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Thursday November 30, 2000

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Not your father's accordion

By Hillary Davis

Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA music prof, accordion buff explains the instrument is

Rockers like Pearl Jam, Bon Jovi and the Counting Crows like them - not just guitars and drums, but accordions.

And so does Jim O'Brien, a UA music professor and longtime accordion player.

An accordionist since junior high school, O'Brien earnestly promoted the accordion - the squeezable instrument often associated with polka music - to about 50 people yesterday in the Center for Creative Photography in a speech titled "The Accordion Revisited."

"I mean, can this be a square instrument?" O'Brien asked as he listed contemporary musical artists who utilize the accordion.

Despite its role in modern popular music, O'Brien said the accordion still suffers from a bum rap.

"Why, folks, in an enlightened society, do we have people reacting like this," - O'Brien paused to flash a drawing of an anguished person clutching his ears onto a projection screen - "when the accordion sounds like this?" he finished before proceeding to play a tune on the instrument.

However, O'Brien is aware of the reasons why many people do not appreciate the accordion's musical qualities.

He said the instrument's overwhelming tone quality, which may create an aural assault for people not used to its bold sounds, and its association with immigrants have contributed to the instrument's unpopularity.

The accordion is usually imported from western Europe, Russia and China, where it has long had its roots.

The instrument's beginnings can be traced to medieval Europe, with the similar bible regal - a reeded, pumped instrument which allowed organists to practice the organ outside of church. Also a precursor to the accordion was the Chinese sheng, which dates back about 5,000 years.

O'Brien noted that the accordion can play music in the classical style - Tchaikovsky wrote pieces for the accordion - as well as in ethnic styles.

"There's nothing better for German music, or Irish music," O'Brien said, as he played a jig.

Italian, Greek, Cajun, jazz and blues styles also translate well onto the accordion, O'Brien said.

"It's great for jazz because you can play such big, rich full chords," he said.

In addition, accordion sounds mesh well with technology. O'Brien demonstrated how the accordion lends itself to the MIDI format, a digitized type of music.

"Was this the accordion your father drove?" O'Brien asked as he played a computerized accordion-based song with an accompanying computer animation.

When he is not playing the other instruments he is trained in - the piano, trombone and other brass pieces - O'Brien takes his skills to non-university-related gigs as a professional accordion player.

"The day I play the accordion, I don't work out," O'Brien said as he shifted his 29-lb., $16,000 instrument against his body. "It's like being quite pregnant - a high pregnancy, but nonetheless pregnant."

Not as frequently played as the guitar or piano, the accordion also has a reputation for not being a "real" instrument, O'Brien said - which he made sure to dispel.

"The stereotype is that this is not a real instrument, and I would just like to submit that it is a very real instrument," O'Brien said. "Musicianship comes through because of the person, not from the instrument."

Hillary Davis can be reached at