Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Big 5 Orchestras: a statistician's quest

Which tango orchestras are the most important?

Nobody would disagree that the recordings of Carlos Di Sarli and Juan D'Arienzo, the musical antipodes of their glory days, are the backbone of the XXI century milonga playlists. (Interestingly, there is a persistent but unproven rumor that the two grandest orchestra leaders played together for a short period of time in 1934, when Di Sarli bounced between a succession of temporary jobs, with Cambareri in Rosario, with his former Sextet musicians at confitería "Novelty", with Juan Canaro, at Radio El Mundo, and maybe even with D'Arienzo?)

Ron Weigel with his wife Susana and the statue immortalizing
them in Urbana IL, where they have taught Argentine tango
since 1999. The 11-foot sculpture by Larry Young has been
installed in Urbana's Wandell Sculpture Garden in 2001
But the tango music aficionados always prefer to speak of "the Big 4" or "the Big 5", and they make a lot of fuss about who the "next 2 or 3" orchestras might be, once we place Di Sarli and D'Arienzo at the top of the list. "How did you dare to rank Troilo below his due 3rd position??" - "How could you even consider Donato among the big-five??".  In this post, we shall consider the orchestra rankings and preferences through the prism of surveys and statistics.

Enter Ron Weigel, likely the only statistician ever to have a tango monument erected in his honor. Dr. Weigel teaches biostatistics in Urbana-Champaign. During one of his visits to BsAs, in summer 2008, he decided to tally all tandas at all the milongas they attended, trying to get an authoritative answer about the Most Important Orchestras. Ron notes that the surveyed milongas were all in the downtown, all popular with the experienced milongueros, so the results ought to be biased in favor of the subjective tastes there (and indeed, Biagi ranked high in all genre categories, which is exactly what people remember about the Central BsAs milongueros). Still, Ron writes, his subjective experience in other BsAs venues is that they play broadly similar selections. We shall review the data shortly, but first let me set the mood by playing a video from Club Gricel, the home of 2 out of the 14 surveyed milongas:

An average milonga from Ron Weigel's dataset had 13 tango tandas, including approximaely two each of D'Arienzo and Di Sarli, and one of Troilo. None of the other orchestras ranked as a must-play:

As a fellow statistician, I must warn against literal acceptance of these rankings. There clearly is a good deal of variation in milonga setlists, and if one keep observing milongas, then this variability must result in slightly fluctuating tallies each time. In fact we can use the toolkit of statistics to check if the differences between, say, 11 Puglieses vs. 13 Tanturi in this dataset are "statistically significant" (as opposed to falling within the expected range of the random fluctuation).

One-tailed Fisher's test performed on Ron's tallies confirms that Troilo was not significantly preferred over Biagi or Tanturi ( p-value = 0.423086) or Pugliese or D'Agostino ( p-value = 0.273212) or Calo or even Rodriguez ( p-value = 0.147721). Only Di Sarli and D'Arienzo were significantly favored over the runners-up.

So after all the data-collection and analysis, we are left exactly where we started: the study confirmed that Di Sarli and D'Arienzo are The Big Two, but couldn't tell with statistical confidence who the "other 2 or 3" core orchestras ought to be. It doesn't mean that there is no objective orchestra ranking - it just means that it will take many more observations before one can confidently rank them.

And even then we'd be left with selection biases to ponder. Like, are salon milongas different? Are differences cropping up from year to year, both because the availability of the recordings changes and because the fashions and trends shift? Could there be differences between earlier-evening and late-night milonga styles? Between the more youthful and more old-dancer communities? Even between the steamy BsAs summer and its gloomy winter?

There turns out to be a much bigger survey which attempts to parse out some of these influences. But before we move on to it, let me mention some of the other results of Ron Weigel's study.

