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Astor Piazzolla: a new-age score for the tango.

IT WAS AN INCONGRUOUS SCENE: the lobby of a hotel on the shores of Lake Champlain, the aloof, button-down reserve of New England suddenly violated by six figures in black, some wielding violin cases. Shades of Coppola and Scorcese? An offer you can't refuse? A contract to be made? Not really. It turned out that the "hit" that night would be made by a near septuagenarian, at the Flynn Theatre, in Burlington, Vermont. The "thug" really was a musician, Astor Piazzolla, the "Father of New Tango." His weapon would be a bandoneon, a kind of concertina invented by a nineteenth century German-named band for impoverished parishes unable to afford an organ. Piazzolla and his five accomplices, the New Tango Sextet, would "knock 'em dead" just as they had done at Lincoln Center in New York City, Zellerback Auditorium on the Berkeley campus, and the Old Vic in Chicago. It was all part of triumphant standing-room-only tour that made the rounds of fifteen North American cities in the spring of 1989.

Gangsters, outlaws, tough guys - all are aspects of an image Piazzolla and his cohorts carefully nature. After all, tango, born at the turn of the century in the bordellos of Buenos Aires, was a dance once considered to "dirty" that men and women were prohibited from doing it together. The words were often obscene and only men - two machos - performed the dance in river front dives and brothels of the port city amidst the pimps, whores, and knife fighters who were later celebrated by Jorge Luis Borges. But in the 1920s, tango found its way into the elegant salons of the monied establishment and, with a measure of naughty respectability, it became the rage of Paris and New York. In the 1930s and 1940s it became more of a family affair, suitable for radio broadcast, sentimental, a symbol of Argentina's growing prosperity and comfortable middle class. It was the era of Carlos Gardel whose hundreds of tango recordings made him both a national hero and international celebrity.

In the ensuing decades, interest in tango declined, especially among young people who associated it with old folks and favored the angry rebellion of rock and roll. Only with Piazzolla did tango eventually find a new lease on life, often to the horror of die hard traditionalists. El Tango Nuevo was hybrid, a mix rooted in jazz and classical music with the telltale throbbing tango pulse "underneath (as Piazzolla would put it). It swaggered back and forth between instinct and reason, pitting harmony against dissonance. It was complex and contradictory, the struggle of modern life set to music.

Premonitions of stardom must have visited upon Vicente Piazzolla and Asunta Menetti when, in Mar de Plata, in March 1921, they christened their only child with a name that had a certain "astral" sound to it. Three years later, Astor accompanied his father and mother to the United States where they found work as barber and hair stylist respectively in the Little Italy of New York City. Piazzolla's father purchased a motorcycle with a sidecar which he named The Spirit of Buenos Aires and as further evidence of his longing for Argentina, he bought his son a bandoneon from a pawn shop, Piazzolla remembers taking to the instrument only with reluctance because baseball, soccer, and especially boxing were his real passion. "Tony Canzoneri taught me how to fight," Piazzolla recalls, "but boyhood buddies like Rocky Graziano and Jake La Motta gave me such a pasting I didn't want to fight no more. But boxing made me tough. That's what you need in the world of tango."

Piazzolla admits he was precocious, that much of his future success came from some gutsy moves as a young boy, pushed by parents, especially his father who early on opened a journal on Astor entitled El tambien tiene su historia. Through a succession of teachers, the youngster did master the new instrument and by age nine, he was performing professionally, touted as something of a boy wonder, el pibe bandeonista. A street wise kid who learned to speak cocoliche (pidgin Spanish), he was also prone to slip out at night, sneaking into clubs in Harlem to hear Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. It was the beginning of a life long love affair with jazz. Close to home, he was equally impressed by classical music - Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Bach. A next door neighbor, a concert pianist from Hungary named Bela Wilder, helped Astor transpose piano compositions for the bandoneon. To this day Piazzolla confesses: "More than anything else, I am what I am thanks to Bach!"

Even as a lad, Piazzolla could have written a primer on how to succeed: "you work harder than anyone else, you look for openings, create opportunities from thin air, and you scramble like hell even if it means scrambling through the transom of the guest apartment of Carlos Gardel!" It was 1934 and the famous singer and matinee idol from Argentina came to the United States to make recordings and do a movie with MGM. Word traveled through the Argentine colony like wildfire and father Vicente was quick to respond. He fashioned a wooden effigy of a guitar player, a gift young Astor could present to the singer. The goal was to get the boy in the door and present him as an up and coming bandeonista. As it turned out, Astor met up with an aide to Gardel who had lost his key so he volunteered to climb through the transom. He found the tango king asleep on the couch. The boy's winning ways and fluency in English first earned him a jobs as tour guide and all purpose translator, then a role as a paper boy in Gardel's melodrama, El dia que me quieres. Impressed by Astor's ability on the bandoneon, Gardel invited him to perform with the NBC Symphony during a recording session and then to join the singer's world tour. Reluctantly, Piazzolla's parents declined the latter proposal because Astor was too young. It proved to be a fortuitous decision; Gardel died in a plane crash near Medellin, Colombia the following year.

