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Accordionist Guy Klucevsek intones one caveat for those tempted to come to his concerts. “Remember,” he cautions, “this isn’t weird music for polka people, these are polkas for weird people.”
Klucevsek–to pronounce his name, say the “c” as an “s,” and leave out the “s”–doesn’t look like a weird person as he explains the wrinkle he’s created in the history of the humble polka. Onstage, however, his shy, Clark Kent demeanor gives way to a canny self-effacing showmanship that has charmed audiences on the east coast and across Europe. The man who single-handedly made the accordion a staple of downtown Manhattan new-music ensembles, Klucevsek is arguably the world’s greatest virtuoso in the instrument’s growing avant-garde repertoire. He’s also the instigator of a collection of new polkas, which he calls “Polka From the Fringe,” 31 certifiably weird pieces, of which 25 will be performed in their Chicago premiere Monday.
The light bulb that eventually resulted in “Polka From the Fringe” popped on over Klucevsek’s head in 1986, while listening to pianist Yvar Mikhashoff’s tango collection. Klucevsek began asking his composer friends–Bobby Previte, Christian Marclay, Lois V. Vierk, David Garland, Nicolas Collins–to write “Polkas” for him, imposing only two criteria: that the piece be limited to three minutes and that it be playable in both solo accordion and quartet versions. Given such vague directives, his friends responded with a wild variety of firsts: the first 12-tone polka, the first polka in 7/8 meter, the first polka with manipulated-turntable solo, the first computer-assisted polka, the first deconstructionist polka, and my favorite–the only polka ever written that requires the band to take off their shirts and perform on Kleenex boxes. Five or six of the polkas, he says, “you could drop into a dance setting and maybe only raise one eyebrow. The rest would stop everyone dead in their tracks.”
Klucevsek is one of the few avant-garde musicians who know what a polka is, and he’s spent a lot of time defining it. “Traditionally it’s a two-step in major key, which is why it has a feeling of good times. As soon as you put it in minor, it comes off more like an Israeli hora. In Slovenian polkas [from a section of prewar Yugoslavia], which is what I grew up playing, it was always an AABBA form, repeated as many times as the dance required. Of course, even as a kid I could hear a huge difference between Slovenian and Polish polkas, and the Tex-Mex polka is very different.”
Klucevsek came to the polka early and honestly. Born near Pittsburgh into a Slovenian family, he grew up playing accordion at picnics and weddings, though his teacher also gave him a broad base in classical accordion arrangements. “I was playing Brahms’s Violin Concerto, the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, Bach inventions, Scarlatti sonatas on the accordion. I can’t say it was always in the best taste, but it gave me chops. The Brahms was pretty wild.” Entering music school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Klucevsek disowned Slovenian music for fear he would lose credibility. “It was bad enough I was playing accordion.”
Later, at the University of Pittsburgh, Klucevsek met one of the pioneers of electronic music, Morton Subotnick, who played for him Steve Reich’s Come Out and Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air, pieces that convinced him to become a serious composer. He followed Subotnick to the California Institute of the Arts, and after working in the electronic studio there he realized that new-music technology was making his instrument more relevant. “Working with electronic music, where you can sustain a sound indefinitely, got me thinking about the sustaining possibilities of the accordion. And on the synthesizer, you couldn’t just play pitches, you had to decide on the color first, whether it was a sine wave, saw-tooth, square wave, or whatever. I started associating those with the switches on the accordion, which is such an acoustically rich instrument, but I had never heard it that way before.”
Klucevsek concertized and taught in Philadelphia and New York for more than a decade without gaining much attention; he can count the events, all since 1984, that have marked a change in the public attitude toward the accordion. “The single biggest change was Paul Simon’s album Graceland, which used South African, Cajun, and zydeco players.” Simon, he says, started a return to regional American music. Klucevsek had learned of the rich American regional accordion tradition in 1980: “I had been to the New Orleans Jazz and Blues Festival and heard 20 accordion players there who blew my socks off.” He also mentions Ry Cooder, who started using Flaco Jimenez in his sound tracks, Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco, Los Lobos, and Tom Waits as influences. Then there was the success of Tango Argentina on Broadway, because although Astor Piazzolla had been selling out halls in Europe since the early 70s, he wasn’t known at all in the United States.
“Someone asked me in an interview five years ago, ‘What could turn the accordion around?’ And I said, ‘If somebody introduced it into the mainstream, so that people who don’t have any contact with it outside of polkas, who see it as a corny instrument, would listen to it in other contexts, too.’ And I think that’s what happened.”
Most of Klucevsek’s performances have been in arty contexts where he’s spent more time explaining the polka than defending his deviations from it, but occasionally he’ll find himself deep in polka country, meeting resistance. He spent February at a performing residency in Iowa, and he says, “I’d ask for questions and people would say, ‘I’m Slovenian, and you can’t dance to these! I’d answer, ‘Well, you know how Chopin wrote mazurkas and waltzes, and Bach wrote gigues and minuets, and you can’t dance to them; they were using them as compositional forms.’ ‘Yeah, but you can’t really dance to it.’ Even intellectuals will give me that line sometimes, I think because there’s an aura about the polka that it’s a good-time thing, you shouldn’t intellectualize it. On a pop level, it’s sacrosanct.
“I try to explain to people who dance to polkas that by creating an alternative collection I’m not trying to negate what’s already there, I’m trying to add to it in a different way. But some people see it as a rejection of the traditional form. I’m working in the only language of polka I can work in, my compositional style and my performing style. I couldn’t be a traditional polka player at this point.”
Klucevsek will show us the way of the postmodern polka at the Goodman Theater, 200 S. Columbus, Monday, March 27, at 8 PM, performing with the other three members of the fabulous “Polka From the Fringe” quartet: John King on electric violin and guitar, Dave Hofstra on bass and tuba, and Bill Ruyle on drums; the guest singer will be David Garland. Admission is $18.50; for more info, call 242-6237.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.