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

The Bandoneon: Sonic Musings

Letters in response to Dr. Paul A. Magistretti's concert review of the
Napa Valley Symphony and Peter Soave.

Dr. Magistretti has brought up a good point regarding internal acoustics, construction and the use of electronic sound reinforcement for free-reed instruments. During my last meeting with Peter Soave he proudly showed me the latest innovation on his Pigini bayan: screened vents on the left-hand manual which pointed outward to the audience, not side ward as on other accordions. Unfortunately, most accordion manufacturers do not even bother to cut holes in the case of the left-hand mechanism to allow the sound to dissipate. (Fortunately for me, my own instrument, a Victoria accordion, has left-hand sound holes which allows much of the left-hand music to emerge.)

From my own limited experience performing with orchestras (Lorin Maazel's Music for Violoncello and Orchestra and Piazzolla's Libertango with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Mauricio Kagel's Orchestrion Straat with the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, and Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble) I remember that in these cases the music was orchestrated in such a way that the accordion was, for the most part, able to project through the orchestra. Yet when I played Galla-Rini's Concerto No. 1 with the River City Brass Band I had to use two microphones which were placed perhaps one foot (.3 meters) from the two grills of my instrument.

Certainly the accordion (and bandoneon) does not have the acoustical power to solo with a large orchestra, especially with brass and percussion without electronic sound reinforcement. The concertina was originally designed for parlor music, not orchestra concerts! Is it any wonder that in 1883 Tchaikovsky used FOUR accordions in his Orchestral Suite, No. 3? Regarding the tuning of the bandoneon reeds, musette tuning is not an option, as I believe bandoneons are traditionally tuned with pure intervals. It would be like tuning the piano strings slightly sharp and flat; all you get is a honky-tonk piano, not an instrument suitable for the concert hall.

Another problem is the sound of the accordion reeds; they are thin and tinny compared to most other instruments. To compensate for this, accordion builders have created tone chambers within the instrument, heavy wooden baffles which dampen the high frequencies like a muffler on a truck to make the timbre more round and pleasing. Naturally, this cuts down on the volume considerably.

Let's use another analogy and compare the accordion to a singer. There are many types of singers, but none can compete with a large orchestra with the exception of the dramatic soprano and the heldentenor, and then only in the higher part of their range. These Herculean singers appeared when Richard Wagner began writing operas which demanded superhuman voices, and consequently a new type of robust voice emerged to fill the roles. Perhaps in the future a new type of free-reed instrument will arise also.

Canadian concert accordionist Joseph Petric and accordion technician Leo Niemi have made a first step by creating an instrument which includes several acoustical-enhancing measures, such as strategically-placed sound posts, sound holes, resonating chambers, silicone treatment, patented reed blocks, reed chambers and wood combinations. This instrument was featured on Mr. Petric's new CD Padre Antonio Soler: Nine Sonatas which will soon be reviewed in the pages of The Free-Reed Review.

Readers, do you have any other thoughts on this?

Henry Doktorski

Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2000 03:25:49 +0100
Subject: bandoneon tuning

Dear Henri,

Regarding the tuning of bandoneons, musette tuning was just as common as octave tunning in Germany (early 1900s). I even believe it was the standard tuning on the Einheits (standard) instruments. Instruments in Reinische lage, which became popular in South America, were tuned in octaves.

