The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Accordion Misdemeanors: A Musical Reminiscence

Guy Klucevsek

My first memory of the accordion is seeing one on television when I was 5 years old. In the early '50's, the accordion was incredibly popular, reflected by the television success of Dick Contino on The Horace Heidt Show and the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, and the weekly Lawrence Welk broadcasts. I coaxed my dad into buying me my first instrument, a 12-bass accordion. My first teacher was Joe Macko, who came to our house to teach. I remember learning In a Little Spanish Town, along with other popular standards.

After my parents got divorced in the early 50's, I moved to western Pennsylvania, to be raised by my aunt and uncle. Purely by chance, they found me one of the best accordion teachers in the country, Walter Grabowski, an intelligent, well-read man whose bookshelves were lined with volumes of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. He told me he memorized Beethoven symphonies by playing recordings of them in his bedroom while he slept.

From the beginning, my training with Grabowski was both high-brow and low-brow: I was learning transcriptions of opera overtures, piano and violin concerti, and solo piano pieces; but I was also playing novelty pieces like Dizzy Fingers, Flight of the Bumble Bee and Carnival of Venice; and polkas and waltzes by Frank Yankovic, the hero of my Slovenian-American community. Grabowski stressed musicianship above all else: he could abide the occasional wrong note, but was unforgiving when I failed to honor the composer's intentions with regards to expression. He also gave me a solid grounding in harmony: by the time I was 16, I knew all the major, minor, seventh and diminished chords by memory.

In the early 1960's, Grabowski introduced me to pieces by Paul Creston, Nicolas Flagello, Alexander Tcherepnin, Elie Siegmeister and Henry Cowell, which had been commissioned by the American Accordionists' Association. These pieces were written expressly for the accordion and they instantly felt and sounded natural on my instrument. And I was young enough to be open to the new vocabulary which these composers used.

During all my excitement over original accordion compositions, I was still playing pop music, too. I had a band called "The Fascinations," made up of accordion, tenor saxophone, guitar and drums, which played for weddings, parties, club dates and dances. We had no singer, so we covered a lot of tunes by my favorite instrumental band, the Ventures --Telstar and Walk, Don't Run; along with instrumental versions of The Lion Sleeps Tonight and When I Fall in Love; and Slovenian-American polkas and waltzes. I was transcribing tunes from the radio and records and began writing my own polkas, which became my introduction to the world of composition.

In 1967, Grabowski introduced me to the "free bass" accordion. Up until that time, I was playing a standard, or "stradella bass," accordion, on which the left hand buttons contained 2 rows of bass notes and 4 rows of pre-set chords--you could push one button and get a 3-note chord. The free bass accordion had a left hand system with all single tones and a range of over 4 octaves. With this instrument, I was able to play Bach and Scarlatti pieces directly from the keyboard manuscripts, with no transcription involved. And modern composers were using the left-hand buttonboard of the free bass as an equal melodic partner to the right-hand keyboard.

I spent the years 1965-72 studying music at several colleges, universities, and conservatories. Because the accordion is not accepted as a classical instrument in most universities in the United States, I majored in music theory and composition and got heavily involved in electronic music. Although I don't use electronics in my works now, working with electronic music for 3 years stressed to me the importance of timbre as a primary musical element and developed in me a love of drones.

The recordings I heard in college that I listened to the most were of works by Xenakis, Penderecki, Ligeti, Partch, Nancarrow and Feldman; but it was not until Morton Subotnick introduced me to Terry Riley's Rainbow in Curved Air and Steve Reich's Come Out that I realized I wanted to be a composer, not just a performer. The Reich piece, especially, made a huge impact on me: I was amazed and inspired by the idea that a composer could take a single, spoken phrase and make an entire 15-minute composition out of it without introducing any new material.

I began, in 1971, writing solo accordion pieces in which subtle harmonic shifts took place over long periods of time and in which tones would slowly cross-fade between the left- and right-hand keyboards. Often times I used analog or digital delays to cover the changes of bellows, thus providing a continuum. The only piece which has survived from this time is Toronto: Sevenths (1972), for one or more accordions.

