If you wanted to start an all-banjo band around here, chances are you’d have no problem getting together a few dozen folks right off the bat. All mandolin? You should be able to enlist at least as many. But all accordions? Asheville musician August Hoerr was able to come up with eight.
It’s among the most well-known and well-loved instruments in the world: Argentine tango, Tex-Mex conjunto, Louisiana zydeco, Polish mazurka, and German polkas all center around the accordion. Recently, “dark cabaret,” neo-burlesque and gypsy punk bands such a Gogol Bordello have elevated it with avant-garde status.
Hoerr has been playing the accordion since high school, in recent years as part of the Mezmer Society, a performance project with dancer Onca O’Leary and a part of the guitar-accordion duo Ashes In Order with Shane Perlowin. He’s taught accordion lessons locally, and mostly out of a desire to share songs and techniques, brought together a few accordionists to start the Asheville Accordion Club. Composed of musicians with different levels of skill, the club mainly met up to “talk shop” and help each other learn songs, says Hoerr. As it turned out, though, the members of the group had a shared interest not only in the accordion, but in esoteric philosophy and synesthesia (the combination of one sensory experience, such as music, with another, such as color). What are the chances? This kismet seemed like a great opportunity for a musical experiment. The Institute for the Advancement of Occultism and Aerophonics was born.
This may require a bit more of an explanation. Sit tight.
A friend had told Hoerr about Alexander Scriabin, an eccentric, mustachioed, turn-of-the-20th-century Russian composer who was, in spirit at least, something of a predecessor to Harold Camping. Scriabin believed the end of the world could be brought about in grand fashion by what Hoerr says was intended to be “an epic multimedia event.” The year was 1903. A temple would be built in the foothills of the Himalayas. There would be dancers and light shows. Everyone in the world would participate and be carried off into heaven in a state of musical ecstasy. Scriabin died in 1915 without ever having completed the composition, aptly named Mysterium. But his ambitions were so grandiose, his vision so singular, it seemed a shame to Hoerr not to bring the piece back to life. Why not reinterpret it for the accordion?
The Institute for the Advancement of Occultism and Aerophonics was up for it. Pairing what Hoerr calls Scriabin’s “discredited beliefs” with an instrument that “has a lot of baggage” was an intriguing concept for the group. Hoerr “radically” adapted the composition — no easy feat, since it was originally conceived for voice, piano, and perhaps gongs. It was centered around what Scriabin called the “mystic” or Prometheus chord, a six-note pitch collection. Played on the accordion, it has a lovely, ambient and yes, mystical quality.
The group — consisting of accordionists Nicole McConville, Cassie Barrett, Jeremy Brett Carter, Patrick Kukucka and Sparrow (also of the Sugarfoot Serenaders), Tiziana Severse (also of Albatross Party) and Valerie Meiss (of vaudevie.com) — performed the piece live this past April at (Re)happening, Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center’s homage to the spirit of experimentation that took place at the school. The event was fitting for the composition’s debut says Hoerr, because, in a way, John Cage (one of the College’s most famous alumni) was, if not a direct musical heir to Scriabin, at least a kindred spirit in his expansive thinking about music. The Institute has also performed at Bobo and Black Box Studio in West Asheville.
Each of the Institute’s members has other projects going on, musical and otherwise. Hoerr is currently working on a solo album (“influenced by Eastern European music, with lots of accordion, but also including multi-track choral singing, spiked fiddles, banjo, and a fair amount of genre hopping”). He’s also been performing and playing at Tribal Con, an annual event held in Atlanta, which centers around “tribal dance and music” (think belly dancing and Middle Eastern music meets avant-garde cabaret).
But the members of the group hope to perform their version of Mysterium and other pieces (no need to wait for the end of the world) together again when the right occasion presents itself.
Visit www.augusthoerr.com for more information.