Sometime last summer, around July of 2011, I developed an acute interest in accordions.
It might have come from working in an Italian restaurant for nine months. Excepting one month for Christmas, the background music never changes from day-to-day. Because of this daily playlist, I got to hear the same three accordion-centric songs nearly every shift I worked. I eventually realized what instrument it was, and that I hated those songs less than some of the others. Maybe my interest came from all the time spent listening to the local Mexi-pop radio stations in my abortive attempts to learn Spanish. Those songs are pretty catchy, even if I only caught one word in several hundred. Perhaps it was because some of my favorite songs and bands have featured accordions in some fashion. Or maybe I just watched too much Lawrence Welk as a child. Whatever the catalyst was, I suddenly thought accordions were cool. Yes, my definition of “cool” is unusual, but an accordion so versatile! You can sing along with it! You can play melody and harmony! It has a piano keyboard for melody and buttons for chords! You can walk around with it! It has a distinctive sound! And honestly everyone plays guitar, and everyone plays keyboard (at least, everyone thinks he can). But accordion? That is something far more unique.
I know that I sometimes have the attention span of a goldfish when it comes to interests. I tend to become completely absorbed by some subject for whatever period of time it takes for me to satisfy my curiosity, and then I drop it. Random whims bring me to the strangest subjects, and, when the obsession passes, I focus on the next project and the next opportunity to learn and grow. Buying books and supplies for each experiment gets expensive in a hurry. With this in mind, I set out to find a rental accordion.
This quest started as a spur-of-the-moment search between shifts at my job. I had three hours to kill that afternoon, so I thought I would check out the music store near my place of employment. I knew they rented out most stringed and band instruments, as well as offered lessons on all of them, and repaired all kinds. The very pleasant employee seemed understandably surprised that I was after an accordion. All he could offer was, “The boss’s husband plays the accordion.” That was not too helpful, so off I went to the next-nearest place, which I knew focused on guitars. While they had an abundance of guitars, along with assorted drum and keyboard bits — plus ukuleles and an upright bass — they had no love for such a strange instrument as an accordion. I expanded my search to the little music shop near the college. Again, mostly guitars, with the owner bemused that I was the second person that afternoon asking about accordions. I then got a pensive story about how he also had two people from Wisconsin in the other day. His actually helpful advice was that I check around at a nearby town with a significant population of first- and second-generation Mexican immigrants. Aha! I thought. Off I went to the library to use their internet, so I could look up the phone number of Campus Music. If anyone would have an accordion, it would be them. Apparently they had one used accordion for sale, not rent, and far out my price range. By this point it was time to go back to the job, and I had made no definite progress.
My next plan was to search online for accordion stores (or music stores that might sell accordions) in the area. “In the area,” quickly came to mean, “anything within a one-state radius”. Aside from one accordion-making company with new, pricy toys scattered in several stores a couple of hours away, I had nothing around. My car was acting strangely enough that driving around the city to test instruments for something I was only doing for fun seemed wasteful, not to mention likely to end up with me sitting by the highway with a dead car. Perhaps a pawn shop would have one, but I had nowhere where I could walk in and try out multiple styles, sizes, tunings, or brands of accordions in one store or area. Really, most of the accordion stores seem to be concentrated on the coasts, in the New York area or somewhere in California, with the occasional store in Texas or Louisiana (for the Cajun style ones). If you, like me, are in the middle of the United States, you are out of luck. I had a vague desire to take a trip to the East Coast just to check out various accordion stores — see what I mean about random obsessions?
So, knowing I would not be able to follow my ideal plan to try many accordions, get the advice of an experienced accordionist, and then rent a decent instrument, I gave up “plan A” and moved directly to “Plan Q”. Every piece of online advice I had found — which was the only advice I had, since I had no one to give advice — said to be certain to inspect an accordion in person. You should check the instrument for sticky keys and air leaks. Make sure it does not smell musty. Plus, they are fragile, the articles said, so they should not be shipped except by someone who really knows what he is doing. All sound advice that went right out the window. Since I could not rent my temporary toy, I would buy the cheapest functional one I could from the most reputable dealer on ebay. The best I would be able to do, I figured, was get my hands on a reasonably decent instrument and see if I still liked it once I finally got to play one.
