Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some nice, old Hohners for sale

There are two older Hohners in great condition for sale by two friends of mine.

The first is a Preciosa, which was originally in Bb/Eb but retuned to A/D by the Button Box.  In case you are unfamiliar with the Preciosa, it is probably the smallest 2 1/2 row diatonic that has ever been produced, but its sound is BIG!  Great sounding basses and a really nice keyboard action. My friend Robert is selling this box; send your contact info to me and he will be in touch with you.

The second is a Corso in G/C.  I played this box at the Squeeze-In some years ago, and with its three sets of musette-tuned reeds, its sound is very classic.  This would make a great box for anyone interested in learning to play French and Breton music, playing tunes in French tablature books, etc.  The Corso is being sold by Gary; here is a link to his excellent blog. While you are there, check out the miniature Castagnari that he is selling.

(Other than helping friends, I am not connected to the sale of either of these boxes.)

Friday, February 25, 2011


Top left: Before planing. Top right: after.
Bottom center: which of the three would make the nicest box?
(Note: the walnut board was planed by hand, the maple boards have only been rough-planed on a machine -- none of the three has been planed to a "finished" degree!)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Big things in small packages

Castagnari's Lilly: This is a super small box that is great for some very specific applications.  Obviously, it makes a great travel box. But it also has a very specific sound.

With 21 treble buttons and 8 bass/chords, it is a "full size" melodeon from the perspective of tonal range -- at least, for a two-row player!  However, the Lilly is a single-voice box, which means that for each treble note, only one reed sounds.  

Despite this limitation, the advantage is that it allows Castagnari to mount the reeds on a flat "pan" rather than in stand-up blocks.  This heightens the responsiveness of the reeds and makes for a very loud box.

Theoretically, it should be possible to make a similar box, slightly larger, with 2 1/2 (or 3) rows and 12 bass/chords.  Ahem ahem.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A melodeon destination in the Northeast U.S.

I imagine that there are some readers who have wandered to this blog in search of information about how someone can start to play the melodeon. I'll write a future post about methods of learning. This entry pertains to the question of where to acquire an instrument...

After an initial, somewhat bizarre encounter with an accordion store in NY, I found The Button Box, which was then in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is now located in Sunderland. What a breath of fresh air. The Button Box stocks loads of diatonic accordions (as well as concertinas and some piano accordions), and it is a pleasure to visit. Founder Rich Morse succeeded in building a great place for people interested in melodeons and concertinas -- you can get books, learn about the various options, and try out every instrument.

I vowed to guide prospective melodeonistas to the Button Box!

One of the fun things about visiting the Button Box is that you can try out all sorts of instruments in different tunings and button layouts. Right now, their listing of instruments in stock includes a Saltarelle Tramontane -- a three-row box in G/C with accidentals on the inside row and a very unusual 14-bass layout. They also have a three-row Castagnari Handry in G/C/F with 18-bass buttons.

Another great thing is that each staff member is a joy to chat with, and they are committed to guiding their customers to instruments that are the right match.

The Button Box co-founded an annual event called the Northeast Squeeze-In, which is also a great place for a beginner or prospective player to learn about lots of instruments, meet some really great people (including the current owners of the Button Box), and enjoy hearing all the lovely music that button boxes can play.

Learn about the Northeast Squeeze-In, now run by an independent group, here.

Denis Pépin

I wrote the following review several years ago and attempted to publish it on RootsWorld. The "editor" said that he could not publish my review, because the fact that I actually learned to play the accordion from Denis gives the review the appearance of bias. Never mind the fact that this fellow's website links reviews to his other site, which sells CDs -- so I guess his own positive descriptions of recordings are not subject to the same standards of "journalistic integrity" as unsolicited reviews of CDs that he does not sell...
Needless to say, eventually I posted the review to the "old" Here it is again for your reading pleasure:

Review of "Denis Pépin" (2003)
Fans of French Canadian music recognize the name Denis Pépin as belonging to one of Québec's foremost accordionists, an outstanding player whose recordings are notoriously difficult to track down. His earlier cassettes, two of which featured Pépin playing marvelously synchronized duets with fiddler Lisa Ornstein, have been out of print for years, and there is no sign that his much sought after instructional video will become available again any time soon. Therefore it was a moment of great pleasure for me when I discovered that Pépin is now offering a new independent release of his phenomenal music.

