Tribute: Diatonic Liaisons

Around thirteen years ago I was at the Button Box and saw a tune book, Diatonic Liaisons, by Alexandra Browne. An amazing piece of work, it compiled original tunes by Frédéric Paris, Dave Roberts, Bruno le Tron, Alain Pennec, Alan Lamb, Andy Cutting, Trevor Upham, and Marc Perrone. With eight tunes by each of these worthies, along with extensive biographical notes, this was an amazing, unprecedented collection. On top of that, it was simply beautiful, with the music hand rendered, incorporating unique symbols to capture the particularities of button accordion practice. On any other day, I would have picked up the thing for twice the asking price.

But on that day I was purchasing an instrument and had no excess supply of the ready to get the book.  “Next time,” I said, and then never saw it again.

Until a few months ago. Who should show up on Melodeon.net but Alexandra Browne herself, and she doesn’t know, but is there any interest in this book … and there was a lot of interest. A print run was done, and copies were made available (also by PDF), all for a reasonable price. So, I’m recommending the thing unequivocally. If you’re interested in obtaining a copy, contact Ms. Browne at alexandra.browne6@btinternet.com.

Mazurka: Bec à Bec

In my interview with Frédéric Paris, he referred to adapting the repertoire of various instruments to the diatonic accordion. This was back in the seventies when the “tradition” of French diato was being mapped out by the likes of Paris and Jean Blanchard, et al. What struck me was how apt the word “adapt” is to the process of taking a tune found on vielle or cornemuse and making it work on the diatonic box. About a year ago, I started paying attention to this mazurka, “Bec à bec,” on the La Chavanée recording, Rage de danse. Here it is:

Just listening back to it now, as I write, I am stunned at just how perfect a piece of music this is. It is heartbreakingly beautiful. Everything I love about French music is there.

But it’s not very accordéon-ish. How to make it work on the box? La Chavanée gives us two bagpipes playing single, entwined melody lines — of all folk musics, I think it’s fair to say that tradFrench is the lord of the counter-melody — and no chords, per se, though a harmony could be sketched out. That’s not what I did, though. Rather, I got my hands around the melody, and worked out the bass and chords according to my ear. Here’s what I came up with:

Not nearly as majestic as the pipes, but what is?

Click to enlarge

Meanwhile, in Alsace, the doyens of the biannual Pique-diatonique gathering had chosen “Bec à bec” as one of the three new tunes for the October 9 gathering. The sheet music they posted, which included tab and dots, showed that they had “adapted” the tune differently than I did. For example, in the third bar I play an F chord over the “D”-based melody phrase. In the Pique-diatonique transcription they use a “G”-chord. Again, in the third bar of the b-section, the Pique-diatonique transcription uses a G chord, which, with the “F”-natural suggests a G7. I chose an F chord, which, with the “D”s hints at a D minor. Either works. But they’re different.

I’m not making any arguments here, other than this: there are any number of choices you make when you adapt a tune to the box. Another example, I notice that in the fourth bar of the Pique-diatonique transcription, they play across rows, rather than down the one row, as I do. I think my playing sounds a little galumphy at that point. Time to try it their way.

An Interview with Frédéric Paris

en Français

As I have written, Frédéric Paris has been at the center of my accordion world for over a decade. After the piece I wrote about him in March, he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Thanks to Alex MacGregor and Sylvain Piron for help in translating. Thanks, especially, to Frédéric Paris.
____________________

Q: How did you begin your involvement in music?

  Carnet de Bal… Frédéric and Castagnari

A: I was 11 when I started playing the hurdy-gurdy in 1968. I tried an instrument that was at my grandmother’s and I liked it. I continued alone, and then I took a few courses where I met other kids like me, playing hurdy-gurdy.

Q: How did the Chavannée get started? 

