Although people are fascinated with tango as an exotic and sensual dance, in truth, tango is a multidimensional popular art form — encompassing dance, music and poetry — that has had a rich heritage spanning over a century. Emerging from the Río de la Plata region of Argentina and Uruguay, it has radiated to cities throughout the world as it has developed. In the realm of music, tangueros (tango composers/arrangers/performers) have solidified the genre by establishing distinct musical elements that have aurally come to define tango, such as the dotted habanera rhythm, iconic instrumentation (including the bandoneón), fluid melodic phrasing and harmony rooted in classical and popular music.
As the art form has progressed, tangueros like Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) have pushed the boundaries of tango to include elements of jazz and classical music. Today musicians from around the world continue to be inspired by the art form and seek to reinvigorate the genre with new paths as well as to revitalize legacies.
Tango, in its risqué early stages of the bordellos of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, grew out of a confluence of native and immigrant cultures — namely Argentine, Uruguayan, Afro-Argentine/Uruguayan, European and Jewish — at the end of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, amateur musicians formed neighborhood tango ensembles, and these first- generation tangueros, known as la guardia vieja (the old guard), began creating what have become tango standards.
As the art form grew in popularity, it also moved from the outskirts of the cities toward the center, becoming more accessible through the advent of piano tango scores and phonographs. Through trade routes and recorded sound in the 1910s, the French caught on to tango’s allure and helped to catapult it around the world. Argentines, in turn, sought to reclaim their art form as all classes of society began dancing and listening to tango.
During the 1920s, a new wave of tangueros known as la guardia nueva (the new guard) emerged. These musicians learned from the previous masters and then formed their own ensembles to perform new material, as well as innovative arrangements of tangos by the former generation. In doing so, they solidified the essential musical parameters that began to define tango as a musical genre. For example, they established the sexteto típico (standard sextet) of two violins, two bandoneons, piano and bass, and refined tango arrangements using the contrasting rítmico/cantando (rhythmic/singing) melodic styles, marcato (marked) and síncopa (syncopated) accompanimental rhythms and yeites (tango licks/percussive effects).
One other iconic figure of these early years is the great Carlos Gardel (1890?–1935). He is probably the most celebrated figure in tango, and today is credited with establishing the tango canción (tango song). Through live performances, recordings, radio broadcasts and film, Gardel propelled himself to international prominence and set the standard for future generations of singers. The famous Argentine saying is “Carlitos canta mejor cada día” (“Carlos sings better each day”).
As tango commenced its golden age in the 1930s, it swept through society and became the most popular dance, music and song of Argentina. Ensembles proliferated in number and increased in size. Tangueros began a process of individuation with their own orchestras by creating unique styles linked to how they varied tango melodic phrasing and accompanimental rhythms in their compositions and arrangements, as well as how they employed their performance practices. Additionally, tango composers and poets worked closely together to create unified vocal works, and stemming from the tradition of Gardel, the singer also became an important feature of golden-age tangos.
As the tango-dance craze subsided with the invasion of rock music, tango music moved into a post-golden age period and shifted from a dance-hall setting to a nightclub locale for listening. Tangueros reduced their ensemble sizes and explored new musical avenues. The great Astor Piazzolla, the bandoneón master and composer who is frequently synonymous with tango, emerged during this post-golden age period.
Piazzolla grew up on the tango bandstand, working as a child in New York City with Gardel and playing as a young adult alongside the legendary bandoneón master Aníbal Troilo (1914-1975). He also sought a classical music training and studied under the celebrated Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and the esteemed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris. It was Boulanger who told the young Piazzolla that his voice was in tango and not to “ever leave it.”
Thus, with his Buenos Aires Octet in 1955, he sought to create something new and exciting with tango. In doing so, he developed his nuevo tango, a combination of classical, jazz and tango musical styles. He specifically incorporated the electric guitar, 3-3-2 rhythms, heavy arrestes (foot drags) and extended yeites. Moreover, Piazzolla opened the door for future generations of musicians to explore tango and all its possibilities.
In more recent decades, tango has seen a rebirth both abroad and in Argentina, allowing the art form to progress in two basic streams: revitalizing the past and forging new directions. Those tangueros associated with revitalization have sought to capture the essence of a particular golden-age style, while others wanted to write new compositions within a homogenized golden-age sound. Tangueros forging new paths often have extended the legacy of Piazzolla, incorporating jazz and classical elements into their work while maintaining a tango foundation.
The SCP Special Concert Nov. 19 by Quinteto Astor Piazzolla pays a clear tribute to the legacy of Piazzolla on the centenary of his birth. The group is modeled after his first and second quintets (1960s, and late 1970s/80s. respectively). The instrumentation of Piazzolla’s quintets stems from tango’s standard sextet (two violins, two bandoneóns, piano and bass), but only includes one violin and bandoneón in addition to incorporating the electric guitar. From famous works such as “Tres minutos con la realidad,” “Milonga del ángel,” and “Adiós Nonino” to lesser-known works such as “Caliente,” “Milonga loca” and “Operation Tango,” the quintet will present a stunning panorama of the sounds and legacy of Astor Piazzolla.