The Difference is in the Intent

Intention

 

I’m applying for a place on a music summerschool next year and one of the questions on the application form is “Please describe your playing and your music”. That may sound like a fairly simple question, which of course it isn’t. I’ve spent a few days with the question running through my mind, and I’ve got a typically me sort of answer.

When I think about how I approach a tune, I want the way I play it to reflect something of myself. Of course everyone will say that a tune is more than the notes on the page. It’s in the way you interpret the tune and the way that you choose to play it. All fairly uncontroversial. You can draw on all of the techniques that you know – for the accordion there are those little cuts and twiddles, embellishments, different bass techniques, holding onto notes and double-stopping, using treble chords, emphasising particular beats, playing legato or staccato, vamping basses, droning basses, giving the tune a bit of swing, dropping out particular phrases, changing the dynamics… the list is quite long. That’s before you even consider adding in other instruments into the arrangement.

All of these different techniques are very helpful to create variety and if you’ve mastered the techniques you can apply them wherever and whenever you choose. They allow you to give depth to music you play and give your interpretation of a tune a bit of personality. Some people will complain at this point, saying “yes, but there are certain tunes which are just played in a particular way”. That’s fine too, but it doesn’t help me answer the question.

Over the last couple of years, when I started learning or arranging a tune, I used to try to find ways to make it different from the ways anyone else played it, to give the tune a bit of a personal expression. I didn’t think about why I was doing this, it just seemed a natural way to approach a tune so that I could play it as “authentically me”. I would deliberately find a way of arranging a tune which was unusual. No-one else plays it that way, so that must be good. I’m being unique and giving it an interpretation.

I think to a degree I’ve been missing the point.

I still draw on all the different techniques in making my arrangements, but I’m thinking much more critically about how I arrange a tune these days. When I start a tune, I try to imbue it with meaning from the very start – I think I touched on this in an earlier blog post about the way I play Trollpolska. Trying to convey a meaning through a tune is by no means an easy thing to do, and takes me a long time to do. I used to play the Bear dance just like everyone else did (basically, just fast and loud), until I thought a bit more about the tune. What would it be like to actually watch a dancing bear? It would be quite a horrible and disturbing thing to watch – a bear controlled and subdued, half-starved, its teeth broken and claws ripped out. A broken animal. I wouldn’t express that image with an aggressive, fast loud tune. (Incidentally, you can hear a version of how I’ve chosen to arrange the Bear Dance here ). Thinking about the meaning I want to convey has become centrally important for me to try to do and it has changed the way I play.

Imagine that those techniques which you’ve got at hand are not embellishments to dress up your shiny lovely tune. Imagine instead that they’re tools that you can use to construct a meaning in your tune. At one point you use a hammer, another you use a plane or sandpaper or a chisel. These all shape the tune you have in your hand. You’re shaping the tune to your design, not concealing the tune in pretty decorations.  This doesn’t completely describe my music or how I play, but it comes close to a broad approach. The difference I think, is in the intent.

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No Map, No Sherpa

no-map

 

Here I am. Where to start? I used to be in a ceilidh band. We formed maybe three years ago, maybe nearer to four, out a group of Morris musicians. I quite enjoyed the first couple of years. It felt like we were progressing, doing something interesting and playing with some fun arrangements of tunes. Of course, I’m writing all this in the past tense, so you’ve probably guessed that I’m no longer part of the band. And that I didn’t really enjoy the best part of the last year of playing with them.

It’s coming up to nearly a year since I left the band. (Incidentally, I realised that the last gig I played with them was the four years to the day when I got my first ever melodeon.). I’m in a much happier situation now than I was back then. I’ve even got my first paid performance under my belt, which solicited the response “Solo? Wow”. Fact is that I would have to have played nine gigs with the ceilidh band to cover what I made playing three 45-minute sets. And I didn’t have to lug around and set up a PA system either! Oh, the sheer Joy!

Anyway, getting back on track… It’s been almost a year since that last awful gig and I find myself out in the wilderness. As I drift off to sleep thinking about things I often imagine a wild open field that I’ve wandered into. It’s bordered by a drystone wall over which I have just climbed. The field is so wide and open that the only boundary I’m aware of is that wall. I don’t even look back to see if I can climb back over it, the wideness of the vista in front of me is so compelling.

