without clashing. We like playing in churches; we do occasional gigs in my local parish church in Stony Stratford, where the acoustic is just amazing – our slower paced stuff suits the natural reverb of the church perfectly. We’ll be playing there again, in mid June, when hopefully we should have our long overdue second album ready.

The second album, by the way, will be just like the first; just the 2 of us playing, gentle but sweeping stuff, using the Mory and the C/F Hohner, and again played exactly as we would play it live.

Go to Vivant’s bandcamp site to stream the album in its entirety for free. You can also purchase or download it there.

Gratitude at 40,000 Hits

In the United States, the fourth thursday of November is Thanksgiving. I love this holiday and love having the opportunity to express my gratitude for the extraordinary blessings in my life, many of which center on the accordéon, its music, and its masters.

  • Speaking of masters, first on the list would have be my wife, who has been generally and genuinely supporting of my accordéon efforts during the course of our marriage. Just as one example, she did NOT send back the Castagnari Nik when it arrived in the post last February, when I was at work. Instead, she sent a picture on my phone, and called me up so I could hear how it sounded.
  • Thanks to the folks who have willingly discussed with me things accordéon related, including Frédéric Paris, Sylvain Piron, Dave Mallinson, Alexandra Brown, and, most recently, Andy Cutting.
  • Thanks to the friends of this blog — whether they know it or not — who have been willing to discuss issues with me as I developed posts.  Some have actually written stuff that I’ve published here. Thank you, Andy of Vermont, Chris Ryall, Geoff Wooff, Owen Woods, Steve Mansfield, Chuck Boody, et many al. Tom McDonald — despite being a non-accordéonist — has been a real help just on the blogging and inspiration front.
  • Thanks to! Not enough to be said about that friendly, squeeze congregation’s influence on my quality of life! Just today, a quorum from that parish helped talk me off the ledge over a reed that seemed to be going sour.
  • Thanks to everyone involved in the collective effort to bring the “La Bourrée” tune book out, a huge important task! The folks at really stepped up for this one.
  • Thanks to my kids — Max, Brigid, Emma, Julia, and Sarah — who somehow think that it’s cool that their old man plays obscure accordéon music. They continue showing up to my gigs.
  • Thanks to Amy and Rob, at the Water St. Cafe, in Gardiner, who have given me a place to play regularly in the past few months, so that I could get my chops into shape.
  • Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. Having just crossed the 40,000 hits line, I have no idea, really, who you all are (the occasional comment would go a long way!) … and I monetize the blog in only a very minor way … but this blog was started because I wanted to talk about accordéons with people who wanted to listen to me talk about accordéons.  Thank you.

At the Hubbard Free Library

Last night I played a free gig at the Hubbard Free Library, in Hallowell, Maine. It was short — about 45 minutes was requested — and cookies were provided. It was a great time!

The room was filled with some very appreciative people who seemed more than reasonably fascinated by the music I was playing. I live so much in the accordéon world that I forget that it’s an uncommon — dare I say, revelatory? — experience for some. I video taped the whole thing. Here’s a set of Scottishes. Notice that even though I’ve been playing all of these tunes for nearly a decade, I still have a glitch in the last tune. Grumble.

Bourrées à Deux Temps (#143, 160, 151, + bonus)

Note: I am retroactively including this in the Bal Folk Tune Book Project!

Here are four two-beat bourrées done in a very straight-forward (bog norme) style. The tunes are Le Ruban Bleu, Le Bergére de Coulandon, Le Timide (not in the tune book), and Youp’ Nanette (also called Bourrée à Six de Briantes).

UPDATE: Found this very charming video of a group performance of La Ruban Bleu.

Andy Cutting’s Boxes (Pics!)

Discussing his non-collection, Andy Cutting sent along pictures of some of his accordéons. Not pictured are any of the three Mory boxes, which are somewhat ubiquitous in Cutting’s photos.

One of the Maxes, the Pokerwork, the Mignon, and … what is that with
the stradella bass? Is that the Crimean thing from John Tam?

The Oakwood

I also asked Cutting about acquiring a D/G Castagnari Lilly “by accident.” He tells the following story:

I ordered a D/G Lilly for a friend. A few months later it arrived. My friend was delighted then a couple of weeks another one arrived. I couldn’t very well send it back so I kept it. I now lend it out to people who want to have a go at playing the the box.

This makes a bit more sense than the Lost Weekend I was envisioning — where you wake up with unexplained accordéons in your home — and reveals a not very surprising generosity of spirit!

