April 30, 2000 Program
Astor Piazzolla and the "New Tango"
"My main style is to have studied. If I had not, I would not be doing what I do, what I've done. Because everybody thinks that to do a 'modern tango' is to make noise, is to make strange thoughts, and no, that's not true! You have to go a little deeper, and you can see that what I do is very elaborate. If I do a fugue in the manner of Bach, it will always be 'tanguificated'."
Astor Piazzolla's "new tango" music - a heady mix of tango, jazz, and classical music - turned the world of the classical tango on its head when it first appeared in the 1950s, offending the traditionalists by his adulteration of tango rhythms and introducing foreign elements into what Argentines considered to be a near-sacred national music. Piazzolla, his detractors charged, was attempting to "kill" the tango with this bastardized mix.
Piazzolla did not set out to "kill" the tango, but to reinfuse it with the passion and primitiveness it once had when it was the song of the oppressed urban lower classes, to liberate it from the stuffiness of the drawing room and ballroom. "Presidents change, and they say nothing . . . bishops change, soccer players, anything, but not the tango. The tango is to be kept like it is: old, boring, always the same, repeated."
Born in Mar del Plata in 1921 to Italian parents, and raised on the streets of New York for a time, Piazzolla's "new tango" reflected the many cultural influences with which he came in contact as a child. He had begun his career playing the bandoneon - a type of concertina - first performing classical music on the radio in New York, and later as a tanguero in the cabarets of Buenos Aires.
But he soon became bored with the stylistic limitations of the tango and began to try his hand as a classical composer. At the urging of pianist Arthur Rubinstein - to whom the young Piazzolla had shown one of his early compositions - he began to study with the Argentine composer Albert Ginastera, eventually winning, in 1954, a French scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. It was Boulanger who guided Piazzolla back to his Argentinean roots and the tango:
When I met her, I showed her my kilos of symphonies and sonatas. She started to read them and suddenly came out with a horrible sentence: 'It's very well written.' After a long while, she said: 'Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartok, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can't find Piazzolla in this.' I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, [but] finally I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. Suddenly she opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: "You idiot, that's Piazzolla!". And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.
Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires and began to perform his new music, the "Nuevo Tango" (New Tango) with his own ensembles - using new combinations of instruments, reworking the traditional tango rhythms and song forms, introducing such rogue elements as the cello and electric guitar, and eliminating the vocalists and dancers which were typically part of the traditional tango performance.
Although Piazzolla's Nuevo Tango was highly criticized by tango aficionados in Argentina - the ruling military junta even condemned it as too avant-garde - Piazzolla's hybrid sound found an enthusiastic audience amongst young Argentines, a passion which soon spread to the rest of the world through his recordings and concert appearances in Europe in the 1970s and '80s. His music continues to be performed and recorded by some of the top classical and jazz musicians today. Far from having "killed" the tango, many would say that Piazzolla's Nuevo Tango has breathed life back into the genre, winning new audiences for tango music amongst classical and popular audiences alike.
Piazzolla died in Buenos Aires in 1992 at the age of 71.