I watched the auctions for a few days and I found one. It was fairly basic, but it had all 120 basses (the standard number of bass buttons in the most common configuration), with a piano keyboard on the right side. It was within my price range, just $200 for the instrument itself, with shipping another $30. Pricy for a toy, but it seemed a fair price for the chance to try one out. I purchased the instrument 29 August 2011, and began to wait.
Aug. 31 2011, the package shipped. I was so very excited. I checked the package tracking every time I went online. (Relevant xkcd comic). Finally, around eight in the evening of 6 September, several hours after I expected the postal service to deliver a package that day, my accordion arrived on my doorstep! YAY! One box, many layers of bubble wrap, and some temporary confusion about how to open the case later, I held my new accordion!
(Click the pictures to see full-sized.)
On a Monday morning a few weeks ago, on one of the first beautiful spring days this year, I went out for a walk. I was passing by the rather empty mall when I saw a car being loaded onto a trailer down the street. Something was obviously wrong with the car, because its alarm kept triggering at odd moments. It would sound a few times, then it would stop for a moment; then it would start again. Normally, something like this would hardly catch my attention. The thing is, this car alarm was unusual. It wasn’t that annoying HONK of jarring, dissonant notes that is fairly standard. Nor was it like the one by my apartment that varies, cycling through its many alarms. The changes make it somehow more annoying, when it goes from BEEP BEEP BEEP to HONK HONK to WHOOOOP WHOOOOP WHOOOOP to EEOOEEEOOEEOO and then loops back to BEEP BEEP BEEP until the owner finds his remote and finally silences the silly thing. No, this alarm honked, in steady, moderate rhythm, a chord: a major seventh, to be exact. For a car alarm, it was quite pleasant, almost, dare I say, musical. As it started going off, yet again, while I was walking away, the thought struck me how nice it is to find music in places you wouldn’t expect.
Yes, there are the times when you hear intentional music at an unexpected moment, like when you’re lying in the sun and you just barely catch strains of music floating gently on the breeze — from a passing ice cream truck, or perhaps your neighbor’s house. When you’re in the library, focused on your book, and someone’s cell phone starts playing vaguely familiar music. Suddenly recognizing the song playing in the car next to you as you wait at a red light.
However, there are also the times when I hear musical elements where there were none intended. Sure, the car alarm probably was designed to be tolerable rather than the borderline painful sound that so many are, but the combination of rhythm and tone sounded like some sort of jazz music to me, a passer-by, where it was probably just noise, very annoying noise, to the two guys trying to load the car onto the back of the tow truck.
To me, mechanical tapping, if it is constant, starts to sound like the backdrop rhythm drumbeat of a song, so I start tapping along on whatever I have at hand. I hear the hum of a computer or a fan and I find the nearest note to it and I sing along. In middle school, when we got a new school building, we had bells! It was completely foreign. Well, it took about two bells for me to ask myself, “I wonder what note that is.” Two band classes later, armed with my flute at the start of class, I discovered that it played a G5. From then on, I and a couple of my fellow flautists would race to play along with the opening bell to signal the start of band class. Or take fire alarms as another example. So many I have heard use a “beep-beep-beep-pause” pattern. Ever since we had that first fire drill in the new school building, I started jamming out to it. Granted it is difficult to jam out to something that warns of impending doom while simultaneously making your ears bleed, but I still did. Years of music, and maybe some quirk of my brain, compels me to discover the music in whatever sounds I hear.
Once, in a college music class, the conversation turned to determining what makes something “art”. Is birdsong “music”, or is it noise? Why do we commonly call a real flower “natural”, but a painting of a flower is “artwork”? What is the defining characteristic that makes something art?
