Le Grand Tango – an updated and expanded biography of Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla

Cover of the updated and expanded digital edition published by Astor & Lenox

 

When Astor Piazzolla died in 1992, he was not much appreciated in his native Argentina. The tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger, although well-known the world over, had stirred up a great deal of controversy with his music. The traditional tango world was still predominant in his home country at the time of his death twenty-five years ago, and he was a rebel. “He was hated because he broke a paradigm,” says María Susana Azzi, “and he changed that paradigm.”

Mrs Azzi is the co-author of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, a detailed biography that may represent the most comprehensive work about the composer’s life and work to date. Surprisingly, the book first appeared in the year 2000 in English, published as a hardcover edition (it was a few years before e-books became common) by Oxford University Press. It says a lot about Piazzolla’s reputation in Argentina that a Spanish edition was published only later after many translations into other languages had appeared.

The biography is based on a large number of interviews and other books about Piazzolla. Together with the late Simon Collier, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, it took Mrs Azzi seven years to collect and meticulously reconstruct details and events of Piazzolla’s complex life. It was Mr Collier who, not long after Piazzolla’s death, approached Mrs Azzi with the proposal for a biography. A British-born historian, Simon Collier’s prime academic focus was on Latin American studies and, in particular, Chilean political history. But it was his passion for tango that had led him to write a well-regarded biography of Carlos Gardel in 1986, in which he uncovered the intertwining of tango and the history of the city of Buenos Aires. His knowledge of tango turned him into a contributor to the tango history collection of Harlequin Records, for which he wrote twenty sleeve notes.

Simon Collier

Simon Collier

By the time Mr Collier came forward with his idea for a Piazzolla biography, Mrs Azzi had already established herself as one of the few academic experts on the subject of Argentine tango. She had published a respectable number of research papers and articles, and she had given numerous lectures on the topic. As a cultural anthropologist her main interest in tango lay in its socio-economic aspects. “Tango can be seen as a huge window into the social economics of Argentina,” she told me when I spoke with her earlier this summer.

Not long after she and Mr Collier began their research work for the Piazzolla biography, it became clear that Mrs Azzi would end up conducting the majority of the interviews. She worked with about a thousand informants and consultants on the subject of tango, and conducted two-hundred and thirty of the two-hundred and forty interviews for the book. In the end, the duo’s extensive research had to be condensed to three hundred and sixty pages, but they revealed an astonishing number of facts and little-known details about Piazzolla’s life, all of which contributed significantly to his groundbreaking work.

For a wonderful foreword Mrs Azzi interviewed Yo-Yo Ma, the world-famous cello player, widely known for his admiration of the grand tango master and who has performed and recorded many of his pieces. The book begins with a detailed chronicle of Piazzolla’s family, infused with anecdotes about his early childhood in Mar del Plata in the midst of a closely knit Italian-Argentine community, followed by his rough upbringing on New York’s Lower East Side after his parents had emigrated to the United States. Then there are descriptions of encounters with some of the most influential tango musicians of the Golden Era of Tango — Carlos Gardel among them — many of whom, intentionally or unintentionally, left an impact on young Astor. As a teenager, Piazzolla developed a strong interest in jazz and classical music, at the same time as slowly discovering the soul of tango. Encouraged by his composition teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, his passion for all three genres ultimately led him to develop his own modern tango style, which was demonstrated by three notable groups: the Octet (1955), the first Quintet (1960), and the Nonet (1971). By the mid-fifties he had taken tango to a whole new level and had begun to compose in a unique style. Now, also established as a sought-after bandoneonist in Argentina, he had played with some of the most important tango orchestras of the time, most notably with Anibal Troílo’s Orquesta Típica.

Azzi-small

María Susana Azzi

“He was,” says María Susana Azzi, “a musician and a genius who combined classical music and tango, which is difficult. But he didn’t think of himself as a genius.” By the time of his death at age seventy-one he had composed a vast body of three-thousand five-hundred pieces of music, including orchestral works (Concierto Para Bandoneon), pieces for solo classical guitar (Cinco Piezas), song-form compositions (Adíos Nonino), and music for film, and was considered one of the most prolific composers of all time. He was not a political person, but ‘an anti-Peronist’ adds María Susana Azzi.

The Argentine anthropologist seems to have become as intimate with Astor Piazzolla as some of his family and friends who knew him personally and closely during his lifetime. Just like Piazzolla, with whom she shares Italian roots, she considers herself a typical result of Argentine society. “Argentine society has always been a melting pot,” she says. “It is an inclusive and open society without ghettos.” Le Grand Tango, even though not an authorized biography, quickly became a recognized resource for Piazzolla fans. Mrs Azzi, who has during the course of her research, become close to the Piazzolla family, mainly his daughter Diana, says the family appreciates it.