From 1972-75, I taught part-time at the Acme Accordion School in Westmont, New Jersey. The director of the school, Stanley Darrow, introduced me to the European avant-garde literature for accordion, through the scores of Per Norgaard, Arne Nordheim, Ole Schmidt, Torbjorn Lundquist,, and the recordings of Mogens Ellegaard and Hugo Noth. It was from studying these scores and hearing these recordings that I learned about extended techniques for the accordion, which I incorporated into my composing and performing vocabulary.

In 1977, I began working with the Philadelphia-based ensemble, Relache, as performer, composer and music advisor. We specialized in what I call "performer choice" pieces--compositions for classically- trained performers in which all-or-part of the material for the piece is provided, but a good deal of decision-making is left up to the performers. A good example is Terry Riley's In C (1964), containing 53 melodic patterns which all the performers play in sequence, with each performer deciding independently how long to spend on each pattern, resulting in an infinite variety of phase-shifting. We created a repertoire of these kinds of pieces by collaborating with Pauline Oliveros, Malcolm Goldstein, Daniel Goode, Joseph Kasinskas, Thomas Albert and Mary Jane Leach. This was a very exciting process: we were creating a new kind of improvisation designed for performers who were not improvisers in the traditional sense. I composed The Flying Pipe Organ of Xian (1985) for Relache using this technique.

In 1984, I heard John Zorn for the first time at New Music America/Hartford, performing his game piece, Rugby. This performance challenged every idea I ever had about ensemble playing: here was a situation where every decision in the piece was being made by the performers, guided by a set of instructions provided by Zorn. I was so excited by what I heard and saw that I ran up to Zorn on stage, introduced myself, and told him if he ever needed an accordion player in a future project, I wanted to do it.

The next year, Zorn took me up on my offer by inviting me to join the Cobra big band. With Cobra, Zorn was able to do for the '80's what In C did for the 60's: create a classic piece for open instrumentation for performers who wanted to be part of the creative process of realizing a piece. Cobra codifies just about every aspect of free improvisation: instructions are provided which enable individual ensemble members to determine orchestration, dynamics, density, types of material, endings, even the ability to call back events which happened earlier in the performance ("memory systems"). And, in a quintessentially American move, Zorn provides "guerrilla systems" for those independents who don't like taking instructions from anyone.

The Cobra band was made-up of people whom I was meeting for the first time: Elliott Sharp, Bill Frisell, Bobby Previte, Wayne Horvitz, Zeena Parkins, Carol Emanuel, Arto Lindsay, Christian Marclay, and Anthony Coleman. I had no contact whatsoever with the free improv scene before, but I have since collaborated on numerous projects with many of these same people.

During the tour of Cobra, I asked Zorn about the possibility of writing me a solo accordion piece. He said that he had never written a piece in which he did not perform himself, but would be glad to give it a try. The result was Road Runner, which he finished in January of 1986, and which we first realized as a recording project for my cassette-only release, Blue Window (zOaR, out-of-print, reissued on Manhattan Cascade, CRI).

I was so encouraged by the results of the Road Runner experience that I continued commissioning solo accordion pieces from Lois V Vierk, Mary Ellen Childs, Anthony Coleman, John King, Aaron Jay Kernis, Stephen Montague, Somei Satoh, William Duckworth and Alvin Lucier. There seemed to be a healthy, nurturing balance between my own composing and performing pieces by my colleagues.

My own music took an abrupt shift after meeting Zorn: up until 1985, my pieces were definitely out of the minimalist mold, concentrating on limited material which I would put under an intense musical microscope. My first solo piece after working with Zorn was Scenes from a Mirage (1985), a set of variations on a theme which sounds vaguely ethnic. I put the theme through the stylistic ringer, with references to flamenco guitar, Tex-Mex accordion, Balkan bands and Henry Cowell-like tone clusters. This was the first time since high school that I drew on popular music and the first piece I ever wrote using more than one genre. Although the piece sounds nothing like Zorn, its episodic structure and mixture of popular music sources with art music techniques came directly out of my experiences with Cobra and Road Runner.

