Castagnari Tommy D/G at the Button Box

A few weeks ago my job took me within stopping distance of Sunderland, MA, so I stopped at the Button Box. It was a great time. I met Margaret of the e-mails and got to sit among the instruments. One stood out among the rest. A used Castagnari Tommy in D/G that’s there. I enjoyed most of the instruments I tried, but this one was just magical. The feel was effortless, so very responsive. Here’s me playing “Mominette,” a scottish by Maxou, of La Chavannée fame. This tune has become my “go to” piece for trying out instruments. If I had the cash, it would be hard to pass this one up.

French Dance Field Recordings (Part 1)

Part Two is here.

Melodeonist Chris Ryall spent August of 2013 at Fête Embraud (La Chavanée) and Grand Bal de l’Europe St. Gervais. He shot a lot of video. He writes:

“The collection was intended to inform some of the … shall we say, ‘different’ … versions of these dance rhythms heard in UK pub sessions. The general focus on the dancers and their movement is intentional. If your play of a melody ‘informs the feet’ … it is probably about right!”

Some of the videos are posted on Facebook (possibly requiring Flash); others are on YouTube. The first batch of videos presented here focus on French dances. Breton dances will be featured in the next post.

French Dance Videos

Basic French Waltz (played faster and smoother than English waltz)

Scottiche (note “skip”)
Another Scottiche (delightfully light – Accordzéâm)

Mazurka current “Bal” style (generally 9/8)
Another Mazurka — Accordzéâm – great accordion solo

Mazurka Morvan style “simple, straight 3/4)

Circassian Circle – same as UK – sometimes even to the same tunes!
Another Circassian Circle

Medley of Various Dances (Lucas Thebaut says this set was made up = non Trad)

Bourrée du Centre – Grande Bourbonnaise (the main line bourrée, 4/4 rhythm)
Bourrée d’Auvergne (fast 3/8 rhythm) Auvergne = Massif Central
Another Bourrée d’Auvergne (fast bourrée with variation – St. Gervais BIG dance!!)
Yet Another Bourrée d’Auvergne (Komred, with the great Etienne Loic on accordion, at Embraud — watch those feet!)
Bourree de Morvan (simpler, 3/8) Morvan is the hilly part of Burgundy
Fast 3/8 circle bourrée – duo Thebault are from Charantes, so “Poitou” style?

Streaming L’Accordéon

Part 1: Getting to Rdio

So as not to bury the lede, I’ll just let you know that this story ends with me completely enamored with the Rdio service and the music it brings into my life. But it wasn’t a sure thing … Give a listen to this playlist while you read on!

As someone whose aesthetic is devoted to an instrument founded in technology that was around before the Caesars — i.e., levers, valves, and bellows — it should surprise no one that I am rarely an early adopter of, to use a technical term, the “newly fangled.” I had to be counseled through the great CD conversion of the 1980s, and just five years ago, MP3s seemed like so much ephemeral cods-wattle to me.

I go through a process, I’ll admit. It resembles grief, in that there are stages. (ANGER: “F*&^ing music industry wants us to buy our music AGAIN in another format!  I don’t think so!”  DEPRESSION: “Oh, my beloved record collection … *sob* … vinyl … *weep* … beautiful covers … *salty tears* … wasted …”) But when I reach acceptance, I reach it completely, wondering how I had ever doubted in the first place. This is usually when my wife steps in and somehow signals that it’s time for me to get a grip already. It was my wife, for example, who bought me my first iPod, thus bringing my doctrinaire objections about the value of artifacts and “the authentic listening experience” to a deserved end.  Now that was cods-wattle.

So, in January my wife bought me a subscription to Rdio, a commercial music streaming service. Not something I had considered before. I had heard of Spotify and other such streaming services, of course, but I always asked myself, as Neil Postman suggests we do, “What is the problem for which this technology is the answer?” I could think of none. Subscribe to Spotify? Why would I do such a thing? You want me to pay for music that I wouldn’t then own??? What kind of IDIOT would do that???

I got the e-mail:  “You have subscribed to Rdio …”

What? At that point, I had never heard of Rdio (which, I later discovered, is pronounced in the pirate manner, “Ar-Dee-Oh”). Then I got the text from my wife, “I just subscribed you to Rdio …” My wife, as I have mentioned in the past, is a woman of marvelous virtue. She knows me, and she knows things. If she thought I should check out Rdio … hm.

Part 2: And What I Found There

What fresh new Hell is this? Ah … Wondrous!

In many genres, I have discovered, Rdio (and Spotify) present one with an unimaginable cornucopia of music. It’s stunning, and the price ($14.95 USD) is astounding when you consider the ridiculous availability, and the fact that suddenly, your shelves of CDs have shifted from being repositories of treasure to being sites of clutter and storage problems.

One of the first artists I looked up was Red Garland, a jazz pianist who I’m particularly fond of, and immediately I found The Complete Studio Recordings. Thank you very much. I think I will. Then I started looking for Baroque music — Bach, Handel, and all that — and sweet mother of God! One could listen their whole lives without exhausting the goodness there. How about the entire Topic Records catalogue, a cornerstone of BritTrad music? Yes, they do. What about … well, you get the idea. They had a lot of music in a lot of genres. They may not have had every specific thing I went looking for, but they had enough so that at any given moment in time I could find excellent music that would scratch whatever itch I had at that moment. Extraordinary.

But what about L’Accordéon? What about the tradFrench that runs through my free reed veins? Give a listen to the playlist!

