Welcome to a New Box

A beautiful box

Ah, joy!

Today I took delivery of my new box, a Hohner Erica A/D, sent from England by its previous owner, a denizen of the inestimable melodeon.net.

I’ve had my eye out for an A/D box for a while. I found myself playing in situations where my disdain for “the peoples’ key” was becoming more than a charming eccentricity. I had boxes that played in C, G, F, Bb, and Eb. I needed an A and a D. (Anything beyond three sharps or three flats seems a vulgar affectation.)

So, did I want posh box (oh, a Tommy!)? A less expensive posh box (a Lilly)? Or a tiny box (Giordy)? Or a Baffetti organato? I didn’t know. Then this box showed up for sale on mel.net.

I was intrigued. I always had a thing for that old fashion Hohner sound, and had actually started on a mighty Corso. The Erica is a classic bog norm box. Jean Blanchard played one back in the day. Then, accordion fettler, bold Lester Bailey, pointed out that he had worked on the Erica and that it was an excellent model of the species. Also, that the seller was very trustworthy. That was enough for me.

After adjusting all the straps to suit my massive frame, I made some videos. Be kind, still getting used the action and all that.

Correspondance with L’Accordéonaire, Part 2

Continuing my correspondence with David Maust (begun in the previous post).
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Hooked!
Jan. 26, 2014

Spoiler!  He goes for the Panther!
Hi Gary,

Thank you for the thoughtful reply! You have given me a lot to think about and I appreciate the invitation to continue the conversation.

I especially liked listening to the various renditions of On d’onderon gardathat you posted. I agree that the various instruments give the music a very different feel, and think what you say about the CBA and PA tending toward fluidity and complexity is true. I didn’t realize the CBA had such a strong presence in the Auvergne music, but I can see how this would have bridged the Bal Folk to the Bal Musette. I love the sound of the CBA recording, but I also really like the one on the Giordy. And really, for some reason the less adorned Giordy version seems to fit more what I feel is my own personality as a musician. I really love simplicity and maybe that is why I feel drawn to a diatonic box. I think I have always felt musically more at home in playing in a diatonic mode, even on chromatic instruments. Maybe this also comes in part from playing different diatonic instruments like the mountain dulcimer and harmonica. I feel that I put the love of those instruments into my playing of chromatic instruments like the piano, organ and piano accordion.

I mentioned in my last email that I have liked playing from an Ad Vielle Que Pourra songbook on my PA. There is something so different about how the tunes feel on my PA and the sound of the recordings of the band with the diatonic accordion. Of course the musicians are so well accomplished, but the instrument itself too is just different and that keeps my interest in looking at the diatonic accordion. Also the lighter weight of the diatonic is something I know I would like. When I bought my 60 bass PA I downsized from an extremely heavy Titano 120 bass and that made a great improvement in my comfort with the accordion (and my 60 bass still weighs about 16 pounds).

I appreciate what you say about enjoying the process of learning the instrument. This is true for me. I’m not really concerned with reaching a goal of ability, although it is always nice to improve, but the satisfaction from playing is of much more value to me. I’ve always felt I’m a bit of a slower learner, but I really enjoy, and deeply remember the process. I have so many memories over my life of playing music in different places, situations and with different people, and there in lies the richness of music for me. I sense you approach music in the same way and I appreciate your causing me to reflect on this.

As far as monetary investment goes – is there a particular box you would recommend for someone on a budget?

I noticed The Button Box’s most economical diatonic accordion is the Hohner Panther, and I’ve read a lot of favorable reviews, but I’m not yet sold. I really would like to try and save for a higher quality instrument. I’ve always felt that one should get the best instrument one can afford, and that has certainly proved true for me in playing the accordion I have. I just love hearing it every time I play it; it always seems worth the money I spent on it. Have you ever played a Panther?

I also remember reading that you started with a Hohner Corso. Do you like the Hohners? They seem a little more affordable than some of the other brands the Button Box carries. I wish I had a place like the Button Box close by where I live and I could try out different boxes. Watching different videos is helpful, but it’s nothing like actually playing the instrument.

