Romano Viazzani in The Accordionist

The Accordion

– Romano Viazzani introduces us to a familiar instrument
and explains how it has recently become cool…


Despite its unwieldy size the accordion has recently become quite a cool instrument.  Musical trends change and in popular music, often what is the “in” sound one decade becomes passé the next.   One need only compare the popularity of synthesiser-based music in the 80s and the acoustic guitar/electric guitar sound of Britpop a decade later to see how one trend can dramatically differ from the preceding one.

The accordion as a popular music instrument is currently enjoying exposure through bands like Mumford & Sons and other folk-inspired artists and formations.  It has always been the instrument of the people due to its portability and its polyphonic nature. With its wide palette of colours it has played the role of an acoustic synthesiser.  Its sound can be both distinctive, as it has been when traditionally, a folksy, Celtic, French/Continental flavour is required, but can equally “fill” almost undetected under winds and strings imitating their timbres and effects.  More and more we hear it in TV ads and film soundtracks incorporated into music our multicultural, globalised world expose us more and more to.  Because we are more exposed to it we now notice it in South-American music, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, African, Indian not to mention in Argentine Tango whose main protagonist, the bandoneon is a close cousin of the accordion, as are the concertina, harmonium, melodeon, harmonica, accordina and melodica.  They belong to a group of instruments known as free-reed instruments dating back to the Sheng in China some 4000 years ago.

Classical Accordion with piano keys

The accordion is probably mechanically the most complex of these instruments, particularly in the guise of its most recent development, the Classical Accordion.  Only invented in the 1820s the accordion has undergone huge development during its brief life.  From a small instrument with a handful of notes in each hand it has grown considerably to one with up to 47 piano keys in the right-hand or 64 buttons to anywhere between 120 and 160 buttons in the left hand.  A typical Classical Accordion could contain nearly 800 steel reeds. Great care is taken in the selection of wood and other materials to promote sound and structural strength without adding too much weight.

Its great musical strength is probably the most ungainly aspect of the instrument – the bellows. The bellows give the instrument soul.  They are not just a pump for powering the instrument.  They make the accordion one of the most dynamically capable keyboard instruments.  A crescendo from a barely audible sound to fortissimo is possible in the briefest of times.  Sharp stabs, bellow shakes (which are a little like the sound of strings repeatedly scrubbing their bows), vibrato, ricochets and note bends are all effects in which the expert manipulation of the bellows is paramount.  There are different ways to start a note and to end it and octaves can be added through stops like the footages on a church organ.

Button Classical Accordion

For a long time accordionists were content with the ingenious bass mechanism called the “Standard bass” or “Stradella bass” which enabled them to play a three-note chord by pressing just one button.  As music evolved and became less constricted by the bounds of tonality,  there was a call to manufacturers to find a solution to follow suit.   At first manufacturers just added more buttons to the existing bass notes and pre-set chords but this made the instrument very large and less manageable.  Then a new development solved the problem. It is not clear to whom it is attributable as both the Russian and the Italian accordion manufacturers claim to have invented versions of the so called “converter” mechanism.  By flicking a switch near the left-hand manual’s bass registers the four rows of buttons usually taken up by pre-set chord buttons “convert” into four and a half octaves of single notes, thus doing away for the need of the extra rows of buttons that were previously added to enable the melodic range to expand beyond the 12 regular bass notes.  Marvellous!

So here we are in the early 21st century with an instrument at the peak of its development and with the benefit of at least 50 years of serious music by eminent composers to play: Astor Piazzolla, Harrison Birtwhistle, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arne Nordheim, Per Norgard and Luciano Berio to name but a few, not to mention the transcription of keyboard and chamber works which can be not only convincingly played on accordion but to which the accordion can also offer something different.  The works of Bach and Scarlatti come to mind amongst others.  Then of course there are the works written for accordion by some great symphonic composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokoviev and Shostakovich when the accordion’s capabilities where far less than today’s modern instruments.

The classical establishment has been a little slow in accepting the accordion and some crusty old has-beens still ignorantly shun it.  However for the best part of 25 years it has been an established instrument at the Royal Academy of Music which has produced some wonderful home-grown musicians. The Academy now attracts accordionists from all over the world who win important competitions against other instrumentalists, breaking down the establishment’s preconceptions. Many of its members marvel at what is possible in the hands of these talented young interpreters.

Galliano

It is not unusual now to see a 2000-strong audience at the Barbican  concert hall listening to a symphony or chamber music with an accordion as a main instrument.  In fact accordionists like Richard Galliano, a player who is as at home playing Bach as he is playing Piazzolla or Jazz, can fill a concert hall the size of the Barbican.  During any season in the last decade, London’s South Bank Centre and the Barbican in London have witnessed a steady flow of accordionists from all over the world perform in their concert halls, as have the Wigmore Hall and other important concert venues.

Aside from the accordion’s recent dramatic rise in the classical world there remains its traditional success in Folk, Jazz, World music and, albeit in waves, pop music. These days it has the widest audience that it has ever enjoyed.

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© 2011 Romano Viazzani

romanoviazzani@hotmail.co.uk

2 April 2011