from the Julliard Music School website
Julliard Alumni News Spotlight
William Schimmel: A Bellows-Pleated
If youve seen the movie Scent of a Woman, you recognize that
elegant-but-slightly-louche sound of the tango. But you may not
know that accordionist William Schimmel (B.M. 69, M.S. 70,
D.M.A. 73, composition) and his band, the Tango Projectwhich
is featured in the film, and currently includes violinist (and Juilliard
alum) Mary Rowell and pianist Michael Sahlprovided the first
spark that lit the tangos revival in America.
Schimmel, 61, has succeeded in restoring cool to a
somewhat clunky instrument without removing its outsider appeal.
But he was hardly aware of the accordions declining status
in the mid-1950s when, as a 10-year-old in Philadelphia, he threatened
dire consequences if he didnt receive one for Christmas. All
he knew was that the pat on the head he earned for his piano recitals
didnt begin to compare with the revelry that erupted when
his uncles arrived at the house and took out their accordions.
By the time Schimmel auditioned for composition studies at Juilliard,
his training at the Neupauer Conservatory in Philadelphia (where
his uncles had gone) qualified him for advanced placement in nearly
everything. Though Schimmel says he did not walk into Juilliard
wearing an accordion, word got around: an accordion piece
written by his roommate that Schimmel presented in Stanley Wolfes
class led to a teaching fellowship, and he was tapped by Berio (my
first union gig! he recalls) for a recording of Kurt Weill
songs that Berio arranged for Cathy Berberian. Schimmel also earned
money turning out two pop songs a week with a lyricist (one
of the last Tin Pan Alley gigs, he points out) for Mercury
recordsswitching from his L&M teaching blazer into a fringed
vest before heading downtown and earning a friendly ribbing (You
whore!) from classmate Jimmy Conlon on his way out.
Connections made at Juilliard landed Schimmel a number of theatrical
gigs after graduationincluding the 1979 production of Aristophanes
The Birds at La Mama, on which he wound up collaborating with a
dancer he had met at Juilliard, Micki Goodman, whom he married (and
has been collaborating with over the course of their 27-year marriage).
A tango he wrote and performed with friends on a contemporary music
concert the following year drew interest from Eric Salzman at Nonesuch
records, who suggested a tango project for the label. We laughed;
we thought it was funny back then! Schimmel recalls. But no
one was laughing when the recording, released in 1981, climbed to
No. 1 on the Billboard chartsand was cited by reviewers as
sounding more authentic than Plácido Domingos simultaneously-released
vocal recording with an Argentine orchestra.
How did three New York-based freelancers communicate the essence
of the tango so perfectly? At first we tried to imitate the
original guys literally, which didnt work so well, Schimmel
explains. Then we basically started to create our own vernacular,
really getting into enjoying the tango ... and surprisingly, our
recordings ended up sounding very much like some of the authentic
The tango is but one of the instruments associations. People
often ask me when the accordion was invented, says Schimmel,
and my answer is, It was invented so many times, where
do you want me to start? Each culture has its own version
of it, and each accordion has its own genetic makeup. The
familiar piano-keyboard accordion was brought to America from Vienna
by two Italians, the Deiro brothers, and popularized through vaudeville.
Schimmel owns several instruments, including an elegant Titano
Emporer with a full orchestral range, one thats a
little raspier and in-your-face, for tangos and such, a bass
accordion that he could do the unaccompanied cello suites
on if I want, a funky little streety model that you
can get a lot of Cajun-sounding things out of, and a
vintage Excelsior from 1958 that everybody wants, so I have to lock
His career encompasses just as much variety: Schimmel has played
rock n roll with Tom Waits; performed in the New York
City Opera production of Barbers Vanessa; composed a Tango
Mass that has received several performances; conducts an annual
weekend of master classes and concerts at the Tenri Cultural Institute;
and writes extensively, including a blog and weekly newsletter.
His seminar on the world being not flat (as Thomas Friedman
asserts) but bellows-pleated, full of ins and outs resulted
in an invitation to speak at Microsoft to executives interested
in new ways of right-brain thinking.
The accordions built-in ironic duality is what
Schimmel loves most: its elegant and vulgar, hip
and square, beautiful and ugly, all at once. No
matter how classical or abstract the music, the instrument has
a certain nostalgiait sprays memories, he says. That
rich, messy dimensionwhat he calls the ultimate
fall from graceis where he happily resides.