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  • Writer's pictureHeather Wade

Piazzolla fans the flames (almost literally)

Meet the composer who defied tradition to the point of inciting murderous rage....

If you have ever done some reading about the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, you will probably have come across a few rather unbelievable stories about how people responded to his music.  For example, someone once pulled a gun with the intention to shoot him.  Another time someone threw gasoline at his band and tried to set them all on fire.  While you may legitimately be wondering whether Piazzolla was secretly a mob boss or a member of some underground musician's gang, the answer is simply that he was a composer who dared to mess with tango music in Argentina, the country where tango was very much a pillar of cultural identity.  Piazzolla described the situation this way… 

  "All my musicians were threatened, but I was the troublemaker…People there just can't take it -- somebody changing the music they used to love 40 or 50 years ago. What I was doing wasn't dancing tango, and it wasn't singing tango. It was a contemporary music."

 The changes that Piazzolla wrote into his Nuevo (New) Tango style included expanded harmonic and rhythmic language, the incorporation of more improvisation, and elements of both jazz and classical music.  This was no longer the traditional dance music of the 1930s, but a whole new genre of tango.  Piazzolla and his band (usually a quintet of violin, piano, bass, guitar and bandoneon) championed Nuevo Tango throughout the world during their time together.  From childhood, Piazzolla was something of a prodigy on the bandoneon (an instrument like an accordion, but with buttons instead of keys), and he was the preeminent bandoneon player of his time.   

 There is a really interesting youtube video which features Piazzolla talking about his instrument (one great thing about more contemporary composers is that there are often recordings of them performing or speaking which are fascinating.) You can watch it by clicking this link.  


The work on our April program, Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Bueno Aires, was written as four separate pieces.  Piazzolla himself occasionally performed them together, but each movement also stands alone as an individual work.  Of course, he wrote these pieces for his band, and not for piano trio.  Any performance of these works that you hear that are not performed by a quintet of violin, bass, piano, guitar and bandoneon (which is probably most or all performances that you hear) are arrangements of these works.  The arrangement for piano trio, which is one of the best known, was done by Jose Bragato, a cellist, composer and conductor who frequently performed with Piazzolla.  I have to admit here, that as cool as these works are for piano trio, they are definitely more tame than Piazzolla's renditions with his band.  There is nothing quite like hearing Piazzolla perform these tunes.  Below is a link so you can do that, and you really (really) should.  Just please don't expect us to be QUITE as cool when we play them.  We promise we are doing our best…


Gradually, (and luckily for Piazzolla), people stopped trying to kill him.  While many continued to despise his music, younger generations of listeners throughout the world embraced his Nuevo Tango.  He is remembered today as the hippest cross-over composer ever (by me, at least).  Through his complete disregard for tradition, he gave us music that is incomparable to anything else. 


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