Wim Wakker

Date: Sat, 19 Feb 2000 06:50:35 -0800
Subject: Soave review

In his review of Peter Soave's performance of Piazzolla's Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra, Dr. Magistretti articulates well the dilemma faced by free-reed players in concert situations. Having devoted the musical portion of my life to somewhat quieter instruments (harpsichord, clavichord, accordion and bandoneon), I can personally relate to the predicament Peter Soave and the producers of the Concerto must have faced. An artist must make tough choices when playing any of the above instruments in a modern concert setting, up to and including amplification if necessary. I must, however, take exception to Dr. Magistretti's suggestion that the bandoneon undergo an alteration in tuning or structure in order to make its voice more easily heard.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Wanda Landowska almost single-handedly swept a hundred and twenty years of dust from the harpsichord and revived its capacity to make music. She was, however, not satisfied with the "limited" volume level or tuning stability of the antique instruments, so she enlisted the aid of the prestigious piano firm of Pleyel. They applied the "widsom" of modern piano construction to the harpsichords they built for her, altering the instrument's basic fabric in the process. Instead of harpsichords, they built plucking pianos. These new instruments were no louder or stable than the old ones, and their massive cases and iron frames deadened the lovely resonant timbre possessed by the old instruments. In addition, it was impossible to produce on them a genuine legato or play in a cantabile style. Today, harpsichordists thank the Muses that these monstrosities have all but disappeared from the concert music milieu! The antique models are again the standard for harpsichord sound and construction.

I would submit that there are significant parallels between the harpsichord and bandoneon, and not just in volume level or the fact that the thin wood cases of both instruments participate in resonance and sound production. Both instruments evolved to fill or were adopted into a niche in a musical ecosystem. Each is the result of a dynamic and complex balance of compromises involving instrument design, type and strength of construction materials used, their acoustical properties and the strengths and weaknesses of making music with them. In turn, the music written for each instrument takes full advantage of its peculiarities of sound, materials and construction. Alter any part of that balance and the relationship between instrument and music begins to change. The more changes one makes, the more noticeably the relationship deteriorates. The Pleyel "harpsichord" was a case in point.

The plaintive cry of the bandoneon (the Alfred Arnold bandoneon in particular) is synonymous with Argentine Tango and Astor Piazzolla's music. In South America the bandoneon is called "the soul of Tango" and has become part of the indigenous musical mythology. Tango musicians in Buenos Aires and Montevideo are not only unwilling to accept changes to the bandoneon, they are unwilling to accept any new instruments! There is a active industry surrounding repairing and refurbishing 50 to 70 year old bandoneons, simply because no other sound will do. Over the course of the last several years, all efforts at introducing new bandoneons from Germany have met with failure. A musette tuned bandoneon would be laughed off the stage, at least in Argentina where the distinction between accordion and bandoneon has been appreciated for over a century!

I would offer that choosing the proper venue, reducing the accompanying ensemble size or, as Dr. Magistretti wisely suggests, judiciously amplifying the bandoneon are easier, more satisfactory and less invasive methods of dealing with the problems associated with playing this instrument in a concert setting. Pitting a solo bandoneon against an orchestra in even a small concert hall is to assign to it a role that it was never designed to fill!

Gregory A. Vozar

Greg's Bandoneon and Tango Pages:

Sent: Sunday, February 20, 2000 1:49 PM
Subject: Napa response

Dear Henry, the letters by you and Greg have been stimulating and led me to some further thoughts on the bandoneon sound. Perhaps someone with perfect pitch could answer these questions. It seems to me that Piazzolla's bandoneon is bright, perhaps sharp. I was listening to his Vienna Concert of 1986 Tritezza de un Doble A and I wondered the following: is Piazzolla's beloved Doble A tuned A = 440? Pitch has varied over the centuries. In Handel's time (1699) it was 404, in the mid nineteenth century it was 448; at the turn of the century in France and other countries it was 435 and in the 20's it settled around 440. However, it has often varied from country to country and Germany tended to tune higher -- which might include all those German made bandoneons which give the tango it's soul. Variations still exist today. Of course, the old German bandoneons could have been re-tuned, but I wonder if they were and if that bright A = 448 (or more) wasn't inherently part of their sound (and charm). Piazzolla has always sounded bright and sharp to me when he cuts through the other instruments (apart from amplification). If that is the case -- that he's sharp -- then, his instrument supplies a de facto mussette relative to the other instruments and that may be the Tango sound we know and love. Also, I wonder if both sets of reeds are really tuned in octaves to exactly the same pitch as a rule and, in fact, how accurately they can be tuned and to what pitch.

