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Interview with the Accordionist, Stefan Hussong
"The Accordion Directly Absorbs the Movements of My Body"

Interviewer: Takaki Yazawa, producer, Concert Hall ATM, ART TOWER MITO
Translator: Kiyoko Tsuga
Cooperation: Music Office Sautillé Co. Ltd.

Note: On March 13, 1999, Stefan Hussong performed a concert of works by Tiensuu, Cage, Frescobaldi, Gubaidulina, J.S. Bach, Keiko Harada, Albeniz, and Soler at ATM Concert Hall.
The following interview was made on January 22 in Sendagaya, Tokyo.

A Born Accordionist

At first, I'd like to ask you, Mr. Hussong, how you first got started on the accordion, and what attracted you to it. I have heard that your father pressed you into playing the accordion at age four.

Yes. My father loved music a lot, but was unable to buy any musical instruments because of thewar. He finally got his chance to start playing the accordion as an amateur at age 30. He wanted both my younger brother and myself to play music as well, so he brought home a guitar and accordion. Since I had always seen my father performing, I chose the accordion, and ended up becoming a musician. Meanwhile, my brother, who had chosen the guitar, ended up as a TV cameraman. Maybe it's my brother who made the wiser choice! (Laughter)

(Laughter) Well, thanks to that, all of us have been blessed with the chance to get acquainted with your music, so I'd like to express my gratitude to your father and to you for your choice. Now, could you please tell me when you started to be actively aware of the charms of the accordion -- which you had been led to by accident -- and what prompted that awareness.

Around the time I was 11 years old, I started studying the accordion at school, and there I met someone who had a great influence on me, Prof. Hugo Noth. As one of the few professional accordionists in the world at the time, he showed me that the instrument could be used to play all sorts of music. He opened my eyes to compositions written by modern composers for the accordion, such as the Scandinavians Per Nørgård and Ib Nørholm. Until then I had only played folksongs and short piano pieces on my accordion, and it was a real revelation. Of course, my folks complained a lot whenever I would practice modern music at home! (Laughter)

Another important thing that Prof. Nod taught me was that the accordion could play keyboard music from the Baroque era, including Scarlatti and Bach. When I was a child, I had transcribed some Bach inventions by myself that I had found in a hymnal book, but the professor showed me the actual musical scores of such music for the first time. And it was also the first time I realized that those were pieces by Bach! (Laughter)

So that's how you came to appreciate both Bach and contemporary music. Still, it's quite astounding that you started exploring the possibilities, at such an early age, of arranging accordion transcriptions of music meant for other instruments.

I didn't think so much of it at the time! (Laughter)

New Old Music, Old New Music

From what I've heard so far, I understand that the two main elements of your repertoire -- new music for the accordion, and old music (mainly baroque) "replayed" on the accordion -- started to take shape quite naturally at an early stage in your life. Those two elements appear in your concerts in various combinations. What does each of those types of music mean for you?

First of all, I'm not sure that the music I really want to play -- contemporary music -- is the kind that my audience likes the most! (Laughter) That is why I try to put together, as best I can, a concert program that will let the audience -- which may be meeting the accordion for the first time -- experience all the different facets of the instrument. However, that does not mean that I just string together a bunch of different pieces, but instead I try to develop a program along a certain fundamental theme, within which I present various things.

I always sense that your unique message is incorporated in that "fundamental theme." What I mean to say is that your intentional grouping together of "old" and "new" music gives rise to something new.

Yesterday, I chatted with Jun-ichi Onuma (music critic who has penned such works as "Piazzola" and "Minimal Music"), and we talked about what, in fact, "evolution" means in musical terms. Music changes with time, of course, but often when we look back on the past at a certain point, what we thought was "new" starts to look old, while what was "old" lets us make new discoveries. Don't you feel that? If the new and the old are juxtaposed, then, we begin to see things that we didn't notice before.

For example, in my present concert program, I play two pieces in succession that were both written in D minor: one by the 20th century composer, John Cage, and the other by the 17th century composer, Girolamo Frescobaldi. It is interesting to me, when doing so, that I almost feel that Frescobaldi's work is much more complicated and "evolved" than is Cage's piece, at least from a harmonical point of view. Moreover, while Cage's work places great emphasis on symmetry and spatiality, making it the kind of music where the sound expands into the distance, Frescobaldi's music gives us the impression of being "closer" to us, focused as it is toward a single point with its four voices. There are other interesting parallels in my program, such as that between two pieces separated in time but based on the same text: Gubaidulina's "From the Deep Abyss" and Bach's chorales BWV147 and BWV659. I really think it is interesting to show audiences the juxtaposition between "new things" and "old things."

