Ochwat Plays Modern Music…on the Accordion!

cover DUX1701

JANAS: Sonata Infinity for Accordion. BLECHARZ: Hypopnea. ZIMKA: Between Paths. ZAGAJEWSKI: TR13 for Accordion & Electronics. OLCZAK: Chanson for Accordion & Electronics. SCHELLER: Winter for Accordion & Electronics. PESZAT: Jenny’s Soul, or Dirk’s? #2 for Quarter-Tone Accordion / Wiesław Ochwat, acc / Dux 1701

A disclosure from my errant past: when I was in the 6th Grade, I began taking accordion lessons with the encouragement of my father, who was a Polish-American. Playing the squeezebox is kind of in the blood of many Poles since they grew up on polka bands. So I became the family’s performing monkey whenever relatives came to visit, knocking off a bevy of polkas. Before long I began adding Glenn Miller tunes as well as some popular songs of the day to my repertoire, but I began to resent playing the instrument. I had zero exposure to classical accordion music and, although I admired jazz accordionist Art van Damme, I couldn’t emulate him because I had no improvising skills. By the time I graduated from high school, I could play a few classical pieces – the Lucia Sextet and a couple of Chopin waltzes – and this is what I auditioned on when I tried to get into a local state college to study music. They weren’t impressed, and in retrospect I don’t blame them. I was, at the time, struggling to transition over to the piano, which I eventually did, but not having time to practice and since the piano was my sister’s instrument, not mine, I didn’t get much time on it. So in a way, I envy those musicians like Wiesław Ochwat who apparently started playing classical accordion. This seems to be a cultural thing in Poland, but it is certainly NOT a cultural thing here in the United States.

Paweł Janas’ Sonata Infinity is not listed as being for a quarter-tone accordion, but that is clearly what Ochwat is playing here; the music swoons through microtonal passages that are clearly impossible to play on a standard squeezebox. The music, needless to say, is amorphic, only exhibiting a few passages in what you could call a strict rhythm. Ochwat plays chords on the buttons using a bellows shake (see? I haven’t forgotten the terms) while dropping in a few notes, some of them definitely microtonal, on the keys. The clearly isn’t the “Beer Barrel Polka.”

Actually, I found the music quite fascinating once I got over my prejudice against the instrument itself, but some how I still don’t think that, even if I had been able to play something like this back in 1968, I would have been granted admittance to be a music major at that New Jersey college. The four movements blend seamlessly into each other, making them sound like one continuous piece with different sections, although the last movement (titled simply “Finale”) is the most rhythmically edgy of them, set in a fast 6/8 and including some dazzling right-hand (keyboard) runs.

Wojciech Blecharz’ Hypopnea, as the liner notes tell us, “owes its uniqueness to a particularly interesting conception, which refers to an unconven­tional way of generating the accordion sound.” It opens with very low bass notes, emphasizing these for several bars with occasional interjections in a higher range. Here, too, the bellows shake is used. Also from the notes, we learn that the inspiration for this piece was that “Blecharz suffered from breath dysfunction.” So he transferred his breathing problems to the bellows of the accordion. It put me in mind of the old Robert Klein joke about putting a harmonica in the mouth of someone who was dying so that when they expelled their last breath, the harmonica would reflect that with a long-drawn-out note, except that here Blecharz just keeps up his spasmodic and sometimes irregular breathing patterns and transforms them to the instrument. I didn’t care much for this piece as a composition, but it certainly was entertaining in a strange sort of way.

Maciej Zimka’s Between Paths is more direct music, in fact it, too has a definite rhythmic pattern and makes use of the two melodic manuals of the instrument which differ slightly in volume and timbre. (The accordion has several “stops” on it, not as many as an organ but enough to provide some difference of sound.) The problem here was that the musical material was too repetitive, not varying until the middle of the piece. The final section was also quite interesting, being in an irregular meter and played with gusto by Ochwat.

The remainder of the pieces on this CD combine the accordion with electronics, thankfully presented in a tasteful manner in Arthur Zagajewski’s TR13. Here, the soft, low-level electronic hum is all you hear for the first two and a half minutes, although there are some slight variants in microtonality. When the accordion does enter, it does so softly and also in a sub-contra register, slowly starting to move up in pitch around the 3:28 mark. I found that this piece had a strong hypnotic effect on me as a listener, with higher sustained pitches slowly added to the texture as it went along, although at 13:01 it seemed a bit long.

Krsysztof Olczak’s Chanson for accordion and electronics is clearly a busier and more complex piece, combining a bit of a melody with strange, distorted sounds from the accordion and bizarre electronic grunts. Truly a strange piece but also a very creative one; he also includes the sound of someone walking through the performance space at one point. It’s hard to describe, but once you’ve heard it you won’t forget it.

Przemysław Scheller’s Winter is a piece akin to TR13 although with some loud outbursts to contrast with the softer sounds, and not played so low in pitch. In addition, Scheller admits to having the image of the sun gleaming on fallen snow in his mind when writing the piece, so it is a sort of descriptive work. The pitch slowly and gradually rises as the piece goes on, then begins falling microtonally to create a weird sound.

Piotr Peszat’s Jenny’s Soul, or Dirk’s? #2 opens with a man asking, “What is the most popular thing in the world?” to which another voice answers, “Music.” The first voice says, “No,” but he won’t say what it is, he just keeps asking the same question over and over. Another male voices says that he likes to talk to people deep into the night. “Music” comes up again. All the while, we hear sporadic, broken electronic and accordion sounds come and go before the accordion finally erupts into a bizarre atonal series of licks around the 2:20 mark. I can’t say that I even understood this piece, let alone liked it. It’s experimental, but I don’t think it coalesces or goes anywhere.

A sort of hit-and-miss album, then, although clearly very different from the norm!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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