R: Our readers like to hear about the age-old question regarding “systems”. You play a Piano Bayan with B system free bass. Being a piano-accordionist myself know that piano-accordionists can often be made to feel like second class musicians in accordion circles by some adjudicators in competitions and some teachers when compared with our button-playing colleagues due to some of the genuine advantages button accordions have over piano-accordions such as in their extended range and in how much more tonal distances the hand can stretch to reach widely spaced notes. Their expectations are less somehow. Have you encountered such prejudices and has it made you stronger to prove you can be musically equal?
M: This latest experience gives me a lot of confidence to say that I am equal and I can do the same kind of stuff musically and technically but I have to say there is a lot of prejudice at every step, not in accordion circles and I’m not talking only against piano-accordion but accordion in general. Through the events that I do now I have great difficulty with sound engineers. I play with a band now and there is trumpet and violin and other instruments, guitar, percussion, double bass, and they’re fine with them because they worked with them but there’s something about accordion, and I get really incensed when I see, even in their notes, “squeeze box” or “accordi-AN”, it makes me feel so bad and then it’s such a struggle to amplify it. I ask for more volume or a bit more of this or that and it’s quite a difficult situation with sound engineers. Then you get divisions in the accordion world too which is quite funny. When I came to London, Owen tried to convince me to change to button accordion and I was always fascinated by this instrument and I thought that if I changed I would be so powerful but then I thought, well what about pianists, they have the same keyboard and even in the left hand they handle those technical details very well. It’s just a matter of working hard I suppose.
R: Yes, you may have to compromise on certain contemporary repertoire with stretches and range etc. but there is so much repertoire now not like in the old days where there wasn’t and while some composers like to exploit the ease with which button accordionists can stretch across two maybe even three octaves, other composers are less concerned with this aspect. Stretches aren’t everything, and certainly in terms of speed there are piano-accordionists who can certainly match button accordionists.
M: To me this division doesn’t really exist although in the Coupe Mondiale I competed in the piano-accordion category. I didn’t dare to go and compete in the general section but why? It wasn’t because I play the piano-accordion, it was because I was in my third year of studies at the RAM and I wasn’t that ready and that prepared with my repertoire and my repertoire choices and I would have had to be stronger if I wanted to go into the general section. There are some kind of prejudiced feelings in that but I think it’s disappearing. But also, I don’t know if it’s worth saying but I was talking to my friend and the feeling was that in the UK, and maybe it’s prejudiced of me to say this but maybe they would have been less interested in releasing an album on button accordion. So there is another side to the story.
R: I suppose in the UK the accordion is usually seen as the piano-accordion traditionally.
M: Certainly, but also when people hear I’m studying with Owen Murray they immediately say, “Well why don’t you play the button accordion?” I hate it when they say that. If it’s a classical accordion it has to be a button accordion. Different information feeds different people.
R: Interesting that Ksenija Sidorova another Of Owen Murray’s students who is hugely successful is also a piano-accordionist as was Yura Chubarenko but of that generation the majority played button. And within the button players several different button systems prevailed including some amazing hybrids like Zivorad Nikolic’s half B system half C system instrument. It’s a testament to the accordion department at the RAM to see that whatever the system is played all players can emerge successful. The most important thing is not the system but the music and what one can put into it and what one communicates.
M: Yes, I think ultimately the system just reflects your environment. In Lithuania the majority play piano-accordion with B-system left-hand and I think there are only two players I know who play buttons. That’s the tradition and everyone follows that tradition. In other countries they have other tradition and essentially as you say, it’s all about music. It’s just about repertoire and sometimes some composers do go a bit crazy with their experimentation and it’s nice for button accordion to have this repertoire but it shouldn’t make the piano-accordion less valuable.
R: I wanted to ask you a little more about the competitions you did like the Coupe Mondiale and Lithuania’s Got Talent. How did you prepare for those very different competitions, the coupe very much a singers, comedians, dancers etc.
