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The Once and Future Tango

Astor Piazzolla's Music Dances Its Way Into the Classical Canon

By Chris Barrett | Posted 3/11/1998

There are no neat analogies for the importance of the tango in Argentina. It is the national dance, and is still defended and cherished in a manner that one country might cherish and defend its flag, another its fossil-fuel reserves. Likewise there is no glib way to sum up Argentine Astor Piazzolla's effect on the tango.

The composer and bandoneon virtuoso died in Buenos Aires in 1992 at age 71. Piazzolla's template was the Argentine tango; many give him credit for rejuvenating the form, giving it the legs to make it through the 20th century.

His last decade was one of extraordinary productivity and innovation. He received commissions from international luminaries, such as the Kronos Quartet, and invitations to collaborate with American jazz kingpins, including vibraphonist Gary Burton and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. He toured constantly, and his music appeared on recordings by unlikely fans, from Grace Jones to Quincy Jones. Piazzolla also went back to many of his early compositions and rearranged and rerecorded them. Pieces previously acknowledged as merely good or great were bumped up into the "transcendent" and "genius" bins.

This all might seem a bit like beginning a tale with its ending. But it's not. And that's the point. The '90s could prove to be a heyday for Piazzolla's music. His compositions, penned primarily with the bandoneon in mind, are attracting players of other instruments and orchestras that cater to the gamut of international musical audiences. Recent recordings of Piazzolla have been made by mainstream cellist Yo-Yo Ma as well as aesthetes such as guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad. Piazzolla's death has given his survivors the opportunity to groom his enormous catalog of recordings, and a potentially confusing and overwhelming tangle of music (that includes numerous versions, not all of them illuminating, of more than 750 compositions) is being shaped into a meaningful representation of an artistic life, including a new series of archival recordings on the Milan label.

Of course, for listeners already warm to Piazzolla, his continued relevancy is not news. But Piazzolla should interest anyone who cares about 20th-century music. This chap--who was schooled, certainly, but wrote in a form equally suited to the cathouse and the concert hall--is currently one of the most popular composers among performing and recording classical musicians.

Perhaps the fact that sophisticated players and listeners are falling under the tango's spell should not surprise. The same thing happened to Piazzolla, after all, and to millions of porteños (as the folks of Buenos Aires refer to themselves) before him.

Piazzolla called his music nuevo tango. New it was when he formed his Quinteto Nuevo Tango in 1960, and new it still is. The characteristics that separate Piazzolla's music from the traditional tango are, like most things tango, incredibly subtle. His instrument is one he advised no one to take up. A bit like a concertina with a gland problem, the bandoneon was carried to Argentina by 19th-century German missionaries who used it to pinch hit for an organ during church services. The unmarked ivory keys on both ends are arranged in no musical order whatsoever. In fact, they appear to have been shuffled like a deck of cards. For a player with

the necessary physical strength, the bellows can be extended as far as two arms outstretched. Before Piazzolla, the custom was to play the bandoneon sitting, with the bellows resting in the lap. Piazzolla played it while standing. One foot on a stool gave an upraised knee the support needed to keep five feet of creased paper-thin lambskin relatively horizontal.

If you've never seen a picture of Piazzolla enraptured by his music, pause to give some thought to what it might look like. The image is perhaps the best metaphor for the incredibly sensual sounds he conjured--all undulating arcs, searching and intuitive fingers, brief but portentous moments of silence, and arrhythmic rushes of air.

The tango was born around the turn of the century in Buenos Aires, a rapidly growing city striving to emulate Paris. The port city was host to a large and incredibly diverse fringe society. Argentines, Africans, Americans, and Europeans lived close together and traded heavily in cultural currency. The polka, mazurka, and habanera blended to become the distinctly Argentine milonga. Europeans whose languages descended from Latin called dancers engaged in the milonga "tangueros" (from the Latin "tangere"--"to touch"). A relic from the Spanish-American slave trade, the Spanish word "tango" was used generally as a name for any place where blacks gathered to dance. The milonga ended up being called the tango because, some believe, the word evokes the milonga's rhythm.

The tango's history is colorful, but it's more important to appreciate Piazzolla's revisions. His family lived in New York while he was young, exposing him to the heyday of hot jazz and the formative years of swing. Later he studied and composed classical music, eventually in Paris under the esteemed Nadia Boulanger, mentor to Aaron Copland and confidant to Igor Stravinsky. Boulanger advised Piazzolla to abandon his aspirations of writing for the symphony and give sound to what was in his heart: the tango.

Instead of dance music, Piazzolla wrote some of the first tangos for the concert hall. As he put it, he wrote for the ear, not the foot. He introduced into the tango dissonance, chromatic harmony, and multiple rhythms, all of which thwarted dancers but captivated the mind and heart. His compositions combine precisely scripted passages with passionate improvisations, and demand highly skilled personnel. In order to be properly heard, his performances were booked for opera houses and recital venues instead of the cabarets and clandestinos where the tango had long been a mainstay.

Reactions were predictable and telling. In 1937 Piazzolla joined a band led by the traditionalist Anibal Carmelo Troilo. Of Piazzolla's music, Troilo is supposed to have told the younger man, "No, pibe, eso no es tango." ("No, my boy, that isn't tango.") More legendary and probably more exaggerated are numerous tales of Piazzolla's life being threatened by old-school tango dancers and musicians.