In that line of thinking I strongly sense your attitude of always needing to bring old music into the modern age, and not merely worshiping it as "classical."

Yes, that's right. Creative music never loses its value, although the era may change.
But we cannot elicit that creativity just by repeating such music through the old way of performance.
Instead, we have to jump in the middle of such music and "recreate" it.

For instance, I believe that Bach's pieces for the harpsichord, somehow, contain certain parts that are almost impossible to be performed on that instrument. I'm not saying that Bach was a fool! (Laughter) He had his reasons for that. I mean to say that Bach, as an excellent composer, did not want to be confined within the boundaries of "what I can do now with the instrument before me." If one only thought about limits, one could no longer search for the musical possibilities that lay beyond. And so, Bach demanded more from his instruments than they could give him. That goes not just for his harpsichord pieces, but also those for unaccompanied violin and cello. What I'm trying to say is that the different colors and power lurking in a piece of music may not have necessarily been fully discovered as of yet. And I feel that an important job of those of us living today is to bring those things out and express them.

Fortunately, given that some composers are still alive, we can do that job "jointly" with them. Ms. Keiko Harada, for example, has written a new piece for me for my upcoming concert, but it's so hard (15 pages!) that I'm not sure I'll be ready by March 13. (Laughter) Be that as it may, both she and I have the opportunity to exchange views, and that's one process by which a piece can develop. Instead of trying to fit oneself in a ready-made work, this open and progressive process enables music to develop.

The Accordion Is Connected to the Body

I'd now like to shift our discussion to the instrument itself. What sort of role does the accordion play in "discovering new music," as you have said, as well as "discovering" the possibilities of "old music."

The accordion is able to do precisely what we need today -- namely, it delivers its expression "directly" to the listener. This instrument directly absorbs the movements and breathing of my body as I play it, amplifying them as it gives expression. As a result, the accordion is able to give a highly "direct" impact -- both aurally and visually -- to both the audience and the composer. Indeed, modern composers are gladly responding to the call to produce works for the accordion. Not only that, but they are facing the problem of not being able to do much else with other instruments such as the piano, whose possibilities have almost been thoroughly explored and "squeezed out." In contrast, the accordion, as a new instrument, still has plenty of possibilities left, and can do many things that are not possible with existing keyboard instruments. For example, a single note on the accordion can be modulated in many ways as it is being played. And so, the last two decades or so have seen a huge increase in the repertoire for the accordion. Before, there were only a few pieces for me to play, but now I can choose from a broad selection. That's the kind of era we live in.

That's why you often call the accordion the "instrument of the 20th century."

Meanwhile, as a relatively new instrument, the accordion has not been completely accepted by the public. That is why I must prove to my audiences that this instrument has the capacity to play many different types of music. This is a kind of "challenge" or "fight" for me.

A violinist who gives a bad recital, for example, is assigned individual responsibility for the results, while the violin itself is left blameless. However, when an accordionist gives a bad recital, people tend to blame the instrument. I am forced to be flexible, that means.

But I greatly welcome that flexibility, since your accordion can shine new light on old music. (Laughter)

To the Realm of Dreams

In closing, I'd like to ask about the upcoming program you plan to give at the Concert Hall ATM. The program extends from 17th century pieces to the world debut of a new piece, so it corresponds exactly to your policy of having "new music meet old music." Why did you name the whole concert after John Cage's piece, "Dream"?

First, that is the same title as the CD that I released of Cage's pieces. (Laughter) Anyway, dreams are fanciful things, but occasionally contain hope. When we are having dreams, we experience things that cannot happen in reality. In my program, I take a four-century trip of music. A four-century span may seem extremely limited from a human point of view, but in the area of music it offers an experience full of a sense of expansiveness, one that transcends the limitations of reality. As in the case of dreams, moreover, my trip transposes the true chronological order (i.e., the pieces of the program are not arranged chronologically). I would be very happy if my audience would leave the concert hall having been imbued with the memories of certain cosmic or spatial images.

I look forward to your concert. Thank you, Mr. Hussong, for agreeing to be interviewed today.

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