Pipe organ inspired me reflections about bandoneón.

Brothers in bellows

Thoughts on pipe organ and bandoneón

I've always been in love with the organ.
Personally, however, I found in the bandoneón a kind of "entrance door" to the vast world of organ music, even if it is a discreet door, to be crossed with the awareness of the profound difference between these two instruments. I am sure that many bandoneón players would share this love with me, or would confirm that they have a certain interest and fascination for those monumental instruments.

One of the most frequent observations made to a bandoneón player is how the bandoneón resembles "portable organ". This comment is also influenced by the (false) rumor that the bandoneón would be born to replace the organ in Lutheran country churches. By the way, I would like to propose those who spread this word to play a Bach Choral for organ with one of those primitive bandoneons of late-nineteenth century...).

So, well aware of their profound difference, I let myself be inspired by the organ to write some reflections on the bandoneón. But perhaps the best thing is to explain the genesis of this article and analyse what aspects the two instruments have in common and how they differ. Warning: in this article I am not only talking about technical aspects, but I also express personal considerations. And be careful again: this article is not an April fool. Or maybe yes? We will talk about it in conclusion.

An italian artisan excellence

The idea of writing this article was born after my visit to the Pradella Organ Workshop in the province of Sondrio, northern Italy. Bottega Organara Pradella is an excellence in Italian craftsmanship, specialized in the construction and restoration of fully mechanical pipe organs. Bottega Pradella has restored prestigious organs all over the world, and its new production organs are required by professionals and important institutions, confirming the incredible quality developed over the years of studies, experiments and improvements.

During the visit I was received by mr. Giovanni Pradella who very kindly made himself available to answer all my questions and make me understand a lot about these majestic instruments.

Bandoneón and organ: differences and similarities

Being both aerophone instruments, they share the possibility of performing "sustained" notes. This is the most important similarity. In second place we find the extension of the two instruments, which is extraordinarily similar, the organ a bit more than 5 octaves and the bandoneón a bit less.

Actually, acoustically speaking, the organ has an extension capable of covering the entire range of audible frequencies, thanks to the registers which, in addition to changing the timbres, "shift" in octave, fifth and third, reaching all frequencies. Obviously the bandoneón does not have this possibility, but if we combine the two keyboards (the right and the left) we could overlap the notes on those of an organ manual.

The main difference consists in the dynamics: practically absent in the organ (excluding the so-called espressivo, introduced in the romantic organs in order to perform crescendo) is instead an essential feature of the bandoneón, which passes with ease from whispers barely hinted at excruciating screams.

What evolution for the bandoneón?

Talking to Giovanni Pradella, I discovered that the pipe organs have existed for thousands of years and throughout this time they have evolved a great deal, receiving many improvements and modifications. The most recent organs make use of advanced electronics, such as the Wi-Fi connection between the console and the organ body (the Pradella Workshop, however, does not deal with these organs, but with the fully mechanical ones).

Evolution is an important topic not only in biology, but also in music. Since they exist, musical instruments have always adapted to styles, techniques and technologies. Guitars are perhaps the most striking example, but I could also mention the pianos, the clarinet ... and the list could extend to almost all musical instruments.

What can be said about the bandoneón instead? I read in some blogs that, according to some, the bandoneón would have reached perfection with the instruments produced by the Alfred Arnold factory between the 1920s and the early 1940s (the famous Doble A and Premier). I know I won't be understood by many in what I'm going to say, and I also know that someone will detest me for this, but it's time to shed some light on the matter. Dooble A are without doubt excellent bandoneóns, but they are not the best in an absolute sense.

They are highly overestimated because they have become a status symbol, inextricably associated with tango and Piazzolla ("Tristeza de un Doble A") and because many bandoneónists let themselves be influenced by the common feeling, by strong personalities or by what they read on forums, blogs, in social networks, and in doing so they give up doing personal research, severely limiting their critical sense. What I claim, instead, is the result of several trips and long chats with important bandoneón manufacturers and repairers with over thirty years of experience. Below you can read my conclusions.

