As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do. The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century. It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.
Guy Klucevsek (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s. He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh. He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts. His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat. He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities. The accordion will never be the same.
Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label). He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule. He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.
Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.
The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga. His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world. Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.
On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface. What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed. To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann. You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.
Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording. Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians. Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.
The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds. Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music. There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.
Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano. No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.
The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels. William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer. Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.
Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit. The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums. Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks. Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.
The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end. Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.
As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones. Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia. This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved. Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.
The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein. Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin. Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown. All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.
Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.