Monday, 16 August 2010

Phrasing

I've been listening to Troilo a lot recently. There are some 40 albums available for listening online, but so little information is given that it's hard to know the date of the original LP or 78 releases(1). The album-cover photo usually gives a clue: the chubby-faced young man with slicked-back black hair becomes heavier-faced until we reach the unmistakeable 'El Gordo', hair no longer so black, but still slicked back. Some of the recordings are in stereo, another clue. & the later recordings, from the 1950s onwards are often as a quartet, since dancers were abandoning tango, and orquestas are expensive to run.

I could recognise the music of D'Arienzo, Di Sarli and Pugliese early on. Pedro Laurenz I discovered late one night on the commute back from a London milonga three years ago, when my ear picked out Paisaje from some mixed tracks, and I played it over and over, amazed at the orchestration. But although I recognise pieces by Troilo, until recently I've not found his music so easy to distinguish.

& for dancing he's definitely not easy. For a start, those rhythms are complicated. 'Makes me think of Joaquín' a partner remarked recently during a Troilo tanda, thinking of a few hours spent with musician Joaquín Amenábar exploring how the same rhythmic phrase can get repeated, with variations, within a single track. Milonga is directly rhythmic, closer to 'steps' and to our own dance background, with less phrasing, fewer melodic lines. Robert Farris Thompson (2) talks about the rhythmic intensity of Troilo's 1962 recording, with his quartet, of the milonga La Trampera; '...habanera at fast tempo, jazz bass, art guitar, even a phrase from old samba...'(3). & it rocks, in an elegant musical way. A pity it didn't stem the tide of rock 'n' roll!

Troilo's rhythms are complex, but on top of them in his tangos there's sensuous lyricism in the phrasing, which demands a different response. Phrasing is the aspect of tango I have most difficulty with. Rhythm is a common dance experience, and keeping a basic beat is hardly a problem, but phrases in tango mean thinking in terms of melodic sequences of more than a few beats, thinking ahead to the end of the phrase, with variations of intensity and speed within it. Phrasing has never been mentioned in any class I can remember: I first came across it in Tangoandchaos, the idea of dancing with the feet to the rhythm and with the body to the melody, the phrases. We learn steps and sequences, and if we're lucky we learn about rhythms, but phrasing may be too indefinite, too subjective, for classes. Maybe Joaquín could teach it, alongside rhythm, if he had time. I think it's a feature of good Buenos Aires tango, which doesn't mean we can't live without it. And yet.

& it's difficult. Just watch those milongueros and see how smoothly they follow the phrasing of the music with their upper bodies. It looks wonderful, and very satisfying too, but unless you know the music really well, a phrase can be half finished before you get your feet in place to respond. Rhythms are easy to recognise, but without (and even with) some musical background, particularly in the Italian folk and opera traditions, which were so important to tango, it's hard to respond to those singing phrases that follow the breathing of a sung line. Almost all tango starts as song, and watching the old dancers is like watching singing with the body instead of the voice. (& maybe with the voice too...)

Until five years ago, to watch Buenos Aires social dancing meant a long and expensive trip: these days it's beginning to be possible to to see how social tango looks simply by logging into YouTube. Unfortunately these days we never get to see or meet these older salon dancers in London, although they visit Europe regularly. Ah! I'm re-re-repeating myself...

Here's Troilo and his orquesta. I guess this was a few years before his death in 1975.



Video thanks to elmundoalreves1.

(1) On Spotify. The dates are of the UK CD releases I think. (2) Tango: the art history of love, pp. 132-3. (3) On the 1962 Cuarteto Troilo-Grela album, Pa' Que Bailen Los Muchachos. (Apologies for the footnotes!)

8 comments:

Game Cat said...

Phrasing is a great topic, TC, and I'm interested to hear what others think about it too.

I've heard 'phrase' described in different ways but the commonality seems to be 'a distinct line of a melody with a natural start and end'. In most tango songs, a phrase is fitted into a standard series of 8 single beats (or 16 half beats). Joaquin Amenabar describes this in his book 'let's dance to the music', and I've heard the same thing described by Adrian Costa and Stefano Fava (London). The song can therefore be broken down into distinct phrases a bit like a map, making it easier to know where you are in the music and what's ahead.

Often the first 8-16 phrases are a synopsis of the entire song, with no vocals and a simplified rhythm. That gives dancers enough time to figure out if they want to dance to it, look for a partner and get on the floor quick!

Sometimes the end of a phrase is marked by a pause of the rhythm (the bandoneon is usually the instrument marking the compas).

Troilo of course can be complex. But try his 'Farol' with Fiorentina which has a clear example of the 8-beat phrase.

Tangocommuter said...

