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Artist Spotlight: Why We Love Accordion, and You Should, Too

UMS

By UMS

Editor’s note: UMS presents The Big Squeeze, an evening of accordion music of all sorts, at Hill Auditorium on November 1, 2014. Accordionist Julien Labro is not only part of the program but also a co-curator for the event. Read about what he loves about the accordion (and why you should too!) below.

Accordion close up
Photo: Up close with one of the Accordion Virtuosi of Russia, who’ll perform as part of The Big Squeeze, an evening of accordion music in Hill Auditorium. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Whether it is a boozy uncle insisting on playing it at family parties, or the distant nerdy cousin secluded in his bedroom, or a friend-of-a-friend, most of you know someone who has played the accordion. Yes, you read that right!

Indeed the theory of six degrees of separation will link you with the widely popular and multi-cultural accordion.

The accordion has always been a huge part of popular culture and is frequently the centerpiece of the folk music of that ethnicity. Whether you are Irish, French, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Colombian, Brazilian, Argentinean, Dominican, Mexican, Jewish, Egyptian, Algerian, Lebanese, Persian, Indian, or Chinese, the accordion and its relative instruments dominate the musical landscape of that traditional music.

That’s why we’re so excited about The Big Squeeze, an evening during which we’ll explore the versatility of the accordion by travelling through different musical styles and genres representing various countries.

An extensive array of diverse accordions and their relatives will appear throughout the performance: the piano accordion, the bayan, the chromatic button accordion, the bandoneón, the accordina, the diatonic accordion, and the Anglo-concertina.

Accordion: A Brief History


Alexander Sevastian, who’ll perform as part of The Big Squeeze, plays Bach.

All of these instruments function under the same sonic principle: an airflow streaming across a free vibrating reed that resonates a tone based on its length. The first instrument known to have used this principle can be traced back to 3000 BCE in China with the scheng, an instrument made out of bamboo pipes set in a small wind-chamber into which a musician blows through a mouthpiece. Suspected to have journeyed to Europe during the 13th century, the scheng hardly faced any major adaptations until the Industrial Revolution. A closer predecessor of the modern accordion is arguably credited to Cyrill Damian, an Austrian instrument maker who patented the name in 1829. Naturally, the instrument wasn’t as developed as the ones you’ll hear at The Big Squeeze, but offered the general concept of the bellows sandwiched between two manuals.

At the turn of the 20th century, accordion manufacturers realized the extensive presence of the piano in American homes and salons. Consequently, they decided to seduce and target piano players with the accordion by offering piano keys in lieu of the traditional buttons on either side. Its convenient portability and comparative affordability contributed a great deal to its commercial success, which is the reason why the majority of the population familiar with the accordion recognizes it with a piano keyboard on its right side. However, the rest of the world adopted the initial concept of an all-button instrument as the primary blueprint for the accordion.

The Big Squeeze: An Accordion for Every Taste

In Russia, the bayan, a high-tech button accordion, became one of the centerpieces of traditional folk music. Its gigantic typewriter appearance allows for limitless technical dexterity and its distinctive sound emulates that of a pipe organ. The Accordion Virtuosi of Russia will perform exquisite arrangements of popular Russian folk songs and some staples of classical music that will feature both piano accordions and bayans. Alexander Sevastian, who also hails from Russia, will demonstrate some of the finest technical dexterity and subtleties performed on bayan.


Julien Labro performs with Spektral Quartet

Similar to the bayan in shape and size, I will perform on the chromatic button accordion, whose concept is close to its Russian relative, but its keyboard layout and timbre very different. The chromatic button accordion is the most popular type of accordion found in Europe. Also European in its conception, I will introduce you to a German instrument conceived to replace pipe organs in underprivileged parishes, the bandoneón. Invented and named after Heinrich Band, the bandoneón is much smaller in shape than its cousin, the accordion. Although the principle of the vibrating free reed remains, you will notice a deeper, more mournful, and melancholic sound produced by this instrument. These sonic qualities staged the instrument to become the soul of the Argentinean popular music: the tango.

Additionally, I will present the accordina, which could be described as a hybrid between a harmonica and a chromatic button accordion. The accordina, invented by André Borel, can be traced back to the early 1930s in France; it borrows its free reeds and its button keyboard from the chromatic button accordion and inherits the harmonica’s breathy quality which it expresses through a mouthpiece.

John Williams will transport us to Ireland and remind us that we don’t need to be waiting for March 17 to sip a room-temperature Guinness. He’ll perform on two different types of accordion that are primary instruments found in Irish traditional music: the diatonic accordion and the Anglo-concertina. The diatonic accordion is small and offers two or three rows of buttons. Each row is tuned to a specific tonality and only offers notes that belong to that tonal center. Most of the diatonic instruments are generally in only one or two keys, so players tend to own several instruments in order to perform throughout all key signatures. It is also interesting to note that each button on these types of instruments produce different pitches according to the bellows’ direction. Hexagonally shaped, the Anglo-concertina is one of the smallest members of the accordion family. Like the diatonic accordion, one single button offers two notes depending on the bellowing. Its timbre is unlike any of its relatives, more nasal and enigmatic; it fits dreamily in some of the classic Irish ballads.

On behalf of the entire UMS team, I sincerely hope that you join us for this program which reveals some of the existing types of diverse accordions found throughout various musical styles and cultures. Hopefully the evening’s program will shed light on some of the musical versatility that the instrument has to offer beyond what you may have experienced from the boozy uncle and the distant, nerdy, secluded cousin.

And if by time you read this, you haven’t found six degrees of separation between you and someone you know who has played the accordion, a simple Facebook “friend request” to any one of us will do the trick.

Interested in more? We asked Julien Labro what he’s been listening to lately. Listen along to his playlist.