Accordions Rising, Radio Interview with the Filmmaker

Filmmaker Roberta Cantow interviewed by Simon Watson for the Canadian Extra Features Podcast, September 19, 2018; transcription adapted by Daniel W. Patterson.


SIMON WATSON:  Today we have a film called Accordion Rising. We have the wonderful director, Roberta Cantow. You sent me a film about accordions, and I don't know anything about accordions, so I was fascinated by your film.

ROBERTA CANTOW:  Did you have any preconceived notions about accordions?

WATSON:  Not a thing. I've known nothing about them other than polka and you got an accordion.

CANTOW:  Very often the immediate response to “I'm making a film about accordions” is either a rolling of the eyes or “Oh, you got to be kidding me!” or something like that. Because within the culture accordions have a negative reputation. The reason I made this film was to address that negative impression and bring the truth about the accordion to the public, to the world. What I'm referring to here is mostly the United States. Somewhere along the line accordions became the butt of jokes. They were considered corny, associated with Lawrence Welk. And even when they were associated with polka, you know, people think, “Okay, enough already with the polka!”

WATSON:  Do you play the accordion?

CANTOW:  No, I didn't play the accordion. I was like many people. I had that negative impression. I remember when I first came out to California, I met somebody who told me he played the accordion. And here he was in his 50s, still playing the songs he played when he was 13. I wasn’t informed, wasn’t educated. I thought the range of music that one could play on the accordion was somewhat limited. These are incorrect assumptions. It became clear to me when I started receiving postcard announcements from the San Antonio area for an accordion festival, and they were these beautiful postcards with wonderful graphics, very alluring, very intriguing. You could listen online to a few samples of some of the material. I started to open up, and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to go to this festival. I'm going to go and find out ‘Is there a film to be made?’” That was really the beginning. I just was lit up at this festival, and the range of music that they had was more than you could imagine. It was every style, every country. There was certainly some Tex Mex stuff, but no, that was definitely not where it stopped. They had people from all over the world playing all kinds of variations of accordion music, and all with great skill as well.

WATSON:  In the film one guy talks about how they don't offer any courses in accordion. Did you try to find an accordion school?

CANTOW:  I can tell you that there are certainly more universities now that offer the accordion as a major than was the case years ago. And there is the woman in my film, Pauline Oliveros, who recently passed away at the age of 85. She did major in the accordion in the University of Texas back in the thirties. I know in San Diego, which is where I live, they also have a program that allows you to major in an accordion. I didn't think about going to the schools until I was finished and trying to market it.

WATSON:  Is there a market for an accordion film?

CANTOW:  A mass market like there might be for a romantic comedy or thriller? I don't think there's an equivalent.

WATSON:  So what did you do with the film, then.  Did you market it at film festivals?

CANTOW:  It has played at some festivals—not at accordion festivals, because they're mostly not set up to show movies. But there are, I would say, 50 to 100 accordion groups on Facebook. So one of the very first things I did was I joined them. I announced to those groups. So I got some momentum that way. People started passing around the clips that I posted. It's a lot of work to promote a film. There’s also an educational distribution. I have an educational distributor who promotes it either as a single stand-alone DVD or as a streaming option and there have been purchases from various universities for it, but now it's streaming on Amazon and any number of other platforms. The burden falls to me to promote it, so that people know where to find it. I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of my potential audience, because you'd be surprised how many people are into accordion.
          The other thing that's important is that the accordion people often think of—whether it's polka, Lawrence Welk, or all these standard things—is not the accordion of today. And that's what I'm presenting in the film: all the other options, all the alternative uses, applications, and the last thing, inspirations. The accordion is now showing up in theatrical pieces. I have somebody in the film talking about his interest in photographing accordions and accordion players, and not to mention all the different categories of music, including new music, experimental music, etc. That's where the accordion is today.
         At the same time, there is an on-going “struggle” within the accordion world, which the film also touches upon, and that is the dichotomy between whether accordion music is seen as “high art” or “low art.” Those who want the instrument to be viewed as a classical instrument capable of playing all manner of classical music want it to be seen as a form of high art. They participate in accordion orchestras or play within symphonies and feel that the accordion should be recognized that way. Others, who are in touch with and appreciate its roots in various folk traditions, are comfortable with its being placed in the “low art” category. One jazz composer in the film, Will Holshouser, notes his preference for this “low art” categorization when he says that he draws from those forms when he composes his jazz pieces, that those tunes provide his inspiration.  I got a taste of this debate when I showed the film at the Las Vegas Accordion Convention, a rather old school, aging, conservative group, where one participant informed me that he felt some of the more edgy commentary in the film was ridiculing the instrument. He was apparently hypersensitive. In fact, in my view, it was just a different form of appreciation coming from a different, more current generation. But apparently, this” high art” vs. “low art” debate seems to drag on.