1. Milongas. There were, on average, 2.6 milonga tandas per event (fewer then expected 3.2 tandas if TTVTTM tanda flow was the rule). Almost all milonga tandas were of Canaro, D'Arienzo, Di Sarli, and Donato, (plus a sole Biagi tanda and a sole Tanturi tanda), with 25% milonga tandas being mixed ( which also included Caceres (Tango negro), Calo, Color Tango (La luciernaga), Laurenz, Tanturi, Troilo, and Villasboas). The numbers are too small for meaningful statistical comparisons, but mixed milonga tandas seem to be a widely accepted norm

2. Valses. There were, on average, 2.7 vals tandas per milonga, again fewer than expected under the TTVTTM rule. Fully one third vals tandas were D'Arienzo's (!), and nearly as many tandas were mixed (including Biagi, Calo, De Angelis, Demare, Di Sarli, Firpo (tipica), Laurenz, Tanturi, and Troilo). Biagi and Troilo were distant 2nd and 3rd behind D'Arienzo's, and all other orchestras were represented by just a tanda or two ( De Angelis, Calo, Quinteto Pirincho, D’agostino, Donato, and Tanturi).
Felipe Martinez DJing in Canada

3. Other genres. An average milonga had 2 to 4 tandas of non-tango music ( Chacarera, Cumbia, Merengue, Jazz, Pasodoble, Rock & Roll, Salsa), which may partly explain why there were fewer than expected milonga and vals sets.

While we were discussing Ron Weigel's survey (and its limitations) on facebook, Felipe Martinez pointed my attention to a much bigger annual Tango Tecnia survey which tried to measure not what DJs played, but what the dancers liked. The 2014 report is the latest one available. I took the 2015 survey to familiarize myself with its methodology, and I have to assume that it didn't change much year to year.

Tango Tecnia doesn't probe the opinions of the English-speaking tangosphere well (its North American respondents are overwhelmingly from Mexico, and its European respondents are mostly from Spain, although France and Italy contribute too), and the majority of the survey-takers are young (in their 20s and 30s) .... but it still cut impressively across the cultural and age divides with nearly 1300 responses. D'Arienzo and Di Sarli came on top here, too, with nearly 80% "approval rating":

It may be impossible to evaluate statistical significance from the 2014 survey results, because almost 30% of the respondents skipped the question about orchestras ... and it's impossible to tell if this fraction differed from Europe to the Americas. Those who did like some orchestras liked, on average, 10 of them .... but many must have picked just one or two, otherwise how could one explain the observation that nearly 1 in 5 survey-takers didn't like D'Arienzo or Di Sarli

xkcd: "Significant!" :)
Once one splits already-thin data multiple ways,
then all sorts of improbable spurious
"associations" can be "found" there
("More study recommended", deadpans
xkcd's famous mouseover)
Biases of selection and recall ought to be a huge problem, too - people may not remember unfamiliar or rare titles, and may remember better the music they heard from CDs or online videos than the tandas they loved at the actual milongas. The contemporary and the undanceable definitely gets a very strong favorable bias in the survey data, with Color Tango outpolling Laurenz and OTV, Piazzolla beating Lomuto and Malerba, and even Ojos de Tango getting 10 times the votes of Garcia, Firpo, or Carabelli. 

Popularity breakdown by region and by age looks intuitively right, although it may be impossible to tell apart significant differences from the flukes. Say, Sexteto Milonguero rules in South America and with the under-30 crowd, while Enrique Rodriguez and OTV seem to have more fans in Europe.

Of the specific record titles, the highest ranking is (yes) Poema with 18% approval rating. Many Pugliese records, Bajofondo and Otros Aires, Esteban Morgado, Caceres and Salgan complete the top-20 list of the most poplar record titles, Regional and age differences look mind-boggling sometimes - like, apparently Otros's "Lo Vino" is especially loved ... in Mexico, and Hotel Victoria is preferred by the 60+ age group? - but one can't tell if it is a mere fluke. 

Sometimes it's just so disappointing to look at the world through the statistician's eyes :) :) ... a picture which sort of made good intuitive sense no longer looks trustworthy once you go into the gory details, and start seeing meaningless coincidences and confounds where you used to see patterns.