Also in the mid '80's, I was invited to compose my first score for modern dance. I continued drawing on forms from popular music for this project, Waiting Room. I wrote a march based on a traditional Shaker melody; a cover version of Sentimental Journey, which I had Bill Frisell play over a drone; a middle-eastern-sounding tune called Fez Up; a jazzy, chromatic piece in 11/4, Urban Rite; and my first polka in 20 years, The Grass, It Is Blue (Ain't Nothin' But a Polka).

The Grass, It Is Blue gave me the idea for my next project. My thought was, if I can write a polka without giving up my avant-garde credentials, why don't I ask other composers to try to do the same? I invited composers from a broad cross-section of the alternative music scene: free improv--Fred Frith, Elliott Sharp, Tom Cora, Christian Marclay, John King, Nicolas Collins, Anthony Coleman; new classical music--William Duckworth, Carl Stone, Thomas Albert, Peter Zummo, Mary Jane Leach, Rolf Groesbeck, Aaron Jay Kernis, David Mahler, Joseph Kasinskas, Peter Garland, Daniel Goode, Guy De Bievre, Mary Ellen Childs, Lois V Vierk, Bill Ruyle; jazz, pop, rock--Bobby Previte, Carl Finch, David Garland, Robin Holcomb, William Obrecht, Steve Elson, Phillip Johnston. I gave the composers only the following criteria: try to write a piece under 3 minutes that can be played either solo or with a band. The result was a collection I call POLKA FROM THE FRINGE.

I have spent most of my creative life since 1985 writing music for dancers. There are so many things I like about writing for dance: the act of collaboration with someone outside your own discipline can create naive, outrageous, impractical demands--leading to improbable, surreal and inspired solutions; dance seasons are 3-6 days long, so you get to perform the pieces several times over a short period, polishing and refining the composition and performance; the audience is broader, less specialized, but at the same time more exposed and friendly to new music than concert music audiences. I have now written about 20 pieces for dance and it continues to be one of my favorite and most fulfilling activities.

For a 1992 dance project called Passage North, I put together an acoustic band of accordion, violin, cello and bass. I recently recorded the material and was so taken by the sound of that ensemble that I have decided to make it a working band. I'm now writing and arranging material for the group, to be called the Bantam Orchestra, and intend to tour and record with that combination for the next few years.

The most amazing thing about being an accordionist for 40 years has been to experience the dramatic shifts in public opinion about the instrument. As I said, I began playing in 1952, when the accordion was the most popular instrument in America. By the late 50's, however, the guitar had replaced the accordion in popularity: kids watching television at that time were more likely to see Elvis Presley playing guitar than Dick Contino playing accordion. During the 60's and 70's the accordion was decidedly and totally out-of-fashion. Not only were fewer people playing it, but the future of the instrument seemed relegated to camp and nostalgia.

But by the late '80's, low-and-behold, the explosion in world music brought the accordion back into vogue again--you could now see accordions not only in bands from Texas, Louisiana, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, South Africa and Madagascar--but in pop culture again, with Paul Simon, John Cougar Mellencamp, Los Lobos, Ry Cooder and Tom Waits. Now in the '90's, the accordion shows up frequently in television commercials, the ultimate capitalist compliment.

I've continued playing the accordion through all these attitude adjustments. People often ask me why. I used to explain that I made the choice when I was a 5-year-old, but that always made it sound like, had I been a sensible adult instead, I would have known better. Would I have made the decision knowing the negative image that came with the instrument? I don't know. I'm just thankful that I made the choice at an age when we act first and foremost on our instincts.

In 1988, I was asked to perform on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, a long-running, children's television show. The producers explained to me that they wanted to show children that the accordion could be used as a classical instrument. For me, it was like coming full-circle. Now I had a chance to play accordion on television and just maybe there would be one child out there watching for whom the accordion would spark an interest, and perhaps even a life, in music.