Doble A: the "Stradivari" bandoneón?

The Alfred Arnold company was comparable to Fender. Fender guitars are well-made because the quality standard is averagely high across the entire production line (or perhaps it was, guitarists please intervene). This also apply to the production chain of the famous Carlsfeld company. For this reason a Doble A or a Premier of the 30s or 40s hardly disappoint. But this doesnt's mean that Alfred Arnold was the best bandoneón factory ever.

Meanwhile, during the golden years of bandoneón production in Germany and contemporary to Alfred Arnold, there were manufacturers who produced every single instrument by hand, with productions limited to a few instrument per year. The care dedicated to every single bandoneón was obsessive, and consequently the quality was clearly superior to the AA (an example? The legendary Birnstock).

Therefore, it is ridicolous to think that the evolution of the instrument stopped with the instruments built by a single factory almost 100 years ago.
The bandoneón can and must still be perfected.

Back to the sound

From the chat with Giovanni Pradella I discovered that there are various organ schools that differ by geographical area (e.g. German, Italian, Iberian, French school) and different organs depending on the historical period considered. As a consequence, each organ has its own repertoire. A baroque organ would not be suitable in order to play romantic music, and the same allies to a nineteenth-century organ with a baroque repertoire.

The "dominant gene" of bandoneón 142

In the case of the bandoneón instead we have only one type of instrument that is used to play anything: tango, classical, even jazz. I believe this is a problem related to how much the bandoneón 142 is overrated. The Rheinische Tonlage has become synonymous with bandoneón and its characteristic sound has defined a standard from which it is difficult to get out.

A wonderful sound... but not the only one

All bandoneónists love the sound of the bandoneón. But I ask myself: are the bandoneónists aware that there are other possible sounds with this instrument, besides the classic that we all know well?

The timbre in the bandoneón is generated by the combination of vibrating free reeds fixed to a metal plate. In the Rheinische Tonlage (or bandoneón 142) the reeds are two, tuned to a perfect octave of distance, without vibrato. But there are bandoneons with different combinations of reeds: 1 single reed per note (very clean and nasal sound, similar to an oboe), or with 3 or more reeds that can be combined with each other to give different sounds.

The guitarists use different guitars according to the repertoire they want to perform, but the bandoneónists always use the same sound, even when playing different genres from tango.

The "Holy Graal" bandoneón

In general, the bandoneón player goes crazy to look for the best Doble A, with the best Dik reeds, with the best zinc plates. Why not invest time and energy to explore new sound tones on the bandoneón?

Years ago I had a Doble A with aluminum plates and 3 rows of reeds (one of the much hated Einheits): an instrument with a very particular sound, with a very slight vibrato "musette" almost imperceptible, and a timbre that I find it "dark and bright" at the same time. Initially I was looking for a way to convert it to a "conventional" sounding instrument, but then I asked myself, why? I decided it was better to appreciate that sound for what it was, that is, something new and unusual, rather than chasing the chimera of perfect sound.

Of course I would never use it to play traditional tango, but why discard it from scratch? Particularly now, when the bandoneón is gaining more and more importance on a musical level even outside the tango context.

In the 1960s Eduardo Rovira applied wah-wah and distortion to the sound of his bandoneón. I know that these experiments may seem anachronistic and a little forced today, but we must not repeat slavishly what the grown-ups did: we must look for what they were searching.

Eduardo Rovira was experimenting with new sounds, and I'm sure he ignored the existence of bandoneón with combinations of reeds other than the classic 142, because otherwise he would have used them. One of the most important aspects for the musician is the search for sound. We must go back to listening to the sound, and not what people say..

Conclusion e comments

Yes, I admit it: that of the organ was an excuse to express personal considerations about the bandoneón that had been around me on my mind for a long time. I am aware that I have disappointed many. But I hope that the disappointment turns into critical thinking and maybe sharing: if this article intrigued you, left you questions, and you feel that you want to share your opinions with me, I invite you to contact me by email - or using social networks (links below). I will be thrilled to hear your point of view!

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