UPDATE: analysis of SuperSabino's DJ survey (October 2015)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Practica del Centro with QTANGO, June 2015

Erskine Maytorena, Olga Tikhovidova, and Natalia Tikhovidova of QTANGO Orchestra may not need an introduction to the Salt Lake Tango community, they are our old friends. On their June road tour, QTANGO planned a 4-night stay in Utah before continuing to Idaho, Montana, Alberta CA, and Colorado. I was to provide recorded music support on the 2nd night of the workshop, in the loft of Squatters Pub where we scheduled a musicality class and a practica with a long live music segment.

For a pre-class warm-up, Erskine asked me to play a set of different orchestras with strong contrasts, and oh, how about starting it with El Recodo? I had to think real quick and I probably had a deeply puzzled look of my face - well, how do you get contrast and continuity at the same time?? - before picking Di Sarli's 1951 "El recodo", D'Arienzo's 1970s "La torcacita", and 1942 "Trasnochando" of Miguel Caló with Raúl Berón.

The class was themed "How each orchestra can change your dance", and Olga and Natalia wonderfully conjured up the spirits of the steady-matching Canaro, the fiery rhythmic D'Arienzo coming to the rescue of the moribund pre-Golden Age tango scene and evolving over the years, and the dramatic, accelerating and slowing, passionate Pugliese. Actually, the topics of the class ranged even farther, with an intro on the tango instruments and their staccato and melodic abilities and roles - piano vs violin and bass, the voice of the bandoneon and the human voice - and with segments about stimulating female musicality, even in such traditionally lead-dominated contexts as the song endings ("the poses of the cha-chan") !
Focusing on piano...
... and on violin!
Then it's time for the musicians to take a short break, and for me, to play a few tandas which, I assume, will keep the energy strong without an overlap with QTango's repertoire and style.

01. Juan D'Arienzo - Instrumental "Derecho viejo" 1939 2:24
02. Juan D'Arienzo - Instrumental "Joaquina" 1935 3:01
03. Juan D'Arienzo - Instrumental "Champagne tango" 1938 2:26
04. Edgardo Donato - Horacio Lagos "A media luz" 1941 2:31
05. Edgardo Donato - Horacio Lagos y Romeo Gavioli "Amando en silencio" 1941 2:52
06. Edgardo Donato - Horacio Lagos "Lagrimas" 1939 2:50
07. Quinteto Pirincho - Instrumental "El torito" 1950 2:20
08. Quinteto Pirincho - Instrumental "Orillera" 1960 2:24
09. Quinteto Pirincho - Refran "El esquinazo" 1951 2:28
10. Carlos di Sarli - Alberto Podestá "Nido gaucho" 1942 3:22
11. Carlos di Sarli - Alberto Podestá "Tu el cielo y tu" 1944 2:59
12. Carlos di Sarli - Alberto Podestá "Lloran las campanas" 1944 2:58
13. Enrique Rodríguez - Armando Moreno "Tango argentino" 1942 2:37

QTango start super-rhythmically and the floor literally bursts with energy with the opening bars of their signature Felicia. And then the second tanda pumps pure unadulterated Old Guard drive with the trio of El Garron, 9 de julio, & El choclo. This is a practica after a class about orchestras and styles, and Erskin often precedes the songs with a short talk-through about what's special about these pieces, and this format works great with the dancing crowd.

The cooldown tanda starts from a supposedly slow-and-steady vals, Adios juventud, and ends with an officially slow one (subtitled "vals lento"), Piazzolla's Chiquilin de Bachin - buy you gotta listen to these arrangements, they breath fire over the facade of slow steadiness. An hour later comes another amazing lyrical and sad cooldown tanda, a QTango's trademark set of Adios Nonino and Milonga triste. And in the final set, a timeless favorite, El pañuelito. But no Cumparsita even though the time is 10 pm and the practica is supposed to be over. So I keep on playing with a transition tanda, a Pugliese crowning tanda, and the final "exclamation mark and ellipses" for this great night.