Thanks again for the conversation, I’ve really enjoyed it! -David
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Honing in on an Acquisition
Jan. 26, 2014

Hello, David,
Again, thanks for your kind words.
I agree about the difference that diatonic instruments have, even if I can’t necessarily describe it.  Even when I play guitar I tune it CGCGCC.  Very drone-y.  I play whistles, keyless flutes, and diatonic accordions. The only chromatic instrument I really play is recorder (love baroque music). And I play piano, but really just to help me figure out arrangements and such.  I like the diatonic mindset a lot. I have thought a lot about the CBA, because I love that Auvergnat style — and Weltmeister makes a good, less-expensive CBA ($1200) — but I feel like it would amount to a huge distraction from the work I’ve already done.  Just taking on the quint-tuned Dino Baffetti has stretched me quite a bit (and I love it!)  It takes me away from the simplicity your describe. If someone were to gift me one, the temptation might be too much.  But the next accordion I’m going to buy is going to be a one-row in D … whenever that happens.
About buying an accordion … you really have to try it before you buy, unless you are commissioning a new instrument from a trusted maker (Saltarelle, Castagnari, Dino Baffetti).  The cheaper accordions CAN be great, but there is a variability. I am very fond of the sound of Hohners, and I would recommend a Corso or Erica. I got VERY lucky with my first accordion (a Hohner Presswood in A/D), which was a loaned to me for a time. Then also lucky with my Corso, which had a very wide tuning and a very nice touch. I have heard good things about the Panthers and such, but really, the inherent musicality you describe in your own playing will move beyond a Panther quickly. The action of the instrument is really important.  I was happy with the Corso, but I’m much happier with the Dino Baffetti I’ve gotten, which, essentially, is a Hohner clone except made with top quality parts. I do love that Hohner sound. I see the Button Box has a Corona III that looks pretty sweet. If you did decide to go for a cheaper box, I would go for a Presswood or Pokerwork and pay to have it de-clacked.  If you do get a chance to go to some place where there might be a collection of accordions — make the pilgrimage. There’s nothing like trying them and having it suddenly “feel right”.
Gary
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Framing the Quest
Jan. 28, 2014

Hi Gary,

Thanks for the tips. I really appreciate your opinions on all this and feel I know where to go from here in looking for a particular box. It’s hard to decide since there are so many beautiful accordions out there, not just brands but keys and reed set-ups as well.

I took a look at that Corona III and you are right, it is has a remarkable sound. I also love the sound of your Dino Baffetti. But I think I will probably go with a less expensive, simpler option at this stage in my playing like a Presswood or Pokerwork like you say. I should be able to afford one of these and feel it would be a better choice than the Panther. I really liked the used Presswood and Pokerwork boxes on the Button Box’s site and watched the videos.

As far as key, I’m assuming a two row G/C will be a good tuning to start out with. I figure that’s what many players would do French folk music with. I know that hurdy gurdies that are usually G/C tuned are considered Auvernait and D/G Bourbonnais. I’m hoping for something that is a pretty standard key for my first instrument. And G/C is good for American folk stuff too which most of my local musician friends play – although I do like playing in D also… but I figure I always have my chromatic accordion for other keys if I want them.

And I’m going to do some looking around for a shop in my area (Los Angeles) and up north around San Francisco too as I’ll be up there most likely this summer for a family trip. There is an annual accordion festival near there in a town called Cotati (which is close to SF), although going to it is not an option this year for me. Still, maybe there is a shop up there.

And maybe I’ll be surprised and find something in my area too. I found out this year that one of my high schoolers is learning button accordion from his uncle. I’m sure there are more at my school who play as well;  my school is overwhelmingly Latino and accordion is plentiful in a lot of the traditional and popular Mexican music.

Thanks again for all your help! I’ve learned so much from our exchange and am deeply grateful for the chance to talk.

David

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After that I heard nothing. A few months letter, I checked in on David to see how the quest was going. His response.

March 23, 2014

The quest has been going well and thank you again for encouraging me along the way. I’m so happy I decided to get a diatonic box after many years of piano accordion.

After talking with the Button Box some, visiting a place in downtown Los Angeles that had a few diatonic accordions (mainly 3 rows for Norteno players, Corona, Panther, etc.), checking my budget and looking on Craigslist, I decided to buy a Hohner Panther to start myself out.

And although I really like some of the used “Presswoods” and Pokerworks on the Button Box site, I am looking for a G/C instrument and they don’t currently have any in my price range. I’m staying on the look out for one of these but in the meantime, I was able to easily get started with a Panther.

There are a lot of Panthers and Coronas on Craigslist out here in California, and I wanted to be able to play the box I was getting since I have heard the Panther’s out of factory tuning can be inconsistent sometimes. Getting one on ebay, even new just seemed scary to me.

