Tango For Ears

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Tango For Ears

Astor Piazzolla and Nuevo Tango
Traditional Argentinian tango has, of course, its own many-stranded and venerable history, and is a very worthy subject of study on its own. There are thousands of recordings, many of them anthologies with selections from different performing groups. Interested readers might start with The Tango Project (Nonesuch), a good sampler from 1981 played by a close American approximation of the standard tango-band trio (accordion, violin, and piano) that includes “El choclo,” “Jalousie,” and other standards in the traditional tango repertoire.

But traditional tango, with or without words, is emphatically dance music, and our concern here is with tangos primarily meant for listening. Which brings us to the expansion of tango from Argentinian-style tango-for-dancing to music of a more ambitious and experimental sort. This evolutionary trend was dominated by Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992)—so dominated, in fact, that he’s been described without much exaggeration as “a one-man tango avant-garde.” Born in Argentina but raised in New York City, he began by playing in local tango dance bands while simultaneously soaking up the vibrant NYC jazz scene. Returning as a young man to Argentina, he studied composition with Alberto Ginastera, then later with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. There he also became intrigued by Gerry Mulligan’s Paris-based jazz octet, later modeling some of his performing ensembles on it.

On his return to Buenos Aires in 1955, Piazzolla began composing a radically new kind of tango. The conventional rhythms and traditional dance structure were abandoned, replaced by an enlarged harmonic vocabulary, freer and more varied phrasings and tempos, unpredictable cross-accents and rhythmic suspensions, contrapuntal interplay, jazz-like improvisations, and more extended, rhapsodic forms. These innovations made his Nuevo Tango (“New Tango”) much more complex and volatile; it became a kind of concert music, no longer suitable for dancing. (This led, despite growing worldwide recognition, to Piazzolla being for many years denounced by traditional Argentine tango aficionados for corrupting authentic tango. Gershwin had been similarly scolded decades earlier by jazz purists when he wrote Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F.)

Piazzolla’s output over his half-century career is huge: more than 750 works, including concertos and scores for film and theater. He toured internationally, wrote works for such famous musicians as Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the Kronos String Quartet, and collaborated with such jazz icons as Gerry Mulligan and Gary Burton. His own instrument was the bandoneón, which he set into many sizes and sorts of ensembles that included non-traditional tango instruments like saxophone, electric guitar, and vibraphone.

Among the very best of the many recordings that Piazzolla made of his own music are three from late in his career. If you haven’t heard Piazzolla playing Piazzolla, listening to his bold, fiery, and fantastic 1986 Tango: Zero Hour will be a mind-opening experience. (It’s out on a Nonesuch CD, though originally released on vinyl by American Clavé, the first American label to pick up Piazzolla’s music.) Also consider Libertango (several labels) and Piazzolla’s Bandoneón Concerto (Nonesuch). Piazzolla’s collaborations with jazz musicians Gary Burton (The New Tango, recorded live at the Montreux Festival), and with Gerry Mulligan (Tango Nuevo), are likewise superb. 

Recordings of Piazzolla’s music by other musicians have greatly increased in the past two decades, the majority of them appearing after he had achieved universal posthumous acclaim. Many are by classical music performers and offer various non-traditional instrumental combinations. Exceptional releases include Gidon Kremer’s Hommage a Piazzolla, Yo-Yo Ma’s Soul of the Tango, and the Kronos Quartet’s 1991 Five Tango Sensations. Pianists Emmauel Ax and Pablo Ziegler spin out brilliant two-piano arrangements of his pieces on 1996’s Los Tangueros, and the Ian & Ani Duo’s 2012 Tango Plus includes eloquent readings of such Piazzolla favorites as “Oblivion” and “Adios Nonino” on cello and piano.

A sampling of outstanding Piazzolla recordings (not yet cited) by jazz musicians would include Gary Burton’s melodically ingratiating Astor Piazzolla Reunion; Di Meola Plays Piazzolla, highlighted by the guitarist’s airy, exhilarating, bravura account of Piazzolla’s 18-minute Tango Suite; Piazzolla in Brooklyn, the Pablo Aslan Quintet’s genial take on some of the master’s earlier and more danceable pieces; the noirish and seductive “Ah Intruder (Female)” on Kip Hanrahan’s 1988 Days and Nights of Blue Luck Inverted—of special significance as Hanrahan was an early and ardent American supporter of Piazzolla’s music, producing several of Piazzolla’s last recordings (including Zero Hour) and releasing them on his American Clavé label; and Quartango’s Espresso, a playful and sophisticated Piazzolla collection tossed off with nimble gaiety and more humor than passion.

Art Music Tangos
Forward-looking “classical composers” (most of whom also wrote sonatas, quartets, concertos, symphonies, ballets, operas, and so on) were among the first to fall under tango’s spell after the dance arrived in Paris. It caught on so fast and spread so widely that only a decade or two later composers all over the world were hooked. Gallic-centric figures like Satie, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Virgil Thomson turned out tangos, as did Central Europeans like Hindemith, Krenek, Martinu, Wolpe, and Schulhoff, Brits like Walton and Richard Rodney Bennett, Americans like Copland, Foss, Barber, Harbison, and Previn, Russian expatriates like Vernon Duke. Even Soviet composers like Shostakovich, iconoclasts and experimenters like John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow, hard-core serialists like Milton Babbitt, minimalists like Terry Riley (see review page 194), performers who dabbled in composing like violinist Misha Elman—all wrote tangos too. Much as writing a waltz, or a batch of them, became de rigueur for 19th century composers from Schubert and Chopin to Brahms and Tchaikovsky, tango became a standard form for 20th century composers.

