The Accordion (& the Outsider) By Pauline Oliveros
Calling All Accordions! If there is an accordion in your attic,
basement or closet why not get it out and let it breathe with you?
Accordions are good friends and get lonely sitting around unused! They
want to be played just like any other good instrument.
Get the accordion out of its isolation, put it on and just depress the
air button. Let the air go through as you pull and push the bellows in
a smooth arc and just listen to the air. This is the breath of the
instrument. Let your own breath join with the accordion.
After the breathing duet gently depress a button or a key (just one or
the other at first) and listen to the tone join the breathing.
Here is a piece that I wrote for myself to explore breathing with the
Horse Sings From Cloud
For solo or ensemble
Hold a tone until you no longer desire to change it.
When you no longer desire to change the tone then change it.
Pauline Oliveros – 1979
© Copyright Deep Listening Publications 1979
I have played the accordion for more than sixty years. I consider my
accordion to be an amplification of my breath. The ancestor of the
accordion the 4,000-year-old Chinese sheng (mouth organ) is
breath-driven with a mouthpiece attached to a gourd resonator with free
metal reeds vibrating inside of vertical bamboo pipes fixed into the
gourd. There are finger holes in the gourd for changing pitches. The
fingers pick up vibration from the gourd. The sheng is a beautifully
integrated instrument for breath and touch.
The accordion (invented in 1840 in Vienna) with its keyboard/buttons
and bellows remove the reeds from direct human breath, but its still a
wind instrument with air-driven free reeds. The keys, when pressed,
open valves that let the bellows blow air through the reeds to cause
them to vibrate. I synchronize my breath with the air in the bellows as
the reeds come to life and sound.
Playing the accordion has influenced my interest in breath-oriented
music - that is pieces that are shaped by breath-like rhythms that flow
organically as illustrated by Horse Sings From Cloud.
The instrument also lends itself very well to sharp articulations or
accents so that dance rhythms and polyrhythms found in conjunto and
tango are natural to the accordion as well.
I started learning accordion when I was nine years old. I was
fascinated when my piano playing mother brought one home to learn in
order to increase her earning power. Accordion was very popular in the
1940s. There were very large accordion schools in Houston Texas, where
I was born in 1932.
I quickly learned the basics of music with melody with bass and chord
accompaniment. I soon could play many tunes - especially World War II
songs like "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer" or "White Cliffs of
Dover" and many others.
A very significant experience for me in my first year of study was
performing in the rodeo in the Houston Coliseum in a 100-piece
accordion band. The overall sound of the band remains with me today.
The sound was powerful and resonated throughout the Coliseum. That was
the first experience that turned my attention to the timbre of the
instrument and especially of many instruments sounding together
The accordion is rich in overtones. Subtly varying key/button and air
pressures bring out different overtone structures for each pitch. The
use of registers to open and close ranks of reeds increases the
richness of possibilities. Unison reed sets tuned a few cents apart
cause even more commotion with the overtones and beat frequencies.
After about a year of instruction from a rather limited teacher, I
began to lose interest. I needed more stimulation and challenge. In
1945 my new teacher returned from serving in the Army. Dr. Willard
Palmer (Bill) rekindled the fire of passion for the accordion and
challenged me in many new ways. I began to progress again.
According to the Web site Mr. Smarty Pants Knows: "Professor
Willard Palmer is credited with having the longest continuous master's
degree program in accordion ever (it was at the University of Houston).
Palmer also appeared on the television show, "America's Funniest
Videos" playing the "Beer Barrel Polka" on the accordion. It fell apart
in the middle of the song."
My teacher showed two sides with his accordion playing: the serious
musician seeking to elevate the accordion into the Classical canon and
the commercial comedic musician seeking to make some money to support
his family. Eventually Bill took up the harpsichord, got a PhD in
musicology and became an expert on baroque and classical ornamentation.
He edited Bach and Mozart for Alfred Publications and wrote the
Palmer-Hughes accordion method books with his former student and
partner Bill Hughes. These books were formulated while I was studying
with him and have served thousands of students through the years.
