Thursday, 13 August 2009

Tango and food

Tango al Fresco was its usual amiable self: all the fun of the milonga, but out of doors, surrounded by trees and gardens on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. We've been lucky this year: both events have been bright, but overcast enough to keep off the sun's heat. The floor was crowded, as ever, and people aren't really used to dancing in small spaces, but it was great. We ended up in a huge picnic, presided over by Paul and Michiko, with masses of excellent home-cooked food. (The pictures are from the event a few weeks back: this Sunday was much busier.)

A French woman who lives in London and plays musette, a smallish French button accordion, was at the picnic and gave us an impromptu concert. She plays, sings and runs a band professionally: check her out here. Since she likes tango music and the dance I asked her why they don't play tango, and she said no, it's too repetitive, not free enough, actually boring to play.

It's a strange paradox: the dance is improvised from start to finish, but the music is highly organised. The tango player lives with disciplined ensemble playing from written music scores, night after night. Would we continue to dance if we had to dance exactly the same steps, night after night? I've often wondered why tango never embraced the longer format of recording in the late 1940s, as did jazz, but jazz had always been a series of improvisations held together by choruses, and it was natural to extend the improvisations. Unlike tango dance, the music isn't improvised: if a band wants to play a seven-minute tango, someone has to sit down and write the score. Maybe it's beginning to change, but the golden age tangos were played from written music. I must recommend Rodolfo Mederas, Julio Pane, Joaquín Amenábar playing solo bandoneón, as they have complete musical freedom. Dancing to Joaquín Amenábar's solo bandoneón in London last winter, was a great experience. Maybe 'Fifi la Mer' could become 'Flor del Mar'...

5 comments:

jantango said...

The program for Festival Buenos Aires Tango next week includes three music clinics on the style of Troilo, Di Sarli, and Pugliese by Julian Peralta. I will attend and ask the question, "why are tangos only three minutes?" I believe they are considered complete works with a theme and variations.

Let's not leave out other great bandoneonists like Leopoldo Federico who will perform with his orquesta tipica at the festival. Walter Rios is celebrating 60 years as bandoneonist with a concert on Tuesday with reserved seats for five pesos.

There are always surprises in the recordings. You can be familiar with a certain tango by one orchestra, and then you hear another orchestra's arrangement of the same tango but it tells you to dance differently. That's the beauty of tango.

Simba said...

What do you mean we don't do the same steps over and over? ;-)

I always thought there was quite some room for improvisation in tango, which is part of the reason why the art of playing dies with the musicians. Within a structure, naturally, but also fairly free.

Frankly, I attribute the dullness of classically trained musicians' tango (both playing and listening to) more to their lack of knowledge, experience and skill than to some shortcoming of the tango itself. I mean, there are tens of thousands of tangos, all of which can be arranged in a lot of different ways. Add some improvisation and getting it to swing while dancers are dancing, I'd say it offers a lot of possibility for variation.

Tangocommuter said...

Ok, Simba, the same steps in the same order...

I'd be very interested in what a tango musician has to say on this. I was quoting a non-tango musician who plays in a jazz tradition, and for freedom tango and jazz can't be compared. Miles Davis plays, and a bass and drums keep pace, but Miles is very free. Nothing like that happens in golden age tango. And, within the three-minute pattern, tango 'solos' are no more than short phrases, often with two or three other instruments playing at the same time, so I can't see much real freedom: it remains very structured. It might be interesting to compare, say, two live Color Tango performances of the same piece to see if there is much difference. Obviously two performances would never be identical, but I doubt they would differ much. They would be very spirited performances, a lot of energy, the players obviously enjoy playing, but playing from written scores in front of them.

I'm watching the Piazzolla documentary at present. He himself says that 99% of his music is written down. Musicians, including jazz musicians who played with him, bear this out: he wrote music for their skills that they still found very demanding to play. Gary Burton, known as a great improviser, says he was allowed a few seconds here and there to improvise freely: for the rest of the time he says he really had to work hard to play what Piazzolla had written for him.

Simba said...

I agree that if free jazz improvisation is your bar, nothing probably comes close in terms of freedom (for the soloist, that is). Well maybe some contemporary music, but neither is for dancing.

I don't think Piazzolla is a good example in this question, as he took the tango more in the direction of Western art music/'classical music' which largely has abandoned improvisation. I remember from one documentary, musicians playing with Piazzolla talked about his much more elaborate scores he used compared with what they had encountered before.

It is surprising to me that someone would 'like tango' yet find it boring, just as much as I don't really understand why people who don't like tango music keep 'dancing tango'.

From my experience with musicians taking up tango, they know surprisingly little about tango music ex Piazzolla. (And even more surprisingly are little eager to learn). Developing the skills to arrange for a tipica and learn to improvise is not easy, and few arrangements are available, so there is no shortcut.

I am planning to write a post on this topic sometime, but haven't gotten around just yet.

Tangocommuter said...

I'm not sure that Piazzolla actually did abandon tango tradition in writing down 99% of his music. I suspect that the notes have always been written down, and that variation arises in the way they are played. How the notes written by Pugliese sound without inflexion, and how the same notes sound when played, are different. A lot of fire goes into the actual playing, but the notes remain the same.

A musician can like tango and still find it boring to play, by comparison with playing in a freer,jazz-influenced style. They'd also like Mozart, and find playing in a symphony orchestra boring.

'Tango and food' is rather an unfortunate title for this discussion. It needs some separate posting... and some more input from musicians. Interesting that we spend a lot of time talking about music: I doubt musicians spend much time talking about dance.