14. Enrique Rodríguez - Armando Moreno "Como se pianta la vida" 1940 2:25
15. Enrique Rodríguez - Armando Moreno "Como has cambiado pebeta" 1942 2:37
16. Enrique Rodríguez - Armando Moreno "Danza Maligna" 1940 2:27
17. Osváldo Pugliese - Jorge Maciel "Remembranza" 1956 3:41
18. Osváldo Pugliese - Roberto Chanel "Rondando Tu Esquina" 1945 2:49
19. Osváldo Pugliese - Roberto Chanel "Farol" 1943 3:22
20. Pedro Láurenz - Pedro Mafia "La cumparsita" 1926 3:01
21. Damour Vocal Band "SWAY" 3:49

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Notes from Varo Biagi's DJ workshop, June 2015

Varo has been DJig festival milongas for over 5 years, and he came to the LAX marathon to share his experience with the aspiring DJs and all the dancers interested in the ways the DJs make the milonga crowds roll. His 2-hour seminar covered the orchestras, tanda making, flow connection, cortinas as a "personal touch of a DJ" :), nontrad music, DJ resources, must-do's and don't's ... complete with quizzes and classwork.

Varo's DJing touched me in the personal ways, both through the unusual exciting tandas he spun and through his old blog posts about tango music and poetry, and I was really excited to join the workshop. My notes are understandably personal, more detailed where I sensed a different viewpoint or a unexplored idea or an echo of a broader conflict. But I hope that I captured the broader interest topics too.

Orchestras: The "big 5" is a great concept but rather than considering it an absolute, treat it as a regional, cultural, temporal, and personal fave-list. Yes, we always hear that "Di Sarli, D'Arienzo, Troilo, Pugliese, and Francisco Canaro records are expected at every milonga" but Varo's personal "indisensable 5" is a slightly different list ... instead of Troilo and Pugliese - Donato (here comes the culture war!) & Biagi. The concept of "personal big five :) ". And D'Agostino is #6 .... or maybe even 5 with the Vargas classics. "A whole BsAs milonga comes to the floor with these D'Agostinos". (DP: I plan to do more reporting from the frontlines of the Great Tango Music Culture War where I belong in the Troilo-sceptic camp too ... but as a preview of the opponents' point of view, here is a quote from DJ Antti from the influential TOTW blog: "There's nothing wrong with the occasional special selection and the Donatos and Lomutos etc. But many DJ's go so far into centering their set around the likes of Canaro, Donato, Rodriguez and some Guardia Vieja that the set feels out of balance and the occasional Troilo will not save the set for me." Yes, you read it right. They are talking about "Canaro, Donato, Rodriguez and their ilk")

"You hear lots of Troilo-Marino in BsAs ... the music may sound unexciting for us visitors, and I may have skipped such a tanda in a different place, but the goodness of the BsAs embraces compensates for everything :) "

Some "not to overuse specials": Garcia, Rafael Canaro, Pirinchos, Lacava, Salgan

Unusual times, unusual vocalists: an example of Ricardo  Ruiz - late D'Agostino the 1950s. "The other Cascabelito" (DP: peculiarly, my library has a sole track of theirs, and it is ... Cascabelito. Gotta do some homework :) )

Structuring tandas

"3 or 4" issue. It is an question which brings strong opinions, but not as hot as to become another culture war. Varo sides with 4 T's / 3 V's or M's ("better chance to get into tune with each other in a pair", "what if someone doesn't start from the 1st song") but he also explains reasons to go with three ("need more social mixing", "too short a milonga", "very long milonga where the flow of the mood calls for three tango tandas in a row", "alternative tracks which are longer than 3 minutes", and yes, "organizers' choice"). Super-masters of DJing, such as Xavier Rodriguez with his 25 years of experience and his crazy talent, can and do break conventions, and get their tandas of all sizes fly in one breath - Varo remembered his tanda of 7 milongas which was pretty amazing ... except it made people too tired to keep on dancing afterwards :)

We briefly discussed 5-tango tandas which make even very experienced dancers risk-averse ... I guess the more confidence one has in self and others, the more one likes longer tandas? When you take risks choosing partners, it helps to limit the potential downside by making the tandas shorter?

