Saturday, 10 January 2015

Troilo's arranger

(Please check out this later post.)

'TodoTroilo', the available recorded works, consists of 464 tracks out of the 480-odd that were released: a few seem to have have gone missing, but it's great that so many are still around. I've been listening a lot recently to the recordings made between 1939 and 1944. & then, late one evening, a question hit me: who wrote all this music?

After all, tango is written music. Tangos are often composed as piano scores, simple basic music on two staves, or as a chord sequence for guitar. Anyone with good basic music skills can compose a piano piece and write it down for someone else to play. But what we hear on a recording is quite different, it's an arrangement. To write an arrangement, a tango score, requires much more advanced skills, skills of composing, of orchestration: it involves imagining and creating the drama of a three-minute track, deciding how it begins and ends, how the sounds of the different instruments are used, the speed and mood of the whole; it involves writing the lines for each instrument. Tango, the music we hear, is the art of the arranger, and sadly the arranger is rarely mentioned. We know the orquesta, the composer of the original, the author of the words – but very rarely the person who wrote the music we actually hear! Or if we know it, their name is hardly mentioned, which seems extraordinary. The arranger really is a composer. Baroque composers like Bach and Handel would take a melody from music written by another composer and re-arrange it, and it then became their own composition. Sadly, not in tango.

The general view is that Troilo's best music was made between 1939 and 1944. Most of the great tracks, the high-energy Troilo, powerfully rhythmic with wonderfully tender passages, the music we dance to at milongas, are from the 110 tracks released in these years. The Orquesta Típica Aníbal Troilo formed in 1937 and in the following year released just one 78, two tracks, on the Odeon label. Nothing in 1939, nothing in 1940. Then in 1941 the orquesta was with Victor, and suddenly in that year a dozen 78s were released, 24 tracks. Two tracks a month, all year! & they kept coming: altogether, 108 tracks were released between 1941 and 1944. So who was writing this music? Who was Troilo's arranger? & yes, his name is known: Astor Piazzolla. 

Piazzolla's family had emigrated to New York, where he picked up the bandoneon and learned to play Bach with a student of Rachmaninov. When he was 15 his family returned to Mar del Plata, where he began to play in local orquestas. In 1938 he moved to Buenos Aires to continue his musical career, and he was still just 19 in 1939 when Troilo auditioned him to fill in temporarily for his third bandoneon, who was ill. The legend is that Troilo asked him what he could play, and he replied that he could play the bandoneon parts of all Troilo's music. 'So play something else' said Troilo. Piazolla played Rhapsody in Blue, and got the job. When the third bandoneon returned, Troilo kept Piazzolla on as fourth bandoneon, as a fill-in pianist (his band pianist was apparently a bit unreliable) – and as an arranger. As Troilo's arranger, Piazzolla wrote the music we hear and dance to, although for sure Troilo and the musicians had control, and no doubt made changes during rehearsal. Which isn't to say that Troilo played exactly the same phrases in exactly the same way every time, but a group of eight or ten musicians can't change direction on the spot. Jazz allows space for improvised solos, but tango has a much tighter structure.

Piazzolla certainly didn't create the 'Troilo sound', which is already there in the two 1938 Odeon recordings. Listen to Troilo's 1938 recording of Comme il Faut. It's sharp, percussive, lively, with tender lines, recognisably Troilo. Troilo doesn't seem to have recorded this track again, but compare it with Yo Soy el Tango from three years later: the sound is similar, but much more assured and compact, and the syncopation more daring. But I think the sheer volume of music from those years is the sign of an arranger. Someone spent a lot of time planning each tango and composing the music in the orquesta's style. 

By 1941 Piazzolla was earning enough with Troilo to pay for music lessons with the eminent Argentine classical composer Alberto Ginastera, with whom he studied the scores of Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel. He got up early to hear the Teatro Colón opera orchestra rehearse, and he performed with Troilo in the tango clubs at night: a 21 year-old passionate about music. He stayed with the orquesta until 1944, when it's said that Troilo began to feel he was trying to develop tango too far from the popular music people wanted to dance to, and their partnership dissolved: I think this shows how strong his influence was.

I didn't used to think well of Piazzolla: I was never that keen on his music, which developed away from the music we dance to. & it's kind of irritating that his music has also come to displace public awareness of tango: classical musicians have fallen over themselves to record 'tango', which always means the later music of Piazzolla, the concert-hall music of his main career. & he devised the description 'tango nuevo'! Of course, making danceable music wasn't a priority or even financially viable at a time when few people were dancing tango. In any case he seems to have wanted to be remembered as a 'serious composer', not as someone who wrote dance music; composers and arrangers of dance music hardly got remembered anyway. But I think I should remember him with huge gratitude and affection for his legacy with Troilo: that flood of over 100 great recordings, any one of which will get me onto the floor with minimum delay, music that's astonishingly consistent in sound and quality. To me that's his great legacy. I'm not a DJ, but I'd imagine you could make a good Troilo tanda pretty much at random out of the 1938-44 recordings. I'm not sure you could do that with any other orquesta.


Anonymous said...

I can understand your preferences about music, but, implying that Piazzolla didn’t composed “danceable music” just because it wasn’t “financially viable “ or because he wanted to be remembered as a “serious composer” is at least a very simplistic comment and shows a total ignorance about the most famous Argentinean composer and the music in general.

If you consider Piazzolla’s great legacy only for his arrangements to Troilo, well…,maybe you should listen more music, not only tangos for dance…Don’t let you taste for dance music blind yourself. Maybe you don’t like his music, but it’s impossible to ignore the enormous work of Astor Piazzolla. Tango music goes far beyond the dance floor and it doesn’t stop in the 50’s. Gardel didn’t composed for dancers. Should we also blame him for displacing public awareness of tango?

Tangocommuter said...

Thanks, anon, but I think you've misunderstood what I wrote. I wrote to draw attention to a part of Piazzolla's work that hasn't received much, if any, attention, and which deserves to be acknowledged. I also wrote to draw attention to the arrangers of tango in general, who rarely receive credit for their work.

In addition I pointed out that tango dance was in rapid decline for most of Piazzolla's adult career. Troilo and Pugliese, and perhaps others too, continued to play, but their music also developed away from dance music. Times had changed: no one saw a future in tango dance and music, it was the past, they felt they had to move on. Sad that they didn't live to know how popular their earlier music would be again. For those who still enjoyed dancing tango in the 1960s and 70s, there were stacks of recordings, a vast legacy of music.

& I said that Piazzolla had ambitions as a musician far beyond being an arranger of dance music, and why not? He learned the bandoneon when he was 13 – by playing Bach on it. & he'd never have been a student of Nadia Boulanger if he wasn't a 'serious' composer. He knew that Bartok had taken the idiom and folk music of Hungary and Romania and used it as a basis for his own music, that Stravinsky had taken the melodies and rhythms of Russian folk music and composed Rite of Spring. In fact I've sometimes wished he'd gone further away from tango. My favourite Piazzolla are the five Piezas on the Naxos recording of the complete flute and guitar music. The first of these alternates (as far as I can make out) bars of five and nine beats: nothing could be further from tango, or tango nuevo for that matter, and it's some of the most beautiful, melancholic, and reassuring music I know.