The late 1930s saw Piazzolla and his family back in Argentina permanently. It was the beginning of period of intense seasoning and also the continuation of a precarious balancing act between the worlds of classical and popular music. He was living by himself in Buenos Aires, making ends meet by playing tango clubs along Calle Corrientes, taking his first tentative stabs at serious musical composition. Artur Rubinstein came to town and with characteristic determination, Piazzolla decided to call on him at his guest apartment. "It was lunch time. I just banged on the door and he came out with a plate of spaghetti. He invited me in and served me some tea. Trembling, I told him I'd brought him a concerto and wanted his opinion. I practically cried when he actually sat down and started playing my concerto on a magnificent Steinway. Well, without an orchestral score it was no concerto. He told me it was a sonata but that didn't matter. He saw I was serious about music, called Juan Jose Castro and when he wasn't available, Rubinstein called Alberto Ginastera. |He's going to take you on as a student, it's all arranged.'"

Thereafter, the "madness" accelerated at an ever increasing tempo: playing until dawn with Anibal Troilo and his tango orchestra (the best in all of Buenos Aires), doing homework at a table in some cabaret and riding colectivos to arrive at Ginastera's home almost sleepless at eight in the morning. "You can't imagine the contrast, all the racket of those dives and then the stillness of the maestro's studio. It was not just composition, orchestration, harmony, theory. Ginastera insisted on a total education: paintings, movies, theatre, literature. I started reading Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mann ... Magic Mountain." As if that was not enough, the young musician fell in love with the young painter, Dede Baralis, and by the early forties, the couple had two children, Diana and Daniel.

In 1944, unhappy with traditional tango, Piazzolla left Troilo's orchestra. Two years later, he founded his own Orquesta del 46 as a vehicle for a new kind of music then "gestating in my gut." Still a student of Ginastera, he was now writing constantly, first a sonata that was more warmed-over Stravinsky and Hindemith, then a Rapsodia Portena (1948) which more honestly quoted themes and rhythms deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the Argentine capital. Despite the break with Troilo, he continued doing arrangements for "Pichuco" and other tangueros, as well as working on movie scores (Buenos Aires had become the Hollywood of Latin America). For a time he thought he wanted to lead a classical orchestra so he studied conducting under Herman Scherchen who then resided in Argentina. He also tried his hand at choral music and organ with his Cristo y los Angeles Cantores, placing ever greater distance between himself and his old cronies in the cabarets along Calle Corrientes. Even those compositions that Piazzolla labeled tangos (Se Armo and El Desbande) were anything but tangos for the old guard; in their opinion, elements of jazz, classical formats, unusual instrumentation had no place in real tango. Despite the lack of local support, Piazzolla steadfastly pressed on with his experiments, encouraged by outsiders. First the conductor Igor Markevitch heard Piazzolla's innovative Orquesta del 46 in action at the Tango Bar on Corrientes, then composer Aaron Copland, whose own work at the time was taking on a Latin American flavor, paid a visit to the club. The Argentine was on the right track. This period of intense searching reached a climax with Piazzolla's Sinfonia Buenos Aires, the product of months of work in the relative quiet of Mar del Plata. It won first prize in the international Fabien Sevitsky Competition in Indianapolis and soon thereafter was introduced to local audiences by Sevitsky himself in a 1953 concert at the Facultad de Derecho in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, instead of applause, the concert received mostly cat calls and jeering: "Go back to your cabaret!" and "Your stuff is for barbarians!" On the streets of Buenos Aires, where tango was serious business, Piazzolla was pelted with insults wherever he went.

The year 1954 was pivotal for New Tango. Weary of snipping by the critics (whom Piazzolla still labels the "self-appointed guardians of the status quo"), longing for less provinciality and more tolerance for innovation, Piazzolla happily accepted a fellowship offered by the French Government to further his studies in Paris. The grant specifically recognized his Sinfonia Buenos Aires

as an important work. Piazzolla's wife would accompany him thanks to another beca which would permit her to work with the French artist, Andre Lhote. "To study with NadIa Boulanger, that was my secret goal," Piazzolla later admitted. "I wasted no time locating her home and selecting what I thought was my best new composition. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of so many of her students: Copeland, Bernstein, Cassadesus, Francaix. |Did you bring you work?' she asked at the door, and in no time she was at the piano trying her hand at my new Sinfonietta. |You're a great composer! Everything is perfectly written.' But then she said, |Something is missing You sound like Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Hindemith but you don't sound like Piazzolla. Where is Astor Piazzolla in all this? What do you do!'"