About the Author

has created a unique repertoire for accordion through his own composing and by commissioning over fifty works from composers including Mary Ellen Childs, Anthony Coleman, William Duckworth, Fred Frith, Aaron Jay Kernis, John King, Jer ome Kitzke, Alvin Lucier, Stephen Montague, Somei Satoh, Lois V Vierk and John Zorn.He has composed over 20 dance scores for choreographers including Karen Bamonte, Angela Caponigro, David Dorfman, Anita Feldman, Victoria Marks and Mark Taylor.

Klucevsek also composed the music for Chinoiserie, an evening-length music/theatre piece written in collaboration with Ping Chong and Company, which was presented on the 1995 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it ran for 5 s old-out performances. His solo performances include the Berlin Jazz Festival, New Music America, Serious Fun! at Lincoln Center, Bang on a Can, and the children's television show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. He has also performed and/or recorded with Laurie Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Robin Holcomb, the Kronos Quartet, Pauline Oliveros, Bobby Previte, Relache and John Zorn.

In 1987, Klucevsek commissioned Polka From the Fringe, a collection of 32 post-modern two-steps by such composers as Carl Finch, Fred Frith, Christian Marclay and Elliott Sharp, which he presented at the 1988 Next Wave Festival, and has performed a round the world with his group, Ain't Nothin' But A Polka Band. He has released eight recordings as soloist/leader, including Polka Dots & Laser Beams and ?Who Stole the Polka?, which were chosen as the best recordings of 1992 by John Schaefer on the nationally-syndicated radio program New Sounds, and Transylvanian Softwear, which was cited as a 1995 Recording of Special Merit in Stereo Review.

He can also be heard on the recent compilations Planet Squeezebox on Ellipsis Arts and Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach on Tzadik. Klucevsek received a 1995 New York Dance and Performance Award (BESSIE) for his score for David Dorfman's Dance, Hey, and was awarded a "Listen Up" prize for "Best Original Score of 1996" by Publishers Weekly for his music accompanying the Audio Book version of E. Annie Proulx's novel, Accordion Crimes.

composer / accordionist



Altered Landscapes, Evva
Stolen Memories, Tzadik
Citrus, My Love, RecRec/Swiss
Transylvanian Softwear, John Marks Records
Manhattan Cascade, CRI
Polka Dots & Laser Beams, Evva
?Who Stole the Polka?, Evva
Flying Vegetables of the Apocalypse, XI
Scenes From A Mirage, Review
Blue Window, Zoar (out-of-print)


Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, Who Gets the Guy?, This Guy's in Love With You, Tzadik
Planet Squeezebox, The Grass, It Is Blue, Ellipsis Arts
Legends of Accordion, Awakening, Rhino
The Composer-Performer, Samba D Hiccup, CRI
Koroshi No Blues, Sukiyaki Etoufee, Maki Gami Koechi, Toshiba EMI
Norwegian Wood, Monk's Intermezzo, Aki Takahashi, Toshiba EMI
Music by Lukas Foss, Curriculum Vitae, CRI
Here and Now, Oscillation No. 2, Relache, Callisto
A Haymish Groove, Transylvanian Softwear, Extraplatte
A Confederacy of Dances, Vol. I. Sylvan Steps, Einstein
A Classic Guide to No Man's Land, Samba D Hiccup, No Man's Land


The Big Gundown, Nonesuch Icon
Cobra, Hat Art
Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, Der Kleine Leutnant Des Lieben Gottes, A&M


On Edge, Mode
Open Boundaries, Parterre, Minnesota Composers Forum McKnight Recording
Pauline Oliveros: The Well and The Gentle, Hat Art


Laurie Anderson: Bright Red, Warner Bros.
Anthony Braxton: Four Ensemble Compositions, 1992, Black Saint
Mary Ellen Childs: Kilter, XI
Anthony Coleman: Disco by Night, Avante
Nicolas Collins: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Trace Elements
Fast Forward: Same Same, XI
Bill Frisell: Have A Little Faith, Elektra Musician
David Garland: Control Songs, Review
Robin Holcomb: Rockabye, Elektra Musician
Guy Klucevsek/Pauline Oliveros: Sounding/Way, private cassette release (out-of-print)
Orchestra of Our Time: Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, Nonesuch
Bobby Previte: Claude's Late Morning, Gramavision

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