Sunday, 23 January 2011

"You'll like this, it has buttons"

Seeing the above clip, I couldn't help thinking of Part 7 of Sydney Padua's funny and erudite steampunk comic strip Lovelace and Babbage vs The Organist (now complete - check it out). Inspired by Charles Babbage's hatred of street musicians, it pits the crimefighting pair against a fiendish musical plot, and at one point Charles Babbage is tormented by Charles Wheatstone with an English Concertina:

Wheatstone: "Anyways, look, you'll like this, it has buttons!"
Babbage: "FIENDISH!"

Anyway, I'd never heard of the accordina before, probably because it's such a niche instrument. Essentially a mouth-blown equivalent of the right-hand section of a three-row button-key chromatic accordion, it was invented and made around 60-70 years ago by André Borel in Paris. It wasn't wildly popular, and manufacturing stopped in the 1970s. But it recently experienced a revival on the French jazz circuit via exponents such as Francis Jauvin and Richard Galliano, and a company in the South of France headed by Marcel Dreux is manufacturing new instruments (not cheap - €1250, somewhat over £1000).

Dreux's, a French/English site, is a good roundup of the accordina and its history. Another French site, la boite d'accordéon, spreads the topic somewhat wider to accordéons à vent (wind accordions) in general, with the history of the accordina and its precursors. Pat Missin's harmonica website goes into detail on many of these such as the harmonicor, Hohnerette and Psallmelodikon (some of these things look straight out of Jack Vance's SF story The Moon Moth - see Musical miscellany). This brings us full circle to Wheatstone, since probably the earliest modern button-keyed free reed instrument is another one he invented, the Symphonium.

Addendum: I've just ordered a new accordion. For the past thirty years I've played a 24-bass piano accordion, which is quite nice - lightweight and adequately versatile - for general busking-style playing. But lately I've practiced more intensively and become aware of its limitations, so decided to upgrade. I opted for a secondhand bayan - the Russian-style chromatic button accordion. I'm aware that its "B system" note layout has a reputation for difficulty; but I like the tone of these instruments a lot, and fancied a challenge. Awaiting arrival now.

- Ray

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