Classical accordionist finds harmony with Asia


Another a fine example of synchronicity if ever there was one!

One day I’m talking cottage renovation in Scotland with Fiona Farmer of the Bathroom Company in Perth. A few weeks later, I’m sitting with her brother David in Shibuya, central Tokyo, regaling the gist of our conversation.

Fiona: I see (from my name card) that you live in Japan. Interesting. My brother lives there.

Me: Oh, what does he do?

She: He plays classical accordion.

Me (suitably surprised): Really? I’ve never heard of classical accordion. Can you put me in touch?

David Farmer laughs. He thinks it hysterical that bathroom fittings should have brought us together. I do too.

He apologizes for not having a name card of his own. “I used to have them when I first came to Japan four years ago, but gave them up. Now that I’m on the brink of signing with an agent, I guess I’d better make myself legitimate again.”

David and his sister grew up in a cottage, in a small place in Fifeshire called Saline (pronounced say-lin), outside Dunfermaline, the historic capital of Scotland.

“Like so many men living close to Edinburgh and the estuary, our father worked in the dockyards. He also played accordion. I began my musical career by trying to accompany him on the xylophone, then progressed.”

Ten years later Farmer left home. He studied for four years at The Royal Academy of Music in London, then went to Finland. “I studied for 12 months with Matti Rantanen at the Sibelius Academy on Helsinki. He’s considered to be one of the top teachers of classical accordion in the world, so I was very fortunate.”

Asked what he learned from Rantanen, Farmer looks thoughtful. “A lot of technical things obviously. But also tolerance, a broader outlook on music. That it was OK to accept any kind of music.

“London was so critical: He’s good, she’s bad; this is great, that’s rubbish. It’s rare to find a genuinely good teacher, and he was most certainly that.”

Returning to London to earn a postgraduate degree from RAM, Farmer debuted at the BBC Proms in 1998 while still in his 20s, and was immediately hailed as one of the most exciting and innovative exponents of the classical accordion in the world today.

Two interested invitations resulted: the first to act as a judge at the Beijing International Accordion Competition. “Because so many pianos were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, accordion-playing is huge in China. If you check the last frames of the movie ‘The Last Emperor,’ you will see an accordion band marching down the road.”

Then, in 1999, he was invited by the composer Karl Jenkins to feature as a soloist on the best-selling recording Adimeus 4: The Eternal Knot, resulting in a world premiere performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Classical accordion, I wonder aloud. What is the difference between what Farmer plays and the accordionists I find jamming with pianos, guitars, pipes, whistles and banjos in Scottish pubs?

It all began apparently with the creation of the concertina — a simple squeeze box — around the turn of the 19th century. It had melody buttons on the right side and pre-fixed chords on the left.

In the 1950s, the Russians pushed the instrument into the classical arena, by changing the left-side buttons so that they played single notes as well as pre-fixed chords.

This, David explains, enabled this type of accordion — called the Bayan — to be played like a piano, so extending its repertoire. “It means your left and right hands can play independent melodies, but by means of a clever switch, you can still have the facility to create traditional ooompa sounds and chords.”

Musicians began by playing the Baroque classicists Bach and Scarlatti; the repertoire then expanded throughout Europe.

Soon composers became interested. — among them, Sofia Gubaidulina, now Russia’s most prominent contemporary composer for the classical accordion.

After touring Europe, both as a soloist and with (for example) the Icebreaker Ensemble, and winning numerous prizes, Farmer was invited to record by the label Black Box. It was his first CD, “De Profundis” (the title of a work by Gubaidulina, with others by Russian Valadislav Zolotaryov, and Finn Erkki Jokinen) that brought him to Japan.

“I was lauded in Tower Records. They staged an in-store event, treated me like a VIP. I was here for 10 days, and quickly half-decided that if I really liked it, I would move my base from London to Tokyo.”

He came back here in 2003, and by his own admission, has had a bit of a struggle. But mostly it’s been personal stuff. “Nothing compared to being an impoverished student and standing outside a tube station in London with just 45 pence to my name. Even my mother doesn’t know about that grim episode, though I guess she will now.” (And he laughs.)

There have been no problems here in explaining himself as a classical accordionist; far from it! “Japanese love the accordion. They regard it as a giant sho — the classical instrument played in gagaku court music. Both instruments rely on the same kind of reed.”

No problem with employment either. A two-year contract through the scheme Zaidan Hojin ChiKisozo (Japan Forum of Regional Arts Program) to tour schools and retirement homes and care centers with other musicians, finished in April last year.

Now he works freelance. He performs solo recitals and will be teaching a summer seminar in Okutama from Aug. 18-20. He will play as an orchestral member with the Tokyo Philharmonic at the Suntory Hall on Sept. 1, and the Tokyo Symphony four days later.

“There’s plenty of material around that requires classical accordion. Young composers these days want to include unusual instruments.”

While happy to play any kind of music, he avoids jazz, for the simple reason that he can’t improvise. “That can be a downside to a classical training. For now, all the calls I receive are within the classical sphere. Of course I’d be happy for more; that’s why I’m getting an agent.”

He hopes to move from his current accommodation in Iruma in Saitama Prefecture to somewhere more naturally green and accommodating of music practice. “I want to be settled by April because Fiona and my mother are coming to check me out in my new setting.”

He wants them to better understand his decision to move half across the globe, his practice in zazen (sitting as a meditational practice) and kyudo (archery), and a newfound sense of purpose.

“I think my mother worries that my music is being somehow relegated to second place. It’s not. Five years from now, I’d like to be playing all over the world, teaching master classes and recording internationally, but always coming home to Japan.”