Fall 2021, Volume 31

Nonfiction by Vivian Montgomery

Breathing Memory: The Harpsichord and The Accordion

My father, who was the quiet overlord of my training as a young musician, was an ardent folk singer and composer, but until I was 19 and studying basso continuo at the University of Michigan, I had never improvised or played anything by ear. In most available waking hours, when he wasn’t working at the library or out taking photographs, my father was up in his attic study listening to what his inventive ear was saying and writing it down. So there was a precedent for creative and intuitive music-making in my life, but I somehow ended up more of an auditor than a partaker.

At the University of Michigan, I started to learn keyboard harmony, patterns started to fall under my fingers, and in my first continuo class, where I learned the Baroque practice of extemporizing accompaniments over composed bass lines, I tapped into the sounds inside my own mind and found they wanted to push their way out. Not very gracefully, and certainly saddled with cliché and formula, but they were the first children of my own invention, and I loved them. 

I felt, however, that I was surrounded by musicians who, all their lives, had been soaking up and spewing out music that didn’t start on the page but rather in their ears. There’s no making up for the absence of by-ear experience as a child. In college, whenever I thought I was really starting to flow, to be able to replicate what I was hearing, I’d come up against my severe limitations, sometimes in a public and humbling way. Continuo on the harpsichord was the avenue through which I found the safety and structure for developing my ear and improvisational abilities.

Upon finishing my undergraduate degree, I moved to Boston with a rather unsettled plan to study at New England Conservatory.  From the first day in the thick of the Early Music Department, I knew I was going to reap some very good friendships but not as much enlightenment. I thought I could satiate my hunger for creative and by-ear music making by taking a course on improvising at the organ but quickly was distracted by a much more potent force at NEC—Third Stream Studies. 

This “department” (really more of a movement unto itself) was founded by Gunther Schuller and Ran Blake to develop performer/improvisers with unique voices, using materials from a broad range of musical styles, learned entirely by ear. I enrolled in Ran’s class during my second term at NEC. It was mind-bending and back-breaking, the hardest work I had ever done as a musician, madly listening to a plethora of taped examples that we had to first sing in their entirety, then play and improvise upon. I was drawn away from the Early Music Department and from the harpsichord; my ears, my voice, my grappling fingers on any keyboard became the more important tools.

At the same time, I found myself forging connections to the music of my Jewish lineage, and Yiddish tunes were floating through my head throughout the day. Also associated with NEC (more of a luminous specter than a concrete presence) was Alan Bern, the original accordionist for the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and his playing was often with me, if only from a distance. An accordion sound that was always right there, almost too present, was coming from a swarthy Spanish guy named Maurizio who seemed to permanently perch on the school’s steps with his shiny black accordion, his fingers propelled wildly across the keys by tangos and Latin jazz.  He was the model of a Third Stream student: he had brought his deep experience and technical mastery of a single musical tradition to this program to have his artistry imploded and his ears opened wide.

That summer, I would go on a scholarship to the Baroque Performance Institute in Trondheim, Norway and then onward to take harpsichord lessons in Amsterdam with Gustav Leonhardt. In anticipation of these studies, I tried to pull myself together, return to my pre-Third Stream focus, but I kept allowing things to get in the way. Sometime in the intervening weeks between the end of spring term at NEC and my departure for Europe, my friend Megan gave me an old accordion that had been living in her attic. It was dried out and leaky, but it had a rich, ancient sound.

What I discovered immediately was that, despite the physical effort and the difficulty of coordination, the breath of the accordion was deeply satisfying to me. It was, in fact, the opposite of the harpsichord’s pluck, and I spent many hours (when I should have been preparing harpsichord repertoire) sitting with those creaky bellows and yellowing keys, picking out tunes, finding the chords, sustaining and swelling, swelling and fading.

The story of my trip to Norway and Amsterdam is one that’s good for parties, it’s so filled with mishaps and odd directions, but most important here is that, by the chronicle’s end, the two instruments bring to the surface a sometimes painful internal division.

