Astor Piazzolla: A sad, current and conscious tango

In his last visit to Chile, in July, 1989, Piazzolla offered this interview. It is one of the last testimonies about his own musical poetics.

The tango no longer exists, he used to say. It existed many years ago, until 1955, "when Buenos Aires was a place where people wore tango, walked tango, where there was a smell of tango all over the city. But not today. Today that smell is more likely to come from rock or punk. The current tango is just a nostalgic and dull imitation of those times. The tango is like [then President Raul] Alfonsin: dying." Not Piazzolla's tango, of course: "My tango does meet the present."

That Sunday, Piazzolla was sparkling, happy, just awakened from a nap after a sumptuous dinner of seafood and "these great wines that you have," at the Mercado Central (Central Market) in Santiago. He was wearing red pyjamas, and didn't want photos taken. But he did want to talk.

He wanted to tell how he started in the art of composing, how he loved music and how he defended his; how Nadia Boulanger, his master at Paris, helped to discover that his style was in the tango, and not in the 'European-style' music he wrote until the fifties. How he was upset ("me da mucha bronca") to be known just for the 'Balada para un loco' (Ballad for a mad man). "Once a lady asked me: 'Maestro Piazzolla, beside the 'Balada...' what else have you written?' And I wanted to kill this woman..."

He wanted to tell how he was full of commissions: a string quartet, a guitar quartet, a wind quintet, all for American players. "I'm like a music supermarket," he joked. How his life could be seen as a single tango, a very 'porteno' (from Buenos Aires) and sad tango. "Not because I'm sad. Not at all. I'm a happy guy, I like to taste a good wine, I like to eat well, I like to live, so there wouldn't be any reason for my music to be sad. But my music is sad, because tango is sad. Tango is sad, dramatic, but not pessimistic. Pessimistic were the old, absurd tango lyrics.


When he was a boy, living in New York, he began to study the bandoneon and had the opportunity to play--at 13--with Carlos Gardel, the legendary tango singer. As an adolescent, he came back to Mar del Plata (Argentina) and after some frustrating Accounting studies, he decided to devote himself entirely to music. He was deeply in love with it and he knew that his decision was final: "The music," he said, "is more than a woman, because you can divorce a woman, but not music. Once you marry her, she is your foreverlasting love, and you go to the grave with her."

During this time he worked playing his bandoneon "in every cabaret of Buenos Aires" and also began to compose. He dared to introduce himself to the pianist Arthur Rubinstein--then living in Buenos Aires--and showed him a piece of his own. "It was such a terrible work," recalled Piazzolla, "that I said that I had composed a 'piano concerto', but I had written no part for the orchestra." Nevertheless, he insisted Rubinstein read it, and "as he played at the piano, I realized the stupid thing I had done. He played some bars and looked at me. And he suddenly says: 'Do you like music?'. 'Yes, maestro', I answer. 'Then, why don't you study?'"

The Polish pianist called his friend, the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, and told him that he had a young man that wanted to learn. The next morning, Ginastera, then beginning to present the works that would make him famous, had his first pupil in front of the piano; and Piazzolla, his first composition teacher.

"It was like going to your girlfriend's house," remembered nostalgic Piazzolla. "He revealed to me the mystery of the orchestra, he showed me his scores, made me analyze Stravinsky. I entered the world of 'The Rite of Spring', I learned it note by note..." The lessons lasted six years. Piazzolla began to compose "like a lunatic":

--I made myself a "self-genius". I had bad feelings about the tango, I had abandoned it. Instead, I was a composer of symphonies, overtures, piano concertos, chamber music, sonatas. I threw up a million notes per second.

--And how was the music of Piazzolla in that...?

--Wait!, wait! Now comes the story. Then I wrote and wrote, for ten years... One day, in 1953, Ginastera called to tell me that there was a Prize competition for young composers. I didn't want to enter it, because among the participants were the 'great' of the moment, but finally I sent a work called 'Sinfonietta'. When it was premiered, the critics gave me the prize for the best work of the year. And the Government of France granted me a scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris

Nothing was the same in Piazzolla's life after that moment. Because he had to go to Paris to be told by a French woman who he was.

--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'. And stopped, with a big period, round like a soccer ball. 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'. And she began to investigate my private life: what I did, what I did and did not play, if I was single, married, or living with someone, she was like an FBI agent! And I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician. Finally I said, 'I play in a 'night club'. I didn't wanted to say 'cabaret'. And she answered, 'Night club, mais oui, but that is a cabaret, isn't it?' 'Yes,' I answered, and thought 'I'll hit this woman in the head with a radio...' It wasn't easy to lie to her.


She kept asking: --"You say that you are not pianist. What instrument do you play, then?" And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, because I thought, "Then she will throw me from the fourth floor". Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly 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.

Nadia Boulanger made him study 18 months--"that helped me like 18 years"--just four part counterpoint. "After this," she used to tell him, "you will write a string quartet correctly. You will learn here, you really will..."