Also, the place in downtown LA wanted 600 for a Panther and I could get one on Craigslist for 350-400. I found an older style Panther about 20 min. away, the model with the Corona-like grill (I really don’t like the newer grill) and it is in great shape. I have been really enjoying it! It is so light compared to my 60 bass piano accordion and I love figuring out tunes and just noodling around on it around the house while my kids play. And I can take it with me so much more easily than lugging the 17 pound piano accordion around!

So my plan is that I’ve got this Panther and will play it for a year or two to see how I like playing a diatonic box. I figured that if I didn’t like it as much as my piano accordion, I could sell it. But if I did like it (which I do!) then I eventually will probably sell my Panther locally on Craigslist and step-up to a nicer box.

I also got the Panther, because I thought I might like the 3 row over a 2 row. I’m undecided on this right now, but the Panther was an inexpensive way for me to try out playing essentially either a 2 or a 3 row system. I purchased Pignol &  Milleret Book 1 from the button box and am playing the Panther with this course like it is a 2 row instrument, since that is probably what I will eventually get (but that third row is tempting for shortcuts and fun stuff).

I like having this P and M as a structured course to get my fingering right from the beginning (but ouch it works my left hand pinky doing basses with four fingeres! – I’m used to Stradella bass and NO pinky). But even though I’m not doing much row crossing yet in the course, I’m amazed at how quickly I figure out the same tones and runs across the rows when picking out favorite tunes and messing around with it.

One question for you if you don’t mind… Pgnol and Milleret “deeply” suggest removing thirds. I looked this up on Mel.net and read up on it a little, and now am thinking about taping off my thirds.  I took my basses out and mapped out the thirds and I could tape them off easily (although it means taping the reeds themselves which I hesitate to do until I talk to the Button Box or Mel. net or something; I’m very careful to not touch my reeds, even breathe on them, so the idea of taping them makes me cringe). On Italian boxes, I guess thirds are on the same “port” so you can tape them at the “hole” very easily, but Hohners are not like this. If I take the ports on most of my thirds, then I will also be taping a tonic or a 5th for another chord.

Do you play with thirds? I taped my Bb at the port to see how I would like the sound (has the third on push and pull), and I do like it. I like the simplicity and un-Stradella-bass-ness of it. But maybe I’m a little jaded to Stradella-sounding basses from piano accordion playing. When I play French-Trad. things on my piano accordion, I think the Stradella-bass mucks it up on occasion. If you did remove thirds, any advice on taping them off?

Sorry I got a little long-winded, but I love getting to talk about this stuff with someone who enjoys listening. I’m sure you understand.

Thanks! David

Correspondance with L’Accordéonaire, Part 1

Very often I am asked questions along the line of “How can I get started?” or “What sort instrument should a beginner buy?” These are questions that don’t have pat answers, but they can start great conversations. David Maust, a piano accordion player who is considering the intensity of diatonicity, began such a conversation via e-mail a few months ago. Enjoy.
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Diatonic Temptation

