By Morgan Luker
Assistant Professor of Music
There has been a veritable explosion of interest and activity in tango music over the past two decades, in Argentina and elsewhere. Indeed, some have declared that we are entering a “new golden age” of tango, one that echoes this historic “golden age” of the 1940s and 1950s, which still serves as the ultimate point of reference for contemporary tango musicians and dancers alike. But whether we agree with the idea of a new golden age or not, the resurgence of tango music is simply undeniable, with many important ensembles, compositional voices, and new additions to the shared tango repertoire emerging in recent years. Outside of a few specific places and contexts, however, one thing has been notably absent from the whirlwind of contemporary tango activity: formal opportunities for aspiring tango musicians to study this rich and diverse form of popular music. This is a real lack, for as anyone who has ever tried to play tango before knows very well, playing the notes on the page is just the beginning of what it takes to make any tango—from “El Choclo” to “AdiósNonino”—really sound like tango. The rest is elusive at best, and frustratingly opaque at worst.
A significant corrective to this arrived with the Tango Para Músicos/1er. Encuentro internacional, or the First International Congress of Tango for Musicians, a week long, highly intensive tango music education event that took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina from July 21-27, 2014. Featuring an artistic faculty that included many of the most prominent figures in contemporary tango music, Tango Para Músicos drew more than 250 students from every Argentine province and more than 15 additional countries, including Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Germany, Holland, Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, France, the United States, and many others. The students, who had auditioned for the program by sending videos of their playing months in advance, enjoyed a rich and diverse educational program covering a wide range of issues and ideas related to tango music, from instrumental techniques to composition and arranging, from ensemble rehearsals and performances to specialized sessions on how to listen and identify the key historical styles of tango music. Added to this was a festival-like series of concerts, film screenings, open interviews with luminary figures in tango, and much more, all of which was free and open to the public.
Behind it all was tango flautist and educator Paulina Fain, who has long been and very much remains a key figure in contemporary tango music, in Argentina and elsewhere. Fain’s nonprofit arts organization, Tango Sin Fin, produced the event with assistance from the Ministry of Culture of Argentina and many other governmental and nongovernmental organizations and companies. Fain’s primary goal with Tango Para Músicos was to create a unique space where a diverse set of musicians from around the world—many accomplished professionals—could come together to explore, learn, and really feel how to play tango, the fundamental features of which are usually not notated in scores or instrumental parts and are therefore very difficult to master on one’s own, requiring years of informal study and careful listening. This was not, however, just a matter of “sitting at the master’s feet.” Indeed, as the director of the new Método de Tango series of instrumental education books published by Ricordi, Fain is at the forefront of new efforts to codify and articulate many of the musical features of tango that have largely been informally discussed and intuitively known by previous generations of tango musicians—generations who lived and learned the music in a very different way than the current generation is able to. Along with Fain, who wrote the first volume in the Método de Tango series on The Flute in Tango, the Tango Para Músicos artistic faculty included the authors of the violin, piano, and bass volumes, the later two of which are forthcoming as of this writing. Taken together, these instrumental tango method books make a tremendously important contribution towards making tango more open and accessible to those who are interested in learning how to play it. They also provided a coherent vocabulary of styles and ideas that unified the educational program that was offered at Tango Para Músicos over the course of the week.
Alongside flautist Fain, Tango Para Músicos featured fourteen additional members of the artistic faculty,including many of the most prominent tango practitioners and educators active today: violinist and composer Ramiro Gallo; pianist and composer Exequiel Mantega; bassist Ignacio Varchausky; pianist and composer Julián Peralta; bandoneonist Federico Pereiro; pianist and composer Diego Schissi and pianist Hernán Possetti, among many others. Working intensively alongside these instructors, students began each day with a two-hour session on instrumental techniques. Essentially group lessons, these sessions covered the fundamental features of how each instrument is played and used in the tango style. Topics ranged from how to use the bow to make a proper percussive articulation in Gallo’s tango violin class to different strategies for melodic interpretation in Fain’s flute session, from developing a repertoire of stock transitional phrases in Jorge Jewsbury’s tango guitar lessons to managing dynamics in the use of rhythmic accompaniment patterns in Possetti’s piano course. The key thing for all the instructors was for students leave these classes not only with an idea of how to execute these different techniques, but with a practical feel for the physicality of what it takes to produce them properly.
