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. Prologue



Accordion dreams

The only thing certain in the history of the accordion is that, as with gunpowder and water torture, the Chinese started it all. In 3,000 b.c., an emperor ordered a courtier to find a way to reproduce the song of the phoenix. The man created the sheng, which looks like Sherlock Holmes's pipe with a set of grain silos crammed in the bowl but is in fact a multistemmed flute whose bamboo chambers are fitted with reeds that vibrate when pushed by the player's breath.

How the vibrating-reed principle found its way to Europe (and then America and into my heart) is the first unsettled matter. Some hold that Marco Polo carried a sheng home along with pasta; and others say that an 18th-century French Jesuit, Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, sent one home from the missions. Given the Jesuit predilection for delivering gifts that are not pleasing to some ears, I favor Fr. Amiot.

The sound of the phoenix didn't immediately find favor in Europe, and the vibrating reed did not reach its apotheosis in the bellows accordion until early in the 19th century. Here we arrive at a knotty disagreement. Who first collided bellows, reed, and keyboard? Some hold with Cyril Damian, an Austrian of Armenian origin who lived in Paris. The Italians, however, say Damian was nothing less than Italian, while the Germans say his origins and final destination are irrelevant because he did his best work in Berlin. Others award the signal honor to Friedrich L. Buschmann, a Berliner. My money is on Friedrich, who has the name of a man who would invent the accordion.

Deiro vs. Deiro is the next large point of controversy, the question being which of the vaudevillian Deiro brothers—Guido or Pietro—was the first to perform publicly on piano accordion in the U.S. The internecine war, which the brothers carried on until their deaths more than 50 years ago, endures to this day, with reputable accordion historians (no laughter, please) siding with Pietro against a set of uncompromising Guido-backers whose website (www.guidodeiro.com) vows to "set the record straight." The site rather extravagantly claims that Guido was not only the first of the brothers to play the piano accordion on an American stage, but the first human being to utter the phrase "piano accordion."

I entered this wonderful and fractious communion in 1982, when my stepfather died, and I inherited his accordion. The instrument did not come to me by special codicil in his will, but because my brothers, sister, and mother (and a collection of in-law spouses) united in agreement that "he would have wanted you to have it." It seemed a sincere sentiment at the time, and even apt. As everyone in my musically-gifted family knows too well, I'm a dreadful player, but that hasn't stopped me from teaching myself to handle piano, guitar, fiddle, and mandolin enthusiastically; and so why not the accordion, they may have thought, an instrument already associated with appalling skills and inexplicable ardor?

What they (and I) did not foresee is that I would find I had a taste for the thing: its broad, symphonic voice; its sputtering, percussive asides; the impatience that can be heard even in its merriest notes; its ability to rule a room (or a block party); its natural aversion to pianissimo; and even its clueless uncoolness. (The accordion, I did sometimes think, was me with a keyboard attached.)

Deaf to polkas, dumb to musical notation, and blind to pop music since 1970, I focused on teaching myself to play Chassidic dances I knew from childhood, and Irish reels and waltzes I knew from recordings. And, I took care to practice when no one else was at home. If there's anything sadder than a lousy accordion player, it's a lousy accordion player whose wife and children have left him.

I remained a lousy accordionist all the years I played, though there were moments when right and left hand and all the other involved ligaments fell into lucky alliance, and a coherent sound emerged from the instrument for several minutes running, and I thought: if there were people in this room now, they'd be dancing.

Soon enough, though, I found I had taught myself everything I could teach myself, and it wasn't much or sufficient to hold my interest, though it was enough that I had become a demolition project for a real teacher, and I didn't have the time to spare for death and rebirth. I closed the case one day and did not open it for years, and when I did I found that the reed box had fallen away from the bellows, which meant that my accordion could emit no sound except for a melancholy toneless sigh. I've thought about having the thing repaired, or even buying another one. But I haven't.

Our story on artists' dreams fulfilled and dashed and ongoing begins here.

Ben Birnbaum


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