L’Accordeonaire Tattoo

My kids are tattoo fiends of a sort. I’ve always thought I might like a tattoo if I could get the Right Thing. That thing, of course, is my accordion, the Saltarelle Pastourelle III. I wasn’t just looking for a generic diato tattoo, it had to by My Box. My kids found an artist who could do such a thing and, as a gift, they paid for the below tattoo. The artist is Moonman Sam Hill, in Hallowell, Maine. I’ll let the work speak for itself, but I am delighted by the R. Crumb illustrative quality of it. The words are, L’Autre Diatoniste, which is also the name of … y’know … my CD.

Picture by Julia Kimball

That dime is there to give you a sense of scale and level of detail. That’s on the inside of my forearm.  Also, since everyone asks, yes, it hurt like a M*&^#r F*&^%r.

Sylvain Piron, Continued

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Part Two (see Part One and Part Three)
Sylvain Piron continues his conversation as it ranges over a number of topics: instruments, song, and Alsace. 

At the end of Part One, Piron was playing inexpensive button boxes. When I met him in 1998, he had a wonderful 2.5 row Salterelle. The new instrument made a difference.


Piron with Benny
About instruments: getting the Saltarelle Pastourelle III was really a big step for my playing. It was the first accordion of quality I ever touched, with a large range of possibilities of sound and notes. I should have bought such instruments much before 1995. When beginners ask me for advice about buying an diatonic I would always advise a good quality instrument, even if a bit more expensive, you will immediately get good sensations which is incentive for improving. And if at the end of the day, the accordion is not for you, you will always resell it better.

When my wife and I visited Piron and Catherine in 2004, Sylvain had three Castagnari accordions, a Benny (tuned G/C/acc) and a Tommy (D/G) and a Giordy (G/C).

Chapin with the Salterelle, Piron with the Giordy, daughter Marie on flute
I am a Castagnari man! Yes! The first reason is the sound, the second the weight of the Benny, Tommy (and Giordy!). I like the sound of these accordions and their flexibility, their very light weight helps to get punchy attacks of the notes and allow you to use a lot push and pull which is the strength of diatonics.

He also plays many other instruments.

I am interested in the sound, and not so much in speed and virtuosity (too late for virtuosity for me anyway!). Catherine has the same approach and that leads us to buy new instruments just for their capacity to bring a special atmosphere by their sound. I use flutes, bagpipe, nickelharpa, épinette des Vosges, ocarinas. Catherine uses flutes, psalter, shruti box and tried hurdy-gurdy as well. 
Sylvain and Catherine with Nickelharpa and Psaltry
I must say again that sound makes my interest in these instruments. I do not master them at all. I just try to play very simple things that sound, that is the trick, when I touch a new instrument I am searching a good sound before trying to play a tune on it. I strongly think that to produce one nice note which sounds is much more effective than hundreds of notes poor and not in place.
Song is a central part of Piron’s music — hear Sylvain’s recordings, here. When did Piron begin matching music and song?

Music and song are intimately bound for me. It’s true that in France a lot of traditional dance musics are with words, and in Brittany and Centre France a lot are chansons à répondre, where a leader first sings and people repeat afterwards. Catherine and I like very much these sort of songs for dance, and we often use them in bal and workshop. It brings a special atmosphere of sharing music with dancers.
I started to sing with accordion very early as I considered these two components not to be split. At the beginning it is a bit difficult to play right hand, left hand, and sing at the same time. It took me a good amount of time to coordinate these 3 aspects. I still have big difficulties to play a second voice on right hand while I am singing the first voice. The tune must be very simple for succeeding in that exercise!
If I remember well, I managed to sing with accordion by starting to hum with my right hand, the same melody, no words, and progressively I added words and finally basses. For me, voice remains the royal musical instrument. I am much more relaxed with my voice than with my accordion. So much that if I make a mistake with accordion — it occurs very often! — I cover the sound with my voice. It is a trick I use very often. I told you once that to give more energy to dancers I like to suppress bass and keep only melody of the accordion, there is a trick which gives even more energy: to keep only singing and suppress totally the accordion.
Now, Piron is very strongly associated with Alsace, but he originally came from Normandy. How did he develop his connection with the eastern region?