Andy Cutting Interview Part 2: Gear Talk

Part One is Here.

Andy Cutting does NOT have an accordéon collection. Listening to Andy Cutting, one is entranced, of course, by his playing, but one also marvels — perhaps with a modicum of jealousy — at the sound of his instruments. I asked Cutting about his instruments. Is he a gear hound? Does he have a collection?

I wouldn’t say I was a gear hound at all. I’m primarily driven by playing music on a machine and have the instruments I feel I can best do that. I don’t really have a collection, as such. Although my wife would say otherwise! For those who are interested, the boxes I have are:

with the beloved Mory
  • Hohner Pokerwork D/G (my first box which I still play at home) 
  • Hohner one row four stop G 
  • Hohner Club 3 D/G 
  • One of those Chinese one rows
  • A small two row CBA thing that John Tams got in the Crimea when he was filming Sharp
  • Castagnari Mignon Gish, 
  • Two Castagnari Max, one in D and one in A
  • Castagnari Lilly D/G (bought by mistake!) 
  • Castagnari Handry 18 G/C
  • Oakwood (I’ve no idea what model. It was made for me), two row 21 button, 8 bass with stop for the thirds, G/C Bandoneon (octave) tuned, 
  • Two Castagnari Mory C/F and, finally, 
  • Castagnari Mory D/G (my most used and favorite box)

I also have on long term loan a Marcel Messervier Melodeon in D. So as I said, not really a collection.

How has he come by them? How did he first move beyond the Pokerwork?

I have over the years tried and played just about all the makes of boxes I’ve heard of. Some fabulous and a few dreadful. When I had been playing a few months I had the opportunity to play a Castagnari and it was just so much better than the Hohner I was playing. So after a lot of persuasive discussion and an approaching 18th birthday, I somehow convinced my parents that I needed a better box. We had been to Bromyard Folk Festival and I had been given a copy of the Castagnari catalogue by Rees Wesson (a fine one row maker). I sat down with my dad with a mind to get a Nik (two voice, two row, eight bass but with hand made reeds). My dad said that from all that I’d been saying, it sounded like I wanted something much more like … and he pointed to the Mory. I wasn’t going to say no, and so, with a bit of translation it was ordered. Several months later (!!) it arrived … and I hated it! It was so much bigger and heavier than my Pokerwork and I could barely reach the inside row of bass buttons, let alone the stops. I thought about it and knew that I would have to change the way I played. After a few days and a lot of work I totally fell in love with it.

Some items on that list are very intriguing! Two Maxes? Why two one rows? 

When I started playing with Chris Wood it was primarily to play some of the Quebecois repertoire. The only one row I had was in G and not super so I got the Max in D. Later I got the A one so that Chris could play in A. Fiddle players like A. Now I mostly use them in my Solo concerts and a bit with Martin Simpson.
With Chris Wood

And why is the Mory his favorite? Not that this is a hard question … why wouldn’t it be his favorite? But he’s got a Handry 18, G/C, the classic big box played by the likes of Bruno LeTron, Didier Laloy, and other Samurai. Why isn’t the HANDRY his favorite?

I bought the Handry 18 about fifteen years ago. I really like it but it’s just not me. It is in many ways too capable and as I’ve said before, I love the limitations of the instrument. With the big box it feels a little like cheating. I know it’s not, but the challenges that box brings aren’t the ones I’m so interested in.

It’s interesting that the box is G/C and the rest are D/Gs. Switching between the two can be difficult for some (okay, me) as the center of the instrument seems to shift from the knee end of the box to the chin. What’s the method behind Cutting’s key choices?

I play in D/G tuning because that is where most of the music I play is pitched. It is the standard in England. I have always tried to play in both octaves. So, I’ve never thought the difference [between D/G and G/C] too great. When teaching in England I try to get people playing in the top octave and when in Europe I get them to play in the bottom. It’s great practice and after a while you stop going eeak, the fingerings different! and just get on with it. 

Most people I work with are amazingly accommodating. I got the C/F box so it was easier to play in D & G minor with the pipes and hurdy-gurdy. If someone wants me to play and it’s in a daft key for the box. All it usually takes is a bit of explanation and nine times out of ten they’ll shift the key.  The singers I work with have mostly been more than happy to move key’s. 

In general, what does Cutting look for in an accordéon?