Jan. 21, 2014

Hi Gary,
Accordion Temptation is Well Documented
I began reading your blog a couple months ago and have really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for taking the time to write your thoughtful interviews, posts and put up videos of yourself. I also love the resources as well like the tunebooks. Your site has helped both French folk music and the diatonic accordion become much more accessible for me and I was very excited to find it.
I have a question for you, and I understand if you are busy and may not have a lot of time. If so, no worries, but still, I just have to ask. What is the experience of playing the diatonic accordion compared to a piano accordion? How does the instrument affect the music, especially for playing French folk dance tunes?
I’m aware the answer to this question may be obvious to most diatonic accordion players, but I ask because I am trying to decide whether this is an instrument I want to buy; I’m just not sure yet if this is an investment that is the right one for me. I’ll give a little background so you know where I’m coming from.
Right now I have a nice 60 bass piano accordion that I have been playing for about 10 years (it’s a German made Castiglione that has a nice musette setting and also a low set of reeds that I like the sound of too, especially when played dry with an upper register reed – in all it has 5 switches but I usually play the musette switch). It is a nice size compared to a full size accordion, but it is still much heavier than a diatonic accordion. I have played piano all my life and also enjoy playing the Hammond organ, so about 10 years ago when I wanted to start playing the accordion, this was a good choice for me. I was able to learn fairly quickly and have had much enjoyment from playing it. I use it to play French and Italian folk tunes and dances (and American folk tunes too – I also really like American folk music).
I got interested in French folk music about 12 years ago by accident. A friend and I decided to try our hands at building a hurdy gurdy after I had successfully built a mountain dulcimer in my dad’s wood shop. After we built two symphonie hurdy gurdies (those are the box shaped, diatonic Medieval types), we attended a hurdy gurdy festival put on my Alden and Cali Hackmann in Washington State. There we were introduced to a lot of people who loved French folk music (although there weren’t any diatonic accordion players when we went). I also purchased a tunebook of Ad Vielle Que Pourra at one of their concerts and it has been one of my favorite songbooks since for playing accordion. My friend too ended up being deeply impacted as a result of this as well because he ended up spending a couple years as an apprentice with the Hackmann’s, and built a beautiful chromatic hurdy gurdy in their shop for himself over that time.
For me though, since that time, the accordion has been much more of a favorite instrument than the hurdy gurdy. And I suppose I’ll be happy enough continuing to play my piano accordion, but there is just something about diatonic accordion that I feel I will love in a whole different way. I also feel I would have a good feel for it since I have played harmonica for many years and successfully messed around on my friend’s concertina.
OK, I’ll stop there; that’s more than I intended to write, but I wanted you to have an idea of where I was coming from. Purchasing an expensive instrument is a big deal for me, and the time commitment of learning a new instrument is too (I’m a teacher and have two kids of 6 and 4 with another on the way, so there isn’t lots of  “down-time” for practicing around my house), so thinking about getting a diatonic accordion is something I’ve been reading and thinking about for a while.
Thanks again for taking the time to share your experiences on your blog, and for sharing your love of this instrument and music!
David Maust
__________

Wherein I Urge Him to Succumb

Jan. 24, 2014

Hello, David,
Thank you for your kind words!  The blog is a joy of mine, along with the music. Of course you should buy a diatonic accordion.
You ask about my experience with button accordions and piano accordions. I haven’t played piano accordion but I think you can do a perfectly fine job of playing this repertoire on the piano accordion or (more commonly) the chromatic button accordion.  Auvergne, especially, has a substantial CBA tradition. I generally think of CBA and PA in the same category, since they both are fully chromatic, have the stradella bass, and don’t have the diatonic push/pull thing.
So, now that I’ve established that I’m not anti-piano accordion … the diatonic box is just very very fun. It’s a different way of approaching music and the physical activity of it is very satisfying.  If you check out this blog post. You can hear the same tune played on a number of instruments, including a CBA. You can hear that CBA/PA tends towards fleetness and smoothness. It doesn’t HAVE to lead to more complex harmonies, but I would say it tends to.  It was the CBA and its 120 basses that bridged the gap between Bal Folk and Bal Musette. (At the same time, I have to say I just did a concert with a singer doing Edith Piaf, and I did not do the quick jazz musette filigrees … it sounded different., but still good.)
I can tell from your note that you have the fascination.  Building hurdy gurdies? This is more than you wanting to play the repertoire … this is having a relationship with the physical instrument.  
I understand the concern about money. I was a teacher for 12 years and have five kids, and that’s a legitimate concern. I would not be concerned about the time spent to learn, because I get the sense that you enjoy every step of the learning curve — you aren’t practicing so that one day you can play. You’re playing right from the beginning. I guess if you want to be utilitarian about it, you could ask yourself what it is you get out of music, and what you would like to get out of it.  If getting a diatonic fits with your goals, then it’s worth it.  In my own case, my goals have led me to divest myself of other instruments, and concentrate on the diatonic box. But it’s also led me to stretch out into non-trad keys (F/Bb/Eb) because I’ve started playing with a singer.
I hope that helps. I’m happy to continue the conversation,
Gary
__________

What Box?

Jan. 26, 2014

Hi Gary,
Thank you for the thoughtful reply! You have given me a lot to think about and I appreciate the invitation to continue the conversation.

I especially liked listening to the various renditions of “On d’onderon garda” that you posted. I agree that the various instruments give the music a very different feel, and think what you say about the CBA and PA tending toward fluidity and complexity is true. I didn’t realize the CBA had such a strong presence in the Auvergne music, but I can see how this would have bridged the Bal Folk to the Bal Musette. I love the sound of the CBA recording, but I also really like the one on the [Castagnari] Giordy. And really, for some reason the less adorned Giordy version seems to fit more what I feel is my own personality as a musician. I really love simplicity and maybe that is why I feel drawn to a diatonic box. I think I have always felt musically more at home in playing in a diatonic mode, even on chromatic instruments. Maybe this also comes in part from playing different diatonic instruments like the mountain dulcimer and harmonica. I feel that I put the love of those instruments into my playing of chromatic instruments like the piano, organ and piano accordion.