Art music tangos (or “concert tangos” if you prefer) fall into two broad categories that veer toward or away from two opposite extremes. The first is nostalgic and bittersweet, with the music retaining enough of the triadic harmonic scaffolding and familiar rhythmic lilt to be at least theoretically danceable. If seasoned with mockery (as indeed are many traditional tangos), still the attitude toward the genre remains affectionate and appreciative. The populist spirit and vernacular origin of tango survives, intact and easily recognizable—formulaic yet supple, elegant yet seductive, stylized yet intimate, ceremonious yet earthy.

The second tendency is self-consciously modernist: atonal (or post-tonal), pointillist, and disjointed, often obsessive or subversive, the music angular, jabbing, and assaultive, or intricate, ghostly, and vaporous. The dance rhythms are mere remnants, the forms mere concatenations of musical debris that only faintly suggest—often mostly through the title—the exploded remnants of an outmoded relic to be deconstructed and dismembered. But whether they embrace or reject the generic conventions, the best art-music tangos reflect the distinctive personality and imagination of their composers; the music always speaks with an individual and identifiable voice.

One of the earliest composers to write an art music tango is the eccentric and witty Parisian original, Erik Satie. His “Le Tango Perpétual” is from a 1914 cycle of 21 short piano pieces called Sports et Divertissements. The cycle’s title reflects both the “subjects” of the various movements as well as the composer’s intention in writing them, and indeed his tango makes a sort of Cubist parody of the whole idea of “art music tango.” With its uncluttered lines, looping iterations, and delicately-placed “sour” notes, it’s demure and placid—the exact opposite of the tango as a dance. Yet it beats out strict and unchanging tango rhythm with mechanical perversity. Like Satie himself, the result is both impossible and enchanting. (Among many good recordings, Ciccolini’s pioneering 1960s EMI set of Satie’s complete piano music is ideal.)

Stravinsky snuck a brief tango into his 1918 L’Histoire du Soldat, but was far more memorable in his magisterial 1940 Tango originally written as a piano solo and later arranged (by the composer) for chamber ensemble. This is a “straight” tango, quite danceable, with an indelible melody, piquant harmonies, emphatic and sharply articulated rhythms, and some real bite. It’s also pure Stravinsky: tart, jagged, sharp-edged, lapidary in craft, with no wasted notes or sentimentality. For the piano version get Jenny Lin’s marvelous program of Stravinsky’s piano music (Steinway). In the ensemble arrangement, Dorati and the London Symphony (Mercury) and Stravinsky Conducts Chamber and Jazz Ensembles (Columbia LP) are authoritative.


Of the many Central European composers who flourished between the world wars, Erwin Schulhoff was, along with Kurt Weill (whom he somewhat resembles), perhaps the most proficient at adapting popular dance forms to his compositional style, performing the results himself (he was a fine pianist) on his concert tours. Several of his richly harmonized and wonderfully-scored tangos are nicely played by the Ebony Band (Channel Classics); Schulhoff’s own recordings on the piano, recorded in Berlin in 1928, are on a Decca CD. The performances are supple and spirited, and the sound surprisingly clear and detailed. Even better—truly one of the most beautiful tangos ever written—is the lilting, mysterious, magical fifth movement of his harlequinesque ballet Moonstruck, gorgeously played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (London CD). It was first performed in 1931 with the composer conducting the Czech Philharmonic; ten years later he was dead—like so many others, murdered by the Nazis.

Schulhoff established the genre, but orchestral concert art-music tangos (as opposed to the more populist sort made famous by Gade’s “Jalousie”) have remained few and far between since then. Two notable examples are Bruce MacCombie’s 1991 expansive and hypnotic Chelsea Tango, brilliantly recorded by the Singapore Symphony on a stunningly-well-recorded BIS CD program of dances for orchestra, and Miguel del Aguila’s 2012 Concierto en Tango for cello and orchestra, with bravura acrobatics by the soloist set off by lush orchestral panoply, just recently recorded by the Buffalo Philharmonic (on the orchestra’s “house” label) under JoAnn Falletta.

Two all-piano anthologies, both offering many first-and-so-far-only recordings of fascinating new-music tangos—most leaning to the more subversive or etiolated rather than conventional side—finish my recommendations. Yvar Mikhashoff’s 1992 Incitation to Desire (New Albion) gathers 19 tangos, all post-WWII, with contributors that range from Copland and Cage to William Duckworth and Richard Rodney Bennett. Amy Briggs’ even more encompassing 2010 collection, Tangos for Piano (Ravello), stretches from the subtle, airy, complex percolations of Colon Nancarrow’s Tango?, David Rakowski’s catlike Zipper Tango, and Per Norgard’s spiky Hermit Crab Tango, to Yu-Hui Chang’s dreamy, oblique, disillusioned, and very beautiful Tangled in Smoke, its spectral image of dance refracted through memory and looming up through the darkness as a revenant of long-ago love.

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