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Book Review: The Accordion In All Its Guises
Editors: Basil Tschaikov and Malcolm Miller

Authors and Chapters:

Doktorski: The Classical Squeezebox
McMahan: Idiomatic Use of the Accordion in Atonal Music
Reichman: Accordion at the Cutting Edge
Doktorski: The Accordion and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"
O'Keeffe: The Irish Button Accordion
Eydmann: From the "Wee Melodeon" to the "Big Box"
Coateval: The Devil's Box and the Gavotte
Horowitz: The Klezmer Accordion
Rabe: Aspects of Regional Difference and Performance Technique in Bulgarian Accordion Music
DeWitt: In the Cajun Idiom
Scruggs: Squeezing the Audience from Both Ends
Snyder: The Sounds of the Cibao
Emoff: Alterations in Accordion Structure on the East Coast of Madagascar

Published: 2001
Review date: January 2004

Publisher: OPA (Overseas Publishers Association)
Musical Performance Journal Volume 3 Parts 2-4
Harwood Academic Publishers

Review by SteveMobia

An inclusive title like The Accordion in all its Guises leads one to think of a giant compendium on the instrument (something like The Golden Age of the Accordion but even more massive). Well, it falls considerably short of that. In fact, it's a rather compact (273 pages) series of scholarly essays by different authors on as wide ranging topics as Idiomatic Use of the Accordion in Atonal Music to Alterations in Accordion Structure on the East Coast of Madagascar. There are a number of very enlightening articles, some of which are purely about musical form, others about a culture that has adapted the accordion as its own. Though this book is hard to find in the United States, it's a welcome addition to the unfortunately meager written material on the instrument in English.

Readers of this website will be pleased to know that at least one third of the material is devoted to the accordion's use in classical and concert music. Much of that chunk is a beautiful reprint of Henry Doktorski's well researched The Classical Squeezebox: A Short History of the Accordion in Classical Music. It begins with an overview of the origins of the instrument and it's initial use in concert music to add a folk flavor. In the later 20th century, serious accordion music scaled new heights of expression and complexity along with refinements in instrument building. There are many composers and compositions cited, making this entry invaluable for the music scholar. Other articles include Doktorski's Rhapsody in Blue: a Historical Perspective and an interesting personal interview with Guy Klucevsek.

Of special note is Robert McMahan's erudite study of Ernst Krenek's Toccata, a composition commissioned by the American Accordionists Association in 1962. The A.A.A. took it upon itself to inspire contemporary composers to write new works for the instrument and several well known composers (among them Paul Creston, Otto Luening, Virgil Thompson, David Diamond, and Henry Brant) received commissions. The analysis of Krenek's work points out how the standard stradella bass is exploited to its fullest potential.

Part two of the book offers a potpourri of fascinating articles covering the accordion's use in popular and folk musics. Maire O'Keeffe discusses the early inclusion of diatonic button accordions in traditional Irish music by the late 1800s and up through the present day despite some purists who frowned on the squeezebox supplanting pipers and fiddlers.

Stuart Eydmann continues in the UK, discussing accordion music in Scotland since 1945, including a bit on classical accordionists in the region.

There is a brief account by Yann-Fańch Perroches summarizing the rich folk traditions of Brittany, its abundance of Celtic dance festivals which is said to propagate the traditional music of the region. The "devil's box" made inroads and was thought by some as an invading French influence especially as the French musette style played on chromatic rather than diatonic accordions became popular in the 1920s.

Joshua Horowitz writes about the Jewish Klezmer tradition and the accordion's prominent position within it. While not as quintessential to the music as the clarinet, it nevertheless has become a regular featured player. A discussion about the earliest Klezmer recordings with an accordion includes a mention of concertina virtuoso Grigori Matusewitch who combined folk styles with a classical sensibility. Much later in the 1940s a new wave of Klezmer music grew out of New York and Philadelphia as more immigrants shipped in from Eastern Europe. Horowitz discusses a variety of styles and players from the Ukraine and Romania, the iconic popularity of the accordion in Israel and other musical matters pertaining to a Klezmer revival.

The use of the accordion in Bulgarian folk styles is the topic of Gigi Lynn Rabe's essay. Despite music schools who don't regard the accordion as a "legitimate" folk instrument (its use in Bulgaria only took hold in 1878), it is nonetheless very popular and its players have astonishing technique. The odd metered Bulgarian dance rhythms are notated as are musical examples from seven folkloric regions in Bulgaria. There is also a nice concluding section on contemporary folk music (only composed since the early 1970s) which unites elements from the distinct regions with enriched harmony and greater chromaticism. Improvisation is also becoming a greater feature of this music.

The simple one row diatonic accordion (sometimes called a "melodeon") has come to symbolize the social dance music of Cajun culture as explored in Mark DeWitt's illustrative commentary. He goes into the notion of "Idiom" and "style" to show how the idiomatic playing technique of the one row diatonic might have influenced the style of Cajun melodies.

A different use of diatonic button accordions is to be found in the South Texas/Northern Mexico tejano or tex-mex music as discussed by T.M. Scruggs in his essay Squeezing the Audience from Both Ends. The conjunto style of playing which, at the turn of the 20th century, condensed the large wind and string dance orchestra to a twelve-stringed guitar and accordion, has been augmented in recent years with drums and electric bass. Scruggs uses four generations of the famous Jamenez family to explore the development of the sound.

The meringue "couple-dance" in the Dominican Republic makes for interesting reading by Jared Snyder. The separation from Haiti's political control in the mid-nineteenth century and love of the Spanish resulted in newly imported accordions being condemned by the upper class (largely due to the loudness and limited range of the affordable single row diatonic boxes). The city of Santiago even proposed a national tariff on accordions. But as usual those pesky accordions won the heart and soul of the populace who incorporated them into meringue music which was a chief way news, history and stories were spread.

Broken, rusty or otherwise altered accordions are used to summon ancestral spirits in Madagascar. Ron Emoff explores the deliberate altered tuning of 2 models of Hohner button boxes, resisting the factory set parameters of the foreigners. For the Malagasy people, music has to be played a particular way in order to invite the spirits.

Mark DeWitt concludes this book with a view of Planet Squeezebox, a CD collection from 1995 that sampled the accordion's use around the world. The compilation gets a generally rave review though DeWitt points out certain biases to the music choices and insufficiencies of the accompanying booklet. He does give the producers great credit for presenting such a diversity of material in a pleasing package.

The same could be said about this curious collection of essays. Obviously much is left out. Jazz accordion is only represented by second-hand transcriptions of Gershwin (who only borrowed from jazz). There is nothing on the Tango, French musette or any number of other distinctive forms of accordion music. Its false title aside, the book does succeed in bringing certain distinctive aspects of accordion playing to the fore. Many of the writers are musicians themselves which gives some authority to their musical analysis. Recommended for every music library.

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