For a brief time, Boulanger took on Piazzolla as a student. While exposing him to the intricacies of the fugue and contrapuntal music she continued to hammer away at the message: be faithful to your roots. "Look at Chavez in Mexico, Villa Lobos in Brazil, de Falla in Spain," she would say. "They transformed the music of their people into something beautiful!" One day she persuaded him to play one of his tangos on the piano, and after just eight bars, she took his hands and said "This is Piazzolla, not that. Throw the rest away!" Soon after, she dispatched him with a kiss on the forehead and her blessing: "You don't need me anymore."

With a renewed sense of confidence and the kind of focus and clarity that often comes when one distances oneself from familiar surroundings, Piazzolla began to write "like mad." "I promised myself I'd write a tango a day and that's what I did. Tangos with names like Barbo, Imperial, Marron y Azul, Contrastes, and Nonino followed one another, even one called Picasso. "Before - Picasso, Brecht - they made no sense to me, but then I began to really look at the paintings of Van Gogh, Cezanne, and most of all, Picasso. I fell in love with them all." Piazzolla's bandoneon, the instrument which ashamedly he had kept hidden away, got more respect, too. In his chamber music it took on a legitimate role, its rhythmic slides, its sensual stabs and shifts finding their places alongside the sounds of traditional instruments. "I met Lalo Schifrin, the conductor, about then. He helped me get professional musicians from the orchestra of the Paris Opera for recording sessions. In a Parisian jazz club Piazzolla also heard Gerry Mulligan's octet in action and began to imagine a porteno equivalent: Hugo Baralis and Enrique Mario Francini on Violin, with Hector Stampone on piano, even an electric guitar! In July 1955, Piazzolla was back home and soon after, his Octeto Buenos Aires, in formal attire ("New Tango in tails"), made its debut.

Was Piazzolla home free at last? Had he finally earned acceptance and legitmacy? Hardly. He was propelled by renewed determination and the backing of friends and a small but growing audience for his music but irate tango purists still threatened his life over the phone or cursed him in public. A taxi driver actually refused him service, sputtering epithets about his music being communist and subversive. Once again, Piazzolla decided to bail out, this time for New York City at the suggestion of Schifrin who had transited the Argentine capital, as well as Dizzy Gillespie who sat in on a local recording session and was deeply moved by Piazzolla's music. But running away was not the answer. The three years in New York were a mistake, mainly unceasing financial worry and low productivity. Colleagues in the United States urged him to compromise by writing "marketable" stuff, especially for the movie industry, but he resisted and finally withdrew.

The following decade was much kinder to el asesino del tango (the assasin of the tango) as some critics continued to label Piazzolla. He formed a new Quinteto Nuevo Tango, performing at his own club, Jamaica, which was modeled after Birdland in New York. He inhaled the latest musical ideas coming out of Brazil, while also incorporating rock and pop elements into his music. Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, Sergio Mihanovich, Gary Burton all stopped by to hear his ensemble play. Some of these musicians, later would propose collaborative ventures with him. Locals too, particularly the poet and tango scholar, Horacio Ferrer, collaborated with the composer in works like Chiquilin de Bachin and Balada para un loco. Inspired by a soapy, serialized pot boiler in the newspaper about Maria and Jose, Ferrer suggested a folk opera, an idea which appealed to Piazzolla, who long had admired George Gershwin. Ferrer did the libretto and by 1968 the Tango-operita made its debut at the Sala Planeta on Calle Suipacha. Both a critical and commercial success, it did much to muffle grumbling by the traditionalists.

The following year, Piazzolla did a record for Polydor Records called El Tango, a narrative set to music based upon the short story, El Hombre de la Esquina Rosada, with poems and other texts by Jorge Luis Borges. Piazzolla later admitted it was more of rite of passage, the sort of enterprise expected of him because collaboration with Borges meant legitimacy for all sorts of creative people in Argentina. "Borges didn't really like my music, he loved primitive tango, from the turn of the century, underground cafes, tough guys, knife fighters bragging about how many they had killed. Years later he walked out on a concert of mine in Cordoba. |Let's get out of here,' he was overheard to say, |I don't hear any tango yet!'"

Borges' reaction notwithstanding, Piazzolla's music gained even greater stature during the 1970s, especially outside Argentina. If it could be described as cerebral and complex on the one hand, passionate and physical on the other, then these were the very same traits one could assign to the composer himself. One moment Piazzolla was cloistered in a vacation house at Punta del Este writing startling fresh music. The next moment he was posing next to sharks twice his height that he'd caught, as a latter-day Hemingway, burning the candle at both ends. He was not an easy man to live with for anyone who cherished stability, predictably, domestic bliss; Piazzolla's first marriage ended in divorce in the mid-sixties. Then, in 1973, the late nights, the chain smoking, the unmerciful pace and goals he set for himself all took their toll in the form of a massive heart attack. It was the first of several warnings that said, "Change your ways, Astor, or pay the price!"

