Jean-Etienne Sotty – Augmented Accordion

Artistic Residencies: The Blog

"Accordez, accordez / accordez donc / L'accordéon / en microtons": Gainsbourg would have to change the lyrics of his song, now that Jean-Etienne Sotty has come along. The accordionist has ‘augmented' his instrument through an artistic research residency carried out at IRCAM over the past few months. Augmented how? Let’s see.

Genesis of an accordion

It all began in 2015, when the two accordionists Fanny Vicens and Jean-Étienne Sotty had the idea of making their instrument develop and evolve, both by creating a new repertoire and searching for new playing techniques and by developing unique manufacturing techniques. “We had been looking for new sounds with the accordion for a long time, a bit like the prepared piano," says Jean-Étienne Sotty. We were familiar with the types of instrumental effects that can be obtained with string or wind instruments such as artificial harmonics or microtones. We were also familiar with the timbral rather than harmonic contribution of quarter tones in Gérard Grisey's music. Grisey, incidentally, was himself a trained accordionist.

The first step was taken in the development of the microtonal accordion XAMP (for eXtended Accordion and Music Project) in 2016, working alongside luthier Philippe Imbert. Using the structure of the classical accordion, a totally acoustic instrument, but tuning part of the reeds to be able to play quarter tones, while retaining the entire range. "While staying true to the fundamental nature of our instrument, we have found a system that has made it possible to renew its timbre,” sums up Jean-Étienne Sotty.

At the same time, the second stage is already in the making. Invited on numerous occasions to play with electronics, notably for students in the IRCAM Cursus program, the two accordionists naturally turn to computer music to satisfy their hunger for new sounds. This led to the idea of a residency in artistic research at IRCAM, based on the idea of a hybrid accordion. " But the project, from its first drafting and even in its title, aims to go beyond the simple idea of a fusion.  We intend to explore a sort of symbiosis between instrument and electronics. My curiosity for the sound potential of electronics is sometimes coupled with a small apprehension: that of an excessive scenic burden of the electronic system, susceptible of suffocating the human presence of the performer. So I wanted to find a formula developed for the instrument: keeping full control of the instrument and ensuring a scenic emphasis on the instrument and the instrumentalist, while incorporating the dynamism of the electronics.

Everything starts with the instrument

One of the most important challenges of this residency was for Jean-Étienne Sotty learn about the latest technological advances in and issues surrounding computer music tools in order to be able to exchange ideas with members of the various IRCAM research teams involved in the project: Arnaud Recher and Emmanuel Flety for the material and electronic manufacturing (fixing the loudspeakers inside the instrument as well as the circuits and control modules for playing the instrument), Simone Conforti for the computer part, and Robert Piéchaud who supervised the residency. A truly collaborative endeavor that included the renowned Philippe Imbert, who intervened directly on the instrument, as well as Fanny Vicens—who served as a guinea pig—and several composers.

Thereafter, all the research and additions made to the acoustic instrument were carried out according to a golden rule, the rule of proximity:

« everything must have its source in the instrument itself. The loudspeakers were chosen according to the accordion's range, they were placed in the instrument according to a logic close to that of the reeds, the selection of the loudspeakers is done by electronic register buttons, and so on.»

The result of the work is ultimately quite simple, at least from a structural point of view. The hybrid accordion is an XAMP microtonal accordion fitted with two pairs of small loudspeakers, giving the instrument the ability to broadcast electronic sounds. Four loudspeakers that Simone Conforti has literally 'tuned', based on precise measurements of the accordion, carried out in an anechoic chamber, giving the augmented instrument a 'very subtle' sound quality, according to Jean-Étienne Sotty.

The surprise accordion

Nevertheless, even though the new augmented instrument was designed in this way from the outset, it is a surprise when everything is finally functional.

"The on-board electronics make it possible to transform the instrument into a broadcasting device. Hearing a voice recording, broadcast from my instrument, was a shock. What I heard was colored by the instrument, came from the instrument... The instrument had become emancipated from the player. I was fascinated to see to what extent my presence as an musician is no longer focused on the instrumental playing, but on the writing, on the creation of this object. It is as if the accordion had mutated into a fixed work, on the border between sonic and visual art. This does not prevent the instrument from being experienced as a whole by its creator.

« The electronics are no longer another musical part, they are truly a product of my instrument and I can modify them, color them with the gestures of my instrument. On the other hand, the electronic system gives it a new type of memory: the computer memory. This work of recording and collecting will be a new part of my work as a musician in the future and I am eager to see what such work will reveal about this new hybrid practice, as well as how composers will use it, and its scenic potential ».

And this could lead to a major shift in audience perceptions.”