I flew to Paris (aren’t relics of the ancien regime meant to be heavenly for the young claveciniste?), and after a few days of listless chateau hopping, I caught a train to Norway for the Baroque Institute. My ticket was for a night train that was overrun with drunken Swedes making their way back to a dry homeland after a lusty holiday. This aptly set the tone for a frenzy of events to come, with bags left on detached train cars, a slow-motion chase scene on a barge across the Øresund, a Norwegian Air Force plane to Norway’s northern tip, fjords and blisters, dodging “johns” in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, and careening on a children’s bicycle along Belgian canals—the carousing Swedes and the trains stench were some sort of connecting tissue in the surreal sensibility that settled upon this whole European trek. Feeding my dissociative state was ambivalence toward my stated goals, doubt about the Baroque that was infused with Third Stream melodies and dusty accordion air.

My arrival in Trondheim marked the peak of dissonance between where I was and what I was there for—I had never been that close to the Arctic Circle, had never taken in that type of lush, glacially folded landscape or sturdy Norwegian culture; it was intoxicating, and I could hardly believe that my days there, for two weeks, would largely be occupied by sitting inside sterile institutional buildings, mulling over upper note trills and other minutiae.  Add to that my encounter, on the first day there, with Hardanger fiddle players, and my detachment was complete—the improvisatory spirit was too powerful for me to attend to the esoteric task at hand.

In the course of my first week in Trondheim, I kept excusing myself from the workshop, wandering around, breathing in the cool air. By the week’s end, I knew I needed to leave what had started to feel like captivity. I was well aware of the more serious harpsichord demands coming up in Amsterdam in 10 days, but I decided to pack up my things and launch into a week’s adventure, first traveling with two Norwegian friends I had made, Thorstein (ruddy, blonde, friendly) and Ari (Lappish, dark-eyed, nihilistic).  Ari’s father was in the Norwegian Air Force so the day after leaving the institute, I was crouched on the floor of a small, hollow plane heading to Trømso at the 69th parallel. It was early July, the sun never completely went away, and for a little while I was just following impulses, playing by ear.

I then found my way to a youth hostel in Voss where I met a group of Australian hitchhikers—people with “real” careers back home who had saved up to take a year off to backpack around Europe.  I was struck by the freedom they had—here were lawyers, bankers, doctors who felt at liberty to take a year away from their jobs, not feeling that those jobs defined who they were when they were talking about themselves with others. This weighed heavy on me as an ambitious American—there was, if anything, only an uneasy freedom for me in this brief hiatus from being a particular type of musician; in the background it felt like a threatening detour, stewing in uncertainty, infected by alien sounds and the swell of bellows.

Eventually I had to begin the long train trip to Amsterdam and its sudden inactivity put me into a ruminative state. As I drew away from fjords, fiddles, eternal light, I was deep in thought about where I was going and what I would do, returning to the proscribed realm of my work as a harpsichordist after having been truly somewhere else for the bulk of my time in Norway.

It took 16 hours, overnight, to get to Amsterdam, and upon arrival, I made my way to an apartment that had been left for me by a lutenist friend of a friend. This apartment was in the Red Light District which, in 1986, was less of an artisan and touristic hot spot than it is now, still seedy and dangerous. The flat was on the fourth floor, with the shower and phone kept by the apartment below.

I slept through the day’s remainder and resurfaced in the evening to find that exiting that building at that time made me subject to many a solicitation, so I scurried around to find some snacks at a corner market and quickly retreated. The evening’s activity consisted of sitting in the apartment, making arrangements to practice at the Klinkhamer harpsichord shop the next day, mapping out how to get to Leonhardt’s house on Herengracht the day after that, and pouring over the Amsterdam business phone book for musical instrument shops to see if the words “akkordeon” or “trekharmonika”  popped out from incomprehensible Dutch advertisements. I had decided how I would spend my spare time, between practice sessions at Klinkhamer’s and lessons on Herengracht. Now I just needed to find the right machinery.

I was to spend a month in Amsterdam, with twice weekly lessons with Leonhardt. On the first day out, after spending a couple of nervous hours at Klinkhamer’s, I made my way toward a neighborhood I knew had an instrument shop. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying out assorted accordions, ones that were too large, or out of tune, or leaky, or too expensive. I left that shop without a purchase, bought a falafel, and went back into hiding in the Red Light flat.