Another question -- when Piazzolla pulls hard during his emphatic moments does he bend the pitch slightly, sharpening the note. It seems so to me -- but I await other opinions -- that he does. In fact, it seems his passionate sound results from this sharpening attack on the music -- an attack on emotions as well as pitch -- especially on the highest notes (with the thinnest reeds). Understand, I'm not deconstructing Piazzolla's passion, his norteño soul or the sheer artistry which I greatly admire (I own 30 Piazzolla CDs so I am obviously a fan), I'm just curious and wondering about such matters.

Relative to Peter's concert, I wonder if Mr. Soave had attacked certain phrases harder, almost tonguing them as one does with a brass or woodwind instrument -- and as Piazzolla often does with an abrupt pull and knee action -- if he might have achieved (perhaps) two things: one, certainly an increase in volume; two, pitch bending (maybe) introducing the sharp, cutting sound characteristic of the bandoneon and breaking through the A = 440 orchestra with a brighter sound. Understand, I'm not discounting Greg's remarks about a reduced ensemble or my call for amplification. Also, I wonder if Mr. Soave's bandoneon is tuned A=440 and how this relates to Piazzolla, for Piazzolla's sound is the tonality that has captured the world's imagination.

If my remarks aren't utter nonsense, introducing an ad hoc passionate mussette intensification (to a slightly sharp instrument) definitely gives one a different expressive feeling than when instruments are purposely detuned per se, like Tyrolean accordions (which have their own beauty, but sound nothing like a bandoneon).

Might it not also be the case that there are very slight variations (say 1-5 cents) in Piazzolla's tuning from one semi-tone to the next? Variations which by themselves might not qualify as musette tuning but which when "randomly" mixed (some octaves slightly sharp, some slightly flat) across the keyboard would contribute a certain "bite" to the sound quality? It would seem to me that the natural tendency of an instrument to go out of tune might in this case be a desirable quality and hence the attraction of a 60 year old instrument versus fresh from the factory tuning.

Paul A. Magistretti

Date: Tue, 22 Feb 2000 10:12:25 -0800
From: Gregory A. Vozar

Since I've already put in my "two cents," let me "up the ante" with a couple more comments. These are more as asides than anything for publication.

Having owned several early keyboard instruments, I did all my own tuning for the 15 yrs or so that I played them. I can remember how to set the bearings for a number of meantone and well temperments even now. While I don't have perfect pitch I do have apt ears as far as slight variations in pitch are concernedbeing able to "count beats" is a necessity for a tuner. I will listen to the recording I have of the Piazzolla Concerto (w/Astor himself on bandoneon) and see if I detect a slightly raised pitch from his instrument. I would suspect I will hear that this is so.

My former bandoneon teacher, Tito Sasso, had his bandoneon tuned to A448 for exactly the reasons that Dr. Magistretti suggests. (Mine is A440 and was tuned in Montevideo, Uruguay just before I purchased it, so I don't think there is necessarily a South American bias or standardization as far as this is concerned.) I think it highly probable that Piazzolla did have his instrument tuned sharp in order to make it stand out against other instruments, although I doubt it was quite as sharp as my teacher's.

My experience with free-reed instrument, however, is the opposite of what Dr. Magistretti suggests. Usually, a sharp tug on the bellows produces a flat rather than sharp tone. A bayan with flexible, hand-made reeds is famous for going flat in the bass when a sudden sforszando increases the air pressure against the reeds.

That's two more cents. (There are 1200 to an octave!)

Greg Vozar

Date: Tue, 22 Feb 2000 16:25:45 +0100
Subject: Re: Napa response

Please apologize my intrusion to this conversation, but I feel the need to answer to some of the stated questions. I'm member of the bandoneon list.

Paul Magistretti wrote:

Might it not also be the case that there are very slight variations (say 1-5 cents) in Piazzolla's tuning from one semi-tone to the next? Variations which by themselves might not qualify as musette tuning but which when "randomly" mixed (some octaves slightly sharp, some slightly flat) across the keyboard would contribute a certain "bite" to the sound quality? It would seem to me that the natural tendency of an instrument to go out of tune might in this case be a desirable quality and hence the attraction of a 60 year old instrument versus fresh from the factory tuning.

