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?

Bourrée: On d’onderon garda

As always, any corrections, additions, or questions are appreciated.

I was listening to one of the first bourrées I’d ever learned, “On d’onderon garda,” and realized I had this tune in a number of versions. I listened to them all and found it a fascinating exercise. Thus, here are a number of different versions of this ear-worm of a tune. Check out the sheet music, as well. (There’s a difference in how some play the second bar of the A section. Some play it as here, one-and-two-three, others play it as one-two-and-three. Choose wisely.)

I first heard this tune about twelve years ago, played by Sylvain Piron on a Castagnari Giordy, a tiny accordion with a concertina-ish sound.

Sylvain and I, about to perform On d’onderon garda
at the Trenton Grange

I quickly downloaded the sheet music, which Sylvain had posted on his site. Later, when he visited the United States in 2002, we performed the tune together at the Grange hall in Trenton, Maine.

Sylvain’s light touch on the tune did not prepare me for the version I heard on a compilation called, Accordeons en Aubrec. This is pretty hard-core Auvergnat playing on the five-row, chromatic button accordion — the squeeze-instrument of choice for tradfrench music for most of the twentieth century. Note the spelling change of the name.

Christian Bessiere, “On Onarem Gardar”

As a counter-weight to this accordion-ish-ness I thought I’d include a version of the tune on French pipes, the cabreta d’amor, performed by José Roux. On this instrument, the tune becomes a completely different beast. This recording is especially nice because it’s done in duet with the chromatic accordion and bells. Pretty much the classic Auvergnat sound. I only regret I couldn’t find a version on vielle à roue.

José Roux, “Ont tirarem garda?”

[UPDATE] In another vein, a fellow over on concertina.net pointed me to this recording of the open session at the George Inn, featuring members of the George Inn Giant Ceili Band (GIG CB) leading the festivities. Members include Alan Day (concertina), Mel Stevens (pipes), and Chris Shaw (melodeon). I invite you to bask in the experience of living in all that sound, the pipes right there, multiple hurdy gurdies, fiddles, conversation, glasses clinking, and you drinking. The melodeon player has place his ear against the box in order to hear it! Marvelous.

[UPDATE TWO] Alan Day, of the GIG CB, has posted a solo concertina version of the tune on his YouTube. It’s a delightful rendition that shows that, while it may sound “concertina-ish,” the Castagnari Giordy is not a concertina. Alan does some very interesting things with the rhythm and chords. Take a listen.

Finally, here’s a reposting of my recording of this, made about three years ago on my Salterelle Pastourelle.

My Trip to Alsace (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.

Clink-clink! Celebrating birthdays.
Conversation happens between the music. Wednesday night, the night after the dance, was the birthday of Romain (nine) and Gabriel (nineteen). We ate their favorite foods, sang to them, and gave presents. Afterwards, of course, we drank wine, ate cheese, and played music. At some point, a pause ensued. We began discussing the whole European situation (you know … that). Sylvain, in his non-accordion life, works for the Council of Europe. The European Union constitution vote was coming up, making everyone tense. Most people I talked to were pro-Union, but anti-constitution. Maybe this was was an accordion-related bias. As a historian it was a fascinating moment to visit.
More interesting, though, were the discussions of the Amish and cheese.