A: Chavannée was founded in 1969 by my father who was the village teacher. He introduced his students and other young people from surrounding villages to the arts and popular traditions of Bourbonnais, our region in the center of France. Soon, we met the older musicians and singers of the region and we have since been researching the minstrels, instruments, repertoires, dances …

Q: Someone told me, “There is no such thing as French Traditional Music. There is Bourbonaisse music, Alsatian music, Limousin, etc…” It’s difficult from a distance to understand these regional differences. Do you think there is such a category as “Traditional French Music?” Do you think it is possible for me to understand “French Traditional Music” without a thorough knowledge of regional differences?

A: Yes, there are regional differences, but traditional French music does exist — through its atmosphere, melodic themes, its songs, the dance rhythms … Local or regional particularities exist, but they should not hide a real unity of the French-speaking area.

Fréderic Paris’s other great accordion recording:
Rue de l’oiseau

Q: Some of the music you play is very traditional (Carnet de Bal) and some is “traditional music of the future” (De L’eau Et Des Amandes) – how are they connected to you?

A: These records correspond to very different periods of my life. Carnet de Bal is my first solo production from 1984, I was 27! I wanted to share a little known repertoire, suitable for the diatonic accordion and playable by most musicians. De L’eau Et Des Amandes is much later (1995). Most arrangements are by Gilles Chabenat, and I took advantage of the flexibility and the volubility of the clarinet.

Q: You play many musical instruments. How did you start playing the accordion? 

A: I started the accordion at the time of revival of this instrument [in the 1970s] , under the influence of musicians such as Marc Perrone, Jean Blanchard … I met with traditional musicians in central France. I also adapted the repertoires from other instruments (clarinet, fiddle, cornet …)

Q: What role do you think the accordion has in traditional French music? In relation to hurdy-gurdy and cornemuse?

A: The accordion brings harmony, it can support or lead. Its attack brings energy to an instrumental group. This is a very flexible instrument.

Q: I noticed that you play a lot of accordions by Castagnari, and I’ve only ever seen you play the accordion in two rows. Can you tell me why Castagnari accordions? Why not three-row or two and a half? In other words: Why do you play the accordions you play?

A: I tried several kinds of accordions: 1 row, 2 rows 3 rows. The model I prefer is the “2-row 8 bass.” I love its intuitive, energetic light. Limitations make it necessary to seek solutions to diversify one’s playing. Castagnari is very reliable. They are instruments of good quality and I work with a very professional dealer-tuner (Jean-Pierre Leray in Rennes). What more? I use 3 diatos: one in sol-do (GC), one in a do-fa (CF) and one in re-sol (DG), all in “8-bass, 2-rows.” With these three accordions, I have almost all the tones I need.

Q: In the U.S., Carnet de Bal is an icon for accordion. I bought a cassette of Carnet de Bal in 1999 and I played it until it dissolved. This is a beautiful, clear statement of what the accordion can be. Can you talk about this? Is there a chance to do a reissue on CD?

La Chavanée, including, Frédéric and far too many hurdy gurdies.
I’m kidding! I’m kidding!

A: Some pieces recorded on Carnet de Bal have become “standards” for accordion players and I am very happy about that. At that time – 1984 – I adapted the repertoire of clarinet, cornet, hurdy-gurdy and unreleased songs collected in Bourbonnais (in the department of Allier). I added an accompaniment of clarinet (which I had played for a short time) a little voice and the vielle of Patrick Bouffard. The CD reissue has been requested for a long time. I should take care of this seriously …

Q: Here is a very specific question: What are you doing with your left hand in bourrées, 2 and 3 beat? It is a very important issue for accordionists in the United States! How should you play bass and chords for bourrées?

A: While playing 2-beat bourrées, I prefer to play long notes in the left hand, alternating chords (no third) and basses, like drones. I am inspired by the harmonium, which I have played since adolescence. Otherwise, bourrées sound like polkas and it’s a shame. I find it important to preserve the uniqueness of the 2-beat bourrée. The melodies have “horizontal” aspects. They must be left to unfold like songs, a capella, without chopping the left hand. Contrariwise, the playing in the right hand is at the same time bound and fast with ornaments, like the hurdy-gurdy. For 3-beat bourrées, the left hand accompanies with more traditional “bass – chord – chord,” but occasionally, I break this pattern with odd rhythmic combinations. It’s a bit complicated to explain, it would be easier with an accordion! I also sometimes get the effect of “drone” as in the 2-beat bourrée.