I start walking slowly. I don’t see any landmarks. The only thing I can make out is that there is an incline some way away. I don’t know how far away it is, but for the moment I’m enjoying breathing in the fresh clean air. There’s a slight breeze but it’s more refreshing than anything else. This is where I find myself with my music. I have no one to set rules for me. There are no roads to dictate my direction of travel. There are no milestones or measures of distance. I have a clean, open landscape through which to travel. Imagine how exhilarating that is! I have total freedom.

Here’s where things get a bit more complicated. I don’t want to wander around aimlessly. Strictly speaking, I can’t get lost. I’m not going to try to find that wall and climb back over it. The other side is full of dark, satanic mills after all. But I can go round in circles or even worse, not go anywhere. Standing still and admiring the view is an option, but not an attractive one. It’s a bit scary being out here on my own. It’s sometimes lonely. Often lonely even. I don’t know if I’m going in the right direction. Sometimes I do sit down and don’t go anywhere, tired with the walking and not sure whether I’ve come to the right place. I still know that I’ve done the right thing starting to explore what’s in front of me.

The Story Of Trollpolska

I’ve learned a new tune, called Trollpolska, from notes I found on a website called The Session. It took me a couple of months to learn the tune and figure out what basses I wanted to play where and then get it refined enough to be able to play it with as few mistakes as possible. I like to try to think about the tunes I’m playing and understand them as much as possible beyond the notes on the written page.

I knew that the Trollpolska is a Swedish dance tune, but other than that I knew nothing about it. My initial thoughts led directly to imagining two trolls dancing around in the Swedish forests. A bit obvious, isn’t it? It’s a bit of  a “lumpy” tune, so you can play it as if you’re playing for two trolls dancing in the woods. I had considered the idea of an internet troll sitting at a computer in a darkened room, but that just didn’t seem to fit very well. As I played around with the tune, an image came into my head. An idea and a picture, like something from a children’s illustrated story book, of a man and a woman dancing in a log cabin in the Swedish forests.

I’m sure I’ve heard the cruel playground insult of someone being called an “ugly troll”. I imagined these two people to have been given that label by their community or society. They’re not physically ugly at all, but ugly in the sense that they’re just different – they stand out from the crowd. They are individuals who don’t always follow the flock and have the capacity to think for themselves. This created a little story for me, and a different way to play the tune…

I try to start out quite gently, as these two people are gentle souls. As I progress through the tune, I become sad at the situation in which these two imaginary people find themselves; I try to play the tune mournfully. Finally the injustice of the situation dawns on me and the anger at this injustice arises – I play the tune very strongly and loudly, as if screaming out in protest.

I’m not sure if this makes much sense to any but a few people – I chose this tune to play in a small band at Burwell Bash Summerschool and described my thoughts to my fellow bandmates. I’m not sure if they understood what I was talking about or if they were politely humouring me!

 

The baggage that comes with the diatonic accordion in the UK

I’ve come back from Burwell Bash having had a hugely enjoyable week. I feel I engaged with things much more this year than I did last year. I’ve grown quite a bit over the last year, so coming back to Burwell is a good way of comparing things annually.

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Don’t call me a melodeon player!

 

 

My playing still has a long way to go, and I know what things I want to work on over the coming year so that I’m still more prepared for next year and hopefully I’ll continue to develop musically. That sounds awfully pretentious doesn’t it? It’s not meant to be. I picked up on something of a theme at Burwell this year, something which I hadn’t picked up on last year, and something which I want to explain.

It struck me that our instrument comes with so much baggage. Even its name is controversial. Is it an accordion? Is it a melodeon? Even such a facile thing as deciding what to call it can spark furious rage! I’ve decided to move away from calling it a melodeon, and I call it an accordion. Sometimes I’ll call my D/G boxes English Accordions while my G/C is a French Accordion. Sometimes I’ll just call them diatonic accordions or maybe Dias. Why should this matter?