The Amish, if you are unaware, are a Christian sect based in Western Pennsylvania. If you’ve seen the Harrison Ford movie, Witness, you’ll know that they reject many of the modern conveniences of our lives, feeling that God did not put us on the Earth in order to avoid work. Visiting their lands — and there is a pretty lively tourist industry devoted to this — is like stepping back into the nineteenth century, a time of no automobiles, no electric lights, and primitive medicine. society
At one point, Marie, who was twenty-five, realized that the Amish were raising their children like this, forcing them to live in this “cult” setting without the benefits of the larger, modern society.
Le gâteau
Honestly, I can’t even remember how the Amish came into the conversation, but suddenly the table bristled. Neither Bethany nor I have very strong feelings about the Amish or their parenting practices. In a typically American way, neither of us want to live that virtuously, but we’re glad somebody does. Marie, however, was incensed. The family began speaking French very quickly, and the aural subtitles they’d provided all evening abruptly stopped. Marie scowled and punctuated her rhetorical points with quick gestures. Sylvain spoke with authority, very slowly, asserting his rhythm to the conversation. The children watched, and Catherine tended to us, serving gâteau and tea.
When the fire died down, I sorted through the bits of conversation and gathered that Marie had objected, on principle, to lives being dominated by religion, but objected much more strenuously to children’s lives being dominated by religion. When this domination led to the withdrawal of the child from the larger society, they saw an evil. This would be like a parent’s telling their French child that he or she is no longer French. In France, the nation is the communion of saints, and exile from it is an unpardonable sin that the state should not allow. File this conversation under French/Americans:  Ways Different.
Then we discussed cheese.
Catherine and Sylvain
Sylvain is a man who likes his cheese. This is a commonplace. I know — the French and their cheese — but I had never seen la joie de fromage acted out in front of me. It only occurs to now how appalled he and Catherine must have been looking over the cheese section in our American supermarket, with it’s paltry array of flavored brie. Their cheese board was a humble masterpiece, filled with products of local farms, strong smelling but delicate tasting. At their table, I understood for the first time just how exquisitely red wine and cheese complement each other.
Sylvain had traveled throughout Europe for his job and had tried a number of local cuisines. Many of the countries had passable cheeses, even admirable cheeses, but none equaled the cheeses we had on the board before us. Nobody cares as much about their cheese as the French, implied Sylvain. It’s a type of dark, gustatory nationalism that we’d all recognize. In the States, for example, the comparison of New Jersey, New York, and Chicago pizza is not a conversation to be taken up lightly. So when Sylvain extolled the undeniable virtues of his cheese, it was not a sense of contention that led me to utter the following question.
“But what about the British,” I asked, “they’re very fond of their cheese.” I knew this because I had seen Wallace and Gromit. “Wenslydale?” I said.
“The British?” He said with a provocative glint in his eye. “That’s not cheese.”
Next episode: back to the accordions.

Quebecois Tunes

I don’t usually do second-degree blog posts, but Andy in Vermont has uncovered a web site devoted to Quebecois tunes that looks amazingly good. The link is over at his Melodeon Minutes.

I should mention that when my French pals were here, they quietly chastised me for doting on their European French tradition while ignoring the lively Franco and Quebecois traditions right on my doorstep. I do enjoy Quebecois music — though my time playing Irish trad has made me wary of reels. Does this mean I’ll need a one-row accordion in D?

Pique Diatonique Tomorrow!

Sylvain Piron

Tomorrow is May 29, and therefore time for the long awaited Pique-diatonique in Dahlenheim, Alsace. Though, I’ll be thousands of miles away, I plan to have a picnic tomorrow and play a bunch of tunes from the Pique-diatonique tunebook. To get into the spirit of things — pour les absents — I thought I’d post recordings of a few tunes from that tune book. The first two are MP3s by the inestimable Sylvain Piron. The first is a traditional piece that I’ve heard in a number of versions, “Le Maitre de la Maison.” The second, “Le Chemin,” is a mazurka written by Sylvain himself.

Sylvain Piron, “Le Maitre de la Maison”

Sylvain Piron, “Le Chemin”

Sylvain’s albums are available as downloads for free here.

Finally, I thought I’d include one of my favorite Pique-diatonique waltzes — actually, one of my favorite all time waltzes — “Sur les Bord de la Riviére.” Played on my Salterelle, this was my second post on YouTube, four years ago.

So that’s the plan. Find a picnic. Record some accordion tunes. Ready, set …

One-Row Goodness

Castagnari Max, One-Row

Diatonic Accordion players speak affectionately of the warmth or lift generated by the push/pull action of their boxes. It’s better for dancing, they might say, or, it has a character to it that’s different from (read better than) chromatic or piano accordions. I don’t believe that this is always true — Patrick Lefebvre’s chromatic playing has plenty of lift, rhythm, and character — but when played well … wow … one-row, pushing/pulling accordions can really get a little somethin’ somethin’ going.

Andy from Vermont recently posted three recordings of himself playing Quebecois tunes on his Melodie one-row in D and I find myself completely besotted. Go see for yourself. Wonderful.

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.”

Pour les Absents

Debauchery in Dahlenheim

It’s coming. As I reported in a previous post, on May 29, a group of Alsatian diatonistes and their closest friends will be gathering in Dahlenheim for their accordion, picnic basket bacchanal, the Pique-diatonique. As usual, I am unable to attend, and I was thinking to myself, “Self, you could surely use such an event.” At the very least, I would like to express my solidarity with the pique-diatonistes. In that previous post, I suggested a sort of international holiday, Pique-diatonique Day. The UN declined to act on my request.  C’est la vie.

Still, to all who cannot attend, on May 29, I invite you to go have a picnic and play accordion tunes from the pique-diatonique tune book. (Note that the three tunes adopted for this year are here.)

Further, if you so wish, I invite you to record yourself in audio or video, and post it to YouTube or whatever service you prefer. I will gather these recordings into an Anthologie Vidéo de l’Absent, and feature them here.