In 1969 Piazzolla collaborated with the poet Horacio Ferrer on the song that would prove to be the composer's Rubicon, "Balada para un loco" ("Ballad for a Madman"). While performances of the surreal song, which describes a streetwalker's visit from an apparition, met with boos or worse, sales of the recording soared. In the years since, the balance of strong emotion has shifted in Piazzolla's favor. Argentines have, for the most part, acknowledged his part in keeping the tango alive. And beyond Argentina, what most listeners identify as the tango is actually the nuevo tango.

But words, of course, do no more for Piazzolla than Piazzolla does for a tanguero with pressed flares and a shoeshine to show off. You must hear him. And several recordings among the recent rush are easy to recommend, whether you're a devotee of the players, their instruments, or the composer. The first four recordings (Muerte del Angel, Concierto de Nacar, Libertango, and Tres Minutos con la Realidad) in a new series from Milan Records are now available, and are imperative for anyone interested in Piazzolla. They feature him in concert leading a variety of ensembles, each performance chosen to illustrate a different facet of the composer's career or style.

"I knew Astor when he was in exile in France, during the early '80s," says Emmanuel Chamboredon, CEO of Milan and, by the Piazzolla family's request, executor of the composer's musical "estate." "He was not a political activist, but he was disgusted [with Argentina's military regime] and decided not to live anymore in Argentina. He settled in Paris. I'm basically a film-music publisher. We went together on his work for movies and theater. I was financing the productions and he was composing and performing.

"We got rather close by working. He returned to Argentina after the Falklands war and the dictatorship was over. I decided to start the company just to have the opportunity to keep in touch."

Milan currently publishes 18 Piazzolla recordings, most of them film and theater scores. The four live recordings, which feature performances in South America between 1973 and 1989, are important in understanding Piazzolla's relationship with his music.

Piazzolla moved away from studio recordings during the mid-70s, Chamboredon says: "His technique was a little bit similar to the one of Duke Ellington. It's a music which is very precisely written but which enables people to make improvisation. The chemistry can work when you have this mixture. Once, in the studio, he felt that the improvisations weren't coming very well. So he decided that except for film music or theater music, and what he did with the Kronos Quartet, not to go into the studio anymore."

The new records make the decision seem perfectly sound. The performances are remarkable. The quintet captured on Muerte del Angel in 1973 features a wonderful version of "Adios Nonino." Sparse solos from Piazzolla, pianist Osvaldo Tarantino, and violinist Antonio Agri are dense multi-instrumental compressions of incredible intensity and are rich in jazz-colored scales. Concierto de Nacar, recorded 10 years later, also includes "Adios Nonino," this time arranged for orchestra and Piazzolla's nine-piece ensemble. Clearly the composer's concentration as a young man on symphonic music was not wasted; strings and harp add a rich and layered depth to the melody. Piazzolla takes on most of the solos, and his quivering, free-reed chords and rapid runs match the orchestra's strings in texture and lushness.

Apparently Piazzolla composed for his ensembles as if they were his orchestra. You never get the sense you're listening to a solo bandoneonist with a comping backup combo. His violinists Agri and Fernando Suarez Paz were the fortunate recipients of some of the most lyrical and viscerally moving lines ever written for their instrument. For a man so connected to his own instrument, Piazzolla had a rare musical empathy for other voices.

"This music has been composed for very specific instruments, sometimes a very specific instrument--the bandoneon," Chamboredon says. "What appears today is that it fits a great variety of solo instruments--the piano, the bass, the violin. . . . He was such a melodist, that [the compositions] fit other instruments."

Chamboredon pauses to consider the truth and weight of what he's just said. "That is a kind of magic."

That magic has been far-reaching of late. The Assad duo did a splendid turn of songs from Piazzolla's "Suite Troileana" on its 1996 Saga Dos Migrantes (Nonesuch). The Assad brothers also appear on the 1997 recording Astor Piazzolla: El Tango by the great Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer. El Tango is a wonderful, dynamic record, a follow-up of sorts to Kremer's Hommage a Piazzolla, released a year earlier (both on Nonesuch).

Kremer leads ensembles of varying size and instrumentation on the two records. Some are very similar to Piazzolla ensembles, others decidedly removed. While Kremer and his collaborators capture the urban, sexual melancholy inherent in Piazzolla's music, they add something that seems very much to belong. Pianist Vadim Sakharov, bassist Alois Posch, bandoneonist Per Arne Glorvigen, Kremer, and the occasional guest all sound as if they adore this music. Parallel to Piazzolla's subdued sadness runs a vein of ecstasy generated by the passion these players feel. Their fidelity to Piazzolla's charts is a subjective issue, but no composer could hope for a more flattering reading.

Emanuel Ax and Daniel Barenboim, Josep Pons, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Patrick Gallois have also released Piazzolla homages in recent months. The variety of ways these players speak musically of Piazzolla is interesting. And what they have to say is worth hearing.

Astor Piazzolla is gone, and justifiably mourned. But his music has never seemed so permanently alive. This is better said in a poem by Argentine Jorge Luis Borges that has been set to music by Kremer and his compadres: "Muertos viven en el tango"-- "Dead men live on in the tango."

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