Astor Piazzolla: The Maestro of Nuevo Tango, in The Landfill Chronicles (Chapter 5.1)
photo: Joel Meyerowitz
ASTOR PIAZZOLLA — THE POLITICS OF TAMPERING WITH TRADITION
Chapter 5, Part 1 in the Medium book The Landfill Chronicles, the conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette
Long buried in the landfill: the 1989 Conversation on Music Elevated to a State of Art with the father of nuevo tango (1921–1992)
THE GALOUR OF NUEVO TANGO
Astor Piazzolla is the father of nuevo tango, the passionate, brooding contemporary style of tango. It is influenced as much by the shifting melodies and harmonic beauty of modern classical composers and the complex improvisational patterns of jazz as it is by traditional tango. His music compels in a spiritual way.
After Astor’s exhilarating 1989 Tango: Zero Hour show at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, I go backstage to meet the master. He is a gentle, diminutive man, eager to smile. He shakes my hands to thank me for my recent telephone interview with him. His knuckles are arthritically deformed, his fingers curled over. Not pretty, but powerful. He laughs and says, “This is what happens as you play the bandoneón as much as I have throughout my life.”
And what a life Astor has experienced.
He was born in Argentina in 1921 to Italian parents. In 1924 he emigrated with his mother and father to New York City’s Little Italy where he learned how to play the bandoneón (the German button accordion — tango’s quintessential instrument). But Astor also learned turf toughness in rough New York neighborhoods through street fights and sparring matches with soon-to-be professional boxing heroes Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta. In a more lovely setting, he also experienced the sidewalk soundscape of Cab Calloway playing in a Harlem club.
Astor moved back to Argentina in 1937, and in 1954 left for Paris to study on a scholarship with the highly regarded composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. He says the experience was life changing.
THE NEW VISION
Fully invigorated with a new vision beyond his classical music aspirations, Astor returned to Buenos Aires in 1955 and began his crusade to revolutionize the tango genre, raising the ire of many Argentines unwilling to see their beloved dance and music form undergo the radical avant-garde innovations he explored. After many years of personal and physical persecution in his native land — and even threatened exile at one point — Astor fled his country during the military coup d’état from 1976 to ’83. He settled in Italy with strategic visits back home to play with like-minded friends.
As an outgrowth of his long and often rough journeys, Astor developed into one of modern music’s most extraordinary innovators. He tells me that his tango doesn’t fit into the box people typically think of. “I don’t write for tango dancing,” he says. “But my compositions make you feel like something is walking inside of you when you hear them. You don’t dance with your feet, but you dance inside.”
The bandoneón maestro and dynamic composer tells me that when he comes to the San Francisco Bay Area to perform, he and his sextet will express the spirit of nuevo tango in a chamber music-like setting. He’ll be presenting newly arranged compositions from his most recent album, the fiery, soulful Tango: Zero Hour which he considers to be his greatest record.
The album was recorded in Manhattan in 1986 for adventurous jazz avant-ethnic fusion saxophonist Kip Hanrahan’s American Clavé Records.
Astor has been quoted as saying that “zero hour” is “an hour of absolute end and absolute beginning.”
That so perfectly describes his Zellerbach excursion. In command of the rhythm-fueled bellows of his instrument, Astor leads his band of improvisers The New Tango Quintet into his demanding compositions of extended harmonies and surprising counterpoints. The tunes are angular and edgy and then romantically soulful. The movement is rapid where the hard driving propelled by the bandoneón swerves into a syncopation of jerky accents. The music changes directions suddenly with intense force amidst the memorable harmonies. His long-time violinist Fernando Suárez Paz plays free zipping sounds in speedy support.
While Astor delves into stormy drama in each number, there’s also romance on “Milonga Del Angel” (the calming ballad that erupts into a forceful end) and a whimsical sentiment in pockets, such as on the fast-paced “Milonga Loca” that enlivens with emotion. The crowd erupts into applause at the conclusion of Astor’s memorable concert.
Today, settled comfortably in Buenos Aires, Astor notes in our telephone conversation that his return home had everything to do with the ousting of the military dictatorship, which had not taken kindly to the rebellious nature of his nuevo tango. “I don’t know of any military leaders in Argentina who love music,” he says. “They hate everything that has nothing to do with the military. They don’t appreciate the beautiful things in life. You won’t see them at concerts or art galleries. They only like to get up at 5 a.m. and give orders. I came back to Argentina after several years because democracy is back.”
Below and in Chapter 5.2. more of our conversation.
THE LANGUAGE OF NEW TANGO
What is tango and how did tango, as a musical genre, develop?
It started as a low class form of entertainment that evolved out of an African dance rhythm called milonga. Tango had very similar origins to jazz. While jazz came out of the disreputable sections of New Orleans, tango music originated in the slums of Buenos Aires at whorehouses where there was a lot of alcohol consumption and a lot of prostitutes and activity between police and gang members.
The dance and music aspects of tango that developed together in the 1890s were expressive, aggressive and very energetic. The dance part of it was considered to be in very bad taste. The Pope even prohibited it. You couldn’t get women to dance it. So, these tough guys from the underworld used to dance the tango together.
How does nuevo tango differ from the tango we are familiar with from the dance styles of the ‘30s?
Today there are three different types of tango. There’s the dancing that you see in the Broadway play Tango Argentina. That’s a style from the 1930s and ’40s that has nothing to do with nuevo tango. Then there’s the tango where the emphasis is on lyrics and vocals derived from the earlier slum tango. The kind of tango that I play is contemporary tango and is a form of chamber music. It has very little connection to the other two types of tango except that it’s based on passion.
How, and when, did you first become involved in tango?
My first exposure came when I was thirteen. I worked with singer-songwriter Carlos Gardel in New York City on some recordings and in film. My father was in love with his singing, so he pushed me to work with him. I was playing Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart on my bandoneón. The first tangos I played were with Carlos.
I don’t write for tango dancing. Tango fans in Argentina still don’t understand what I’m doing. That holds true for other parts of the world where tango is still associated with vulgarity and sexiness. My tango is simply music. That’s why I call it nuevo tango to differentiate it from the other forms of tango expression.
Weren’t you exposed to tango in your native Argentina as well?
After living in New York from 1924 to 1937, my family moved back to Argentina. I started listening to small groups of tango musicians who were playing an instrumental kind of tango that I loved. That’s when I became convinced that there was potential within the tango format to explore new instrumental arrangements. I started imitating the tango orchestras that grew larger. For example, when tango first started at the turn of the century, there was only one bandoneón in the small groups. In the ’40s there would be as many as four bandoneóns in a larger tango orchestra. But after a while I got bored with what they were doing because there wasn’t tolerance for tampering with the traditional style.
Chapter 5.2 continues with our conversation and with the resurgence of interest in Astor’s creative insights.
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