Right up front, I’d like to disclose that I’m a novice to accordion music – perhaps you are, too? I know of Weird Al, “The Pennsylvania Polka” in the movie “Groundhog Day,” and the fact that the sounds of South African accordion jive music from a borrowed cassette tape inspired Paul Simon to embark on the musical journey that became his brilliant “Graceland” album. I would not have thought of the accordion as a classical instrument, or an instrument suited to being considered avant-garde. Joseph Petric’s new album, “SEEN”, challenged those preconceptions and invited me on an adventure.
First, the songs stretch the term “song” a bit, in the way modern art often stretches the viewer’s conception of what the definition of “art” is. Each more like an audio statement, and a complex pronouncement, at that. You may find, as I did, that although this is music without words, the sound of the bellows of the accordion filling evokes a deep inhale, like a singer drawing in breath before releasing a flurry of notes.
Comparisons for this unconventional album, Petric’s first in 12 years, are hard to find. The nearest I can think of is Steve Reich’s innovative, minimalist work, or the venturesome chamber ensemble yMusic. This is unconventional music. It has a cinematic feel – these pieces give the impression that they could be narrating the action on the screen, perhaps for a silent film.
Petric invites the listener on an audio voyage, first with the dreamy track “Spirit Cloud.” It feels like a wander through the woods, where perhaps unseen dangers, or wonders, await. He captures and conveys a sense of suspense, but somehow also whimsy. The song is propelled along by dancing, meandering accordion lines, but with little touches of electronics, like gadgets, or accessories, to punctuate the story. And is that possibly a Theremin around the middle of the song?
The highlight of the album is the title track – the three-part “SEEN” suite. Petric kicks it off with “SEEN: I. Vision of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque,” starting with a musical dialogue between the sweetly meandering high accordion lines and a contrasting, mildly abrasive drone. A swell around the four-and-a-half-minute point signals a change of movement, into a space where Petric rings out a few plaintive notes before juxtaposing them with trills of sound. This section of the piece has a bit of the feel of a Klezmer ballad.
“SEEN: II. Mary’s Hill” is a concise track, clocking just over four minutes, and is the most accessible on the album. The lead lines tiptoe into the room, nudged along and punctuated by the low notes. A sound that evokes the sound of footsteps – perhaps it is literally footsteps – gives the listener the sense of moving along.
The opening measures of “SEEN: III. Miracle of the Sun” are elegiac and wistful – they feel like a quiet tribute, a moment of contemplation. High notes in the middle section of the song are reminiscent of harmonica, entering the space like a beam of sunlight. This is when the song comes into its own. The scrambling and triumphant notes that follow are possibly the closest to what you may already know of accordion music – and then Petric coaxes sounds like the sonorous tones of an organ from his accordion. This is my favorite of the collection of pieces, in part because of the range of sounds and emotions that Petric achieves here.
This is music that challenges and paints an impressionistic picture. While “SEEN” may not be a windows-down road record, or a casual listen in general, it is music that is lyrical and thus has something to say.
Photo Credit: Nigel Baines