I mentioned in my last email that I have liked playing from an Ad Vielle Que Pourra songbook on my PA. There is something so different about how the tunes feel on my PA and the sound of the recordings of the band with the diatonic accordion. Of course the musicians are so well accomplished, but the instrument itself too is just different and that keeps my interest in looking at the diatonic accordion. Also the lighter weight of the diatonic is something I know I would like. When I bought my 60 bass PA I downsized from an extremely heavy Titano 120 bass and that made a great improvement in my comfort with the accordion (and my 60 bass still weighs about 16 pounds).

I appreciate what you say about enjoying the process of learning the instrument. This is true for me. I’m not really concerned with reaching a goal of ability, although it is always nice to improve, but the satisfaction from playing is of much more value to me. I’ve always felt I’m a bit of a slower learner, but I really enjoy, and deeply remember the process. I have so many memories over my life of playing music in different places, situations and with different people, and there in lies the richness of music for me. I sense you approach music in the same way and I appreciate your causing me to reflect on this.

As far as monetary investment goes – is there a particular box you would recommend for someone on a budget?

I noticed The Button Box’s most economical diatonic accordion is the Hohner Panther, and I’ve read a lot of favorable reviews, but I’m not yet sold. I really would like to try and save for a higher quality instrument. I’ve always felt that one should get the best instrument one can afford, and that has certainly proved true for me in playing the accordion I have. I just love hearing it every time I play it; it always seems worth the money I spent on it. Have you ever played a Panther?

I also remember reading that you started with a Hohner Corso. Do you like the Hohners? They seem a little more affordable than some of the other brands the Button Box carries. I wish I had a place like the Button Box close by where I live and I could try out different boxes. Watching different videos is helpful, but it’s nothing like actually playing the instrument.

Thanks again for the conversation, I’ve really enjoyed it! -David

__________
NEXT POST: David takes the plunge! What will he choose?

First Tunes with the Baffetti

Videos down below!

The Dino Baffetti Tex-Mex II/34 arrived on Thursday! Very exciting! I had intended to do an internal examination of the box, a la Owen Woods or Daddy Long Les, but I found I couldn’t bear to take a screw driver to it, not even to remove the grill. I’m made of less stern stuff than that, it seems.

Instead, I’ve been playing the heck out of it. Here are some first thoughts:

  • Big one!  Playing a three row is different from playing two or two-and-a-half row or even two-row-plus-accidentals. Possibly this is obvious. The three row quint box can do different things that I don’t yet know how to do. New frontiers!
  • The two row repertoire works just fine on this one. Even if it is obvious that playing up-and-down the rows is not what it was built to do, everything I’ve been learning for the last 15 years is essentially transferable!
  • At melodeon.net there is a recurring discussion about stepped keyboards vs. flat keyboards. Playing a flat keyboard for the first time in years has made no difference to me.
  • Even though this is an F/Bb/Eb box (which is exactly what I was after) I’m choosing to name it as G/C/F and recognize that it’s a transposing instrument. All of the sheet music and tab is for G/C/F, so this seems simplest.
  • It sounds AMAZING. Essentially, as one colleague mentioned, it’s a clone of a Hohner Corona, done to a absurdly high level of quality. The sound is so very sweet. And the touch is effortless. I do have fond feelings for Hohner accordions, but this is a cut above.
  • I love it.
  • It is a little silly that with five rows of box to my name, I still don’t have a D row. What sort of psychological block am I dealing with? Is it PTSD from the Minneapolis Irish sessions?
Here are three videos with the Baffetti. The first is a hanter dro written by Sylvain Piron.

The second is another hanter dro, traditional, that I learned from Steve Gruverman.

The third is a Breton March, traditional, that I learned from the playing of Daniel Thonon.

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.

A MADness of Hohners

Some months ago, Lester Bailey posted the below video as a submission for the June 2011 Melodeon.net tune-of-the-month, the tune “Lemmy Brazil’s No. 2.” I’ve come back to it again and again, ever since. Played on a plethora of Hohner accordions, Lester’s vid gives a great sense of the range of sounds the might Hohner brand has — all of them happy making.

And as a bonus, also from Lester, a pin up of Lementina Brazil herself!

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?

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Hohner 2915, Pokerwork

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?
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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 5 in Alsace and a few tens in France.
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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.
 

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