The next morning, I set out for Herengracht—the sun was making the canals golden and my spirits were high as Leonhardt opened the door wearing a double-breasted suit. He escorted me to one of the many rooms in which I would ultimately have lessons (my next one would be in the kitchen) and, after a brief exchange of niceties about the people we knew in common, we worked for 90 minutes on a Louis Couperin unmeasured prelude.  I felt a little unleashed by this excursion with him into semi-improvisation, exhilarated but then a little sad because I knew we couldn’t work forever on pieces that had no specified rhythm. Exactness of notation would enter the picture by the next time I saw him, and then where would I be? We scheduled our next meeting, he walked me to the door—perhaps I’ve invented the memory that he bowed as we said goodbye, that really would be too much.

Outside, I began to wander and I ended up very far away from where I was staying, in an area I still couldn’t find for you on a map, despite the fact that I’ve been back to Amsterdam a few times since then. The reason I’ve tried to locate it is that, after two hours of wandering and the previous day’s failure, it is where I found an instrument that would be my constant companion for 40 years.

I stopped to look across the canal at a café that I thought would work well for a rest. While I was gazing, I noticed a dreadful smell wafting up from my feet and realized I had stepped in dog shit, a liability I had been careful to avoid until I started feeling a little happy and wanted to look up rather than always at the sidewalk. When I was done cursing and wiping at the offending substance with spare napkins, I turned around toward a trash can and there in a shop window was a small red accordion. I stared at it for a little bit and then almost walked into the shop holding the shit-covered napkins; I caught myself, threw them out quickly before marching in with great purpose, unconcerned about what smell I might be bringing in with me.

The store was filled with instruments, old and new, and was run by one of the rare Netherlanders who don’t speak a word of English, so I pointed to the accordion in the window. The old man crawled over a double bass and some cases to retrieve it, then looked around for a place for me to sit, eventually just giving me his stool behind the counter. He placed the object in my arms like a newborn baby and adjusted the straps to fit comfortably around my shoulders. It was a Weltmeister, it was my size, it was brand new, and it had a sound like a bow being drawn across strings from another galaxy.

This shiny acquisition was my dear friend during my weeks in Amsterdam. I continued, however, to go to Klinkhamer’s to practice Louis Couperin and Frescobaldi, I continued to show up at Leonhardt’s doorstep and to witness his sequence of suits and harpsichords strewn about the mansion. I managed to take a few trips away, but all the while, I was thinking about the accordion sitting alone in the lutenist’s apartment, waiting for me.  More than anything, I wanted to continue working on the tunes I had started teaching myself, to keep training my left hand fingers to feel their way around the buttons for the bass notes and chords, to develop that ineffable sense of timing where the air of an in-push got used up at exactly the end of a phrase—the sound evaporating before changing directions, a new breath taken. The songs were pulsing through me—Yingele Nit Veyn, Dos Freylekhe Schnayderl, Oy Avram, Reb Dovidl, Ma Tovu, Firn di Mekhutonim, Bitola—and were starting to sing out through this red contraption. I was driving the people downstairs crazy.

I can’t recall how I got the accordion back to the US  but I do remember that, upon my return to Boston, the first thing I did was get a ride with my parents to the little house they had just bought way up the coast in Maine. During my week there, I sat in the living room, overlooking Machias Bay, and played my accordion for hours on end. I had no harpsichord music to practice, no lessons I had to get to, and nobody below me stopping up their ears. This was a new sort of freedom, made of swells and pushes.

In the remaining summer weeks, I sought out Alan Bern, the accordionist who haunted me, and in late August I began lessons with him.  The intensity of my practice reminded me very much of the effort I put into those first keyboard harmony and continuo classes at Michigan and, oddly, despite my seeming obsession with accordion practice and my decision to not enroll in any more early music classes or lessons at NEC, there was something that had inadvertently come alive in my harpsichord playing.

