Neil Postman and Accordion Technopoly

Neil Postman:  Not an Accordionist

Over on the Music and Melodeons blog, Owen is crafting a series of posts on the perennial query, “What is Folk Music?” At Melodeon Minutes, home of friend Andy from Vermont, the new Castagnari on-line catalogue is being gone over with the loving eye of a critical friend. Meanwhile, another friend’s blog, God and the Machine, has a piece on the late Neil Postman, not an accordion player, but a hero of mine.

Postman, in his books Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, argued that technologies have ideologies.  In other words, a new technology encourages some possibilities (values) and discourages others (devalues).  The automobile, for example, values mobility and individualism, while devaluing stasis and communitarianism — to paint with criminally bold strokes.

It struck me that this applies to accordions, as well.

Discussing the Castagnari family of boxes over on melodeon.net, one member recommended the evolving 18-bass system, in general, as “amazingly liberating,” and pointed to its prevalence in the current wave of tradFrench players who rarely “play it straight.” And he’s right, of course. A three-row, 18-bass instrument can play in any key, and can produce the extended harmonies required for “jazzing up” the old tunes. It allows for an enormous amount of freedom.

Bruno LeTron, 3-rows, 18-basses,
and the Truth

Postman would say that the existence of such technology does more than allow for the possibility of, say, extended harmonies on the accordion. Rather, the existence of the technology is an ideological argument for such extended play.  We know this, he would say, because of the value judgements we make. Diatonic accordion playing that moves through a variety of keys or introduces chromaticism is seen as more virtuosic. It tends to be more valued. Players who can perform in such a way — players of the Mustradem collective, for example — are the stars of the genre and shape what defines “good” tradFrench playing.

(Before getting to the next paragraph, I want to make it absolutely clear that I love the music of Bruno LeTron, Didier Laloy, Norbert Pignol, Stéphane Milleret, et al. I am merely making an observation about how available technology impacts values. I understand that I am over-egging the esoteric pudding. It’s a good time for me. Are we clear?)

The Handry 18: Maybe this is
the last accordion I will
ever buy?

When I bought my Castagnari Nik (the last accordion I’ll ever buy?) I made the conscious decision to eschew the expansive ideology, opting instead for the two-row, eight bass ideology that does play the old tunes relatively straight. Perhaps it’s a recognition of my own limitations, but an over-abundance of choice is, to me, the definition of chaos. Is this luddite-ism? Is it cranky-old-fart-ism? Is it a deep, abiding, jealousy? Or is it just me making a choice about what boundaries I’ll choose for my music-making life. Ideologies are boundaries, after all. There’s still so much to learn from Jean Blanchard! The technology I’ve chosen has an ideology that allows me to focus on some things while setting aside others. It ties me in to a tradition and repertoire I love, and in its particulars greatly improves my quality of life. Color me content — at least until I can get my hands on a three-row, 18 bass ideologue.

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 One)

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.

“Bonjour!”
“Oh! Bonjour!”
“Ça va?”
“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.
Steinbourg, 2003
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.
We play.

*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.