An abundance! Perhaps I did not discover that long lost Marc Perrone recording I’ve been looking for — the one with “En Avant Blonde” — but I did find four others. I conducted a fairly thorough search and found a couple of La Chavannée recordings, some Patrick Bouffard. I did find some material that I had never seen before. Hurdy gurdy player Philippe Besson recorded on the Parsiparia label, and there was quite a bit of goodness there. Trio Safar, a fantastic group featuring accordéonaire Christian Maes, just one of the insanely virtuosic Belgians I found at the L’autre Distribution Rdio page. Chanson was well represented, from Edith Piaf to Emmanuelle Pariselle — very helpful and timely, since I’ve just been asked to play in a chanson tribute in Lewiston! And still, surprises arise!

Rather than run through the laundry list, I’ve put together a short playlist. I invite you to enjoy. It contains some new discoveries for me, but also some bog norm favorites. Patrick Bouffard’s “Valse A 5 Temps” is a staggering minute fifty-nine of music. “Nova,” from a compilation of Breton accordéonists, starts off in a suspiciously modern mode, but resolves to laride greatness. If I had included Irish accordéonists or more English players, the list would be very long.

I invite you to join me on Rdio. I am not a shill. This is not a paid advert.

“What,” I hear you say, “you can’t see paying for music and then not ‘owning’ it?” I would invite you to consider what the “ownership” of music means, and then have a conversation with Chief Seattle about what it means to own the land. I feel as if I’ve been given direct access to the greatest artistic achievements of mankind, and I intend to enjoy it.

About Ornamentation

As part of the front matter of the La Chavannée tunebook, the editors wrote a small introductory paragraph. Chris Ryall, the euro-oriented melodionista over on did a rough translation of the piece. In part, it reads:

Notation has been deliberately stripped of all ornament, and of various variations. Obviously, only beginners would then play these melodies ‘as written’ – for [other musicians] that would be sheer nonsense. One of the great strengths of Traditional Music has properly been a constant re-birth of its underlying melodies, nourished within the format of their associated dances. Musical notation has only a small role in this. It’s all about interpretation.

I’ve heard this kind of statement in reference to a number of traditional musics, and I have to say — if I might indulge in a bit of confession — the ornamentation of trad music has bedeviled me since I first picked up a tin whistle in 1989. Each tradition — Irish, English, Scottish, French, Quebecois — has different expectations of what correct ornamentation is, and different expectations about how pedantically that “correctness” should be adhered to. The regimentation of Scottish bagpipe ornaments, for example, is legendary. When I played Irish music — on flute, not accordion — it was inevitable that a conversation would break out amongst anxious beginners. How to do the rolls! I found it very intimidating! Can you play that at speed?

“It’s all about interpretation.” When I did play Irish music, my ear tended to favor the less florid styles. I preferred Jack and Charlie Coen above all others, and was pleased to model my playing on theirs. I’ve never been a great musician — either on flute or accordion — but I’ve gotten good, and I love the instrument and love the music, and I hope that comes through. I try to play in a reasonably simple way that allows the tune to shine.

Playing Ornaments: At no point do my fingers leave my hands!

But I think about the ornaments, the twiddly-bits. Ornaments and variation are the “content” of interpretation. These can be cuts, rolls, trills, etc., or they can be rubato, fermata, actual melodic variation, harmonic variation, rhythmic variation, arrangements, dynamics, etc. The left hand. The right hand. I think I do okay with this. The Chavannée values articulated above are welcoming and inspire me to do better.

It’s all about interpretation. The point is not to get it right. The point is to continue to play in a reasonably simple way that allows the tune to shine, and to continue learning the language of interpretation. Always continue learning.

Maybe that doesn’t need to be said, but sometimes, I think, I need to hear it.

La Chavannée Tunebook

In a conversation over on the Chiff and Fipple (devoted to tin whistles, but with some considerable discussion about other folk instrumentation) an aspiring piper asked about the “canon” of tradFrench. Which are the recordings he should listen to? Which are the tunebooks to be acquired? One conversant linked to an item I’d never seen before: 80 Airs à Danser du Centre-France, La Chavannée (click for PDF). It’s dated 1991, and Frédéric Paris is himself listed as the transcriber. Consider my gob to be thoroughly smacked. I never knew that this tune book existed, and am now swooning deliriously. Am I the only one who didn’t know? If anyone out there has any ideas about its provenance, how widely available it was, stories or lost weekends, etc … I would love to hear them.

25,000 Visits! Thank you!

Last week, I had a minor celebration as the hits ticker crossed over the 25K line. For a blog like this one, covering an instrument and music genre that could both be described as obscure, that’s pretty danged good. The title of the blog – a French-ish word that doesn’t actually exist – came from an album I put out in 2003. I created this blog just as a space to explore my fascination and to find others interested in doing the same. It worked!

Some facts that you might find interesting:

  • I’ve been averaging about 70 hits a day, though there are spikes when a new piece goes up. There are always a few bots hitting the page, though. At one point, a bot on a friend’s blog took aim at mine and my page a few hundred times over a week. I have no idea why anyone would do that.
  • The top referring site, by far, is, followed by Many of the pieces that I’ve written here, have started out as a conversation on one of those boards.
  • “Frédéric Paris” is the number one search term that leads here.  “Lõõtspill” is number ten.
  • Through this whole process, Andy from Vermont, has been a great ally, support, and resource. Thank you, Andy!

This blogging stuff has been a blast, and has inspired me to play more then ever. I appreciate the readers, and will endeavor to continue giving satisfaction. I’m hoping to do an interview with Sylvain Piron, and, fingers crossed, Jean Blanchard. I missed an opportunity when I recently had my Saltarelle worked on and forgot to ask the fettler to take pictures, so I’m hoping to take a pilgrimage to The Button Box and talk extensively with the folks there.

Again. Thanks, everyone.