Friday, 30 January 2015

Troilo and the arrangers

(Please check out this later post.)

I received a comment on my earlier post telling me that an 82-minute film about Troilo, called simply Pichuco, was released last year.

I checked it out. It tells how a teacher of the School of Popular Music in Avellaneda, together with his students, is digitizing around 500 original handwritten arrangements from the Troilo orchesta that have come to light, an astonishing trove of scores. It immediately occurs to me that handwriting can be recognised: it should be easy to work out who was responsible for each tango arrangement. I'd also expect the scores will throw light on the creative process. I hope that one day arrangers will get some credit for their work in the development of tango.

I found the website for the film, which has the trailer. (You have to switch on subtitles.) People who knew and worked with Troilo talk about him, and these include Leopoldo Federico, Horacio Ferer and Raúl Garello. (Very sadly, Federico and Ferer both died last December.) Their recollections are going to be fascinating. There's also a calendar of showings: it will be seen at events in Europe this year, although there are no planned viewings yet in the UK. I await with great interest!

I wrote that arrangers don't get much credit, but I guess that's because the development of a tango was usually a group effort. A classical composer could expect his music to be performed much as he wrote it, but a tango arranger was less sure of such respect. In fact there's a great story told by Garello: he says Troilo didn't write much music, but he erased a great deal. Arrangers would present their work and he'd go through it, cutting out whole chunks, to the arrangers' despair, although when they heard the recordings they knew he was right. (I can imagine Piazzolla turning up with a new score and Troilo pulling it apart, and augmenting it with feedback from the band, after which they'd all go out to lunch, leaving their 22-year old arranger to pick up the pieces and put the new version together, so they could finish their rehearsal.)

The same comment also informs me that 'His arrangers were Argentino Galvan, Julian Plaza, Ismael Spitalnik, Raul Garello, Alberto Caracioli and Astor Piazzolla.' 

I've checked them out on Todotango. However, Garello was born in 1936, and Julián Plaza in 1928, so they would have been 8 and 16 respectively in 1944, the year when Troilo and Piazzolla parted company, and any contribution by them to the 108 Troilo recordings between 1941 and 1944 can be ruled out.
Galván was much older, and according to Todotango, he was the arranger who created the sound of the Caló orquesta, writing virtuoso solos for the strings. (His favourite composer was Debussy.) He was associated with Troilo in 1940, in particular with Troilo's version of Pimienta, but if Troilo recorded it it doesn't seem to have survived. Troilo regarded his 1946 recording of Recuerdos de Bohemia in a Galván arrangement as his most important. (At 5:22 it must be one of the longest for the time. It's a marvelous piece of music, but it's hardly danceable: it looks forward rather to the late 50s and 1960s. It's on YouTube.) So Galván was certainly around in the period. 

Ismael Spitalnik was born in 1919, so he was a close contemporary of Piazzolla. Between the late 1930s and 1943 he was with the D'Agostino orquesta, while beginning to study composition seriously, and completing his studies in industrial chemistry! He seems to have worked with Troilo somewhat later. Alberto Caraccioli was born in 1918, and also seems to have started studying composition in the mid-1940s.

Between 1941 and 1944, the period in which the 108 tangos were recorded, Piazzolla was Troilo's in-house and in-orquesta arranger, and it seems likely that most of the recordings were arrangements he had a big part in. But perhaps the manuscripts of the arrangements will make possible a more complete history of Troilo and his arrangers. 

(I've not mentioned who sent the comment, as the same person emailed me a few days later complaining rather bitterly that I hadn't posted the information as a post! Well! For a start, I decide where a comment is published, indeed, if it is published! & as it happens I do other things, apart from blogging and going out dancing, and I can't always find time to check things out carefully and follow up on what interests me. I don't think we need to know the names of people who can't be courteous on the internet.)

Monday, 19 January 2015

Tango foxtrot

There seems to be something missing in the tango world, something I can't find anywhere, and it's foxtrot. We have it from older dancers, especially from Osvaldo and Coca (in the MP interview I think - I don't have time to check it out) that foxtrot was one of the dances that defined Argentine social dancing in the 20s and 30s and 40s. I think Osvaldo said that any 'milonguero' who claims to have danced tango in the Golden Age and can't foxtrot just wasn't really there. & yet... where's the video of Osvaldo and Coca dancing foxtrot? I've never seen a couple dancing anything that seemed to me remotely like foxtrot during a jazz or rock tanda in Buenos Aires, and I've never come across it in films of milongas either. If there is a video of Buenos Aires foxtrot please let me know! I've looked but can't find it.