Somewhere in the non-committal fog of my European wanderings, I had been captivated by CPE Bach’s A minor Württemburg Sonata with its 32nd-note swirls and scoops, surprising harmonic twists, abrupt suspension of motion, and the subtle sadness that permeated its entire substance. I had become similarly taken with Frescobaldi’s Cento Partite Sopra Passacaglia, a long tangle of a piece built over more than 100 repetitions of the lamenting minor tetrachord descending.  These two pieces kept me returning to the well daily and I found a sultry pleasure in my harpsichord practice, removed for the first time from anybody else’s expectations of what I needed to be working on, and how I needed to be doing so. There was more in common between what swept me up in plaintive Yiddish songs and what kept me so fervently working at these monuments of 17th and 18th-century eccentricity.

In the fall of 1987, I started to address some sources of tension that resulted in pinched nerves in my shoulders.  A massage-therapist friend observed my practicing at the harpsichord and remarked about a variety of posture issues, but most importantly noticed that I tended to hold my breath while playing. Even when I did breathe, it seemed to be in gulps and gasps. I began to pay attention to this but simultaneously noticed that it wasn’t an issue when I played the accordion—simply put, when the instrument breathed, I breathed with it.

Yes, I loved the sustain and swell of the sound, and the music I played on that instrument had a primal resonance, but the most profound effect of playing the accordion had to do with how easy it was to breathe. It slowly took in air, and slowly released it; technique for this needed to be practiced in order to be timed well with musical phrasing and shape, and certain arm muscles had to be strengthened, but there was no mystery to it. If I obeyed my own semi-voluntary reflex, the bellows would move accordingly.  Just like our changeable use of the air around us, sometimes there were gasps, rapid intakes, abrupt stops, and even the special effect of a type of stuttering expulsion to create a peculiar tremolo, but the basic ease remained.

Breath - it is everywhere, the most crucial element at work in each everywhere, in music, in communication, in life. As I sit writing this, I am distracted by my lungs’ refusal to be completely filled. I work at inhaling deeply, I willfully wish the constriction away while knowing that the only remedy is expansive, even breaths of meditation. It is what I reach for, often a little late, when the fear of a performance seems to be getting the better of me. It was my last communion with my mother while she lay laboring for her final breaths; the even swell in and out was the only gift I could bring.

Breathing means rescue, survival. We learn to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a dummy in middle school, giving the air in our own lungs to a hypothetical other so that they can survive, revive. The accordion has rescued me in such a way on more occasions than I can remember. It has reminded me to inhale, exhale, and to sing while doing so.

Most vividly, when we moved to a small town in Iowa some 7 years later, its diminutive size, isolation, narrow ethnic demographic, and the absence of professional activity for me, all brought me into a state of suffocation. In my early months living there, I strangled on what felt like a deficit of air available for the likes of me. I started to play duo harpsichord repertoire with a fellow early keyboardist who had also just moved there, but the bulk of our time together was spent in conversation about what wasn’t there for us, how we feared disappearing, and how we felt watched by the eyes of a small community that notices every new arrival.

I learned that musicians could play for weekly gatherings at the food co-op, so I decided to take my accordion out—it had been fairly neglected over several years of finishing degrees, moving about, pursuing notoriety, launching our teaching careers. I sat in the corner of the café, playing as though I was alone, listening to bold, sweet sounds carried across the quiet air. I revisited melodies I had packed away—they were still there, but needed to be shaken out, the dust blown off of them. My body opened and closed with their contours, my lungs filled and emptied with pushes and pulls.  I was brought into a simple, satiated present, I was being resuscitated, and the air around me seemed ample, even clearer than most.

While my five years in Iowa turned out to be my most active and driven period of work as a harpsichordist because of activity in the Twin Cities, my accordion kept coming out of its case, bringing me home, reeling me in, warming me up, calming me down. Comical opportunities kept evolving, and kept me playing, in our little corner of the frozen tundra. There was the formation of a makeshift Yiddish music group called Norski Klezmorski, which took off to the point of playing live on several public radio stations in the region and traveling to play at a number of summer festivals.  Such a thing would have only existed in the shadows and margins of a larger city’s live music culture, but in Decorah, it drew lots of attention and I found myself more often in front of Northern Iowa audiences strapped into an accordion than seated at a harpsichord.