M: Funnily enough both competitions happened in the same year – towards the end of 2010 – there was about a month’s gap between each of the selection rounds for the two competitions. I had a bit of a gap from the end of Lithuania’s Got Talent to prepare myself mentally and technically for the Coupe. I had always dreamt about participating in this competition and in the Summer of 2009 I had competed in the Galla-Rini competition of the ATG Accordionist and Teacher’s Guild of the USA, in Santa Clara California and some of the jury members were quite encouraging of me to participate in the Coupe which I didn’t take quite seriously at first because I thought there’s so much more I could do to get noticed as I I’m not going to get any prize and then I realised that it was a possibility and if people encouraged me why wouldn’t I win a prize? And I did it and I think it was a nice philosophy again from Owen Murray who told me to just go and play as if you were doing a concert. Don’t think of it as being a competition. That’s what I did. I went and played my best and I think it was a really nice performance, it may not sound humble to say so, but I was enjoying it. Usually I’m quite strict and critical with myself but this was something that went well. It was a big competition I realised that. Also it was a beautiful town and there were some people I know there and some that I met there so it was nice and it was unbelievable when I found out I had won. Actually it was just a matter of fractions as always with these things. In the end it’s just music and it depends on so many things and so many circumstances, the jury, some people like my interpretation and some don’t, it happens in competitions, it’s normal, and it made me very happy. Then with Lithuania’s Got Talent, I kept going, then through to the semi-final, then the final in December I think. I don’t know if you know but I tried to participate the year before and that time it didn’t quite work because I thought, ok, now I going to show them some contemporary accordion but went out immediately because on TV you have to find your angles which work best. So I thought to myself that if I was going to participate a second year in the show I was coming back to win. When I told them this at the selections they asked me, “What happens if you don’t?” And I said, “Well I will just keep coming back every year until I do!” That was my motivation. I was thinking very carefully about what I should play and at the time I was joining many pieces together and this was the beginning of my “crossover” performances and the middle step towards meeting my new manager and signing the contract, which is a sort of “crossover” thing, but still really inspired the classical record label Decca and the album got to number one the classical charts.
R: When was it released by the way?
M: 1st of July.
R: 1st of July. Gosh, wow! That’s really quick! Straight to number one! Amazing.
M: I don’t know how it happened. After winning Lithuania’s Got Talent as I said I was using it at best to get people to come to my concerts, a few concert tours back home and big concert halls just to expand this knowledge about accordion. In those concerts back in 2010-11 in the first 20 minutes there would be complete silence because the people were terrified, they would feel intimidated by pieces like Also Sprach Zarathustra that I’d start my concert with because they hadn’t expected that. But then when they started to hear music from different composers and different genres it would be a bit like a journey around the world then people started opening up and loving it. Those events showed me the importance of mixing different genres especially in the 21st century when people have so many choices one has to follow what they want but somehow incorporate what one wants.
R: I think what is nice about those popular classics, many of which are, and have been for many years, accordion showpieces not only for accordion but other instruments too, nevertheless you succeed in bringing something fresh to them which I think is important. You have something new to say with this music, you’re not just doing them the same way everyone else does. The gypsy band feel for some of them works real well and the Vivaldi with the chamber orchestra sounds great and you are absolutely together with them. I have to say also that it is recorded very well too. The sound of the accordion is good and it is always heard. It’s not recorded too closely nor too far so that you feel that there is space but there is clarity without too much keyboard noise. The sound is never too woolly but doesn’t sound harsh either. It’s edgy and doesn’t feel thick and bassy which many might find desirable but in the context of the ensemble works perfectly.
M: At some points we used six microphones. I think it’s important to experiment. We didn’t always use all of them but it was important to have them recording so then one could mix and match. It’s still something that in the music world I feel has not yet been determined; how to amplify the accordion successfully and naturally. Many engineers don’t really know how to deal with accordion. I’m never sure really.
R: I imagine Decca must have some pretty decent engineers and I find that increasing many engineers I work with have encountered accordion before compared to 10-15 years ago.
M: Perhaps in studios but live is a different story. But hopefully it’s getting better.
R: Taking you back to your roots now, how did you start to play?
M: I actually wanted to play the piano originally. I had never been to any live concerts, I had only just seen a pianist on TV and then I started tapping my fingers on the table and telling everyone I was going to play the piano. I remember we were trying to find a piano but basically I think my family couldn’t afford to buy one so my uncle, my godfather gave me a little small accordion which I started playing and didn’t have a teacher for a very long time so I just started playing folk songs, sing, which is funny looking back now because that was my beginning in music, folk songs, which is not unusual for accordionists but later when I attended the music school all types of music and folk music became a bit of a taboo for me, and now meeting lots of people who are not Lithuanian, but have become so interested in Lithuania and our music I started doing some arrangements with my violinist of true Lithuanian pagan music from a long time ago its’ such a pleasure to do that. Funny how you start then go away then come back to something and again this album is quite folky in places too.
This article is available also in: Italian