Q: Each disc of Chavanée is very different, how do you decide what will be done for each?

A: For many years, I choose themes for the records: the river, dance, Christmas … It gives me different ideas for arrangements. I let myself be carried away by the lyrics (the traditional repertoire consists largely of vocal music). Each song tells a story. Otherwise, I work with musicians I’ve known for a long time. This is important.

Q: Finally, is there a chance that you and Chavanée visit America in the future?

A: Why not? We are open to any suggestions!

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Une entrevue avec Frédéric Paris

in English

Comme je l’ai écritFrédéric Paris a été au centre de ma « planète accordéon » depuis plus d’une décennie. Monsieur Paris a fort gentiment accepté de répondre à quelques questions. Merci à Alex MacGregor et Sylvain Piron  pour l’aide à la traduction. Et merci, surtout à Frédéric Paris.
____________________

Carnet de Bal: Frédéric et Castagnari

Q: Monsieur Paris, comment avez-vous commencé la musique?

A: J’avais 11 ans quand j’ai commencé à jouer de la vielle-à-roue, en 1968. J’ai essayé un instrument qui était chez ma grand-mère et ça m’a plu. J’ai continué seul, puis j’ai suivi quelques stages où j’ai rencontré d’autres jeunes vielleux comme moi.

Q: Comment La Chavanée a-t-elle commencé? 

A: La Chavannée a été créée en 1969 par mon père qui était l’instituteur du village. Il a initié ses élèves et d’autres jeunes des villages alentour aux arts et traditions populaires du Bourbonnais, notre région située au centre de la France. Très vite, nous avons rencontré les “anciens” du pays et nous avons fait des recherches sur les ménétriers, les instruments, les répertoires, les danses…

Q: Récemment, j’ai écrit un article sur la «Musique Traditionelle Française» mais quelqu’un m’a dit, «Il n’y a pas vraiment de musique traditionelle française. Il y a musique bourbonnaise, la musique alsacienne, la musique du Limousin, etc… » Un américain comme moi a du mal à comprendre ces différences régionales. Pensez-vous qu’on peut parler de «Musique Traditionelle Française»? Pensez-vous qu’il est possible pour moi de comprendre «Musique Traditionelle Française» sans avoir une connaissance approfondie des différences régionales? 

A: I Il existe des différences régionales, mais la musique traditionnelle française existe bel et bien à travers ses climats mélodiques, les thèmes de ses chansons, les rythmes de danses… Les particularismes locaux ou régionaux existent, mais ils ne doivent pas cacher une réelle unité du domaine francophone.

Q: Certains airs de votre répertoire sont très traditionnels (Carnet de Bal) tandis que d’autres peuvent être qualifiés de «musique traditionnelle du futur» (De L’eau Et Des Amandes) – Qu’est-ce qui les relie selon vous?

A: Ces enregistrements correspondent à des périodes très différentes de ma vie. Carnet de Bal est ma première production en solo, c’était en 1984, j’avais 27 ans ! J’ai voulu faire connaître un répertoire méconnu, adapté pour l’accordéon diatonique et jouable par la plupart des musiciens. De L’eau Et Des Amandes est beaucoup plus tardif (1995). La plupart des arrangements sont de Gilles Chabenat et j’ai mis à profit la souplesse et la volubilité de la clarinette dont je joue depuis assez longtemps.

Q: Vous jouez beaucoup d’instruments différents. Comment avez-vous commencé à jouer de l’accordéon?

A: J’ai commencé l’accordéon à l’époque du renouveau de cet instrument, sous l’influence de musiciens comme Marc Perrone, Jean Blanchard… J’ai aussi rencontré des musiciens traditionnels dans le centre de la France. J’ai aussi adapté des répertoires venant d’autres instruments (clarinette, vielle, cornet à pistons …)

Q: Quelle place tient l’accordéon dans la musique traditionnelle française, en comparaison de la vielle à roue et de la cornemuse? 