Piazzolla's instrument is tuned strictly equal temperature.

Magistretti continued:

It seems to me that Piazzolla's bandoneon is bright, perhaps sharp. I was listening to his Vienna Concert of 1986 Tritezza de un Doble A and I wondered the following: is Piazzolla's beloved Doble A tuned A = 440?
I do not have the Vienna concert to check the used pitch in that case, but most of his instruments were tuned A=442 Hz. A tango bandoneon must not have musette tuning and the dual reeds are tuned exactly one octave apart. Due to the pitch bending observed at higher pressure, you can find deviations in some cases and one of the mayor challenges of the bandoneon tuner is to find the best coherency of both reeds to fit over the widest possible range.

The bandoneons left the factory until 1941 with a pitch of A=435, later A=440. Most luthiers in Argentina were of italian origin and they applied the italian /french pitch of A=445 and higher. Seldom you'll find there instruments not around A=445. Today they are retuned to A=442 because it's the most frequent tuning for concert pianos.

The sharpness of the sound (not the pitch) is originated by the construction of the instrument which consists for the right hand of a 8' reed in perpendicular position to the sound outlet (don't know the right term in english) and the other in a parallel fashion, thus having a minimum of high frequency absorption. The brilliance of the instrument depends on the used bellow pressure. Please note that Piazzolla played standing and which enhanced the accents and the applied bellow pressure.

The bass side of the instrument prevents the high frequency to be audible and the sound is like of an other instrument.

Magistretti continued:

When Piazzolla pulls hard during his emphatic moments does he bend the pitch slightly, sharpening the note. It seems so to me -- but I await other opinions -- that he does.
You are quite right. Piazzolla uses the pitch bending as an expressive element.

Magistretti continued:

Relative to Peter's concert, I wonder if Mr. Soave had attacked certain phrases harder, almost tonguing them as one does with a brass or woodwind instrument -- and as Piazzolla often does with an abrupt pull and knee action -- if he might have achieved (perhaps) two things: one, certainly an increase in volume; two, pitch bending (maybe) introducing the sharp, cutting sound characteristic of the bandoneon and breaking through the A = 440 orchestra with a brighter sound.
The absolute pitch is not a reason for a sound sharpness! This is only originated by the sound spectrum and the relative decay of the higher partials.

My question: did Mr. Soave play sitting? (please see my recent statement)

Christian Mensing
Zurich, Switzerland

Date: Wed, 23 Feb 2000 12:50:00 -0800
Subject: Re: Napa response

At 01:51 PM 2/23/00 -0500, Christian Mensing wrote:

It is nearly impossible to tune a bandoneon really perfect. There are in fact some tricks to make a tuning apparently perfect, but not for the pressure range used by Piazzolla. This is basically due to the insufficient resilience for the larger bass reeds. They should be stronger than the available material, while the upper reed is usually too strong. When the pitch drops at higher pressure, the bass reed drops faster than the upper reed and beats become evident.

I agree with Christian 100%. This is especially true for free-reeds, and true to a lesser degree for almost any fixed-pitch keyboard instrument, for the reasons he mentions and for others as well.

Tuning and temperment are about the relationships *between* pitches rather than the pitches themselves. Organ tuners are well-aware that an organ perfectly tuned using electronic equipment has an exceptionally harsh sound when compared to one tuned by ear (including all octaves up and down from the original temperment bearings), no matter what the temperment.

There's a name for the phenomenon (which I don't remember at the moment), but it is similar to an architectural principle. Construct a perfectly straight horizontal line or edge and it will appear to sag downward in the middle. Construct the same edge with a slight upward bias in the center and it will appear straight. Tune an instrument like the organ with notes from 16Hz to those that approach inaudibility (for some folks) in the treble in electronically perfect octaves across the full range and the extremes tend to sound sharp when compared to the middle. Tune the extremes ever-so-slightly slight flat and it will sound in tune throughout. (This is something we tend to do naturally when tuning by ear.)