Sadly, only three years after the book’s publication, Simon Collier passed away, leaving the rights to the book with Oxford University Press. When Mrs Azzi regained the rights to her book, a friend asked if she would consider publishing an updated version. This friend — Terence Clarke — happened to be a tango afficionado from San Francisco who had been introduced to Mrs Azzi in 2003 by the acclaimed tango singer and composer María Volonté. Mr Clarke is the co-founder and director of a new and small publishing-house, Astor & Lenox, whose mission is to ‘print and publish ebook editions of remarkable out-of-print books.’

Mrs Azzi agreed to a new version only to find out, as she told me, that “more than seventy people interviewed for the first edition have since died.” As a result, she undertook additional research for the new version. Most interesting about the new edition, now expanded by an additional one hundred pages, is that it reflects events that have contributed to the growth of Piazzolla’s influence since his death. “Piazzolla is greater than ever,” adds publisher Terence Clarke. “He is much more accepted than in 1992, and his popularity keeps growing.”

After a complete re-edit of the republication, Astor & Lenox published the anniversary digital edition last February — just in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Piazzolla’s death on July 4. Mr Clarke says that he is considering publishing a print edition. An expanded Spanish edition is also expected to come out soon.

The updated and expanded digital version of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla by María Susana Azzi, published by Astor & Lenox is available online.

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Like an avalanche

Orquesta Típica rehearsal

Ramiro Gallo directing students of an Orquesta Típica

When, a few weeks from now in the heat of the South American summer, the lights go up in the Centro Cultural Kirchner in Buenos Aires, one of the most unique music competitions will begin: the first ever International Contest for New Tango Ensembles. Ten out of an initial fifty-five orchestras from nine different countries will enter the stage of the CCK — the biggest cultural center in Latin America — to compete as finalists in a musical genre which, until not too long ago, has been seen as a thing of the past. It will be the grand finale of a week-long gathering of tango musicians who will have participated in a study program called Tango Para Músicos.

Musicians from all over the world are expected to attend six days packed with learning and playing tango. Tango Para Músicos will offer these aficionados a broad variety of classes where they will have a chance to study with some of the masters of modern tango, such as bandoneon instructor Eva Wolff, tango singing-instructor Noelia Moncada, and Exequiel Mantega who teaches orchestration. Participants can choose from eighty modules of instrument classes and fifty modular classes for arrangement, composition, production, musical training, and more. The classes are open to basically all instruments, including vibraphone, clarinet, saxophone, and, of course, all string instruments. In past years even two ukuleles have participated. Drums, on the other hand, have not been part of the course (yet). The public is invited to attend free nightly concerts, milongas, and practicas.

The ‘icing on the cake’, however, is certainly going to be the above-mentioned and much-anticipated International Contest for New Tango Ensembles. The response to this first-ever international contest has been far greater than the organizers’ expectations. Fifty-five orchestras from countries in Asia, Australia, the United States, and Europe had initially applied, from which only ten were chosen. The candidates were asked to present their own arrangements with at least one by a modern composer. The submissions had to be sent in by video so that the judges could not only listen to the musical presentation, but also receive an impression of each band’s stage presence. When the finalists compete live on the stage of the CCK, they are going to play in front of a jury consisting of some the most accomplished artists of the contemporary tango world: Ramiro Gallo, Diego Schissi, Julián Peralta, Juan Carlos Cuacci, and Gustavo Margulies.

What will take place at the Centro Cultural Kirchner in the heart of Buenos Aires between February 12th and 19th marks a newly-found widespread appreciation of a musical genre which, until twenty years ago in most parts of the world, was hardly noticeable. For decades tango had played only a marginal role in the multifaceted international world of music. And even before, during the first half of the twentieth century, when tango was hugely popular and danced everywhere in the United States and Europe, only a few tango orchestras existed in countries outside Argentina. Instead, most Argentine tango musicians were classically trained musicians from Europe who would travel and perform with their orchestras in the United States and Europe.

Over the past twenty years, as Argentine tango has seen a revival, especially among younger people, it has attracted more and more musicians from different parts of the world, inspiring them to form their own bands. They are eager to master this musical style and to take it back to their own countries and communities. The best place for them to learn is still right here where it all began: in Buenos Aires.

A new generation of independent artists and musicians in the capital of Argentina has picked up that trend and begun to develop Tango Para Músicos as a specific and condensed program for musicians. The program takes place once a year. It offers a packed schedule during its six-day duration. Musicians are divided into intermediate and advanced levels based on their skills. For the intermediate level, a musician needs to know how to play and read music, and demonstrate a certain mastery of their instrument. To qualify for the advanced level, a candidate needs to be a highly accomplished, classically trained musician who wants to know how to play tango. Candidates have to apply by video, and are then put into the appropriate ensemble.

