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.

Ask the Dancers!

How’s the bourrée?  Ask the dancers.

In response to Friday’s post about what it means to play a bourrée well, a number of Mel.net and concertina.net worthies responded that you know you’re playing a bourrée well when the dancers are dancing a good bourrée.  This, indeed, is an excellent functional definition of “a good bourrée,” and you could do far worse than relying on utility as your criteria for success. I could (and did) quibble about how, while this is dance music, it’s not just dance music, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s essentially a good point.  Knowing your context — dance, concert, parking lot — changes everything.

A number of folks responded, “Get thee to a dance floor!” It has been a while, for a bunch of reasons. It’s time to do just that.

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?

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