To my mind, the Melodeon is an instrument used by Morris Musicians. Here’s where I need to be careful… There are many exceptional musicians who play for Morris Dancing. They have their own style of playing and consider what they want to do with a tune. They are experienced at both leading the music and following the lead of others. They can play collaboratively and will do their best to give you a part in the music. They are sensitive to the strengths and subtleties of other instruments and will adapt their playing to the instruments they’re playing with and the abilities of the people they’re playing with. They’re flexible, open-minded and generous as musicians. Like I say – exceptional musicians. Sadly, many people don’t come into contact with these people because they are the exception.

The perception of the majority of Melodeon players is very different to those exceptional players. They may or may not have excellent technique, but there’s an arrogance, inflexibility and selfishness about them as musicians. The idea of not leading a tune is one that is alien to them, as is the idea of being sensitive to other instruments that they play with. So many times I’ve been around them when they gather in large numbers (say at Melodeons At Whitney) it’s like being in a room full of soloists. There is no attempt to play generously and share their music. This idea gets lost as the melodeon players play more obscure tunes faster and faster. Try to join in with some rhythmic chording or a countermelody and you get shot looks like daggers.

This is just a tiny part of the picture when I look at the perception of melodeon players. How do I, as a diatonic accordion player, begin to show other musicians that I’m not like that? That I actually care about sharing music? That I can adapt my playing to be as sympathetic as possible to the other instruments in the group? That I’m not going to stomp all over the tune? How do I show other musicians that there are other accordionists who can do the same? And how do I fit what I can do as an accordionist into the wider culture of folk musicians in a way that is not just as an accompanist, but that I am happy to fulfil that role too?

This is the baggage that we, as diatonic accordion players, have to deal with. I’m not sure how to approach getting away from the perceptions of melodeonists, but I suspect that the old adage “show, don’t tell” is going to be my first route. I’m fairly sure that the Melodeon Stasi will be livid at me for criticising them. That’s fine and I’ll just leave them be. I’m not after reassurance or acceptance from them. Authenticity has always been an important thing for me, and I can’t be authentic if I’m not free to explore different ideas or ways of playing.

Anyway, lots of things to think about.  Maybe I’ll have a chance to reflect and see if anything presents itself as a solution…

Accordions, concertinas, Burwell Bash and the occasional banjo thrown in for good measure…

I always start blogs thinking that I’ll update them regularly, then I find myself distracted, too busy, or just too lazy… Anyway, I’ll try to revive this one and see where I get.

Accordions

A selection of the Reluctant Folkie accordions…

The last year has seen lots of musical developments for me. I’ve started playing more seriously and expanded my range of instruments which now feature four D/G Accordions, one G/C Accordion (for playing French tunes), a C#/D Accordion (for playing Irish tunes), a G/C/+ Anglo Concertina, Irish Tenor Banjo, Vintage Button Accordion and Viola. That’s quite a lot really isn’t it? I’ve not really done anything at all with the viola or button accordion, so I should probably work on those in the next year or so, if I get time… The Banjo (it’s a Clareen Clarenbridge model if you’re interested) is huge amounts of fun to play, but progress is really slow and I don’t think I’ll be using it for anything other than my own enjoyment in the foreseeable future. I was inspired to buy a banjo after listening to Julien Cartonnet playing with Topette! – just fantastic! Oh, I’ve got a couple of little organettos as well, but I’ve not really done much with those either!

 

On the accordion side of things, I’m very much moving away from playing for morris dancing and am beginning to discover something of a style of my own. It’s funny when I hear myself play a tune in that old oompah style – I can’t help but cringe! I’m trying to play a bit more fluidly and with more interest, expression and variation. I put a lot of that down to going to the Burwell Bash summerschool last year. I came back ruined! Anything I tried to play sounded really lumpy and awful, so I started playing around with the accordion, learning new bass styles, thinking about different and more expressive ways of playing tunes. I think my playing has developed quite a lot since then. I’m bringing new influences in too – like the G/C French style of playing. I always thought that there was not much point in buying a G/C instrument as all I would do is play the same tunes in a different key – how wrong I was! The style is very different to playing the English D/G, with many of the tunes played in the higher octave at the top end (or bottom end depending on how you look at it) of the keyboard. Anyway, that’s all very technical – French tunes are lots of fun! Well the two or three that I’ve learned are fun anyway!