The bandoneon doesn't have the range of a large pipe organ, but the same principle applies. This phenomenon was noticeable on my French harpsichord, 5 octaves, F (fa) to G (sol), which had roughly the same range as a bandoneon, 5 octaves C (do) to B (si).

Mensing continued: As I said in my previous message, actually bandoneons are tuned 442, or 440 if tuned for aficionados which play usually with A=440Hz pianos.

Even with international concert standards in place, there is still some variance although not as great as 100+ years ago. My teacher's bandoneons were tuned A/la=448 at his request. He liked the sharp sound, although it forced his guitarist and bassist to raise the pitch of their instruments as well since they tuned to his bandoneon. In the end it didn't accomplish much because everyone played sharp!

Mensing continued: The drop in pitch is common to all free reed instruments. There are few exceptions for some differently shaped reeds. Once more: the absolute pitch is not responsible for the brilliant sound. However, at higher pressure the "sharpness" of the sound increases because of the relative higher intensity of high partials. That's also common to all free reed instruments.

I support Christian in this as well, but I must mention the results of my listening test as it would *seem* to contradict this to some degree. I listened to my recording of the Piazzolla Concerto last night; it was recorded 1987 in the USA with St. Lukes Chamber Orch, Lalo Shifrin conducting, if memory serves.

Let me preface my comments with this caveat: I think it very dangerous to make hard and fast judgments of any kind about these matters from recordings. If the mixing boards in use at the time Piazzolla recorded were capable of considerably altering sound, then modern digital equipment can totally change the character of a performance because it can actually raise and lower pitch! There is no way to know what has happened to this recording over the past 22 years, especially when it was transfered to a digital medium.

However... I will report my subjective findings from the compact disc. To me, it seemed that the instrument Piazzolla used for this recording was tuned somewhat sharper than the accompanying orchestra. I was not able to determine this from the first and third movements because they were so dissonant and much of the music was played with marcato accents. Where it became clear was in the slower and softer second movement. Here the bandoneon has sustained notes and chords against orchestral accompaniment. Here I could hear beats, especially when an instrument in the ensemble was playing in unison with the bandoneon.

Now, having said that, I reiterate what I said in the prior paragraph. It's very difficult to determine these things from recordings due to the processing to which electronic signals are subject when put on tape. It's also possible that these audible beats were simply the predictable difference between a bandoneon tuned in equal temperment and the string players tending toward just intonation.

So, here are a few more cents! I must try and dig up my Owen Jorgensen book, "Tuning the Historical Temperments by Ear." He goes into some of the physics of the above phenomena as well as giving the directions for a zillion different keyboard temperments.

Greg Vozar

Date: Fri, 25 Feb 2000 15:45:16 -0800

I'm enjoying the responses by Christian and Greg. I wonder whether Greg's teacher actually had the guitar and other instruments tuned to his A = 448 bandoneon. What would the point be? It seems to me he would have left the other instruments tuned to A = 440 giving him an edge in brightness; otherwise, his higher tuning was irrelevant.

The Piazzolla album I refer to is Messidor #15970 Tristezas de un Doble A and it's interesting because in the title selection Piazzolla plays a 6:28 solo before the others come in. I've found few extended solos by Astor (he does a couple of complete solos on an album called Sur), but the Tristeza album stands out by really letting the bandoneon sink in before the others begin to play. At times it seems the accompanying quartet is flat, but I'll await the opinion of others.

I know larger reeds tend to go flat under increased pressure, but I wonder if the thinner, higher reeds behave the same? Does attack and increased pressure flatten them, or could it have a different effect on the higher octave set at the very highest notes -- maybe flattening the lower octave and sharpening the higher? Discrete pressure on some wind instruments can drive them sharp, whereas at a point beyond discretion they go flat. Did Astor control pressure to achieve his desired effect at the proper time?

On the aforementioned CD there are moments when Astor is playing the left hand for extended periods and the tonality is quite different (well, naturally), but I wonder if there is some physical tuning differences (as we've been discussing) between right and left hands -- or just the normal differing tonality between the reeds.