Sabakh does 4 valses BTW (of course we couldn't resist counting it tonight ... hi Alexandra!).

Strength of different songs (1st and last stronger .... unless it is a cooldown tanda starting with lower energy). Energy is directional - ratcheting up or down. Varo usually ups the ante from V to M, then lowers and starts rising.
The middle isn't the place for the strongest song ... except in some special situations as a conscious choice. "Never put Biagi's Lagrimas y Sonrisas in the middle. Or Corazon of di Sarli" (DP: of course I couldn't resist checking my setlists LOL ... I found the super-vals several times in the first tanda position, and once, at the closing position. Di Sarli - Rufino's Corazon was used only as a tanda opener. So I guess I rely on slightly different intuitive strength quotients for the opening and the closing tracks ... my first track picks are for an urgent, irresistible quality, a must-dance from the opening bars, while the last one must be strong but in a more steady, sustaining way, culminating in a powerful finish)

Re-listening to the endings of songs and the beginnings of the ones which follow can help you pick the best transitions.

DP: Power of a song is a subjective criterion and we clearly saw this subjectivity in the class exercises when we were asked to sort 4 Di Sarli - Rufinos into a tanda. One can even confuse tempo or mood for power ... but one better be more cautious with variations of moods and BPM's within a set.

Mixed tandas? The #1 posibility is to mix a singer with an instrumental from the same era / same energy (Argentina may be less attached to vocals than us - Varo's norm is 70% vocal and it's "high")
or two singers (Caution! Castillo + Campos  or Rufino + Podesta or Echague + Maure may earn you a red card - "too big, too different to mix" ... but Florio + Pomar Di Sarli sounds passable) ... or throw an instrumental divider between two big singers.

An example of mixing in vocals to an instrumental: "Comparsa criolla" with slower Castillos??? No, but "La vida es corta" or "Pocas palabras" - possible.

Mixing different orchestras: only "tastefully" and "uncommonly" (DP: by all accounts, mixing orchestras is more common in vals and especially milonga tandas, even in BsAs. In my experience, mixing orchestras is only a reasonable option when the tanda builds around unique special records which defy standard-recipe techniques ... but I also know that extreme talent knows no bounds)

Energy flow notes:
Late in the milongas: all Tango tandas OK to avoid finishing on milonga or vals tandas.

Early in the milongas: "spare the hits for later" - sometimes it works - play chill / flowing music but not energizing D'Arienzo or something. But Varo sticks with TTVTTM even early - although Seemantha suggested TTT's. (DP note; I often notice disappointingly de-energizing stretches of music early in long festival milongas, and can't help thinking if there wasn't more exciting music to choose even after sparing the strongest hits and the complexity and the drama for the later part of the night; in fact Varo's closing milonga of the marathon felt that way. But perhaps my perception puts me in the minority of the tangueros? In tango, I certainly value intensity over effortless chill, and more than one cooldown tanda at a time just isn't how I like it... )

Structure of the list. Of course TTVTTM. For a short night maybe even fewer T's. Long time, more T's give you more room to play with temperatures - but 3 song sets then?

"Reasonable tanda-to-tanda contrasts": Too many sharp contrasts between too many consecutive tandas? Not safe, as are uniform too-similar tandas.

First tanda suggestions: 30-32 instrumental Canaros, El Flete, Joaquina, Hotel Victoria; D'Arienzo 35-36 instrumentals (Champagne). Di Sarli 50s occasionally. Canaro/Fama? But don't start too low. (DP: may first-tanda regulars are also instrumental 1930's Fresedos, and Quinteto Don Pancho of Canaro's)

Peak prime time - D'Arienzo's Echague. (after performances and break rhythmic Donato before D'Arienzo as a pre-warm up). Also Biagi/Falgas, Troilo-Fiorentino, Donato of course. Ca. 1941 rhythmic Di Sarlis.