Students then attended one of four early afternoon sessions, each of which was away from their instruments. Ramiro Gallo taught a series of classes on how to arrange for the orquesta típica, the “tango big band” of strings, bandoneones, bass, and piano that defined the classic tango sound and in many ways remains the quintessential tango ensemble. Departing from this, Exequiel Mantega taught courses on arranging for diverse instrumental forces, which is also very common in tango music. Diego Schissi, a profoundly original new compositional voice in tango, taught sessions on composition to students who had submitted scores for approval in advance. Alongside these composition and arranging classes, Ignacio Varchausky conducted a series of well attended classes about tango styles and history, demonstrating in detail what musical tendencies and devices characterize and distinguish the music of the genre’s most significant historical figures.
Following lunch, students again took up their instruments and headed to their different ensembles, including two different orquestas típicas, a symphonic orchestra, a wind ensemble, guitar ensemble, and two different “a la parrilla” groups, one focused on instrumental performance and the other focused on vocal accompaniment. “A la parrilla” is a specialized style of tango improvisation, less about free melodic development associated with jazz improvisation and more like spontaneous group arrangements. Bassist Pablo Motta and pianist Pablo Fraguela, who has made it his mission to cultivate and disseminate this unique tango performance practice, coached these groups. The other student ensembles worked up a selection of original repertoire that was commissioned and specially composed for this occasion by several of the artistic faculty, including Exequiel Mantega, Diego Schissi, Ramiro Gallo, and Julián Peralta. These ensembles were either directed or coached by these same artists, allowing the students the unique opportunity to work directly with the composers of the music they were working on. Taken together, these original compositions demonstrated the vibrant diversity of contemporary tango music, from the size and type of ensembles they were written for to the powerfully original musical voice of each composer that came to life in the final performances, each one a world premier. Indeed, this observer left the final performances of the student ensembles with the firm belief that tango has again achieved a critical mass, where a wide variety of clearly distinct but collectively coherent musical styles operate alongside and in dialog with one another.
Alongside this formal educational component, Tango Para Músicos also featured a wide variety of additional programming, including: a series of discussions on topics relevant to the professional lives of musicians; several “open rehearsals” where accomplished local groups would perform some of their repertoire and discuss their rehearsal process with the audience members; screenings of six different tango-related documentary films; and public interviews with some of the most prominent living practitioners of tango music, including Juan José Mossalini, Atilio Stampone, and Víctor Lavallén, which directly connected the current and future generations of tango music with the musical masters who have come before them.
On top of all this, Tango Para Músicos featured six nights of concerts that presented many of the most prominent contemporary tango groups active today. Each night featured a double or triple bill, ranging from the historically informed Orquesta Escuela de Tango “Emilio Balcarce” to the Piazzolla-focused Quinteto del Diablo, from the lively tangos of El Arranque and Ramiro Gallo Quinteto to the truly modern styles of Orquesta Astillero, Diego Schissi Quinteto, and the Orquesta Típica Agustín Guerrero.
Some of these later groups were apparently too much for some audience members to digest; during one concert someone next to me confidently declared: “This isn’t tango.” This comment made me feel giddy with excitement, because tango wouldn’t be tango without someone claiming that something “isn’t tango,” without someone staking a claim to what is in and what is out of the genre. That, in the end, is part of what I thought was so valuable and impressive about Tango Para Músicos, that it made such a bold and inclusive claim for what tango is today: a form with many new, living musical voices, with a place for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles, and, most importantly, a dedicated group of excellent teachers who were so eager to open the genre to so many aspiring young musicians. They, in the end, are going to be the one’s who determine what is and what is not tango in the future, and this is where they got their start. This was the first Tango Para Músicos. May there be many more.
For more information see: http://www.paulinafain.com.ar/
Morgan Luker received the PhD in ethnomusicology from Columbia University. He served as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Carleton College and is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. His studies focus on music and cultural policy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a special interest in the cultural politics of contemporary tango.
Comments are closed.