Many thanks for that, Game Cat. & I'd certainly go along with your definition of a phrase.

However, I was trying to think about 'phrasing', which I think is a bit different. I guess phrasing is how you play a phrase: the term is used that way in music. The notes, the phrases, are written on paper, but if you play them as they are written, the music is dull. Then the musician comes along and plays the first few notes a little slowly and quietly, then hits the next few notes, then draws out the notes after them and drifts to the end of the phrase... That's what I think of as 'phrasing'. Different arrangers and musicians will interpret the notes a bit differently. Troilo's phrasing in Farol is different to the phrasing of Pugliese, which is one of the reasons why Farol from Troilo sounds different to Farol from Pugliese. Same notes, same phrases, different phrasing.

Often when I'm just listening to tango, I want to move my torso: the way the music is played, the phrasing of it, makes me want to move. I think it's this feeling that you see the older milongueros dancing with: the flow in the phrases of the music induce them to move in their dance. It's a sense of this that I think is missing in dance teaching, which is almost exclusively focused on 'steps'.

As I said, it may just be too subjective for a class: I imagine everyone feels this movement in the music, but you can't formulate a response in the way you can formulate a series of steps. But I think the focus should be on connections of steps and sequences, and on phrases in the music, so that we listen out for those singing phrases, and when we hear them we'll have some sense of following them, and have something connected to follow them with.

Game Cat said...

TC - I get what you mean now by "phrasing". Essentially I think it's how one expresses the music with one's body with any given step. I didn't get it at first because I've never heard it described as "phrasing", which I've mainly heard in a musical context. I've heard it called "adding tone/ colour/ texture" to what one is dancing inspired by the music.

Whatever one calls it, I think it is a great pleasure in tango and, you're right, it's probably difficult to teach. It's also probably too subtle to inspire a newcomer with. Of course, that doesn't make it less important, so I wouldn't think badly of any teacher who tries to do it, however imperfectly.

Now that you've prompted me to think about it, I guess "phrasing" happens for me in mainly 2 ways - Firstly how the music is making me feel about the current step (staccatto, or light and smooth, or swingy), and secondly varying how much intensity you put into the dancing depending on the song. There are natural 'peaks' in a song (usually at the end), and I try to hold back something extra to give to them.

I suppose that's why Pugliese can be so emotionally draining for some. You're trying to impart some of what you're feeling into it, rather than just choreographing your next step.

umakk69 said...

Agree that phrasing (=cadencia) is a complex / fascinating topic and one of the secrets of tango dancing.

From small talks with dancers in BA i recall
- "el baila la cadencia muy bien" is sometimes said by milongueras when commenting about a particular milonguero s lead

- "nobody can teach you cadencia, you have to feel it"

TC, i disagree that "Rhythms are easy to recognise". you may be an exception, but like with many things that seem to be obvious, it takes a lot of training to use them well in your dance.
Knowing how to express the rhythmical component of tango music is by no means a given.

Mati

(btw, thanks for many interesting entries here on your blog)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mati, and thanks very much for your comments. Yes, 'cadencia'! Thanks for that word: it's much better than 'phrasing'. Compas y cadencia are the two things to think about! I didn't know that people comment on cadencia, just as they comment on compas. Is cadencia the 'feeling' of the music? 'No one can teach you cadencia'... like Gavito said, 'No one can teach you the feeling'.

Don't some dancers relate more to compas, others more to cadencia? But you need both.

'Rhythms are easy to recognise' - I didn't quite say that. I said that 'keeping a basic beat is hardly a problem', thinking that dancing to a beat is a familiar activity, while dancing 'cadencia', particularly the tango cadencia, is really unfamiliar. Even when I wrote it, I was thinking that keeping a tango beat, particularly to Troilo, really isn't simple. Even the basic beat can slow down and speed up, and then there are irregularities too. I was fascinated by Joaquín's workshops. You really need a musician to point out these things: there's so much going on in the music.

Tangocommuter said...

Sorry! that last comment was from me. I'd forgotten to log in.

Anonymous said...

A good point you make in your post.
The cadencia is, for me, the mood or the playfulness of the melody you are hearing.
Many tango dancers (and especially old milongueros) will tell you that you cannot learn tango without learning to listen to the music. Learn the music, feel the music (allow yourself to feel it): then you dance tango.
And my tango teacher (who is a milonguero) dedicates an important part of the class to the music. I'm starting to feel the difference.
Nan

Tangocommuter said...

Hi Nan, and thanks for your comment. Younger teachers take short cuts when they just teach 'steps', without suggesting that you should allow yourself to feel the music. As you say, the 'milonguero' generation tell you again and again, 'Listen to the music!' Glad to hear you have a teacher who emphasizes the music!