World Music off the cuff

ACDC, jazz and accordion don’t mix. But then Herbert Pixner came along and did things differently. Curtains up for world music.

  • September 2017

  • Reading time: 5'

    Reading time: 5'

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World Music off the cuff

ACDC, jazz and accordion don’t mix. But then Herbert Pixner came along and did things differently. Curtains up for world music.

“Imagine you’re driving on a highway towards Nepal. It is hot outside... really hot. 45 degrees C in the shade,” narrates Herbert Pixner on a stage constructed especially for this evening at the edge of the Fecknersee lake on the Jaufenpass. He sits with one leg bent, his accordion in one hand, a microphone in the other. “And suddenly you run out of petrol and the air conditioning quiets.” I’m sitting close to the lakeside stage, hanging on every single word. “After walking for 15 km , you finally reach an emergency pole. Your shirt is soaked through with sweat. And you realize that the telephone is out of order.” He grabs his accordion and plays a few sombre notes. 

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His own way

Herbert has never prioritised which instruments should play together. Enjoying the music played is the main priority. Over time the band’s lineup has become a harp, a guitar, a cello and Herbert on the accordion. Such a strange constellation might sound odd, but the music produced is something truly special. The musician, who was born in Passeiertal valley, describes the sound as “world music” or “progressive folk music.” I can’t put my finger on it either and perhaps I don’t want to...

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The Herbert Pixner Project

Herbert takes the stage with his harp-playing sister Heidi, contrabassist Werner Unterlercher of East Tyrol, and the charming Manuel Randi of Bolzano/Bozen, who Herbert has dubbed the “world’s best guitar player.” 

2 cows = 1 accordion

I am breathless for a moment. The backdrop here at 2,100 metres is spectacular. Far below in the valley I can make out San Leonardo in Passiria/St. Leonhard in Passeier. I can recognise on Herbert’s face just how much he’s enjoying the moment. Here in his home, on ‘his’ mountain. Because after all, everything actually began right here, albeit with a twist: Once he sat in these very meadows as a shepherd and now he’s a successful musician.

At an early age, Herbert joined the marching band in his home village of Valtina/Walten along with his father and sister. And yet from the moment he first heard a folk music accordion at the age of 16, the thought of playing never left his mind. Thanks to his father’s generosity, in no time at all there were two cows fewer in the barn and Herbert had his very own accordion. He learned to play all on his own, just as he learned to play other wind and brass instruments. Hearing him tell it, none of this was a very big deal. 

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Right and left turns

Herbert always had plenty of plans, even plans B and C: “The music business is quite delicate and things can dry up quickly.” About this fact he never had any illusions as the work of a musician is antithesis of a steady job. Herbert had to confront the fear of failure on a daily basis. “Or perhaps at some point one loses focus.” I look him in the eyes, which seem so honest, as he tells his story before the concert begins. For many years, he did everything he could to earn money with his music: opening receptions, wedding ceremonies and even “Tanzlmusik,” the music played during traditional dances. In 2008, he had his breakthrough, playing songs on stage that he composed himself. 

“I have been improvising my entire life. I ad lib on stage and somehow things roll on.” Herbert Pixner

Herbert has always wanted to do his own thing. And this is exactly what he does with his band: concert bookings and organisation, studio, and sales. They write their own songs together - sometimes just Heidi or Manuel, but mostly Herbert. “At the beginning it was difficult not to succumb to playing cover songs.” In the short term, this would have brought them more success. “With a different record label we would have had to play the usual stuff,” he admits. But this is not what he wanted. Since 2014, he now has his very own record label. “We saw things through and our fans appreciate what we’ve accomplished.” 120 concerts per year, 100,000 tickets sold in German-speaking countries. The group turn down an additional 200-300 other events. 

“I want to impart something to the audience with my concerts. They should go their own way, just as we have.” Herbert Pixner

Improvisation

Herbert has spent many summers high above the valleys of South Tyrol in an Alpine pasture. “You really get to know the high mountains, the harshness of the weather, the sudden appearance of winter and the stillness. You’re really on your own.” He makes sense of these experiences through music. The band seldom practices he tells me, as if this was normal for every group: “Perhaps once or twice a year, unless we’re making a new album and need to prepare. The rest takes place on the stage, spontaneously. Nearly half of the concert is like that so things are different every time we take stage.”

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Back to the concert: The tones are quick and the rhythm is gripping as Herbert expands and contracts the wooden ends of his accordion. His fingers dance wildly across the buttons. From time to time he chimes in with the trumpet, then a saxophone, and even a few high notes with a clarinet.

Wresting my attention from the stage, I notice the burning torches that encircle the lake. The atmosphere is magical and Herbert is visibly enjoying every moment. Especially here, where his journey first began. I get goose bumps. With obvious joy he sits upon the stage and observes what guitarist Manuel is playing today. The new and unexpected is on today’s set list along with freedom and improvisation. I too listen attentively to hear what will happen next. The pair lock eyes and begin a musical dialogue that becomes an exchange. Faster, ever faster and then deeper and higher before slowing once more and increasing in volume. In and then finding it’s way out, the song comes to a close, just like Herbert likes it.

Text: Katja Schroffenegger
Transcreation: Covi, Wurzer & Partner - Die Sprachdienstleister
Photos: Ivo Corrà
Video: Miramonte Film