A: L’accordéon apporte l’harmonie, il peut accompagner ou “mener”. Ses attaques donnent de la nervosité au sein d’une formation musicale. C’est un instrument très souple.

Q: J’ai remarqué que vous jouez beaucoup sur les accordéons Castagnari, en particuluer des accordéons à deux rangées. Pouvez-vous me dire pourquoi Castagnari et pourquoi pas les accordéons à trois rangées ou à deux rangées et demie? En d’autres termes: Comment choisissez-vous vos accordéons?

Musique en Bourbonnais.
Au centre Frédéric Paris.

A: J’ai essayé plusieurs sortes d’accordéons : 1 rang, 2 rangs, 3 rangs. Le modèle que je préfère, c’est le “2 rangs 8 basses”. J’aime son côté intuitif, nerveux, léger. Ses limites obligent à chercher des solutions pour diversifier son jeu. La marque Castagnari est très fiable, ce sont des instruments de bonne qualité et je travaille avec un revendeur-accordeur très professionnel (Jean-Pierre Leray à Rennes). Que demander de plus ? J’utilise 3 diatos: un en sol-do (G-C), un en do-fa (C-F) et un autre en ré-sol (D-G), tous en “2 rangs 8 basses”. Avec ces trois accordéons, j’ai à peu près toutes les tonalités dont j’ai besoin.

Q: Aux Etats-Unis, Carnet de Bal est un ouvrage de référence pour les accordéonistes. J’ai acheté une cassette de Carnet de Bal en 1999 et je l’ai passée jusqu’à ne plus pouvoir la lire. C’est une belle et claire démonstration de ce que l’accordéon peut être. Pouvez-vous nous parler de ce disque? Y at-il une chance de voir un jour une réédition sur CD? 

A: Certains airs enregistrés sur Carnet de Bal sont devenus des “standards” pour les joueurs d’accordéon diatonique et j’en suis très heureux. A l’époque – 1984 – j’ai adapté du répertoire pour clarinette, cornet à pistons, vielle-à-roue et des chansons inédites recueillies en Bourbonnais (département de l’Allier). J’ai ajouté un accompagnement de clarinette dont je jouais depuis peu de temps, un peu de voix et la vielle de Patrick Bouffard. La réédition sur CD est demandée depuis longtemps, il faudrait que je m’en occupe sérieusement…

Q: Voici une question très précise: Que faites-vous avec votre main gauche sur les bourrées, 2 temps et 3 temps? C’est une question très importante pour nous accordéonistes aux États-Unis! Comment faut-il jouer les basses et les accords pour les bourrées?

A: Pour les bourrées à 2 temps, je préfère jouer des notes longues à la main gauche, en alternant les accords (sans tierces) et les basses, un peu comme des bourdons. Je m’inspire de l’harmonium dont je joue depuis l’adolescence. Sinon, les bourrées ressemblent à des polkas et c’est dommage. Je trouve important de préserver la spécificité des bourrées à 2 temps, les mélodies ont un aspect “horizontal”, il faut les laisser se déployer comme des chansons a capella, sans les hacher à la main gauche. Par contre, le jeu à la main droite est à la fois lié et avec des ornements très rapides, comme sur la vielle-à-roue. Pour les bourrées à 3 temps, la main gauche accompagne de façon plus classique “basse – accord – accord”, mais de temps en temps, je brise cette régularité par des combinaisons rythmiques faussement impaires. C’est un peu compliqué à expliquer, ce serait plus facile avec un accordéon ! J’utilise aussi parfois l’effet “bourdon” comme dans les bourrées à 2 temps.


Q: Chaque disque de La Chavanée est très différente, comment décidez-vous ce qui sera fait pour chaque disque?