I entered the University of Houston as an accordion major In Palmer's
program. During that time I learned to play baroque and classical solo
pieces. I also participated in an accordion quartet playing Haydn
string quartets. Sometimes I filled in for the lack of string players
in the University orchestra. I also played popular music, folk and jazz
to earn my living. I began teaching accordion privately when I was
fifteen years old.
One special thing Palmer taught me was to listen for difference tones.
(The difference between two frequencies sounding simultaneously).
Difference tones fascinated me and later became the basis of my early
electronic music I of IV - 1966, which was released in 1968 by
Odyssey, Bye Bye Butterfly (1965) was released in 1975 by Arch
Records. These have been reissued on cd along with other titles that
are just now being released after thirty years on the shelf.
My awareness of timbre increased as I joined my high school concert
band as a French Horn player. No accordions were allowed in traditional
musical ensembles. The accordion is an outsider instrument invented
after the Baroque and Classical periods so there is no repertoire
except for transcriptions from the Western classical canon. I tried to
imitate the timbres I perceived in band and orchestra with my
accordion. I could do this through air pressure and touch.
My interest in composition increased with Palmer's encouragement. I
left the University of Houston to seek a composition mentor after three
years of study and went to San Francisco. There I met and studied with
the composer Robert Erickson. I realized that composition was my path.
Performing took second place for a while as I plunged into writing
music and making electronic music.
In the '60s I helped to found the San Francisco Tape Music Center with
Ramon Sender Barayon and Morton Subotnik. We made our taped electronic
music there and also created a concert series. Soon we were creating
many pieces that involved performers with tape or live electronics.
Additionally we engaged in group improvisation.
I began to improvise with my accordion and to perform again. Ramon
wrote a solo accordion piece with tape accompaniment for me called
Desert Ambulance. I wrote Duo for Accordion and
Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obligato for David Tudor and
me. Desert Ambulance had about twenty-five performances with
visuals by light artist Anthony Martin.
David and I performed the "See Saw" version of the Duo with the
see saw conceived and constructed by Elizabeth Harris. She also
constructed a mobile suspended above the center of the see saw for
Ahmed the mynah bird and created choreography for the movement of the
see saw. The see saw went up and down, clockwise and counterclockwise
and had seats that spun around as well. The varieties of motion
effectively distributed the sounds of our instruments spatially.
Anthony Martin created a light score for the Duo as well.
The Duo had only two performances until it was revived in the
late 80s for a show in San Francisco. I performed the piece with Gordon
Mumma without the mynah bird (much to my chagrin) and without the light
score. The Duo seems to have a long life in memory as people
continue to mention it to me after almost forty years since the
premiere performances. Toru Takemitsu, Toshi Ichianagi, Kuni Haru
Akiyama and John Cage were in the audience.
One highlight of the San Francisco Tape Music Center performances was
the premiere of Terry Riley's In C for Instruments at our 321
Divisadero concert hall. Terry had intended In C as a piece for
his friends to play together. I played accordion, Mort played clarinet,
Terry played flute. Steve Reich played as well. None of us could keep
together so the piano pulse was added. All of us felt that Terry had
created something very special even though we didn't play the piece
very well. Alfred Frankenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle
hailed In C as a 20th Century masterpiece. From the perspective
of almost forty years and innumerable performances later, Frankenstein
was right! I played in many of those performances with my accordion
through the years. Actually I would like to hear it with a 100-piece
accordion band - what a sound that would make.
When I left my teaching position at the University of California, San
Diego, I was considered a composer of electronic music rather than a
performer. I kept my hand in with an improvisation ensemble I organized
outside of the University.
Leaving a full professorship with tenure in 1981 was a leap of faith. I
moved from San Diego to upstate New York to live in back of Zen
Mountain Center in Mt. Tremper. I lived in an A-frame in a meadow that
looked at the mountain. There was no running water and just enough
electricity to run my first computer, which I bought in 1983. I sent
out a postcard with a picture of me playing the accordion noting that I
was available for concerts, lectures, workshops and consultations.
It was important for me to assert my identity as an accordion player at
the time. For me the accordion is a symbol of the outsider. Accordion
music is associated with the working class and had no place in the
establishment musical organizations representing the Western musical
canon. As a composer I also felt like an outsider. I realized that to
earn a living outside of the university I would have to perform. I
embraced my old friend the accordion.