Late tandas: Late Di Sarli's - Florio's, Pomar's. Pugliese. Varela. Canaro-Maida aka Poema. Tanturi instrumentals if it is a day milonga - ending with a speedy bang. Very late D'Arienzos around Mi Dolor maybe? No stunning surprises for the final tanda, please!!

Cortinology: start w/o silence!! Prepare for energy change of the next tanda. Showcase the theme of the milonga. Generally 32-25" but between 20 and 50 secs. Later in night - longer ones. Dark floor - longer ones. Varo's using wavosaur (free online) to cut-n-fade. Xilisoft for mp3 conversion. Only fadeout, no "in". A silent 2 sec or so after a particularly sweet embracey tanda (as long as 4 sec).

More uses for the "Silent track". Sometimes songs are overcut in the first place. Silence is also a safety feature for between-performances - if the computer is still running, it won't abruptly start the next track.

Equalizer: old records - usually bell-shaped. Post-1990 all pre-eq'd.

"The other music" - Nuevo is meant to be tango, it is related (sometimes it is very close to trad, like Sexteto Miloguero, some quite far like Bajofondo or Otros). Alternative wasn't meant to be tango, but it came out related. "If you can ocho cortado to it, it is it". But mixing is hard. Imitate the classic structure of TTVTTM and waves of energy as much as possible. An example: "Como dos extranos" by Mercedes Sosa is a quasi vals.

Resources: todotango, eltangoysusinvitados, tango,info
Lavocah's book a great resource.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Florian Hermann's time and place

Just a few days ago I was obsessively researching the cryptic life of Florian Hermann (Russ. Флориан Герман), whose "Valse Hommage" has been remixed into the 1884 Russian Gypsy romance hit "Dark Eyes" ("Черные глаза"), a timeless tune which in turn inspired several Russian and Argentine tangos such as Francisco Canaro's "Ojos negros que fascinan" and Florindo Sassone's "Ojos negros". The music history sites are full of wild legends about who Hermann was, or where and when he lived.
With the titles, themes, dedications, and lyrics sources of Florian Hermann's compositions, it didn't take me long to realize that he lived and taught in and around Vilnius, Lithuania (then Wilno, Poland). But for some reason I didn't make the next logical step - to triangulate between historic events in his composition titles, and dates of publications, to pinpoint the years of his career.
Fixing this omission now.
St. Petersbourg chez A. Büttner, Plate 1507 (pdf)
From "Starinnye Noty" website

The complete listing of Florian Hermann's hundred-odd works, from the catalogs of Gutheil, a leading Russian music publisher, is available oline, e.g. here  but the earliest listing of Hermann's compositions can be found in a St. Petersburg catalog of A. Büttner published jointly with D. Rahter of Hamburg between 1879 and 1881 (the two music publishers merged in 1879, and select works of Hermann's begin to appear on other catalogs digitized in Google Books beginning in 1881). Some subjects are easy to put a date on: Hermann's op 37 and 39 are marches "Beyond the Balkans" and "Totleben" ((Забалканскiй Маршъ & Тодлебенъ-Маршъ), which refer to the events of the 1877-1878 when General Totleben lead the famous defense of Plevna and then the whole Russian Balkan campaign against Turkey. A later-period "date-able" composition is a march on the occasion of coronation of Nicholas II (1896) (doesn't have an op. number). Post-1900 catalogs do no add any new titles, therefore we can conclude that the composer's career of Florian Hermann lasted from the 1870s to the 1890s. Valse Hommage is op. 21. So, while we can't pinpoint the exact data of composition of "Valse Hommage", it ought to date to the early-to-mid 1870s
Update: life story of Florian Hermann has finally been retraced in detail

And this how it would sound a hundred years later. Vladimir Vystotsky, 1975: