Monday, April 2, 2012

"Big" boxes still distinctively "melodeonistic"

Surveying the internet content on diatonic accordions, I have encountered the frequent refrain that 3 row button accordions give the player extra versatility -- at a price. Due to the greater ease with which they play chromatic passages, and because of the availability of notes in both bellows directions, they sacrifice the "charm" of the simpler one- and two-row diatonic boxes.  The unsuspecting player, so the argument goes, will find his playing "smoothed out" and will soon gravitate toward music that should never have been played on a melodeon.

And then there is the reality.  Many of these boxes aren't all that "big."  The distinctive effect of rapid bellows changes is still available.  The bisonoric basses add harmonic interest.  And even the biggest of these expanded-range boxes are still centered on "home" keys and related minor keys in a way that, like a one-row accordion, gives different weight to each note.

If you don't believe it, ask Cyril Roche. (Video from YouTube.)


  1. Yes, the conversation has morphed into a 2-row good, 3-row bad, "we don't like the star-bellied sneetches" sort of thing, which is unfortunate. The point I was making when I brought it up -- in the Neil Postman post -- was that the boundaries of a music are often developed with "input" from the instruments that the music is played on. So, for example, Tex-mex music has a certain flavor to it because its icon instrument is the three-row, and that music might sound different if the instrument of choice were a two-row. The case can be used as a disproof,though, because the instrument comes with bass reeds, which are hardly ever utilized and often removed.

    Just as statistical information can never tell you how an individual case will unfold, this argument says nothing about what an individual player can or will do on a specific instrument.

  2. Right-o!
    If you look at the simplest melodeon, the single-row, 10 treble, 2 bass box, it is remarkable how much variation there can be. In Cajun music, the instrument has been used to develop a very specific style of play, where a C box plays predominantly in G, and where double-stops (which the Cajun players often call "blends") are used to create a very specific feel, especially because the thirds of the tonic and dominant chords are slightly flattened (so that they are "true" thirds). In Quebec, the same setup -- 10 treble, 2 bass -- has been used to completely different ends. Very few double stops but rapid rolls and cuts, used to play in a variety of keys including minor keys and "gapped" keys -- i.e., D boxes play in A major, substituting other notes whenever a G# occurs in the tune.
    In Cajun music, fiddles are frequently tuned down a whole step to accommodate the C accordions; in Quebec, most one-row accordions are in D to accommodate the fiddles...

  3. My point is that the Postman thesis is true -- to a certain extent; if taken too far, I think that it can introduce a blind spot regarding other factors that play a major role in the evolution of a given kind of music or style.

  4. Absolutely. Since Postman's book was about technology, of course his thesis focused on the technology. In his book "Crazy Talk Stupid Talk," Postman discusses the "Semantic Environment," which includes this near-infinite variety of factors. Why do Irish flute players model their ornaments on the fiddle, but whistle players model their ornaments on the pipes? The technology of the two is pretty dang close. What other factors are operating there? What qualities are being valued? Why?

  5. I think that the players are exposed (to varying degrees) to various forms of music that are, strictly speaking, beyond the genres in which they are playing, and this colors their sense of what sounds "right" in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This, in turn, plays an enormous role in the choices the players make about what to include, and what not to include, in the music they are making. To a certain degree, it is part of their decision to desire, and ultimately to use, an extended diatonic instrument like a three-row, G/C/acc + 18 bass Handry, etc.

    As for the Irish flute players/whistle players modeling ornaments on fiddle and pipes respectively, I'm sure that that is the way the difference in ornament use is commonly expressed, but to look at it more closely, is it not the case that the "modeling" on the other instruments is something in the past, and that for the most part, flute players are modeling their ornaments on other flute players (and if you go back far enough you will find relatively few, but somehow important flutists modeling on fiddlers), and whistlers model on other whistlers (and if you go back far enough, ultimately a small number of, again, disproportionately influencial whistlers modeling on pipes). Certainly it is not the case that when I learn whistle and start learning ornaments, I listen to exclusively pipe music to get the idea of what sounds "right." I'm probably mostly listening to other, accomplished and commercially recorded, whistle players.

  6. Again, individual players do things for reasons other than the collective reason. For example, Joe Burke (B/C box pioneer) said that one of the reasons he latched onto the B/C system was because it allowed him to play fiddle-like ornaments -- he was modeling his box playing on fiddle practice. Future box players -- many of them -- model their playing on Joe Burke, and not, necessarily, fiddle players. I think we can still say, "B/C box players model their playing on fiddle music."

    I think we're agreeing, though, that generalizations are generalizations because they look for central tendencies, rather than the agreement of every data point.