::Accordionist on a Mission in the Age of Guitars[ New York Times ]::Excerpt

A man is sitting onstage, shaking his head vigorously and giving a brisk performance of Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country," complete with its insistent, choogling chordal accompaniment and its laid-back, bluesy melody. But there is something wrong with this picture: the musician is William Schimmel, and he is playing this rock 'n' roll classic on the accordion, an instrument that, popular as it was in the early 1950's, was swept away by the guitar-brandishing bands of the rock revolution.

If Mr. Schimmel, who is 58, sees any incongruity in his playing the song — or in his renderings of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" or, for that matter, his fantasy on themes from Bizet's "Carmen" — he isn't letting on. There is, in his view, no music that can't, or shouldn't, be played on the accordion. He has made that belief the basis of a thriving career as a soloist, as an ensemble player and as a composer for the accordion. And a concertgoer is likely to run into Mr. Schimmel in all kinds of places: at new music concerts by Sequitur or North/South Consonance, or on recordings by Sting or Tom Waits.

Mr. Schimmel's belief in the supreme adaptability of the accordion is also the philosophical core of the American Accordionists' Association Accordion Master Class and Concert Series, a weekend seminar he directs every summer. This year's installment — the 10th — begins today and runs through Sunday at the Tenri Cultural Institute. A few dozen accordionists, including many of Mr. Schimmel's students, participate in the classes and concerts, which typically draw an audience of about 300.

Some of the master-class topics are eminently practical. A couple of sessions, for example, are devoted to the art of working as a strolling accordionist at restaurants and parties. Another, called "Turning Your Legit Technique Into Guacamole," explores how to make classical accordion technique useful in playing Tex-Mex music.

Punk, Goth and Elvis

But there are also sessions that make Mr. Schimmel's arrangements of Canned Heat and Blondie seem quaint. There are the sessions by Ray Rue on punk accordion, and by Kamala Sankram, a sitarist who has developed a sideline specialty in Goth accordion.

"We've invented things," Mr. Schimmel said, "that have set precedents for people who want to get into aspects of the accordion that haven't been touched. Like the punk rock accordionist I have in my series. I swear, he's the best punk accordion player in the business, simply because he plays the accordion rather well. He's not just someone putting on an accordion and doing some punk. In fact, he plays it so well that he has to do a little dumbing down to do it right. So we're having a dumbing-down seminar, called `Dumbville/Stupidville,' about how to lower the level if you're too smart.

"These are people who work closely with me all year round. Some of them study with me, some are just closely associated with me philosophically. I'm not always looking to track down the latest competition winner, or the person on a singular mission to be the Van Cliburn of the accordion, although I have nothing against them. It seems that the people I've ended up working with are people who want to approach the instrument from a unique perspective."

Often, Mr. Schimmel said, they don't know what that perspective is until he pushes them.

"Some of my students are people who studied the accordion when they were young, left it, often to become other kinds of artists — sculptors, designers, graphic artists — and then got turned on by the instrument and wanted to get back into it," he said. "When they come to me for lessons, they seem like they want to play the instrument the way they were learning it when they were 15. At first I went with that, but in most cases I would say to them: `Let's look at this from another angle. You're an artist. Why not take your own artistic discipline to the accordion and see what happens?' "

How does that work?


Published: August 27, 2004


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