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APPROACHING PIAZZOLLA’S MUSIC: an analysis of his music and composition styles (1/2)
1. Astor Piazzolla. Introduction.
Astor Piazzolla was born 1921 in Mar del plata, a town south of Buenos Aires, where he lived his first two years. Due to various circumstances, his family moved to New York where Astor spent most of his childhood. His parents, who had emigrated from Italy, worked hard for their living in New York. Vicente, Astor’s father, loved the traditional tango music of Argentina and when Astor was eight years old, hoping that his son someday would be a tango musician, he gave him a bandoneon1 for his birthday. Astor did not fancy the traditional tango at all, but he enjoyed classical music though.
One day he heard someone of the neighbours practicing the piano; a concert pianist had moved into an apartment and was now practising music that fascinated Astor:
“At that age I didn’t know who Bach was, but I felt as if I had been hypnotized. It is one of the great mysteries of my life. I don’t know if it was Johann Sebastian Bach or one of his sons. I believe I have bought all Bach’s recorded works, but I could never find that music again. That pianist practiced nine hours a day: three hours of technique in the morning, three hours of Bach in the afternoon, and three at night, trying out repertoire for his concerts. He was Hungarian. His name was Béla Wilda, and soon he became my teacher.”
As his teacher, Béla Wilda introduced classical music in Astor’s life and he helped out adapting Bach’s music to the bandoneon. Occasionally, Astor played bandoneon at school and soon he became popular; he had a great talent and playing the bandoneon was quite rare in New York back then. At this time he met the famous actor and tango singer Carlos Gardel, and because of his talent, he began to accompany Gardel at some presentations.
Astor learned some tangos and he also participated in a Gardel movie. In 1936 the Piazzolla family moved back to Mar del plata and at this time Astor hade a new great musical discovery; it was a tango orchestra he heard on the radio. This inspired him deeply and in 1938 he moves, all by him self, to Buenos Aires to be a tango musician. After some years of playing in different tango orchestras he starts playing in one of the most coveted orchestra; the orchestra of Anibal Troilo. After a while Astor become the arranger of the orchestra and in the meantime he is studying composition for Alberto Ginastera.
In the late 40’s Astor starts his own orchestra and by impulses from the classical music he develops his own style. All the while he continues to study composition and he also studies piano and orchestra conducting, and in 1953 he wins first prize in a composition contest that takes him to a one-year trip to Paris.
With the famous pedagogue Nadia Boulangier as teacher he is studying counterpoint, harmony, and pastiche composition. She told him that everything he brought to her was well done but she couldn’t find the true Piazzolla in his works. Astor had not told her that he was a tango musician; knowing her poise in the world of classical music made him ashamed of his past:
“Nadia looked into my eyes and asked me to play one of my tangos at the piano. So I confessed to her that I played the bandoneon; I told her she shouldn’t expect a good piano player because I wasn’t. She insisted, ”It doesn’t matter, Astor, play your tango.” And I started out with ”Triunfal”. When I finished, Nadia took my hands in hers and with that english of hers, so sweet, she said, ”Astor, this is beautiful. I like it a lot. Here is the true Piazzolla – do not ever leave him.” It was the great revelation of my musical life.”
This was the great break point for him, and when returned from his study period with Nadia Boulangier in Paris he formed his Buenos Aires Octet, and it was at this time he started to develop his own composition style for real. By growing up in New York and Buenos Aires, he was influenced by the Blues and the Tango. As a result, combining this with inspiration from Bach (whose inventions he learned from Belá Wilda) and Stravinsky, he led the tango into a new era. With influences from classical music Piazzolla used techniques that were not traditional in tango music. He applied a contrapuntal way of thinking and expanded the formal structures of tango music by processing thematic material.
From Bach’s legacy for example, he used the fugue technique, layered voices, sequences and pedal lines as compositional tools. Influenced by Bartok, Stravinsky and Ravel, he applied extended harmonies and orchestration techniques that were not in traditional tango music.7 Piazzolla collaborated with various ensembles where he explored the expression of his style, and the musicians he worked with often contributed their personal performance style. These contributions turn out to be significant components of Piazzolla’s style.
2. Some characteristics of Piazzolla’s style
According to Quin Link, an essential rhythmic pattern that became Piazzolla’s hallmark is the tresillo. The basic structure of this rhythm is 3+3+2 and it originates from the song tradition milonga canción where it has 3+1+2+2 as structure. The latter one is also known as the milonga rhythm, the habanera rhythm, or the rumba rhythm. The surface rhythm in Piazzolla’s music is often accentuated with the tresillo or its variants obtained by shifts. By shifting it in stages eight various rhythms is created where some of them are more common than others. Furthermore, these rhythmic cells can be paired together across two or more measures and form a 2:3 feeling, for instance 133333.
