Friday, February 11, 2011

In praise of Max

Ah, the Castagnari one-row "Melodeon," often (apparently incorrectly) dubbed "Max."

Among one-row Italian boxes, perhaps not such a strange beast. Among one-row boxes typically used in North America, Ireland, and the U.K., perhaps an odd bird.

What makes it odd? Is it the blazingly fast response of the reeds? The wonderfully light touch of the keyboard? The choice of oak and a unique and lovely intarsia for the meticulously constructed cabinet?

No, it is the placement of the air button.

My advice to players who find the air button difficult to use: get used to it. Adapt, just like you did when you started to play the accordion to begin with. If you really like this amazing little box for all kinds of reasons, get used to the air button.

I used to play one of these boxes -- I think that I had it for about a year. It was a wonderful box. If you are interested in accordion construction, take it apart and admire the evidence of the Castagnaris doing what the Castagnaris do so well.

There are several construction details that differ from most of Cajun and French Canadian boxes, which are all, to some degree, modern versions of German accordions that were manufactured about 100 years ago.

First, the reedblocks: there are two "stand up" treble blocks, and the bass/chord reeds on the left hand side are also mounted on a stand-up block. This differs from typical North American (i.e. Cajun and Québécois) accordions, in which two banks of treble reeds, and all the bass/chord reeds are mounted "flat." Castagnari has done something really unique, in the several of the highest reeds on the piccolo bank are also mounted flat.

Second, the bass "grip": Without going into more detail, the construction of this component differs greatly from anything made by a Cajun or Québécois builder. There is a different feel to the action and of course the air button is in a different position. Depending on how much cognitive and kinesthetic evolution has occurred between prehistoric man and the player of this box, it will take anywhere from one hour to six months for him to adapt his left hand to this difference.

Third, the reeds: The Voci Armoniche reeds are simply different critters than the Bincis that are typically (although not exclusively) installed in North American boxes.

Fourth, the keyboard: the "hidden" action in the keyboard is entirely different. The lever dimensions are also different (resulting in buttons that are much closer to the pallets -- a narrow keyboard).

I passed this box around to various box players in Quebec, and their responses can easily be summed up: "What a fast little box! Best keyboard I've ever played. Too bad it doesn't have the right sound for the music that I play!" On the other hand, one fiddler that I played with proclaimed that he "loved" the sound of this Castagnari, perhaps because the dry tuning appealed to him, perhaps because the sound was simply not as assertive as the typical Messervier box.

Eventually, I sold this box when my Mélodie arrived. If it had been in a different key (than D), I would have kept it. Ultimately, I wanted the more gravely, bassy sound of the Mélodie. However, I wanted to tip my hat to Castagnari for making such a unique melodeon -- which is wondeful to play.


  1. From the one row to the big box. Interesting development.

  2. Ha! Actually I started playing the big three row at the same time as one-row. My first one-row box was an "Acadian," which I replaced with the Castagnari one-row. Then I had a Melodie, which I found used -- ironically, the same box that I had tried out when I first visiting Melodie in Montmagny in the summer of 2001. Finally, I found the one-row box most suited to my style by ordering a Melodie to my specs, which took years to get but was worth the wait. I've been playing it since spring 2004.
    The Acadian went to the UK. The Castagnari one-row went to CT to a beginning Irish player who claimed that the bellows felt like I had never played it. (In reality I played it 2-3 hours a day for about a year! -- I had already developed very good bellows control by then, so I had never abused the bellows, as the next owner apparently did.) The (used) Melodie went to a musician who promised me "right of first refusal" should he ever need to sell it, and then he had it retuned dry, then sold it to a well-known Irish player on the West coast without offering it back to me. (Contrast that to Denis Pepin, who after playing his Acadian for over 20 years, resold it to the original owner, whom he had promised the right of first refusal!)
    As soon as I started learning to play the button accordion (on a lemon acquired from a NY dealer -- now in NJ -- caveat emptor!), I placed an order for the 3-row Jacky directly with Castagnari. This was in 2000, when the Euro/dollar exchange rate was extremely favorable to those of us with dollars! Then I waited for the big box -- with which I have never parted.

  3. Comment from Japan.
    I am interested in your Max story and analysis!
    I have a web page of melodeon.
    Could you linked my blog each other?
    Sorry, only Japanese.

  4. TOKO,
    I'll add your blog to my list of blogs!

  5. Andy
    Thanks million!
    I will also link your blog from my blog.