Piazzolla tried self reform, but only temporarily. By the following year he was back at it again in Europe, first living in Milan, then briefly in Switzerland at the home of Ginastera and finally in Paris. A glimpse at his discography for the period confirms his intense activity: collaboration with Gerry Mulligan, a film score for Lumiere, which was directed by Jeanne Moreau, another for the film Armagedon starring Alain Delon. He did concerts at the Llympia in Paris, the Festival Venezia and others in Germany and Finland. Major commissions as well as concert tours, began to come his way. But they were accompanied by setbacks. Amelita Baltar, his companion of nearly seven years, left him in 1974 and the following year he learned of the death of Anibal Troilo, his spiitual mentor in those days of early exploration. Yes, El Gato Piazzolla had broken with El Gordo Pichuco Troilo but despite their aesthetic quarrels, they had made up and remained close friends. In May 1976, Piazzolla released his Suite Troileana, with a remarkable drawing on the record jacket by Hermenegildo Sabat showing Piazzolla behind Troilo. The composer's dedication on the inside reads: "Gracias Pichuco por todo lo que me has dado." Soon after, Piazzolla took possession of Troilo's very own bandoneon, a most cherished reminder of the departed master.

In 1984, Piazzolla returned once again to Buenos Aires, and finally his countrymen embraced him as the rest of the world had: the native son who had breathed new life into a musical form grown complacement and repetitive. Appreciative Piazzolla tried to help them understand: "I write music, not just tangos." Whatever the stuff was, it kept flowing. In the 1980s, he did three films scores: Henri IV, Sur, and Tango: Exile of Gardel which won a Cesar Award for best film music. In the latter film, shot in Paris, the words of Juan Uno, a poet, were celebrated: "Being is risk . . . Mix styles and smash formulas . . . Perfection is death. Long live imperfection." They were the very same creative principles long espoused by Piazzolla himself. In the recording studio, too, he continued to collaborate with first-rate artists. He produced a stunning hybrid for Atlantic Records with American vibraphonist, Gary Burton; then a new concerto for bandoneon with his old pal, Lalo Schifrin, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's for Nonesuch Records. Increasingly popular in the United States, his music was featured in the Broadway production, Tango Argentina, which toured the United States in 1986. The next year he wrote the score for Graciela Daniele's musical theatre productions, Borges and Myself and Tango Apasionado. In response to a request from the avantgarde Kronos Quartette, he wrote his Five Tango Sensations and composed other works for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in New Mexico.

In retrospect, it is easy to say that Piazzolla was running on empty and should have seen the warning signs. After all, even the titles of some of his projects had a portentous ring to them: Frantic, the film by Roman Polanski in which his music was featured; Tango: Zero Hour, the recording with American Clave produced by Kip Hanrahan; Dangerous Games, the smash sensation of New York (then at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston) once again choreographed and directed by Graciela Daniele. But Piazzolla refused to heed friends' advise that he slow down which was all the more urgent since he had undergone quadruple bypass surgery because of continued heart trouble. In mid-1989, on the heels of his taxing fifteen city tour of North America with his New Tango sextet and yet another round of concerts in cities of the Southern Cone, he went to Paris intent on doing a full scale opera. The American Music Theatre Company based in Philadelphia had proposed that he made good on his long time dream: a tango/opera called Gardel, with Placido Domingo in the leading role and sets designed by the painter and Piazzolla's good friend, "Menchie" Sabat. It was June when something snapped. Suddenly Piazzolla was close to death. As word of his cerebral hemorrhage flashed to Buenos Aires, his daughter and son rushed to his side. The plane bringing him back home was met by President Carlos Saul Menem. By then, Piazzolla was a national hero.

At this writing, Astor Piazzolla's condition is tenuous at best. Careful therapy has brought him a long way back from the brink and yet he has also had lapses that suggest his days as composer and performer are behind him. It is a tragedy and yet, were he to assess his life of intense adventure and productivity, almost certainly he would do it the same way all over again. I recall that chilly day at the hotel in Burlington, Vermont, when I was startled by the dramatic gangland entrance of the composer and his sidemen. I also recall his hearty laughter when later, during the interview, I told him that old "chestnut" of a musician's joke, about the piano tuner, Mr. Opporknockety, who refused to work on a lady's piano a second time: "Ah, Madame, I cannot return. Opporknockety only tunes once!" With a wry smile, in his still almost unaccented English, Piazzolla responded: "Yes, it's the school of hard knocks, knocking at doors until they open, believing in yourself, being yourself. It cannot be otherwise!"

Caleb Bach, a freelance writer and researcher, teaches art and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Massachussetts.
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Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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