This split in my performing identity went along with other divisions experienced in that time: my life as a “professional” only existed away from there, while this “avocational” pursuit was my home base; my travels away to maintain professional activity were pressurized, frantic, and often fraught with hazardous conditions and loneliness, while my time at home was exotically quiet and sweetly routine in the way that only rural life can be; my work in the baroque realm was an outward facing project for reconstructing old courtly compositions, while my forays through Jewish and Eastern European folk music were the stuff of inward seeking, to describe my neglected roots, to find a warm and easy center that only haunting melodies, ins and outs of bellows, could bring me.

Two years into our time in Iowa, the split was reinforced by the birth of a child who swiftly chose the accordion to dance to, to reach up and touch while I played, to sing along with; conditions made it the instrument by which he and I could be together, in the same room, in the same state; the harpsichord pulled me away on a regular basis, kept us apart. When I had added another instrument to my collection, a lady’s accordion from the 1930s, with sparkly gold flecks imbedded on its thin keys, he would call out which one he wanted me to play—“Mama play the gold, Mama play the red!” Like the Flemish and Italian harpsichords that sat nestled in my studio, there were two accordions to choose from, providing a wider spectrum to a swelling sweetness in my life, a nostalgia for a world I had never actually occupied.

Some years later, during our first year living back in Boston, my composer husband had the idea of writing me a piece in which I played both accordion and harpsichord. He wanted it to be a theater piece, to depict the obvious disconnect I had always experienced between one and the other, and to perhaps bring about some union. In “Breathing Memory,” John recorded and electronically processed accordion sounds so that they were primal surges intruding upon my earnest efforts to play CPE Bach’s Folia on the harpsichord. In the staged drama, I’m drawn off by the sounds and brought to the accordion, where, like a chimp investigating an unfamiliar toy, I explore the long, gentle shapes created by bellows slowly pumping in and out, eventually also creating more violent bursts and clusters. I’m brought back to the harpsichord, where I play a stream of expansive arpeggiated cluster chords, breathing, swelling with their motion. The piece ends with a doleful Russian tune played on the accordion, and accompanied by the recorded sounds fading off into the distance.  It explores memory on many levels—the most basic memory, or recollection, of the body’s breath, the more complex memory of an identity buried, and the healing memory of the musician’s singularity, regardless of what vehicle is being used.

That same Russian lament planted itself into deeper emotional memory in June of 2010. I had begrudgingly agreed to play background music on accordion at an afternoon cocktail party in a posh Boston suburb, at a house that was strangely close to the hospice where my oldest friend, Persephone, lay dying. After I had grown cranky and demoralized from playing, largely ignored, in the corner of the party host’s patio, I packed up and decided to stop in to see Persephone.

On a whim, I brought the accordion in with me. She was only half-conscious but was able to respond enthusiastically when I asked if I could play for her.  First a Macedonian tune, then a Jewish ritual wedding march, and, finally, because she had lived for many years in Russia, the Russian song. Its title translates as “Please don’t leave me.” When I finished, I saw that Persephone had drifted back into sleep, so I packed up quietly, kissed her stubbly head, and snuck out. I had played that tune only two hours earlier for a mass of chatty, inattentive socialites and I was mindful of the difference between that use and the use it had just been put toward. She died the next day and I played the song again at her memorial.

Thinking back, I’m struck by the fact that I hadn’t considered playing the accordion at my mother’s memorial service only 6 months earlier.  Here was a marker of the deepest, most wrenching sorrow I had experienced, ensconced in Jewish observances – sitting my own quiet Shiva, recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish, chanting of El Male Rachamim—but there was no question that the music I needed to play for that occasion was at the harpsichord. The andante from the E minor violin sonata by Bach and Purcell’s “An Evening Hymn” were my choices, and it was through playing continuo on those ground basses that I found my greatest comfort, felt my deepest connection to my mother’s memory. Yes, she had infused me with anxious Jewish longing that had brought me to the accordion, but, more profoundly, she had raised me with the freedom and imagination that had brought me to harpsichord long before that.

At the end of the service, we all sang Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” her theme song, and I felt certain that, despite some constriction that had grown up around my life with the harpsichord, she had always seen it as an open gateway, my path to musical liberty, to be made into whatever I wished. The easy gratification of playing Purcell and Bach at her memorial on the Italian harpsichord she had purchased for me, the rightness of brass strings plucked and reverberating on the walls of the Wesleyan University chapel, told me that such openness as she had imagined still remained with me.

