What’s Been Going On?

Hello, all, I’ve been silent on the blog for some months, and I don’t necessarily apologize for it. We all go through periods like this. I’ve been keeping this blog since 2011 and the depth of my passion has not dwindled a bit, even if my volubility has. Here are some things.

The Button Box

BennyYesterday, I swung by the Button Box because my Concertino organetto had sticking keys. It wasn’t always the same keys, but there were always some keys sticking on that thing. I do some work out in Western Mass, and took the opportunity to visit. While there I tried an amazing beauty of a Castagnari Benny (G/C/Acc), a thing of beauty, a wonder to behold. And so damn light! I played a bunch on it and left it behind, grateful for the chance to touch it. While there I also picked up to Irish music CDs.

Bobby Gardiner and Dave Munnelly

gardinerIt was an unusual move for me! The jigs and reels have plenty of representation in my life, and you may have noticed that this blog is devoted to French-ish music of an accordion sort. And yet … I have developed an obsession with Irish melodeonists, which, in this context, means players of Irish music on the one-row box. I’ve loved this sort of thing since I heard Tom Doherty’s Catch the Bull by the Horns, CD, back in the 90s. Lately, I’ve been stalking Dave Munnelly’s YouTube page, and then saw reference to Bobby Gardiner — the doyen of the D row — and saw each of them with a CD for sale at the Button Box.

St. John’s, Newfoundland

CaptureBecause Maine isn’t cold and wind blasted enough in February, last week I took a trip to Newfoundland, which has an amazing button accordion tradition (you don’t need me to tell you that). I went to the legendary O’Brien’s Music Store. Tried the boxes and talked to the folks. It was a good time! Looking forward to going back. That night — sans box — we went to Erin’s Pub, where a storytelling circle was being held (Newfoundland!! Amirite??). I got up and sang a thing. No accordions involved, but a good story song.

Upcoming Performances!

On March 30, I’ll be playing with my quintet Nouveau Chapeau at the Down East Country Dance Festival, which is mostly contra-dancing but has lots of other stuff going on, like the Bal Folk session that we’re playing for. That’s in Topsham, Maine.

On March 31, my trio, Le Bon Truc will be playing the inaugural concert of the Crockerbox House Concert series in Hallowell, Maine.

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The Language of the Button Box

This was originally published in February 2011, in a slightly different form. Reading the front pages of today’s “fake news” rags, I can still see that our world’s understanding of accordion lingo could fairly be described as a dearth. I hope this piece serves as a still-potent paliative


(for the inimitable, and inexplicably quiet, 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.”

“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 CastagnariSalterelle, 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. English 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. A demonstration (on a piano accordion) of dry to wet tuning is demonstrated in under two minutes in the below video.

So there you go. Suddenly it all makes sense, hey? Additional resources for this can be found at Melodeon.net, and Steve Dumpleton’s excellent Voices and Tunings FAQ.


Further questions, comments, or corrections are welcome.


*This is sarcasm.  I love vulgar.

The Button Box and the Mory

Disaster Narrowly Averted

Castagnari Mory.
A thing of beauty. A wonder to behold.
I was working with a school in Western Mass. last week, so I decided to swing by the Button Box. Had a good talk with Doug while playing his stock. I had no money and he knew I had no money. And he showed me this accordion that had just arrived as a trade in. It was a Castagnari Mory (GC). “Here,” says Doug, “Can you try this out for me?” It hadn’t even made it onto the website, yet. I played it and … who knew that such a thing of beauty could exist in the world? It was amazing to both the fingers and the ears. I left feeling the distinctive cracks of a heart breaking. My heart.
As I drove home I started concocting a plan … steeped in the intoxicating memory of the Mory … I could trade in ALL OF MY ACCORDIONS for that one. I could be happy! I could make this work! It’s a crazy old world, but sometimes, things work out! Right?
My daughter, Emma, stopped me. “You can’t do that, Dad. The band. Your band. You love your band. You need all those accordions for the band.”
Yes. Yes. I love my band. Le Bon Truc. The good stuff.
Doug and the Mory*
Sure. He looks unassuming. Mostly harmless.
The fevre dream did not abate, however. And perhaps Doug knew that.
Sure, he looks nice. Innocent. Maybe even charming. But that was some seriously, sinister salesmanship. “Here,” he said, “Could you try this out for me?” As if to say, “I don’t want to be an imposition.” Or, “You’d sure be doing me a favor.” Or, “I know this is a burden for you …” but could you play this unbelievably wonderful accordion and let me know how it feels?
Yeah. Yeah, Doug. I can do that.
The Castagnari Mory has held a totemic power over me for over twenty years. The first tradFrench music I heard was from Ad Vielle Que Pourra, led accordionist/hurdy gurdy-ist Daniel Thonon. Daniel played a Mory and I was completely ensorceled by that sound. And I get it! I swear to God, I get it! The instrument does not make the player. I wasn’t listening to a Mory, I was listening to Daniel Thonon playing a Mory. Later, I would hear other players playing wonderfully on other boxes. But that Mory stuck with me. Then, I found out that Andy Cutting also plays a Mory (he owned three when I asked him) … I’m pretty sure I don’t have to justify the desire for an accordion to you, fair reader. All I’m saying is that the Mory has been a grail-shaped-beacon for me for many years.
Disaster Embraced, Quality of Life Improved
 
Skip to the end, the Castagnari Mory is winging its way to my house, even as I type. How did I get to this state?
Le Bon Truc. We love each other.
Well, it wasn’t that I had to break down and succumb to temptation, so much as getting a clue as to what my priorities ought to be. My friends brought me around. First, my band mates — Le Bon Truc — each said something along the lines of, “Hey, if you wanna do this we will support you!” and “Follow your bliss!” Then I did the math and realized that I wouldn’t really have to trade ALL of my accordions, just two of them. Then, through karma and generosity, that number was reduced to one.
Not only was this possible. It was reasonable. My heart fluttered a bit.
Every accordionist is chasing after THE LAST ACCORDION THEY WILL EVER HAVE TO BUY. It is a mythical creature, and we all recognize that. But this mythical creature haunts us. The Mory had been that creature for me for twenty years — think of that! where were you twenty years ago?
I will report more when it arrives. Thanks, all.
*Disclaimer: I am only joking! I have known Doug for twenty years, now, and he has never been anything other than a great guy, reasonable and kind. A good friend. Still, he knew exactly what he was doing when he brought that box out.