I can't find where I read it, but Casals talked of tuning his cello differently for different kinds of music and that such a control of tuning was a creative part of string instruments and too often overlooked by artists. Of course, the bandoneon wouldn't be fooled with, but what about the other instruments in the group? At times the violin and bass sound flat -- and of course the piano could be tuned especially for his concerts and recordings. I know we're dealing with recording media and all the vagaries therein, but I think free reed artists have to become more involved in and interested in the physical presentation of the instrument (returning to the theme of my review). Of course, artistic concerns are paramount, but great art unheard is wasted. I think our discussion is valuable if we make free reed artists more aware of the physical presentation for their instrument. We have a very young instrument with many acoustic qualities and some considerable disadvantages all of which need careful consideration.

Is this a possibility -- that Piazzolla's group was tuned lower than A = 440; say, at A = 435? That's why I wondered if anyone out there with perfect pitch might give a listen.

In answer to Christian, Mr. Soave played standing with one knee elevated. Also, I noticed there were hanging microphones over sections of the orchestra -- so he was even further disadvantaged. Of course, if the requirements of free reed instruments were well known no one would have let him perform without acoustic support -- it was like throwing him to the wolves. However, neither the conductor, orchestra nor sound engineer (if there was one) had any concern for Mr. Soave. The lesson here is, Peter must anticipate such neglect in the future and, therefore, take steps to control the proper presentation of his instrument -- if need be he must have his own sound person in tow (or at the very least, another pair of ears to determine what his needs are). He can't just go out and play, it's like playing Russian roulette with his career. Also, since he is one of our very greatest performers on free reed instruments, it does the instrument(s) a great disservice, if he plays but isn't heard -- people may come away thinking there's less there than meets the ear. Indeed, the reviewer Mr. Soave mentions who thought him an excellent player, but hated his instrument may have been reacting to how it was heard on that occasion and lacked the intelligence or experience to understand why he was put off or irritated. Peter may be a long time victim of sonic neglect and abuse, playing his heart out and not making contact. And what good is his considerable talent, his years of dedicated practice, his triumph in competitions, his superb interpretation and incomparable execution if he is not properly presented and heard?

Paul A. Magistretti

Date: Wed, 1 Mar 2000 01:28:17 -0500 (EST)
Subject: The Brooklyn Philharmonic:

I just performed Piazzolla's Double Concerto for guitar, bandoneón and strings in two concerts with the Brooklyn Philharmonic last weekend. The acoustics of the hall, as well as the balance between bandoneón and orchestra was superb. The New York Times wrote, "The Piazzolla profited from two absolutely splendid soloists. David Leisner played the guitar, Peter Soave the bandoneón. Their parts are elaborate and difficult and were made to breathe with great naturalness. Piazzolla's music is of the streets, but these particular streets are delightfully landscaped and maintained; they may even be paved with gold."

The sound in Brooklyn was slightly enhanced by microphone.

Facts and differences between Napa and Brooklyn appearances:

1) Brooklyn conductor is WORLD class; Napa's is "only" very good.

2) Napa hall acoustics were very bad and Napa orchestra had dynamic problems; generally too loud. Brooklyn's orchestra played with wonderful dynamic contrast and awareness.

3) Napa newspaper review was as equally excellent as NY Times.

4) In Napa..... I was aware of the hall problems and orchestral non-capabilities to adjust volumes. There was also a solo violinist on the same program that faced the same situation. I felt that adding amplification on my instrument would only complicate the over all experience for me, orchestra, and audience. Would a (the) violinist perform his concerto with a microphone? No! Why should I, than?!? Segovia never performed with microphone! In my numerous experiences with orchestras I have found that certain orchestras like to amplify and others do not. Ideal sound situations don't always exist.

5) TUNING: All orchestras MUST tune to the accordion or bandoneon; whether it is A=440 or A=444. Naturally, orchestras are tunable on the spot where we aren't.


Peter Soave
Detroit, Michigan

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