In the months after my mother’s death, I received an invitation to play for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that fall. I had played for many an onerous Reform service, in a dreary temple in Flint Michigan, in an extravagant sanctuary for Detroit’s suburbanites, and in a crumbling historic synagogue on Boston’s North Shore.  At Temple Shir Tikva however, with that cantor at that very time, I stepped into a whole new zone in relation to Jewish liturgy, one where fervor and musical enterprise were barely separable. My desire to participate was strong, for my own soul’s sake and for my mother’s wistful vapors.

What sealed the deal with Shir Tikva, though, was when I happened to mention that I played the accordion and the cantor jumped, almost shouting that she and the rabbi had wanted to start a Shabbat klezmer band. I told her about my kid’s clarinet prowess, and the seed for our band was planted.  We started it the following winter, playing once a month, gradually gearing up to cover most of the Friday night service music plus a few of our own raucous numbers. Working with saxophone, fiddle, trombone, bass, flute, and mandolin, Ezra and I threw ourselves into shared leadership, and simultaneously into learning to read Hebrew, studying Torah, considering Bar Mitzvah. The High Holy Days earlier that year were heavy with stirrings of my mother’s memory, and the complex rewards of T’shuvah (returning, repentance, returning, repentance), but the band, Shir Chutzpa, was our joint entree into joyous, unfettered exploration of this part of who we were.

There are points when things that have seemed different in their essences show themselves to be cut from the same cloth. It’s not that hard to discover such overlap within life’s larger movements, like love, loss, longing, prayer. Love for my child rises out of the same pool as my mother’s love for me; we draw from the same reservoir of pain when the object of your love slips out of reach, whether it is one’s mother who stops breathing, one’s dear friend who says goodbye and turns onto her side for the last time, one’s child who no longer wishes for his hand to be held; the yearning that takes root upon the approach of Rosh Hashana is no different from the studied quest for Nirvana or the noisy steps toward Resurrection—stillness of the mind, quieted breath, openness, are what we all are seeking when we ask for peace. 

I now find that I live as a musician where the harpsichord and accordion not only coexist, they substantially overlap in my life.  Pluck and swell remain seemingly at odds from the outside, yet I move into each with fullness of bodily release and abundance of breath. I approach playing each instrument with a craving for freedom and flexibility they bring me. I believe that anything can happen on either, and I try, sometimes successfully, to be entirely myself with each, following my curiosity, my sense of play, and my need to burrow into sound and gesture.

An unmeasured prelude by Louis Couperin will never be just like a Romanian doina, but both are rhapsodic journeys across a landscape of harmonic surprises; a gavotte will always distinguish itself from a bulgar but both are brought to life by imitating the ecstatic jumps and landings of the dancer; Froberger’s plainte from his melancholic time in London may require more slavish attention to notational detail than a sad Russian melody quickly scribbled onto the bottom of a piece of manuscript paper, but each is the sonic bounty of another person’s sorrow.

And when I am playing either instrument with any of my brilliant musical colleagues, I am seeking the same camaraderie, connection, and interplay. Whether on the harpsichord or the accordion, I can find myself laughing at unexpected turns of events, looking at my partner with terror at their fast tempo, thrashing about as we escalate toward a barely contained ending. Most importantly, I am seeking collaboration in singing songs, dancing dances, lingering on colors that bring about a shared delight.

Shleimut—wholeness—all this, for bringing together the scattered particles of a life lived.




BIO: Vivian Montgomery is a Boston-based harpsichordist/accordionist who writes, about her mother, unlikely Judaism, and long-buried women composers. Published in the Boston Globe Magazine, Bluestem, Ligeia, Adanna, Jabberwock, Narrative Northeast, Chautauqua, and Seven Stories Press’ Mother Reader, Vivian received a Writers Digest Spiritual Writing third prize and was a finalist for New Letters’ Conger Beasley Jr. Award for Nonfiction. She is a brooding walker and mother, feeling her way with the help of words spilled onto the page.