Burwell was definitely the highlight of 2015 for me. I got to spend a week learning tunes from Andy Cutting (he won the BBC2 Folk Awards Best Folk Musician for the third time this year!) and got to play with some fantastic musicians – there were violins, flutes, whistles, guitars, saxophones and even a euphonium! A lot of the week was taken up with single instrument classes, but there were also two mixed band groups – one large group led by the tutors and one small group of about 4 or 5 musicians. I think I enjoyed those the most as there’s so much scope for interesting arrangements and a chance to play with people you wouldn’t usually have the chance to.

I’m really looking forward to going to Burwell again this year – a little over a week to go! There are lots of other developments which have taken place over the last year, but I need to write a separate post for them – they’re really big, life-changing developments and deserve their own post. In the meantime, you can find some of the tunes which I’ve recorded on the Reluctant Folkie Soundcloud page – The version of Morning Star was the first tune which I played around with after coming back from Burwell last year!

 

 

New squeezebox is on its way!

It’s not long until my birthday, and I’m getting quite excited…. My wonderful wife has bought me a new box. It’s described as a 1¼ – row melodeon in the key of G. A little bit of research has had some interesting results….

It’s actually an Italian Organetto and is used for Southern Italian folk tunes! Tarantellas seem to be very popular to play on the organetto. There’s a lot of fast playing across the quarter row,and there are only two bass buttons to play with.

Superficially, it looks like a pared-down row-and-a-bit melodeon. I think this is where some English folk musicians (with the exception of professional players) might get confused. You probably can play a limited number of English tunes on it, but that would be missing the point. I’ve got D/G melodeons for English tunes, so I’m going to be learning a few tarantellas on the new box when it arrives….

It’s going to be an interesting expansion to my instrument collection, and if I can learn to play it correctly, should be lots of fun! I’ve had a look on YouTube for some videos and found lots of very fast tunes… There’s one player called Luca Rossi who is astounding!

I’ll take some photos and maybe even record a tune or two when I’m good enough! I keep threatening to make some YouTube videograms, but never seem to get round to it. As soon as I get the camera running, I completely freeze!

In the meantime, here’s a link to Luca Rossi playing… https://youtu.be/hxyrpbdH5OA

(I’m scribbling this on my phone, and I’ve not yet worked out how to embed YouTube clips….)

May is one of the busiest months for a Morris Musician!

Well, I can include April in there too! The season started off with a melodeon workshop run by John Spiers (he of Bellowhead fame…) in April. It was organised by the Lewes Folk Club who have regular workshops on a really broad range of folk music techniques. This one was about using treble chords on the melodeon in tunes, and it was brilliant!

There were about 20 of us on the workshop, so quite a decent number. We had been given two tunes to learn in advance, one jig and one hornpipe. Both were really nice tunes, but not what I’d call easy. Definitely not beginner ones. We went through the scales of chords on the right hand in the first session and then quickly ran through the tunes before lunch. The afternoon was all about putting the chords into the two tunes.

I can’t really recall everything that we did during the day as it was about a month ago and I can never remember everything that goes on when I’m in an intense workshop. I remember putting my melodeon down and taking lots of notes – there were so many people noodling away that it was impossible to hear what I was doing anyway. All I would have achieved is adding to the cacophony!

One thing that I had expected the workshop to focus on was how to play chords as accompaniment to other instruments. I hadn’t actually thought about adding chords in to tunes that you play without any other accompaniment, which was what this workshop was aiming for. More like accompanying yourself I suppose? Although I haven’t used the chords when I’m just playing on my own, I’ve taken a lot away from the workshop and started experimenting with the new techniques. I’m now playing chord accompaniment to the accordion on some of the tunes in the ceilidh band and it feels like the sound has definitely rounded out and become more expressive.

It’s a very exciting time for me and I’m looking forward to messing around with some more tunes to find out what sort of sounds we can achieve. For the moment though, I’m going to have to concentrate on music for the morris sides – that’s another blog to come soon!