WATSON:  Did you ever look at how the accordion was made?

CANTOW:  I did do an interview with an accordion repairman. He was an older gentleman, had come from Italy or Yugoslavia, I forget which, very charming, and he repaired accordions as well as pianos. He also played a few tunes for me. It was very sweet. But you know, at a certain point you have to have a through line and a story arc. So he just seemed to be off the beaten path.

WATSON:  When you were doing the research for the film, one of your people you interviewed talked about the guitar killing the accordion. Do you think so?

CANTOW:  There's some debate about that. A lot of people think that’s the reason the accordion lost some popularity. One other theory ties it to the introduction of rock and roll. It was the coming of a new age. The accordion up until that time had been used in a very “All American” way. I mean to say in a very safe family-oriented, Americana kind of music. And when Rock and Roll came along, that just shot that to hell.
          But I think it's like any generation, you know: “My children aren't listening to my music. They're doing their own thing.” Right? So I think the advent of the guitar was just what these kids wanted to listen to. “I don't want to listen to the accordion—that's my parents’ music.”

WATSON:  I'm not sure whether I understand your argument.

CANTOW:  Well, just the way a guy stated it. I think it was [Robert] Winans. He thought that the guitar took over because it was phallic, symbolized by the neck of the guitar. That's just one person's construction. I think it's mostly not the guitar, the instrument, but rock and roll, the music.

WATSON   You have a wonderful man that owns an accordion shop. How did you find him?

CANTOW:  I should say I was very lucky in that I had, first, friends who were connected in the music world, composers or what not, and some of them were connected to some of the people that ended up in the film. So I got an entree to those people. And then once I met those people, a simple question was, do you have any suggestions or recommendations about other people I can interview? And so that gave me a whole new network. And among them was Alex Carozza, who had a shop in New York City on 48th street, which was known as “Music Row” or “Music Instrument Row.” I was very fortunate to have that time with him because even the whole Music Row kind of fell apart shortly after I finished my film. The stores and shops started closing. Alex moved his shop to another street nearby, but he didn't stay there long. I now understand he's retired in Florida. And it's only been three years since I finished the film.

WATSON:  Did you not think you could spend a whole day with Alex?

CANTOW:  I'm sure. Especially his shop, an incredible museum. He had a story for each and every one of them. They were there in the shop and on display, but he had no of selling them. They were his treasured objects. And you know, he comes to it from an Old World perspective. I think he's from a Latin American country, but he had a kind of a classic background. You could tell by the things he referred to—the way the accordion is not like the organ—and giving examples. But I especially appreciated his remark about how it's women who are the majority of people who buy the accordion now and come into the shop.

WATSON:  The guy who played in the cemetery was fascinating too.

CANTOW:  I'm not sure I know exactly who you mean, because they played as a small group. There were four or five players in the cemetery.

WATSON:  I thought they were great. That was at the New Orleans thing. When they're in the cemetery there during the tour, that group of people.