It was big! It's not just Osvaldo talking. Francisco Canaro recorded a lot of foxtrots like this, and also a charming foxtrot Chá para dos, better known in English as Tea for Two: sadly, the audio quality isn't great. It's curious that Canaro's syncopation in foxtrot is really lively, but he doesn't use it much in the tangos he recorded around that time, as if he felt it out of place. His jazz band recordings started around 1923, and there are plenty of them over the following years, although tango remained his main output.

I came across this video of Oscar Casas and Ana Miguel. The title calls it 'La colegiala (fox trot)' . La colegiala seems to be a popular song from a Columbian band, recorded in 1983, but I'm not sure it's really foxtrot music*. As to the dance, Oscar would be in a position to have learned foxtrot from the older dancers, but I think his dance resembles tango as much as anything. But perhaps the two dances are similar? 

Foxtrot was one of the dances of the American jazz scene in the early 1920s, but it was taken over and popularised as a ballroom dance at some stage, with the characteristic open embrace. There are a few old Pathe clips of foxtrot on YouTube which suggest the original dance. To me, this, danced in close embrace, remains the best: others are more flamboyant and showy. It also seems to show patterns that aren't that far from stuff that's danced in tango and I get the feel of a relaxed musicality, although the bouncy tip-toe style is very far from salon tango. These Pathe videos are early all right, but that means from the silent era, so the music was added later. & there's a foxtrot lesson here, taught by 'Santos Casani, the well-known Teacher of Dancing', using an novel 'special glass floor', from 1931. Maybe something of the old version survived: the great photographer Don McCullin talks in a documentary about dancing foxtrot, 'the naughty kind, not the ballroom version' when he was growing up in the UK in the late 1940s.

But the Buenos Aires version? I'd be very interested to see it. 

* See comments! 

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.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Fresh off the boat!

A friend got back from Buenos Aires recently and emailed me. It's such an enthusiastic, warm email that I couldn't help asking if I could put it in the blog. This is what she wrote:

'Fresh off the boat from Buenos Aires, had the best time ever in the 8 years I've been going. I pretty much only danced with people I knew, old friends and people I dance with each year. Met some fantastic new people. & a mirada from last year finally paid off, got to dance with someone I'd admired from the other end of the dance floor for ages. No classes except the group class at Canning on Saturday with Rino Biondi and Mirielle. My friends had private lessons with Adela Galeazzi and her son Gaston. I'm too scared to dance with Roberto (94 year-old) Segarra at Lo de Celia: he's too quick for me!  

'The big impression I've come away with this time is that, on the one hand tango is not about 'the dance' but about friends, networks of connections, relationships, everything seems to depend on who you've got to know, how you connect. On the other hand it is about the dance, in that if you are serious about the 'sacrament of tango' (as a friend calls it), if you have waited all night to dance to Jose Garcia, you don't want to waste that tanda on just anybody, you NEED to dance it with somebody you can really share the music with.

'There's a whole load of tango tourists who are desperate to 'get dances', and there are a lot of locals who enjoy dancing with the fresh meat. The locals may go out 3 to 5 nights a week to see their friends & dance, but they are still seeking that perfect tanda after all these years, and they may find it with an old friend... or a new one. If you can show, through your dance and respect for the codigos, that you know what you're on about, you may be able to dance and share that moment with someone special. The old milongueros are very generous with their time. Now that my castellano is a bit better, I've enjoyed chatting with the ladies in the milongas - they can tell you a thing or two! Also with the men, some of whom love the music so much. Perhaps it's been part of their life for 40 to 60 years: imagine dancing to the same music for that long. & it's a new experience every time!  

'I have returned feeling very moved because in this world, which can be very lonely and difficult at times, I have met through tango such wonderful people who will be friends for life, people you can share something so intimate & personal with that you can't really put into words.'

Many thanks for that!