 

Interesting One-Rows at the Button Box

Temptress Margaret at the Button Box
She of the seductive e-mails

About once a month I can count on an e-mail coming over my transom from Margaret, at the Button Box, letting me know of new joys that are sitting on their shelves. It’s always interesting, but only occasionally prompts biblically suspect levels of covetousness. The latest note (June 30, 2015) did provoke such covetousness, which is very unusual since I only last month took delivery of a new (to me) Hohner Erica A/D. There were many interesting boxes, of course, but the ones that tweeked my interest were these.

First, there’s the Dino Baffetti ART organetto, one row plus (8+3), in, get this, Ab. That’s right A – bloody – flat! Aside from its value in obscurity (four flats? really?), I’ve been curious about these organettos since I got my Baffetti three row and loved the heck out of it. Baffetti makes quality boxes. Price on this one is $500 (used). Comes with a hard case.

Dino Baffetti in Eb

Similar, is the Romeo Erminio organetto, one row plus (9+3) in Eb. (I’ve not heard of this maker before.) As opposed to the Baffetti, which has two reeds per note (LM), this one has three reeds (LMM), with a stop for the low reed. Wow. All this for only $400 (used). A price so low it makes you wonder? Also, if you look at the little windows on the top of the box, you’ll see pictures of two lovely women. There are all kinds of incentives.

Castagnari

On the other end of the posh scale is the Castagnari Melodeon. A box I’ve been craving for years now. It’s a one row in D, with four reeds per note and four stops (classic Cajun structure, though the tuning doesn’t typically have the weird third that Cajun boxes have). I’ll tell you, not to fall sway to a brand name, but there is nothing like playing a Castagnari. It’s really true. Boy, would I love to get one of these. Price $2,300 (used).

Romeo Erminio is Ab, note the two pics

These boxes are interesting to me maybe because I’ve been dancing around the idea of a one row for a long time (see Rees Wesson’s boxes, for example). But it’s really all moot. I report the prices to you, but I am completely tapped this summer. In this case, I am serving the role of matchmaker. True? True.

ALSO: Another interesting thing about the Button Box notice is the large number of Irish style boxes available, 12 of them. I wonder if this is a sign of the high popularity in Irish playing (the Button Box stocks these because they expect to sell them). Or if it is the sign of a decline in such popularity (if interest were high, Irish boxes would be more rare). I don’t know. Pondering.

All I have to say to the Button Box is, “Thank God you are here!”

Where goest the Nik?

Cynthia and the Nik (to be named
Julietta or Giulietta, still deciding)

Some months ago I sold my Castagnari Nik in order to purchase a Dino Baffetti three-row in flat keys. This week I asked the buyer — who I will call “Cynthia,” since that’s her name — if she’d send a picture along of the Nik in its new habitat.

Cynthia reports that she is loving the box, and that she is settling on a name for her (a phenomenon worth commenting on in another post). A bandmate recently taught her Stephane Delicq’s, Les Novis. “I am still very much a novice, but the enthusiasm and will are there. With such a beautiful sounding instrument nudging me on, I know I’m in good hands … and so is she.”

They do, indeed, both look happy.

Welcoming Baffetti

The plan unfolds slowly! Made arrangements for sale of the Nik, yesterday, and arranged to purchase a Dino Baffetti, Tex-Mex II/34 from the Button Box. As it happens, both the buyer of the Nik and the Button Box are right near Sunderland, Massachusetts.  Saturday, I’ll be making the pilgrimage.

Here’s a picture of the Baffetti, and there’s a video over on the Button Box site. It’s a three-row, MM box, tuned American Tremolo (as was the Nik), with rows in F/Bb/Eb. Baffetti has a stellar reputation as a maker. As the name of the thing suggests, it was made for the Tex-Mex market, but its wider tuning perfectly suits all of the French musics I’m obsessed with. This decision has been a long time coming. I’ve loved that Nik, but have felt the redundancy of its G/C tuning many times at gigs. Also, working in a chanson trio with Barbara Truex and Joëlle Morris, the need for key flexibility is urgent. Finally, I’ve wanted a three-row quint tuned box for ages. Now I get my chance. I’m already thinking of the new possibilities for across-the-row madness and right-hand chords.

Here’s hoping it all goes off as planned!

Bourrées à Deux Temps

While continuing my conversation with Andy Cutting, I’ve done a small bit of recording. My own journey with the Nik continues! Here are four two-beat bourrées done in a very straight-forward (bog norme) style. The tunes are La Ruban Bleu, Le Bergére de Coulandon, Le Timide, and Youp’ Nanette (also called Bourrée à Six de Briantes).

This Youp’ Nanette is different from the other Youp’ Nanette, which can be found HERE. All of these tunes except Le Timide can be found in Mally’s Bal Folk tune book.

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

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.

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