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Bernard Stepien deconstructs the accordion's music for an intent IMOO audience

Bernard Stepien deconstructs his accordion. ©Alayne McGregor, 2015

The Deconstructed Accordion Conspiracy
Bernard Stepien, David Broscoe, Scott Warren
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO)
Black Squirrel Books
Sunday, May 3, 2015

See photos from this concert

This concert was dubbed The Deconstructed Accordion Conspiracy, and, at the start, a listener asked Bernard Stepien to explain the title. So he efficiently deconstructed his accordion and showed off its innards (to the great interest of and with a modicum of laughter from the audience) – and then slid it back together again and started playing.

It showed how comfortable Stepien is with this instrument. It's a Hohner Morino model from the late '50s, with a keyboard on one side and buttons on the other which give it the same capabilities as a piano. He started playing it as a youngster back in the 1960s, but then revived it in an improvised music context about seven years ago.

Musicians like Richard Galliano and Pauline Oliveros have moved the accordion into a jazz and improvised music context in the last few decades. But Stepien has done a great deal of his own explorations, too, into altered harmonies inspired by his studies with Cecil Taylor and Billy Robinson. He's primarily been playing the accordion together with Ottawa saxophonist David Broscoe in a duo called “The Accordion Conspiracy”.

This concert took that duo's music in both simpler and more complicated directions (hence the “deconstructed”), and added percussionist/sound artist Scott Warren, who has frequently played with both musicians in different groups.

The first set was billed as a solo show by Stepien, but in fact all three were up on stage, although Broscoe and Warren only participated to a noticeable extent on the last piece. Stepien performed six of his own compositions: five new tunes, and one re-thought Accordion Conspiracy classic.

The music ranged from quiet to dramatic, with folkloric elements in the first piece, “Easter Bunny”. The pieces were generally more conversational in tone; Stepien frequently repeated and evolved motifs for dramatic effect. In “Easter Eggs”, which he said was depicting someone eating an Easter egg, he made the accordion sing like a church organ and then moved to punctuated and vibrating short lines.

Several of the pieces were inspired by the intensely frigid winter Ottawa has recently emerged from: “A -29C Night” was solemn and almost shivery; “Last Flake” was a more minimalist piece exploring variations on different musical patterns (much like snowflakes).

On the last piece of the first set, both Warren and Broscoe added looped sounds (deep drones from Broscoe, muffled screams from Warren) to accent a simple melody on accordion.

Stepien said in advance that the second set would include improvisations based on recorded conversations, and indeed Warren did play many looped sounds of people talking, all of which sounded like they were underwater or far away and not actually understandable.

It was a 40-minute uninterrupted improvisation by all three musicians – very impressive with its constantly shifting patterns and uses of different instruments. Warren played loops, his drumset, noisemakers, and a variety of percussion instruments – most interestingly two desk bells and a tiny brass bell. Broscoe alternated between baritone sax (from which he got some remarkably high notes) and clarinet, and also played taped loops. Stepien said afterwards that during this set he was playing selections from two well-known accordion compositions: “Style Musette” by André Verchuren and “Indifférence” by Tony Murena.

The music was consistently inventive and interactive, and easily kept the audience interested and involved. About a dozen listeners attended the concert – all very intent on the music and noticeably appreciative.

One thing that would have improved the concert was more verbal explanation of the music, both about Stepien's accordion techniques and particularly explaining the elements of set 2's “Accordion Conspiracy vs Eindhoven in Dialoog”. It was difficult at times to grasp the central motifs of that piece, even after reading Stepien's description in advance. The taped loops of people talking were too indistinct and could have come from anywhere and said anything.

Or could IMOO bring back its question and answer sessions at the end of concerts, which were quite popular?

The concert was held in IMOO's alternative location, Black Squirrel Books in Ottawa South, with bookshelves parked in odd places as the store is being renovated to add a coffee bar there at the end of the month. The next IMOO concert will be on May 17, back at the Raw Sugar Café in Chinatown, featuring bass clarinetist Kathryn Ladano from Kitchener.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list:

Set 1:

  • Easter Bunny
  • Last Chance to Go Skiing
  • Easter Eggs
  • A -29C Night
  • Last Flake
  • Zig Zag Cedar Split Rail Fence 

Set 2:

  • Accordion Conspiracy vs Eindhoven in Dialoog

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All photos ©Alayne McGregor, 2015
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