CANTOW:  That tour took place in New York city, in Brooklyn. It was the seventh year of a show called “Angels and Accordions.” It's a site-specific work, which means that it takes place at the site. In this case, they had chosen the cemetery. Each year it was different. They would never repeat the same thing each year. And there was a group of accordion players, some more skilled than others. But they were all integrated into the quote/ unquote performance, which involved basically a walking tour through this gorgeous old Green-Wood Cemetery, where all these music luminaries are buried, including Leonard Bernstein. And some others I can't recall right this minute. So depending on the skill of the accordion player, they were either part of the little orchestra that would start and end the program, or if not, they were people that you would hear as you strolled through on the walking tour playing a variety of Americana songs, traditional songs, et cetera. And then the orchestra which consisted of five more skilled players, they would play music composed by Guy Klucevsek. He's the star, the star of the show. Not only that show, but in many ways I did emphasize him throughout the film at various points. Because I was so very taken with what he did with the accordion that was totally new and different.  

WATSON:  Did you find anything about the accordion that surprised you?

CANTOW:  I didn't know that there were so many different kinds of accordions—and there are many different kinds. And they have to be played differently. It's not like, “Oh, if you can play one accordion you can play any accordion.” There’s the piano accordion, which requires one hand to play the piano. And there's the button accordion, which I think has buttons on both sides and relies on the bellows. You have to get it to do what you want to do. The bellows are moving in and out very quickly. That's referenced in the film in relation to the Tex/Mex type music. And then there's the bandoneon, which would be the classic kind of instrument you'd hear with tango music. It has a different shape, and it's played more on your lap and up by your chest. But it's certainly in the accordion family, even though it's not an accordion. It's the bandoneon. I just fell in love with everything I didn't know about accordions and accordion music. 

WATSON:  I was fascinated by the bath-house dance party. How did you get your equipment in there to film it?

CANTOW:  Oh, the bath-house section is a guy talking about the gigs that he did at these bath houses in New York City, one in particular for Valentine's Day. And the truth of the matter is I wasn't there. Those were still photographs. They were delivered to me, and I just integrated them into his explanation. It's a little shocking when it first comes on. That same person is referring to how he was so drawn to Eastern European music, and he references the film Time of the Gypsies, so I included a couple of clips from Time of the Gypsies as well. That's why you see the young boy with the glasses and the turkey on the table. He's playing a little red accordion, and the turkey is making sounds as he plays. I feel that it's nice that there are these moments of lightness and humor. But as long as I'm telling it all, you might like to know that there's a whole category or two that were left out of this film. And these were either orchestras that include accordions or accordion orchestras, meaning an entire full orchestra made up of accordions. And I came to understand (they're mostly playing classical material) there were some disgruntled feelings that I had left out that whole classical realm of the accordion. And here's my answer to that, as long as I have a platform to share it. Let's look at the title of the film Accordions Rising. It wasn't meant to be what the accordion has been, so much as how it's becoming, how it's growing and developing in the musical imagination.

WATSON:  Did you have any problem in approaching people?  Did they want to tell you their stories?
CANTOW:  Oh, absolutely. I mean there was nobody in the film who didn’t want to be in the film and was unwilling to participate.

WATSON:  Did you receive a “No, I don't want to do that.”

CANTOW:  No, never.

WATSON:  I do want to ask about Nicole Renaud. Wonderful singer. Absolutely blew me away.

CANTOW:  She has a wonderful life. Honestly, it's amazing. She lives in New York City. She does gigs in New York City at these dinner clubs, very elegant kind of dinner clubs. At a certain point in the year, she goes off to the island of Capri and has a three or four months’ sojourn in Europe, where she's entertaining guests of a particular hotel and traveling around. Exactly where she is all the time, I don't know. But she's very celebrated. She sings soprano and plays an illuminated accordion. It's transparent and lit up from inside. Beautiful to look at. I found her online. I looked up “accordion players, New York City” or something of that nature, and I came across her. I reached out to her cold, and she was very accommodating. We had a very nice time. I really honor what these people do—and some of them do it at a great price to—how should I say?—their income-earning potential.

WATSON:  In the film they talk about how younger people are picking up the accordion. You've done this film and met accordion players—maybe a hundred. Do you think younger people are picking it up?

