Tuesday, October 25, 2016

BC Tango music class notes ... and a memory detour to Moscow

Salt Lake's art nouveau Ladies Literary Club (now The Clubhouse at 850 E. South Temple) used to be the cradle of the "dance tea parties" (the dansante) of the heyday of pre-WWI American tango boom, and it's amazing to witness its rebirth as a tango venue a century later. And it's especially poignant that the first tango workshop in this grand hall focused on the history of tango!

Tango BC is a contemporary tango duet (Mariano Barreiro, piano, and Santiago Cursach, guitar).
But they don't just play music - they teach how to interpret tango. Their class started with a history lecture, dividing the story of the tango music into 4 chapters:

Tango BC duo
1880 - 1925: Guardia Vieja (exemplified by Villoldo, Arolas, Canaro, Matos Rodriguez....)
1925 - 1955: Guardia Nueva (such as De Caro, D'Arienzo, Di Sarli, Pugliese)
1955-1975: Avant Garde (Piazzolla, Salgán)
1975 + : Contemporary Tango (Fernandez Fierro, El Arranque, Ramiro Gallo - and of course Tango BC themselves)

Guardia Vieja (Old Guard) musicians were almost all amateurs. Europe and Africa influenced the emerging synthesis of different musical forms: Congolese and Angolan candombe, Afro-Cuban and European fusion of habanera, and Argentine hinterland's milonga campera. The fusion of milonga and candombe existed in its own right - listen to Azabache! Mariano and Santiago play examples of the three ancestors of tango, asking the listeners to identify what flowed into the future tango from each of these genres.

Here I must tell you that Bizet's Habanera holds a very special place in my musical education and, perhaps, in my path to tango. We must go back in time to the 1970s Moscow for this story, but before we get there, let me mention that the Habanera from Carmen wasn't actually created by Georges Bizet. He may have thought that it was a folk song but he soon realized that the tune has been composed 12 years earlier by Sebastián Yradier, a native of Spain's Rioja region, who also composed the other most famous habanera of all times - "La Paloma" (Yes, the songs which brought worldwide fame to Cuban music were composed by a Basque who haven't even visited Cuba until the age of 50!)

Kropotkinskaya station.
Wikipedia image
Yet for me, Carmen's Habanera evokes neither Spain nor steamy Cuba, but snowbound old town Moscow. More specifically, my grandfather's traditional walking path to the Moscow Conservatory. Gramps Karl (or Charles, as grandma preferred to call him in French) was a semi-amateur orchestra clarinet player. Everyone in his family was a part-time musician or singer or actor, but his older brother, violinist Isaac, has been executed in Stalin's purges along with their father; and soon after, they lost the sisters' piano as well. Grandfather Karl was the lone musician survivor now. His children didn't share his passion about music, and now he was hopeful to get me, his first grandchild, into it. Karl bought an educational concert series at the famed Conservatory for the two of us -  up at the balcony overhanging right above the orchestra. Soon, I was able to name every instrument - alas, visually, rather than by ear :) Honestly, I didn't like these concerts at all! But I keep the fondest memories of our walks together. Grandfather lived an exotic life, having grown up in Switzerland, picking his first Russian only after high school, moonlighting as a translator for foreign dignitaries for a while - and then, after his family was decimated by the bloody purges, he was kicked out of grad school, worked on river boats and nearly perished in a floating crane disaster, and then it was his turn to be sent to the labor camps and his luck to come back alive ... not all of the stories were safe to share, but out of the ear of the fearful grandmother, he had some amazing stuff to tell. 

We'd start at Kropotkinskaya Metro Station, one of the most beautiful in Moscow, built in the early 1930s to serve the giant House of Soviets which has never been completed. So the huge, airy subway ended up being far too big for its modest neighborhood, and eerily more beautiful because of it. The steel frame of the unfinished palace has been cut into anti-tank obstacles when the Nazi troops advanced to the outskirts of the city in 1941, and the remaining giant hole in the ground eventually made way for an outsize open-air swimming pool, open year round. Karl would occasionally take me there in the middle of Moscow's long winter, too. 
Chess playing at Gogolevsky Boulevard remains a Moscow tradition
We'd walk up Gogol Boulevard, where the chess players would converge at street tables outside of the Central Chess Club to play, no matter the freezing cold. We'd cross Arbat and dive into the maze of lanes of the former Royal Fermenters' Borough where the artisans once prepared sauerkraut, pickles, and kvas (fermented malted rye bread drink) for the Czar's palace. There, hidden away from the main streets, stood in obscurity the first Soviet skyscraper, the Mosselprom Tower, all 10 stories tall, still sporting the faded ads from pre-Stalin's years, complete with the mural of the Horn of Plenty dispensing such indispensable products as cheap smokes and caramel candy. (Its namesake, Mosselprom, was the 1920s agricultural product processing and trading conglomerate). And finally, we'd round a corner and there would be the gilded edifice of the Conservatory! Our weekend walks continued until I finally heard a musical piece I loved. Alas, it was the Habanera from Carmen.

"You can't get yeast and papirosi (the cheapo smokes
once popular with the Russians and  evenpreserved in a
 tango name, Elegante papirusa) anywhere
I'm afraid my admission broke my grandfather's heart. He was, like, all is lost, you'll never get to love the classical music, you're obviously destined to like rock and stuff :( But in hindsight, perhaps it wasn't an omen about rock music, after all. Perhaps it was all about my future infatuation with tango?

Back to Tango BC's workshop now. More musical influences came from the European dance beats - note that almost all early tango composers came from Europe themselves or were born to recent European immigrants. The earliest bands had just 3 instruments - guitar, flute, and violin. Bandoneon comes from Germany later, following a more humble concertina. Bandoneon has a unique ability to modulate the intensity of its sound on the same note, adding a great expressive potential to the bands. But tango has already been well established, and bandoneon "invaded" it against the wave of initial rejection - and changed tango!
Piano "invades" around the same time, and professionally trained musicians and larger bands come in.
The Old Guard music started out rigidly structured. Julio De Caro worked to break the stereotypes. Rhythms acquired syncopation instead of uniformity of the regular "marcato" beat of the Old Guard. Where all the instruments used to play together, now emerged a great room for individual expression of different musicians. The New Guard times have become known as the Golden Age of tango, when its music sounded everywhere!

Santiago and Mariano then introduce us to the Argentine terms for the 3 principal beat patterns of tango, and illustrate walking to the 3 beats by playing :Por una cabeza" with varied and variable accents: the main beat / "marcato", the "blancas" / "whites" of every other beat (so called in Spanish because the half-notes are notated by hollow ovals, "white inside", as opposed to filled-oval quarter-note "blacks"), and the unevenly spaced "sincopa"... plus "arrastre" / drag effects merging together the adjacent sounds of the sincopa, as in dragging one's palm over the guitar strings. It's a great workshop plan, to alternate between listening and practicing to the customized live music on the dance floor!

There was so much more in the workshop material which I couldn't cover in my notes ... from the fundamentals for those who just begin to discover tango to the discoveries which surprise and enlighten the most seasoned tangueros. Thumbs up, Tango BC!

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