A: Depuis de nombreuses années, je choisis des thèmes pour les enregistrements : la rivière, la danse, Noël… Cela me donne des idées différentes pour les arrangements. Je me laisse porter par les textes des chansons (le répertoire traditionnel est composé en grande partie de musique vocale). Chaque chant raconte une histoire dont je m’imprègne. Pour le reste, je travaille avec des musiciens que je connais depuis longtemps. C’est important.

Q: Enfin, y at-il une chance que vous et La Chavanée viennent visiter l’Amérique dans le futur?

A: Pourquoi pas? Nous sommes ouverts à toute proposition!

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What Does it Mean to Play a Bourrée Well?

Thanks to the folks at Mel.Net for the discussions that sparked this piece. More than usually, this post expresses confusion, rather than conviction. Any questions, corrections, or suggestions are appreciated.

How to play a good bourrée?
What does it mean to play a bourrée well? I’ve been working hard to figure out what one should do with the left hand (bass and chords) when playing bourrées. I’m not sure why this particular tune form is especially controversial, but it is. It’s also the defining tune form for tradFrench music, much as the jig is for Irish music.
That’s the project. I’m trying to figure out how to play bourrées well. How will I know when I’ve succeeded? What are the criteria?
Well, one could appeal to authenticity. As with most traditional art forms one criteria for success is how well your performance matches the normative standards of the art form. In other words, if I’m playing a bourrée, then I’ll know I’m doing it well when my performance conforms to the ideal of what a bourrée is supposed to sound like. As with many platonic constructions, it sounds very simple, but there are complications.
Some would argue that there is really no such thing as a “French bourrée.” Rather, they would say, each of the many regions of central France has their own normative standards. A bourrée in Limousin is different from a bourrée in Auvergne. There’s truth to this, and it can be seen clearly if you watch videos of folks of different regions dancing bourrées. Some are tight and aggressive, others loose and blousy (h/t Chris). So I could choose one region and focus on that, or I could — looking from a distance — aim at the larger thing, whatever is captured by the generic term, “traditional French music.”
In the 1920s the bourrée moved to the
city and got involved with banjos
and trap drums!
Complicating this is the fact that, while there are regional styles for bourrées and their dances, there don’t seem to be regional styles for diatonic accordion playing. I recently asked Sylvain Piron if there was a particularly Alsatian style of accordion playing (since I play a lot of Alsatian repertoire) and he indicated that there really aren’t regional styles for the diato. Rather, folks emulate the styles of players they admire (e.g., Marc Perrone, Frédéric Paris). This may be because, while the vielle, cabrette, and the bourrée go back to medieval times, the accordion is much younger, and the wide-spread embracing of the diato is even younger still. Emulating admired players rather than regional norms would seem to be the way to go for this distant, obsessive American. I have access to recordings of players going back to 1925, but there’s no realistic way for me to immerse myself in the music of one particular region or another.
And even if I could, normative standards change over time. A bourrée played in 1925 would sound different from a bourrée played today simply because performance practices change. To use the most pressing example, a 3-beat bourrée played in 1925 would have left hands (on chromatic accordions) playing a pretty rigid bass-chord-chord accompaniment. They may even have a banjo (!!!) accompanying with a parallel thump-chunk-chunk. In 2011, however, for many players, the stated goal is to avoid bass-chord-chord at all costs (to paraphrase Stephen Milleret), and replace it with a sort of syncopated, extended, both-hands chording technique.
How to play a good bourrée?
And there’s not even a consensus about that. I can hear bass-chord-chord in a lot of current playing and can see it in tablature published by Trad Magazine and Jean-Michel Corgeron. The duo Musiqu’ à Deux play their bourrées in a clean, straight, traditional style — though still different from the 1925 benchmark. The movement that Milleret’s a part of (Mustradem) seems more intent on expanding the normative standards of tradFrench music, rather than clarifying them. In this way, Milleret, Norbert Pignol, and their mustradem ilk are the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie of tradFrench, with mustradem being the be bop to La Chavannée’s swing. (And by calling them an “ilk” I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like their stuff. I very much like their stuff.)
If authenticity is a question mark, then the next logical criteria for bourrée goodness would be aesthetics. To quote Le Duke (Ellington), “If it sounds good, it is good.” That’s true, but it’s not especially helpful; and it’s not especially helpful to put aesthetics and authenticity in opposition to one another. The fact is that I don’t want to simply play music that sounds “good.” There’s a lot of music that sounds good. I have chosen tradFrench l’accordéon diatonique for specific reasons that go beyond whether it’s “good” or not. Something about the instrument and repertoire suits me and my psychology. There are associations that come up when I play — rural, France, pre-modern, friendships, happy, obscure. The emphasis towards community. The emphasis away from radical individualism. The music serves others (dancers). Being a part of this tradition means being a part of something larger than yourself. The truth is that, to some extent, authenticity is important to me.
Does this help me know how to play a bourrée? If it sounds good it is good? Not good enough. How authentic is authentic enough?