When trying out boxes it has to have a great action, an even tone across both ends and most importantly for me, have a very good response from very quiet to reasonably loud. I’m not into the bullworker melodeon, loudest is right thing at all. Volume is easy. Subtlety is not. But that of course depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

For me Castagnari seem to fit the way I play, or rather, I have learnt to play the way they work, better than any other make I’ve tried. That is just my personal taste. I would like a Melodie box and would dearly love to try a Bergflodt.

And, as an aside, what about the electronics?

For miking up the box I use an Audio Technica ATM 350 pro and for the left had I use the element off a PZM (Pressure Zone Mic) made by Realistic (or rather, no longer made by Realistic) mounted on the outside of the base plate with the mic looking through a sound hole. This is wired internally to a jack socket. Of the many mic systems I’ve tried this works best for me.

Andy Cutting Interview Part One

Part Two is HERE.

Andy Cutting was not the first to bridge the channel between English melodeon and Musique du Centre-France, but his work in the 90s — with Blowzabella and Chris Wood — elevated the art form. His style is the envy of many (okay, me!) with its effortlessness, flow, and … rhythmic feeling of levitation? His compositions are intricate and intriguing and they stick with you. A tune like “Spaghetti Panic” draws you in and sparks a compulsion to try and learn it.

During breaks in his touring, Andy agreed to an interview-via-email. Part one starts with early stories. Later installments will discuss equipment, repertoire, composition, and technique. The conversation is ongoing, though, so if you’ve got a question for Andy, I’ll be happy to pass it on!

Let’s begin.

You appeared on the scene in the mid-80s. Could you give me some background: where you grew up? Why folk music? Why the accordéon?

I was born in Harrow, North West London. My parents were both enthusiastic morris dancers and as such, from the age of about four, me and my older brother were taken with them on various morris tours and to folk festivals on most weekends of the year. My parents were also keen members of the local folk club. My brother studied the violin and I found myself learning to play the drums. Just before my sixteenth birthday a friend lent me an old beat up melodeon to repair. I fixed various problems with it and a couple of weeks later I gave it back to him. He asked how I’d got on? I explained all the repairs I had made and he said, “No. How did you get in trying to play it?” I played him two or three tunes and he exclaimed, “That’s not fair! It took me about three months before I could play a tune!” I thought maybe I was onto something. He then tracked down an old Hohner Pokerwork and my parents bought it for my 16th birthday. It was only years later that I had realized that growing up around folk music the tunes must have gone into my mind subconsciously so when I first tried the melodeon I was just having to learn the mechanics of it.
When did you realize that you and the accordéon made an extraordinary team? What do you love about the accordéon?

My initial aim was just to be better than the box players I knew. (I was an arrogant 16 year old!) By that I mean, most of the players I knew or saw play would knock out a few tunes in pubs after the morris had danced. Thinking about the classical world there were beginners, amateurs who played in orchestras, people who would rise up the ranks to lead orchestras, professional players and international soloists. It seemed like an unbroken arc. But with the box playing world, that I knew at the time, there were the people who knocked out a few tunes then a massive gap with John Kirkpatrick right at the top with a handful of good players somewhere in between . I just wanted to be able to do more than get through a few tunes. So I set about practicing. A lot. About eight hours a day for nine months or so. I love the limitations of the diatonic button accordion. It makes you think and be creative about the way you achieve the effect your looking for.
Could you describe those early days? What was the scene like where you were? Who were your heroes? What repertoire?
When I started playing I was very much taken under the wing of a great player (Ian Dedic) who used to take me to sessions. He was also not happy just top churn out the same old tunes every week. He was very innovative in his playing and my challenge to myself was to try and emulate what he was doing and maybe even push him a bit? The main session that I started playing at was set up to play anything but Irish music. It wasn’t an exclusive thing. It was just that within a ten mile radius you could go to at least two Irish sessions on every night of the week and some people just wanted the chance to play music from other traditions (mainly English). I was lucky to start playing at that time and to have such a good session reasonably close to home. I rapidly got to hear about other box players. Especially ones from Europe. Most notably for me: John Kirkpatrick. Tony Hall, Martin Ellison, Dave Roberts, Roger Watson, Marc Perrone, Riccardo Tesi, Christian Desnos, Michelle Pichon, Serge Desunay and Philippe Bruneau. I started off playing English tunes then learnt nearly all of John Kirkpatrick’s record Three in a Row, The English Melodeon. After that I started learning tunes from Mark Perrone, Riccardo Tesi and then most of Blowzabella’s repertoire.

Part Two is HERE! Here’s a video of Andy with Chris Wood to keep you warm (thanks Clive Williams).  Go to 6:45 if you were wondering what I meant by “levitation” above.