|Peter Niclas Wilson|
|the breath of the machine in search of the quintessence of the accordeon|
The accordion is undoubtedly one of the most maligned of Western instruments, its poor reputation possibly only surpassed by that of the recorder. The instrument's aura seems to be inseparable from unpleasant memories of involuntary youthful music making, the artificial flavour of fake folklore, the banalities of didactic polkas and waltzes. Many people hate the accordion, and they know why. But do they really know the instrument? Are they aware of its potential? Or are they only familar with its popular cliche? And what can a composer do when faced with the challenge of writing for an instrument whose image seems so fixed, and so one-dimensional? As Salvatore Sciarrino puts it: „The history [of the accordion] has a very intensive, strong ,scent', which does not interest me that much. I wouid not be able to compose music that goes along with it. Such a ,scent' is invincible.”
So what can the composer do? He can either accept the cliche and deconstruct it (as Mauricio Kagel has done so often), or he can attempt to re-invethe accordion, discover its hidden core, its secret materia prima. In Sciarrino's words: „l am more concerned with the substance.The quintessence of the accordion, without this ,scent', can produce a great piece of music” But how do you define this „substance”? One approach would be to analyze the fundamental mechanics of the instrument. Playing the acccordion: That means pressing keys, moving the bellows to and fro, setting air into vibration in a sort of trembling motion of varying speed and intensity. Sciarrino's Vagabonde blu (1998) stages a very subtle play of these physical actions: the clicking of keys, the to and fro of the trill, and, finally, the pure white noise of the „breathing” bellows: „What I have discovered for myself is that the accordion can breathe, and that is an incredible experience. Everything vanishes, and what is left is the breath of the machine. [...] I begin with complex, vivid time elements, and what then remains is the soul, the motion.The instrument inhales and exhales, like a lung.
This is not an effect, but a very different, anthropologic conception of musical language:' (And yet, somehow, the historic ,scent' has left its mark in Sciarrino's piece:The recurring F minor and G minor chords seem like a faint echo of the plethora of tonal musics which have been written for the instrument since its invention in the early 19 th century). The mechanics of to and fro, of in and out, of breathing: One can analyze them as subtly, almost subliminally as Sciarrino does, place them under an acoustic microscope, so to say. But one could also utilize them to unfold a drama of big gestures. Frank-furt composer Rolf Riehm indicates by the title of his piece - push pull (1995) that he, too, is concerned with the fundamental mechanics of accordion playing. Riehm, however, views the accordion not as one instrument, but as a sort of Siamese twin: Two entities in their own right, left and right hand, but both dependent on one single respiratory system: „A wealth of dynamics and great flexibility are possible, but only for both simultaneously.
For the compositional design of the two ,parts', this implies a curious contradiction, which goes to the heart of the matter: two beings with separate existences, but they have one soul.” Riehm's piece with its dramatic all-over-brushstrokes, its volatile cluster textures and vehement contrasts implies that such intrinsic dialectics can lead to violent antaganisms indeed. Vinko Globokar's Dialog über Luft (1994) -„Dialogue about Air” -, „a small drama between two complementary actions: pull - push or inhale - exhale” according to the composer, betrays a similar analytic stance to the fundamentals of the accordion's physiognomy. Here, however, the dialogue takes place not only between right and left hand, but also be-tween the artificial lung of the instrument and the voice of its player, and, more generally, between the accordion and the corporeality of the musician, designated in the spoken text by the key words „inspirer - transpirer - respirer aspirer” (inspire transpire - breathe - inhale). At the same time, Globokar's piece is the only one of the five presented on this disc which does not attempt to exclude the historically grown semantics of the accordion language: Globokar gladly accepts the melodic and rhythmical cliches associated with the accordion, but exaggerates them, pushes them over the brink into a wild, grotesque frenzy: sonic overkill, Balkan folklore on acid.
Nothing could but be further removed from the extreme emotions Globokar's demonic drama evokes than the sublime calmth of Toshio Hosokawa's Melodia ( 1979), a beautifully sculpted, extremely subtle study in the layering, filtering and crossfading of sounds. This, too, is a re-invention of the instrument, a dramatic departure from the traditional accordion language with its emphasis on motoric rhythms and ciear-cut melodies: The accordion as an organ, or, better, as an Aeolian harp of wind-generated tones which seem to come from nowhere, stay for a while and disappear into nothingness again. It is not too far-fetched to assume that it is the example of the sho, the East Asian mouth organ, which leads composers such as Japan-born Hosokawa and Korean emigrant Pagh-Paan to a very different perception of the organologically related European music machine called accordion (in fact, as Teodoro Anzellotti has informed me, Toshio Hosokawa once referred to the accordion as the „European super-sho”).
While Hosokawa's piece - by far the oldest in this very up-to-date collection - facusses on the pure, immaterial, intangible quality of sustained tones, Younghi Pagh-Paan's NE MA-UM (1996/98), its title (My Heart) referring both to her own 1990 ensemble piece MA-UM and to H.C.Artmann's poem Mein Herz, attempts to „liquefy” the allegedly static, rigid tone of the accordion. Using various techniques of trills, finger and bellow tremoli, the accordion is transformed from a „cold” mechanic object into an organism in incessant motion a beating heart, so to speak. Compositions such as these by contemporary com-posers from Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany and - wellwhere do you place Vinko Globokar? Slovenia? Paris? Berlin? - unquestionably go a long way in re-defining the accordion, in liberating it from its relatively short, but heavily cliche-ridden history. In a way, the accordion's role may be compared with that of the saxophone: both children of the industrialisation of musical instrument manufacture in the 19th century, both aesthetically defined by certain popular idioms, both re-discovered and re-defined by the composers of New Music.
But while I must confess that the reinvention of the saxophone by contemporary composers has, as yet, rarely convinced me - too often the wealth of timbres and articulations created by the masters jazz saxophonists has been traded for a relative sterility and blandness of tone-, I do feel that these (and other) new works for accordion have enriched the sound world of the accordion immensely, and I hope that you will share my sense of discovery.