By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Composer and accordionist Guy Klucevsek makes music of a very high order--but in some ways, he sees his work as kid stuff. In 1988 he was asked to appear on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood because, as he writes in a bio wittily titled Accordion Misdemeanors: A Musical Reminiscence, the program's producers "wanted to show children that the accordion could be used as a classical instrument." He eagerly accepted the offer, noting, "Now I had a chance to play accordion on television, and just maybe there would be one child out there watching for whom the accordion would spark an interest, and perhaps even a life, in music."
Throughout his career, Klucevsek has put his brilliant stamp on a wide variety of styles, ranging from popular song to minimalism and, on the CD Transylvanian Softwear (issued by Boulder's idiosyncratic Starkland imprint), polka. On the disc, the accordion is revealed to be a versatile, eloquent and even transcendent instrument, and Klucevsek, who squeezed his first squeeze box back in the Fifties, enjoys playing it as much now as he ever has.
Like the idealized Mister Rogers viewers referenced above, Klucevsek heard his first accordion while watching TV; he was five at the time. But the New York-born, western Pennsylvania-raised Klucevsek was hardly the only youngster to grab ahold of the device. "There were tens of thousands of kids playing when I was young," he says. Two years later Klucevsek began studying with Walter Grabowski, a master teacher who instructed his pupil in the technique and theory of classical and semi-classical forms. "He always stressed that the music went beyond the notes on the page," he remembers."And he was all over me like a bad cold if I was playing devoid of expression."
Later Klucevsek joined a band, the Fascinations, that played polkas, Ventures covers and other popular fare at weddings, picnics and family gatherings. He then headed to college, where he began to chart his own sonic course. His approach to music theory and composition was heavily inspired by minimalists such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley and contemporary classical artists like Iannis Xenakis, Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow. But just as important in his development was his introduction in 1967 to the chromatic free-bass accordion. Unlike the more common stradella accordion, the free-bass version sports left-hand buttons that can be set to emit single tones rather than chords. "You can play both genre music and melodic music on the left hand," Klucevsek says. This eliminated the need to switch instruments during performances and allowed him to draw upon his entire repertoire.
Klucevsek's stylistic range is demonstrated by the diversity of his collaborators--Laurie Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Bill Frisell, Fred Frith and the Kronos Quartet among them. He makes particular note of the impact John Zorn and his touring big-band project, Cobra, had on his erudite syntheses. "Everything I've ever played or heard or done is fair game for my writing, and I really credit Zorn with opening me up for that," he says. In the past, Klucevsek jokingly referred to his practice of incorporating elements of free improvisation with melodic memories from his childhood as "recycling my trash," but he now recognizes this method as an important ingredient of his art. Tradition, too, plays a considerable role. As a second-generation Slovenian, Klucevsek understands the fine distinctions between, for instance, Slovenian-American polkas and waltzes and their Polish-American relations. "After I did my Polka From the Fringe collection, I went home and ran into an older cousin I hadn't seen in years," he notes. "He asked me if I still was playing polkas and I said, 'Yeah, but they're kind of weird.' And he said, 'What do you mean? Like Polish ones?'"
Since the late Eighties, Klucevsek has composed primarily for dance, and he believes that experience has colored his music in new ways: "When you collaborate with a choreographer, sometimes solutions to problems that crop up in the piece tend to come from non-musical directions," he says. By way of an example, he mentions an incident that took place while he was scoring a piece titled Altered Landscapes. At the request of its choreographer, David Dorfman, Klucevsek attempted to bridge two passages in a way that eventually produced a high note, a strange chord and an unusual key relationship. "It worked for David dramatically," Klucevsek points out, "and then after a while I realized, wow, that's pretty radical musically. It's a choice I would never have made, but it actually worked beautifully. So it gets you thinking in non-traditional ways." Transylvanian Softwear takes similar tacks with several ethnic genres: "Viavy Rose" is based on two melodies from Madagascar, the title track derives from Hasidic wedding music, "Perusal" borrows from Andean pan-pipe traditions and "Bandoneons, Basil and Bay Leaves" salutes the late Brazilian tango master Astor Piazzolla.
These days, plenty of other artists have rediscovered the strap-on piano and its attached bellows, including New York jazz man Henry Threadgill, Canada's pensively rustic Cowboy Junkies and Denver's own indescribable Hamster Theatre, and Klucevsek reports that thousands of students are taking up the instrument as well. "It's now a part of American pop culture again, which it hadn't been since the Fifties, really," he says. "You see it on TV ads now, and you hear it on radio commercials. The sound of the instrument is back in the mainstream; it's just a different kind of music now. Whereas in the Fifties it was Lawrence Welk and Dick Contino, now it's Cajun, Tex-Mex and Irish music."