Originally from a region in which the three-row diatonic accordion is favored, Denis Pépin pursued the one-row accordion after encountering Philippe Bruneau, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. Along with Bruneau, Pépin pioneered the technique of crossing all three rows of the otherwise unwieldy three-row accordion - many three-row players in Québec still play along each row individually! His musical exchanges with the Irish melodeon player Keith Corrigan of Valcartier and fabled accordion builder and player Marcel Messervier of Montmagny shaped his interpretations of tunes for the one-row accordion. More recently, Pépin found himself drawn to the unique style and accordion mastery of American Irish box player Joe Derrane, whom Pépin accompanied on piano while Derrane was performing in Québec. This encounter led him eventually to commission a special 25-button two-row D/C# accordion from Marcel Messervier, an instrument that would allow him to mimic the range of the fiddle needed to emulate Irish and Cape Breton fiddle styles. (See photo)

This CD release offers the listener the unique opportunity to hear Pépin's expertise on all of his instruments. The first five tracks feature the three-row accordion; here, one listens as Pépin defies the stuffy convention that dictates that the three-row accordion in A/D/G is not suitable for Irish tunes. Next come six tracks played on one-row melodeons in C and A. At times, the listener will be shocked to realize that these petite instruments, with only ten buttons in a major diatonic scale, can fleetingly conjure the illusion of chromaticism when touched by the magic of the master's fingers. The listener is truly treated to a showcase of the outermost limits of the petit accordéon. The final three tracks showcase his D/C# Messervier ("Le Pépin III") and offer unique interpretations of fiddle tunes.

Throughout the recording, the listener will hear Pépin's own piano accompaniment, which is tasteful and full of joy for the music. Stylistically, one hears echoes of John Kimmel, the German-American who made the earliest recordings of Irish accordion music. Kimmel's influence on Pépin is particularly apparent on the track "La Patrouille Internationale," in which Pépin links several recognizable melodies, including "La Marseillaise." While the impact of Philippe Bruneau, Marcel Messervier, and Joe Derrane's playing is felt, Pépin's style is unique. He has a light, smooth touch, and his ornamentation, while technically breathtaking, never distracts from the melody. His choice of tunes reflects his vast and carefully acquired repertoire, drawing on historical recordings as well as his musician-friends. The album is sure to delight lovers of French Canadian accordion music and to pleasantly surprise listeners of Irish music and fans of melodeon music in general. Given the fate of previous independent releases of Quebecois artists, I recommend that you track down this recording before it, too, goes out of print! (review written May 31, 2004)

The recording is now available through Trente Sous Zero. (By the way, Guy is also a friend -- and Thirty Below Zero is a great source for French Canadian recordings and other learning materials!)
If anyone listens to this recording and finds that I was simply blinded by the fact that Denis is my friend and teacher, I'd be interested in hearing from you! Otherwise, I stand by my recommendation: Listen to this CD, it is an amazing -- and rare -- treat!

As good as it gets...

Ah yes, if there ever was a melodeon that exuded the essence of everything that I love about diatonic accordion, it was this one: "The Box." It was a Gaillard, 4-voice -- yes, 4-voice -- in D/G, tuned LM-MM+, with two switches behind the keyboard. What a pleasure for the senses!
Kind of like apples from this place: Shelburne Orchards.
Luckily, I still have access to the apples!

(I forgot to mention something in this post originally: If you call M. Gaillard today and ask him to build this box for you, he will decline.  Why?  Because he is actually not a "custom" builder -- he offers a fixed line of models and configurations, and if what you want is outside of his current parameters, he will not make it for you, even though he obviously made this accordion in the past!)

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.