Decades ago there were several endeavors to commission a bunch of living composers working in a broad range of styles to write short dance pieces for solo keyboard. Perhaps the most famous of these initiatives was The Waltz Project which yielded a collection of 17 solo piano works composed mostly in 1977 by an extraordinary collection of people including—among others—Philip Glass, Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Joan Tower, and one-time Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten. The scores were subsequently published by C.F. Peters and, in 1981, Nonesuch released an LP of performances of them by a group of pianists that included Alan Feinberg and Yvar Mikhashoff.
Although that LP has been long out of print and has yet to be reissued on CD, many of those waltzes were re-recorded by Eric Moe, along with some new ones, on a 2004 Albany disc entitled The Waltz Project Revisited. Perhaps even more ambitious was Mikhashoff’s Tango Project. Between 1983 and 1991, he had amassed some 127 tangos by 127 different composers—another amazingly eclectic list including Babbitt and Cage (together again), as well as Chester Biscardi, Carla Bley, Alvin Curran, William Duckworth, Miriam Gideon, and Ralph Shapey. Sadly Mikhashoff succumbed to AIDS in 1993, but a year before his death he recorded 19 of these tangos and a disc featuring those performances was released posthumously by New Albion Records on the CD Incitation to Desire (which was named after Biscardi’s tango).
Guy Klucevsek’s Polka from the Fringe is another one of these projects and is much in the same spirit, albeit with a few twists. Between 1986 and 1988, Klucevsek commissioned a bunch of composers to write polkas for another keyboard instrument, the accordion. While for most people in this country the accordion primarily conjures up oom-pah bands at old beer halls, generations ago it also inspired compositions by Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, and Alan Hovhaness. In Europe the instrument is now regularly used in cutting-edge new music. (There’s actually a substantive list of European avant-garde compositions for solo accordion and orchestra!) But here in the United States there have only been a handful of accordionists who have attempted to explore a broader range of possibilities, though admittedly Pauline Oliveros as well as William Schimmel and Klucevsek—both through their own compositions and commissioning work from others—have done a lot to recontextualize the instrument. Polka from the Fringe, however, is an attempt to get composers to directly engage in the squeezebox’s more quotidian roots.
Selections from the repertoire Klucevsek engendered were originally released on cassette in the late ‘80s and then on two different CDs in the early ‘90s on now-defunct labels. Starkland’s new 2-CD release of Polka from the Fringe has finally made this material available once again and collects it for the first time in one place. All in all, the discs contain a total of 29 tracks written by Klucevsek and 27 other composers. While neither Babbitt or Cage is represented (too bad), the range here is as broad as the Waltz and Tango projects and perhaps somewhat more so since the resulting pieces not only include solo accordion compositions but also pieces for a full polka band (the band’s name is Ain’t Nothin’ But A Polka Band) in which Klucevsek is joined by David Garland singing and whistling, John King on guitar, violin, dobro, and vocals, David Hostra on a variety of basses from stand up to electric to tuba, and Bill Royle on drums, marimba, and triangle, as well as other occasional guest musicians such as violinist Mary Rowell and percussionist Bobby Previte.
The music turns on a dime from track to track. The sheer loveliness of William Duckworth’s Polking Around or Mary Jane Leach’s Guy De Polka conjures up a very different mood from the spikiness of pieces like Aaron Jay Kernis’s Phantom Polka and Mary Ellen Childs’s Oa Poa Polka. I couldn’t get enough of the relentless experimentalism of Daniel Goode’s Diet Polka (a personal favorite), but Peter Garland’s pastoral Club Nada Polka, which immediately follows it on the CD, was nevertheless a fascinating juxtaposition. Many of the composers used the polka as a springboard for out and out zaniness, such as Fred Frith’s The Disinformation Polka, Lois V Vierk’s Attack Cat Polka, or Pontius Pilate Polka by Microscoptic Septet leader Phillip Johnston. Then there’s Elliott Sharp’s Happy Chappie Polka, a visceral minute and a half of punk assaultiveness that should forever put an end to the mistaken belief that polkas are milquetoast. It’s a 1979 piece which predates Klucevsek’s commissions, but it is a very welcome inclusion nevertheless.
In the very extensive booklet packaged with the discs, which includes the complete lyrics for all the tracks featuring vocals (try to sing along), there are informative essays about the genesis of the project by Klucevsek as well as Elliott Sharp. In his essay, Sharp says that he and Klucevsek both found inspiration in a dismissive comment made by Charles Mingus: “Let the white man develop the polka.” I would have loved to have heard what Mingus might have done with polkas. (A Mingus album released only a year before his death completely redefined the Colombian cumbia.) Perhaps an even broader range of adventurous creative musicians will be tempted to tackle the polka after hearing what Klucevsek and his compatriots did with it now more than 20 years ago. Perhaps, better still, the next time someone comes up to you claiming to be able to define new music, tell him or her to listen to these recordings.