Sylvain 1960
I was born in Normandy and lived there until the age of 20. I next went to Paris for my studies and began to work there. It is a job opportunity which moved me to Strasbourg in Alsace in 1976. I did not play accordion at this time, just flute and a little guitar. I discovered step by step the rich heritage of Alsace, its dialect first of all. In the 70’s there were still a lot of people who spoke Alsatian and you where first addressed in Alsatian in most of the shops, even in cities. It was fascinating for me, coming from the “inner France” where centralization had done its job for ages eradicating the local jargons. Alsatian language was very alive and spread. This is unfortunately no more the case now, even if a lot of people still speak and write in Alsatian. 
I also discovered the regional music and dances, thanks to groups like Folk de la rue des dentelles, Geranium, and individuals like René Eglès and Jean-Pierre Hubert. I must say a word on Jean-Pierre Hubert. He was a science-fiction writer and a traditional music and dance fan (funny association!). I was playing accordion for a few months and he was himself playing for a few years already when we met and quickly became friends. I learnt a lot of tunes from him. He was one of my models even if he was not my teacher. His way to consider tradition as a living heritage, open to others and not closed on itself influenced me a lot. The fact that he was born in ’41 in Alsace during the Second World War, the fact that he lived in Wissembourg, very close to German border, made him a man of dialog between people and cultures.

Sylvain with Roland Engel at Summerlied music festival in Alsace
Another thing surprised me at this time: what people considered as traditional music in Alsace was made of German music played by brass and reed bands! It was German music, not Alsatian music! The really old musics had been forgotten by the several layers of successive German occupations. The work of Folk de la rue des dentelles, Geranium, and others was to make those old tunes live again. And the pity was that there were not a lot of tunes remaining in the archives and in people memories, compared to the heritage left by other regions. A few dances remained as well. Nowadays thanks to creative people this heritage has been enriched by more recent compositions in music and in dance. What I like much in this repertoire are the collective dances and the 5 or 8 or 11 meter tunes.

In August, Sylvain and Catherine joined their friend Roland Engel at the Summerlied festival in Alsace. Does the traditional music have a following in Alsace?

The concert we gave on 15th August was in the frame of a music festival. The organizers wanted to promote traditional songs and musics and we were very happy to do that, but I must say that these musics are not as popular as rock, pop or even american country music… The festival is strongly supported by the Region of Alsace and other regional institutions. There is a clear political will to promote local creativity and exchange with the German neighbour regions.

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 melodeon.net, followed by concertina.net. 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.

Abandon All Hope …

Squeeze circles are abuzz over the newest release from Saltarelle. Its configuration is identical to the Elfique (which is great), but provocatively, the new one is called Inferno. And dammit if it doesn’t look very, very cool. The ad copy calls it a 19+2 button box, though it’s clearly a 21 button box (which means that the “extra” buttons are at the chin-end of the rows, rather than set aside in the middle). It’s 3-voices, with one stop. They say this means you can play it MMM or MLM, but that doesn’t make sense, since you’d need 4-voices in order to pull that off. Three voices would mean you could play MLM, MM, or LM. An MMM box would, I have to say, be pretty dang sweet!* I’d be curious to know what the real specs are.

So, an Elfique with a dark paint job, black buttons, and a reference to Dante has got my mouth watering. Pretty sure that tells you more about me than it does about the box, but dammit if it doesn’t look VERY cool.

*If all of this tech talk is baffling to you, check out Accordion Speak 101.


UPDATE: Tom (in comments) asked for a better picture of the grillwork on this demonic beast. I found this at the Saltarelle site.

UPDATE 2: I want to stress that I don’t work for Saltarelle or get any kick backs, but I find this whole ad campaign very amusing! Check out the front page ad copy below.

Last Night in Alsace (Part Five)

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

In 2004, 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. Sadly, we were having such a good time on this last night that no photos were taken!


UPDATE: Just after posting this, Sylvain let me know that Catherine’s uncle, Jacques, had taken pictures and sent them along to me. This was the first I knew of them. Amazing.

L’Auberge des 3 Frères



There is a fairy tale element to every vacation – just the exemption from work is a granted wish – but Alsace, accordions, wine, friends and dance has been especially fantastic. The transition from magic to mundane was long. The morning after the last great night. A five hour drive in a rented car, culminating with the particularly hideous Charles de Gaulle airport. The crankiness we felt. The trip back home through the wardrobe is always grayer than the trip out. The night before we’d said our tearful goodbyes to Sylvain, Catherine, and their children. We’d left the Auberge with the dancers still going.

The night before. The last night of our stay. The Salterelle has become very comfortable under my fingers. I play it almost exclusively, and am pleased that it seems happy with me. The tunes feel more natural, my playing more relaxed and commanding. The effortlessness of its touch has built up for me over the week, an accumulating ease. The effects of the wine, similarly, have accumulated over the week, and although I’m not complaining, I know that a monster of a hangover is somewhere in my future.

Food, dance, drink, family at the Auberge.

Sylvain arranged this gig for us at a Marmoutier eatery, L’Auberge des Trois Frères. According to Sylvain, it was a new concept for the area: a restaurant built in a converted barn, with long tables and rustic decorations hanging on the walls. The owner is worried about the success of the venture and is very happy to have us there. He shows his gratitude throughout the night by providing a wide range of drinking options.