As expected, several of the characteristics in this style are derived from the traditional tango. Some of them, like the tresillo, are more frequent than others. One that is applied repeatedly as well is the marcato technique. It is a melody line in steady crotchets, typically played by the piano and the double bass. The marcato technique provides a foundation in rhythmic terms.
However, it also has an important harmonic function similar to the walking bass line in jazz. Additionally, an essential rhythmical pattern in the idiom is the arrastre, which is an upbeat gesture that originates from when the bandoneon opens its bellows before a downbeat. The arrastre is imitated by the piano as an ascending scale and by the strings as a slide.2 To resemble a percussive effect, the piano’s arrastre is performed as an indefinite series of notes.
Piazzolla applied the percussive gestures that had been common in traditional tango in his compositions. Effects like: lija(sandpaper); golpe(knock); látigo(whip); perro(dog); and tambor(snare drum) were often performed by the violin and occur frequently in his style. One further percussive technique is the strappato that often is played by the double base, and the strongly accented rhythmical patterns that the piano often reproduces in a percussive way.
In Instrumental Rubato and Phrase Structure in Astor Piazzolla’s Music, Kutnowski analyses the phrase structure in Piazzolla’s music, and detects a technique that he defines as instrumental rubato. It concerns the rhythmic transformations a melody endures when it rushes towards the end of a phrase faster than required or expected. He argues that this technique origins from the song tradition in tango, in particular from the singer Carlos Gardel.
The rubato was usually improvised by the singer. Consequently, when played simultaneously by several instruments, it had to be notated in the score. Furthermore, Kutnowski describes the phrase structure in Piazzolla’s music as an overlapping technique , where the last measure of a phrase at the same time is the first measure of the next phrase. Additionally, he argues that it creates a feeling of continuity.
3. Libertango. Analysis.
Published in 1974, Libertango is probably one of the most well known compositions of Piazzolla’s voluminous music catalogue. Many artists have recorded it; Gracie Jones, for instance, had a successful hit with it in the eighties (with lyrics in English) and YoYo Ma played it on his Grammy Award winning album Soul of the tango.
There are many versions of this piece, however, I have chosen to analyse the arrangement that I believe represent the most common one. Libertango is a piece in four beat with an ABA- structure. By being present in the bass line the entire piece though; the tresillo rhythm indeed saturates the piece. With the bass line as a foundation, the piece is characterised of an ostinato gesture and various melodies that are combined in a contrapuntal way.
The primary sections have a chord progression based on a pedal bass line and a bass line in descending motion. As a contrast, the secondary section’s chord progression is based on a fifth motion with tonicization.
Accordingly, the harmony is overall based on regular II-V-I progressions in minor mode, and besides the short ornamental modulations that the tonicizations represent, there is no change of key area whatsoever. The primary sections reminds actually of a jazz chorus; with some variations, it is repeated over and over.
The first subsection starts with presenting the ostinato gesture and the bass line, which rhythmically complete each other due to their accentuated rhythms; the latter has the tresillo no 1 and the former has no 7. As for the introduction subsection in Milonga del ángel, this subsection establishes the environment and is waiting for the melody to arrive.
By being present the entire piece and due to their rhythmical features, the ostinato and the bass line provide the backbone of Libertango. The melodies that are added one by one as a new subsection enters, consists mainly of long note values; consequently, they form a kind of complementary to the rhythmical backbone. Although not as clear as for the bass line, the melodies have a descending motion.
Consequently, the tonicization sequences in S are the only passage where the overall descending motion is abandoned for a moment. The bass line in the primary subsections may be defined as either pending or descending. As a complement to the bass line’s motion, it seems like the melody has a more active role when the bass line is pending; and vice versa, the melody is pending when the bass line is descending.
As the illustration shows, the melodies move as triads while the bass line is pending. This implies that the motivic chord progression (t DD D), characteristic for Piazzolla’s music, is clarified. When the bass line descends, it is more or less the same chord progression; however, it is now the bass notes that clarify the chords. While the chord progression in P is based on this motivic chord progression, the chord progression in S is instead a cycle of fifths that is prolonged by tonicization. Correspondingly, this technique may be characteristic for Piazzola’s music.
As illustrated above, the sequence starts by transforming the subdominant (Dm) into a temporary tonic. It is then given the role as a supertonic (Dm7b5) in relation to the new temporary tonic (C).
(Next Post: “Milonga del Angel” and “Fuga y Misterio” and Summary)