--She taught me to believe in Astor Piazzolla, to believe that my music wasn't as bad as I thought. I thought that I was something like a piece of shit because I played tangos in a cabaret, but I had something called style. I felt a sort of liberation of the ashamed tango player I was. I suddenly got free and I told myself: "Well, you'll have to keep dealing with this music, then."

--Nevertheless, you didn't want to abandon the tonal system, like so many composers of your generation...

--Oh yes, absolutely... --he thought for a while and recalled again his master--. Nadia didn't like contemporary music. I remember she told me once: "One of my students invited me last night to a premiere of one of his works [he was the then very young Pierre Boulez]. Fortunately in the second part they played Monteverdi!" Just this!--he laughed--. That's how she was: categorical. I was really frightened of her, because she knew absolutely everything. I was about to come back to Buenos Aires and I sent her one of the records I had made. She wrote me a very beautiful letter telling me that she had already heard my music on a radio program and that she was proud of me.

--And you, do you have students to feel proud of? Are there musicians who consider themselves to be your disciples, following your style?

--I say: Let everyone to do it for themselves. If they write like me, the worse for them. If they can follow this style of tango, this life-style that I do with music, then O.K. But 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".

--These two elements in your music produce a strange phenomenon: it is heard on the radio, in popular programs, but also at the concert halls...

--Well, with Gershwin the same happens. Villa-Lobos [the Brazilian composer] is today so popular... Even to hear Bartok now is not a strange thing.

--Yes, but you don't hear Bartok on a popular radio program...

--But see what happens with Bartok. When in an American thriller there is a terror or violent scene, they put the 'Music for strings, piano and celesta' or Stravinsky's 'The Rite'... or Mahler. They are no longer 'contemporary', because when we talk about Bartok, we talk about the twenties...

--And how do you feel with the music written after those times?

--I don't feel a contemporary musician like me can feel Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky or even Penderecki or Lutoslawski. But Xenakis, for instance, I don't feel him. I respect him, of course, like I do with Brown, Boulez... The other day we were rehearsing and I said: 'If we put that chord, we will sound like contemporary music', and Gerardo Gandini [the Uruguayan pianist and composer who worked with him then] protested: 'Hey, what do you have against contemporary music?'. 'Nothing,' I answered,'it's just that a strange thing would happen.' And contemporary music is a strange thing. It's like someone who is discovering a vaccine for AIDS or for cancer. It is there, but it isn't.

--You mean it is at an experimental stage?

--Yes, but the vaccine is not ready yet, can't be sold yet. For me the contemporary music is there, but it is not on the market yet.

--By the way, since you mention the market. There are a lot of contemporary composers that split music in two categories: the commercial and the non-commercial. Don't you worry about the fact that they usually put yours in the first category?

--No, absolutely not. I would be offended if they said that my music is light, trivial. My music is a popular chamber music that comes from the tango... well, there are a lot of ways to define it. If I were a composer of contemporary music, I couldn't use it for making the music I make. I can go to a poly-rhythm, to bitonal or tritonal chords, but I can't go beyond, because I must keep some swing, some sense of rhythm at the base. Then, in the 'upper', I adorn it with music.

--In the harmony is the 'audacity', then?

--In the harmony, in the rhythms, in the counter-tempi, in the beautiful counterpoint that two or three instruments can make... And you don't always have to make it tonal, you can go to atonality also. That's why Gandini and I can work together.

--Is that the reason for the problems that your music has had in Argentina, because of these 'strange' elements you introduced in tango?

--Yes, but the 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.

--Was the change that you made with the tango meant to make it more European?

--No, I don't think so. Thanks to the fact that my music is very 'portena', from Buenos Aires, I can work over the world, because the public finds a different culture, a new culture.

--Don't you think that the critique that was applied to Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos would be applicable to you? I mean that he made his music more European to be liked by a European public?

--No, that is silly. I think Villa-Lobos is 100 percent Brazilian. His chamber music is excellent, and totally Brazilian. Because if Brazil has anything, it is popular music. We don't have anything like that in Argentina. They [Brazilians] make a more intuitive music, we are more 'cold', maybe.

--More rational...

--Yes... If you go to Brazil, and a 9-year-old boy takes a guitar he will never make a perfect major chord. No, a Brazilian boy makes a 9th chord, an 11th chord and with such a special swing... We don't have that. An Argentinian guy plays a zamba, a chacarera [both typical folklore songs] and comes with a G minor, D mayor 7, and good-bye. He doesn't go beyond that.

--How much of European and how much of 'Porteno' can be found in your tango? How much of Stravinsky or Bartok and how much of Gardel, to put it that way?

--A critic from the New York Times once said an absolute truth: all the 'upper thing' that Piazzolla makes is music; but beneath you can feel the tango.

© 1989 Gonzalo Saavedra - the author thanks David Taylor for his aid in translating this interview

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