Monday, October 31, 2005

Piazzolla take one

Astor Piazzolla was an innovative and brilliant musician & composer. His pieces are superb and suffused with feeling. They are a major contribution to the World's musical canon.

The music he wrote was Tango, because it is recognizable as Tango. But it probably wasn't intended for dancing ... Piazzolla led a highly skilled Tango band in Tango's Golden Age, and was part of the culture that created the classic Tango dance structure. At Eugene's Tango Center, we had one of his proteges, Claudio Mendez, playing at a milonga ... and he plays classic dance Tango like a firestorm. So clearly Piazzolla knew the difference between classic Tango, and his Nuevo Tango, as well as anyone.

But because they weren't written for dancers, most of Piazzolla's pieces confuse most dancers. Very relaxed dancers can still have a good time ... they can dance even without music. After all, Tango is an improvisational relationship between two people.

But the classic structure of Golden Age tangos is more likely to work well, for most dancers, and more likely to show everyone a good time. The classic tangos evolved to serve Tango, a kind of cooperative physical movement. New dance Tangos can be written, of course ... but this apparently wasn't Piazzolla's goal.

That said, some of Piazzolla's pieces are so good, as music, that they have slipped into the regular Tango repertoire. This is certainly true of the Piazzolla/Goyeneche recording of 'Vuelvo al Sur'. Many Piazzolla pieces have a slow, sensuous quality, which provides a nice change of pace during an evening of dance. His 'Oblivion' is among the most common pieces played in Tango performances.

The fast pieces are more problematic, but many get played, sometimes recorded by other Golden Age musicians. Troilo & Pugliese both recorded danceable versions of Piazzolla's 'Verano Porteno'. His "Fuego Lento", "Adios Nonino", "Festajando", "Fuga y Misterio" etc. often find their way into an evening, and his "Libertango" -- whose original progressions and rhythms have been imitated for years around the world -- is still a favorite. They are great tunes, and inspiring pieces, even though they can be pretty hard for dancers.

Piazzolla also purposely twisted the classic Tango structure, sometimes in ways that are good for dancers, such as in "Ciudad Tango", and sometimes in ways that are comically difficult, as in the original version of "Escualo".

I've heard and read a great deal of historical material on the 'old guard' 's accusations against Piazzolla, that he "killed tango". I don't know who these "old guard" were -- there are always people who don't like new fashions. But Piazzolla's fellow Golden Age musicians held him in high esteem, and the older dancers I've met from Argentina seemed very touched by his music. To the current generation of dancers, emerging after 1980, his jazzy Parisian/Tango fusions are just part of the fabric -- contributing to the distinctive, fascinating diversity of music in Tango.