The conversation went around and around for half an hour. Is this art? Is that art? Why? Bob, the teacher, played devil’s advocate, turning our definitions on their heads and inciting us to debate with each other. Finally, when us students had run out of ideas and stopped talking from confusion, Bob gave us a way to answer, “Is it art?” that has satisfied me most.
Art requires an artist.
Birdsong is music if, and only if, one considers the bird the artist of the song. A flower is art if you consider nature, or God, or whomever, as the artist. Without an artist, an object of beauty is just an everyday object, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The reverse is also true — what looks like a random happening becomes art when it was created by an artist. As much as some may say, “That looks like I spilled my coffee,” or “It’s a lightbulb, so what?” or “How is that music if he’s not playing anything?” that is the qualification. The artist created it to be art, so it is art.
Art is intentional. And so it is with music.
Find something beautiful, put a frame around it, and you have made art. By recognizing existing beauty and declaring it art, you have taken that thing from being a chance occurrence to being a masterpiece. By taking an ordinary set of sounds and listening with the right ears, you can change noise into music.
Music and Perception was about recognizing the intentional art that has been taken out of context, out of the gilded frame, and put into an unexpected place. This time, I want you to see the not-music around you that becomes music when put into the right context, when seen in the right Frame of Mind.
The silhouettes created by sunlight filtering through the trees.
The contrast of having a cigarette can next to a pot of flowers.
The changing notes of the attic fan as it powers up.
The call-and-response of the birds outside.
The shape of words on a page.
The repetitive clanks of your car when it is dying.
The subtly different pitches of the floor as it squeaks with each step.
The music of the everyday is all around you.
Keep an ear open for it.
From around fifth through tenth grades I was part of my church’s handbell choir. (If you have never seen handbells before, check out the Wikipedia article and this video.) I started in the children’s group. and then in seventh grade moved up to the adult choir. At that point, there were two of us young people there; everyone else was at least around our parent’s age. Handbell Guy’s mother, as well as mine, were both part of the choir. This was not a problem, except for the occasional time when the adults got a little rowdy and completely mortified Handbell Guy. Take note that neither of our mothers nor most of the choir (except us) were exactly “small”. These were middle-aged women and men, who generally had the extra rolls of softness to go with their years.
Our group would perform generally one Sunday each month at one or both morning services, depending on scheduling. Our standard apparel was what I call the Standard Concert Outfit — black pants or skirt and a white shirt. Sometimes we would change things up. Once we were doing something with a calypso beat, so we all wore Hawaiian shirts (never mind the geographical confusion.)
If we performed on Pentecost, which is a bigger deal in the United Methodist Church than it is most other places, we would wear red for the fire. And sometimes when we just felt like being visible, we would all wear bright colors. As it so happened, we were performing that upcoming Sunday, so at our Thursday night handbell practice we asked our director what we were wearing that particular Sunday. The exchange between the ringers and the director went something like this:
“So what are we wearing on Sunday?”
“That might be a little chilly in the sanctuary!”
Of course, by “nothing” she meant “nothing special”. However, everyone quickly started laughing and riffing on the idea. “Better make sure we have our music stands at a good height!” “What about using the table covers as dresses?” Handbell Guy’s mother, one of the larger members, added, “We’ll just use some strategically placed bells!” and held her two bells up over her chest, and then below, like some sort of musical bikini. My mother raised an eyebrow and chimed in, “You’re gonna need bigger bells!”
The noise sounded like someone set off a bomb in the room. Handbell Guy was utterly mortified at his mother and looked like he wanted to hide beneath the table. Everyone else, including me, was laughing so hard we were crying. Handbell Guy’s mother was beet red from laughter, (and probably a little embarrassment.) Even our serious members were laughing. Handbell Guy’s brother, who was reading at the other end of the hallway and down the stairs, came by to poke his head in and ask what on earth was going on. It took five full minutes to regain some fragile semblance of order and return to practicing. It was short-lived; all someone had to do was mention, “bigger bells” and we would all crack up again.
And that was how “Bigger Bells” became the pseudo-obscene running joke for a church handbell choir.