CANTOW:  I absolutely think they are. In fact, some in the film ARE younger people. I mean younger than me, and I think I'm older than you. But you're reminding me that there’s another thing I didn't include. Some local accordion player here had reached out to me to ask me if I might like to interview his student. He had a young child—a boy who was maybe twelve—that he was teaching to play the accordion, a boy I did a shoot with. He was practicing out in the backyard. I thought very seriously about including him, but it was just a struggle how to get it to work and to make the film come to a conclusion. So it really ended up being a tradeoff between what I used and the idea of this young person with his interest in following in the footsteps of his accordion teacher.

WATSON:  How did you fund your film?

CANTOW:  I used an extra funding source, Indiegogo. I don't remember how I connected with people on Indiegogo. Where did I find my list of people to connect to? I don't remember that, but I did get some funding from that endeavor. The other thing to know is that I shot in the lower HDV format. Once I had a camera and bought some film—and wasn't paying myself to do the editing—there weren't a lot of expenses until the end when I had to put it all together, do the color correction and sound mix. Some of it came out of pocket. I didn't have—which I was used to having in the past—grants. I have several past films that were funded with grants. This just didn't happen to be one of them.

WATSON:  I forgot to ask you one question. You showed the Serbian film in your documentary. Did you have to get rights for that?

CANTOW:  Oh, you mean Time of the Gypsies. This was another expense by the way. hired a fair-use attorney. There are certain rules and regulations regarding quote/unquote fair use in a documentary, and they have to do with the length of the material that you borrowed and the purpose of the material. So If you're not doing it or including it gratuitously, but it is there to serve a particular function—that you're illuminating a point being made in the film—you can use about thirty seconds. And so I passed that requirement with the two little clips from that film that I included. One piece that is played in my film (for 30 seconds) and for which I needed to pay (probably the copyright holder), was performed by Frank Petrilli, who is in the film. The recording is off his CD called Totally Frank, and the piece in question is “Day in the Life of a Fool” by Luiz Bonfá, the composer and primary artist of the soundtrack of the film Black Orpheus.

WATSON:  Think you will do another documentary on the accordion?

CANTOW:  I've gotten, especially on Facebook, many, many, many replies about how they hope I do a sequel. And what about blues accordion? I didn't have enough of that. And what about women accordionist? That I should do a whole film on women accordionists. There's a wide variety of music being played by women.  And the classical accordion orchestra, etc. That was what people wanted and wished for. But the fact of the matter is, I think that my days of filmmaking are over. The reason is not because of anything having to do with sour grapes or anything of that nature. I finished the film in 2015, and I'm still working on promoting it. The things that are required to do—now more than before—to keep your film out in front of the public, so people know where they can access it, etc.  Not to mention the learning curve of social media, which has started off being all new to me. I get things in my inbox about what I need to learn about hashtags and this and that. It’s a lot to keep up with. Here it is three years later, and to be honest with you, there are people making films one after another. I don't know how they do it. I mean they have to have a team much bigger than me, and I'm just me. That's all I've got.

WATSON:  What’s your favorite film?

CANTOW:  The one that basically launched my interest in film was the Fellini film La Strada.
WATSON:  And my last question. Is there a documentary that you've never made that you always wanted to get to?

CANTOW:  I don't think my answer is “Yes.” That's kind of a convoluted way of answering “No.” I make these declarations frequently. “I'm never going to make another film.” And then I end up doing it. So there's always the possibility that some new idea will come to me and I will be so grabbed by it, as I was with the accordion film, that it will just set me off on a new path. That’s how my ideas have come to me. They're not like a list, and I check them off, and now I got to do the next one. It comes to me in a more organic way.

WATSON:  Tell everybody where they can find this great film.

CANTOW:  Accordions Rising is online. It’s streaming on multiple platforms. And there's a website Accordions Rising.com and all the information is there. It can be purchased as a disk or as a Blue Ray. Canadian viewers can see it on Video Prime or Prime.com. And let me interject. On the west coast of Canada there's a festival that occurs every year called the Accordion Noir Festival, and there's also the Vancouver Squeezebox Circle, which is a group of accordion players that meet I believe once a month. They've been helping me get the film out and for a certain period of time they were mailing the films from within Canada for people in Canada who wanted them.