The teaching method of Tango Para Músicos is based on the Método de tango. This is a collection of course books which could be best explained to people unfamiliar with the subject as the ‘bible for tango musicians’. Método de tango is the first fundamental method for playing tango music. The collection includes six separate issues for flute, violin, contrabass, bandoneon, guitar, and piano. It was first published in 2010 by Ricordi in Munich, but since 2014 it has been published by Tango Sin Fin in Argentina. Método de tango is considered the essential source for tango musicians.

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Orquesta Típica ensemble performing at Elliot Hall Chapel

One of the authors is Paulina Fain. She wrote the issue on tango for flute. Based on her experience gained writing the book, she went on to put the method of teaching tango into practice, and created the Tango Para Músicos program with her husband Exequiel Mantega. “Our mission is to teach musicians what was not written on paper,” Paulina explains. “It’s sort of the ‘decodification’ of tango. We want to teach them how to make it happen.”

To make it happen from a practical point of view, the couple founded Tango Sin Fin, a non-profit organization dedicated mainly to promoting and developing Argentine tango music world-wide. ‘Tango Sin Fin’ translates to ‘Endless Tango’. Unlike in the United States, cultural programs in Argentina can receive governmental subsidies, and so, to no surprise, Tango Sin Fin is also supported by the Argentine government and the Ministry of Culture. Tango Para Músicos runs as an independent program within Tango Sin Fin.

Paulina talks at a speed of hundred miles per minute. She is bubbling with information. I have to interrupt her passionate flow of words several times to make sure that I don’t miss anything. Her own relationship with tango began long before she started the music program or even before she wrote the book on tango for flute. It was back in the mid-nineties, when there were only about ten tango musicians in Buenos Aires, she recalls. That’s when she and other musicians of her generation started to become aware of this genre which up until then had been closely connected in their memories with the so-called ‘dark times’ of their country. Until then, they played rock-and-roll and other music imported from the United States. “But when we started to play tango, something resonated in us and it felt deeper than everything else,” she says. This young Argentine generation, after having been disconnected from its own culture by military dictatorship, had discovered its roots.

Artistic Faculty

Members of the artistic faculty of the 2016 edition after a concert at Reed College’s Eliot Hall Chapel: Paulina Fain, Eva Wolff, Hernán Possetti, Adam Tully, Sofía Tosello, Ramiro Gallo and Exequiel Mantega.

What Paulina, her husband Exequiel, and everybody around them started only a short while ago resembles an avalanche. Only four years have passed since the first Tango Para Músicos program took place in Buenos Aires, and it has met with world-wide interest and recognition. How big an interest there is among musicians outside Argentina is shown, for example, by the fact that Reed College in Portland has adopted the program. Thanks to Morgan Luker, Associate Professor of Music at Reed College, whose special interest is in contemporary tango music in Buenos Aires, musicians closer to the United States can now take advantage of the same program on the American West Coast. Not only has Luker brought Tango For Musicians to Reed College in Portland every summer for the past five years, but he’s also been able to expand the program significantly. This coming June, for the first time, a program specifically designed for composers and arrangers will be offered: Tango For Composers including none other than award-winning pianist, composer, and arranger Diego Schissi.

Just as in Buenos Aires, the public is invited to attend certain concerts for free. Dancers and others who are not playing an instrument, but who are still interested in participating, can sign up for another newly created course called Auditors Track. It teaches basic knowledge about tango and its history, and offers participants access to rehearsals.

After the successful export of Tango Para Músicos to Portland, Paulina and Exequiel will be traveling to Japan, Australia, the United States, and Europe this year, where they have been invited to bring their program to certain schools. Paulina says that they would very much like to see it established on campuses around the world. But for the next few weeks their focus will be on Buenos Aires — and on that Sunday when the lights go up on some of the best tango ensembles in the world.

Tango Para Músicos takes place from February 12 through 19 in Buenos Aires. More information can be found on https://tangoparamusicos.org/

More on the Tango Sin Fin Awards can be found here: https://tangosinfin.wordpress.com/tangosinfinawards/

Tango for Musicians at Reed College takes place from June 25 – July 2, 2017. For more information go to http://www.reed.edu/tango/

An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York

An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York

In the summer of 2015 I attended a concert in Berkeley, CA, given by a young and fairly unknown tango group from Buenos Aires, Orquesta Victoria. The music they performed that night at Berkeley’s well-known performance venue, Freight and Salvage, struck me as unusual and fascinating. It had a strong message and was delivered with the kind of verve that comes from deep down inside. It was not your usual Argentine tango music. There were a few performances by local professional dancers, but their dancing just underlined the message of the music and was almost a distraction from the band’s performance. The orchestra had just arrived from Argentina on their first tour in the USA to promote an album that they had recorded by San Francisco composer, Debora Simcovich.