Frédéric Paris and La Chavannée

(Thanks to my colleagues at Melodeon.net — Chris Ryall, Guy, and Quebecois et many cetera — for help on this. Any corrections would be welcome.)
Accordionist (and multi-instrumentalist) Frédéric Paris and La Chavannée, the organization he’s associated with, have been a huge influence on me since I first discovered their cassette tapes at the Button Box around 1998 (when I bought my first accordion, the Hohner Corso). Forgive me, please, if I seem to lapse into hagiography. This is literally life changing stuff for me. I would not be an accordionist without them.  An incalculably positive impact on my quality of life.

The first Paris recording I heard was Carnet de Bal, put out by the Agence des Musiques des Territoires d’Auvergne, or AMTA. It was a cassette tape featuring traditional tunes and Paris originals that, essentially, taught you how it was done. Simple arrangements that were fluid, effortless, precise, clear and … I don’t know … happy-making! This tape absolutely captured my imagination, and in the Dark Age of Irony that was the late 1990s, Carnet de Bal was a dose of joyful, earnest ease. One of the first tunes I ever learned on accordion was “La Marianne,” the opening waltz on this tape. (This waltz was also the “tune of the month” on Melodeon.net in January.)


On my next trip to the Button Box, I picked up more AMTA cassettes (every one of which has since expired) and a tune book, Cahier de Repertoire, which had dots and accordion tab for every piece in Carnet and Paris’ other accordion focused CD, Rue de L’oiseau, which I would acquire some months later. Both of these recordings are, now, quite difficult to find, though Rue can be found here.
There is a some Frédéric Paris more easily available (it’s just as easy to order from Amazon France as any other). He and his wife, Eveline, did two discs of French children’s music, Belle Pomme D’or and Petite Alouette (also on iTunes and emusic)These are charming and not at all the sort of processed children’s music you hear in the United States. He did a duet with hurdy gurdy-ist Gilles Chabenat called De L’eau Et Des Amandes (subtitled, “Traditional French Music Today”), comprised of originals that match the best aspects of tradFrance with modern harmonies and rhythms. Paris plays solely clarinet on this. For an accordionist, that might seem disappointing, but it’s just that good. This disc is out of print, but you can stream it here. A lot of its material shows up on Live en Flanders, which has Paris and Chabenat joined by Flemish musicians Wim Claeys (accordion) and Maartin Decombel (cittern). Most readily available is Paris’ work with La Chavannée, available at iTunes and Amazon download.
La Chavannée (founded, I believe, by Fred’s father Jacques Paris, aka Jackie), a traditional music group and cultural organization focusing on culture, music, and dance of the Bourbon region. They maintain a 19th century farm, host events, and recently built and launched a boat based on 19th century plans … and they play unbelievable music. To see them on stage, a core of musicians with any number of friends, multiple accordions, hurdy gurdies, bag pipes, clarinets, trumpets … below is a video of a recent concert. The man himself is on accordion. As far as I know, this is the only video of Paris playing accordion on the ‘net. I’d love to be wrong about that.