Our party includes Sylvain, Catherine, the five kids, Bethany and myself, Catherine’s father, uncle, and aunt. François, the fiddler, soon joins us along with a student of his, Daniel. They rosin their bows and tune as we give the orders for the main course.

“What shall we play, Gary?” asks Sylvain.

What shall we play, Gary?

I begin Bourrée des Gars, one of the first three-beat bourrées I’d ever learned. Very simple and very major-key. Not a lot of mystery, but a lot of drive. Easy. I’m nervous and hedging my bets and smart to do so. The flop sweat comes in buckets. This happens to me in every performance. The first ten minutes are murder, but I’ve come to learn that the adrenaline surge passes quickly. The twitching dread is replaced by a lovely, arrogant fatalism. It’s a risk, I know, but it’s my idea of a good time.

And the crowd’s, too! They’re flying!

“The bourrée is a crazy dance,” said Daniel Thonon. It’s as old as the Renaissance, and probably older, and was a form used by baroque composers in their dance suites. For centuries, then, the bourrée has been whipping otherwise respectable folks into a frenzy. Thus at the Auberge.

Sylvain and François.

The dancers are up and moving. Somewhere, amid the tables, serving staff, wooden pillars, musicians, and patrons, they find the space to do the facing, turning, and kicking required. After the bourrée we do a waltze, a fast one I wrote some years ago. Sylvain puts down his accordion and dances with Catherine. This is unimaginably charming and fills me with a warmth that won’t disappear until we get to Charles de Gaulle.

Many of the people there are friends of Sylvain and Catherine, but most are not. Sylvain sings a number of Alsatian songs. The crowd sings along affectionately and unselfconsciously. It was as if an American crowd were singing “Home on the Range,” and genuinely getting behind the sentiment of the song. It seems foreign to me, and desirable, though I’m probably romanticizing. I hear them expressing their home in the music. They are at home in the music, and they are inviting Bethany and me into their home. She dances. I play. Wine is placed before us, and then more exotic intoxicants. Is it absynth? Sylvain talks, between tunes, about how we’d come all the way from Maine in the United States to play Alsatian music. The Alsatians are very please, almost flattered.

We play for hours. The room gets happier and happier.

Everyone dances!

A short, fat guy gets up to dance. He is a caricature of joyous energy, something out of a Peter Mayle book – or the BBC adaptation of one. Yes, he’s drunk, but he dances through the night, asking one woman after another. They all agree. He asks Bethany. Bethany agrees. When he runs out of women to ask, he asks a bearded gentleman. They waltz until it’s time to do the spin. They can’t decide who will “be the girl!” Brilliant! I start a polka, Polka de l’Averyron, and immediately – within three notes – someone begins pounding the table in rhythm. Holy cow! They drive me on. Sylvain and François join in, and Daniel, and we circle the room. Everyone who is dancing dances. Bethany dances. The short, fat guy. The bearded gentleman. Catherine. Marie. A woman in a wheelchair shouts – I kid you not – “Vive l’Americain!”

This, two days after the other great moment of my life, is one of the great moments of my life.

Playing the Low Lonesome Reed

One of the things I love about my Salterelle Pastourelle III is its three banks of reeds on the right hand, tuned LMM (see Accordion Speak 101 for a complete explanation). My Castagnari Nik has a lovely, light, willowy sound, with its MM reeds tuned Tremolo Americano. But the low reed on the Pastourelle gives that intrument a lush fullness that knocks my romantic socks off. I very much enjoy having the choice of that full sound, and also having the choice of playing the low reed all on its own.  It gives the instrument an entirely new character not to have all three reeds blasting away. This might be a case where putting in some stops — rather than “pulling out all the stops” — will lead to a better outcome. A close, intimate sound.

Here’s a recording whereon I feature the low lonesome reed as voice on the Pastourelle. The tune is a waltz found on a recording by La Chavanée, Le Long de la Riviére. The tune was written by Philippe Prieur, cornemuse. It can be found in “the pink book.”

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.

Le Canal en Octobre

Perhaps one of the more beautiful accordion videos on YouTube, even with the sub-pristine recording quality.  Below is Dominique Rivière playing a Frédéric Paris tune, “Le Canal en Octobre,” from Paris’ CD Rue de l’Oiseau.


Rivière is playing a chromatic button accordion, different from the type I play.  It’s unisonorous, meaning that you get the same pitch on a button whether you’re pushing or pulling the bellows.  This is as opposed to bisonorous, typical of diatonic accordions like mine, where you get a different pitch depending on the bellows direction.*  Rivière is a versatile musician, with his finger-style guitar and bouzouki work being just as intriguing as his accordion playing.


*Trust me, accordion geeks found those two previous sentences very meaningful.