Simcovich herself is from Argentina, having barely escaped her home country shortly before the 1976 military coup which lead to a dictatorship that lasted until 1983. Recently she connected with this young group from Buenos Aires which plays the music that people of her generation were either not able to play or not interested in playing. Earlier this summer I became interested in Simcovich’s background and interviewed her. What I learned about her story – of being an Argentinian composer with a Jewish background and now living in San Francisco – was so captivating that we ended up talking for four hours. Needless to say, only a fraction of what I learned that evening made it into my blog: https://andreastangosite.com/2016/06/30/music-with-a-punch/.

She told me that the orchestra was in the middle of recording her second album, El Mundo is the World, and that they would return for another tour on the West Coast to promote this new album in November. When I learned later that the band was actually arriving in New York first, and spending a few days there before the major part of their tour began in California, I innocently asked if they were interested in performing in Upstate New York. Their immediate reply was “Yes!” I quickly discussed the possibility of extra performances with my partner and we agreed to look for some New York venues. The National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs was quick to host a concert this coming Friday, November 4. Equally keen was the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, where the group will perform the following evening, on November 5. Since there is a widespread tango community in the Hudson Valley, we figured there would be enough people interested in the rare opportunity to hear a young and authentic twelve-piece orchestra from Buenos Aires. We certainly hope that enough people with an interest in Argentine tango music delivering a strong social and political message will come and listen to what is going to be predominantly a concert, but which will also offer the opportunity to dance.

It’s been a lot of work getting the word out and organizing the upcoming two concerts. Communicating with the group, which is based in Buenos Aires, hasn’t always been easy. But I finally managed to reach the orchestra’s founder and manager, Ezequiel ‘Cheche’ Ordóñez (who by the way is the grandson of chess grandmaster, Miguel Najdorf), and attempted to conduct an interview with him first by Skype and then by phone. Unfortunately, the connection between Woodstock and Buenos Aires was so bad that we could barely hear each other and we finally gave up, agreeing that I would send him my questions by email—  to which he then responded in writing.

Here is what he said:

AB: How did you discover tango for yourself?

EO: Like most young musicians in Argentina I first discovered tango through Astor Piazzolla, and then through Roberto Goyeneche, Ánibal Troilo, and Horacio Salgan.
AB: What is your actual musical background?

EO: As a youth I studied classic piano, then in secondary school I studied conducting, and then began my career working as a tango pianist. About ten years ago I began to teach myself bandoneon.

AB: How did you get the idea to form an orchestra?

EO: Like Alejandro Drago (our pianist and arranger) I had a quartet, and we both needed to find a more orchestral sound, above all with more strings.

AB: How do you select your pieces?

EO: In general it depends on the particular project we’re involved with, but we always try to keep the compositions and arrangements in line with the orchestra’s identity.

AB: What is most challenging about managing a 12-piece orchestra?

EO: Everything, hahaha! Transportation, lodging, hospitality — everything is difficult and expensive, hahaha!

AB: Have the members changed overtime?

EO: Yes, six of us have remained the same since the beginning but the rest have changed.

AB: What kind of tango do you personally prefer (traditional/modern)?

EO: Mmmm, traditional, but with more modern arrangements, but still respecting the basic tango style, above all the rhythm.

AB: Tell me how you met Debora Simcovich and how your relationship has evolved?

EO: She heard us in Bs. As. at our milonga at Café Vinilo and suggested we record her music. We listened to her work and it seemed very interesting. From there we became good friends and now we’re presenting a second album of her music.

AB: Aside from Debora’s compositions, have you recorded other tango music?

EO: Yes, a lot. The orchestra already has three other albums of traditional material as well as our own works.

AB: What is it like to perform for a concert audience versus a dance audience?

EO: It’s very different. For a concert we choose a repertoire suitable for the room, for a milonga we pay more attention to rhythm and danceable numbers.
AB: What are your expectations for the upcoming US tour?

EO: The truth is that fortunately this is already the second time we’re coming. Last year everything was marvelous: the theaters, the production, the people, everything. We’re hoping this year will be the same and we’ll be able to return many more times. I hope it works out.

Orquesta Victoria performs at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs this coming Friday, November 4, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2667881

More information about the event at the Dance Museum can be found at:

https://www.evensi.us/orquesta-victoria-at-the-national-museum-of-dance-national/187993126

Orquesta Victoria performs at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock the following evening, Saturday, November 5, at 8 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased at http://www.ticketmaster.com/event/000051354C12D993

More information about the concert at the Bearsville Theater can be found here: http://www.bearsvilletheater.com/events-calendar/orquesta-victoria