23 January 2013

The library in your brain

Piano teacher: "Could you play from measure 25, please?"
Student: "I can't start there."
Piano teacher: "Try from measure 17 then."
Student: "I can't start there, either. But I can start at the beginning!"

If I had an Euro for each time I've seen the above scenario, I'd have enough money to buy a Steinway grand piano. It seems our brains like single entities, patterns and succession. You may have experienced the same issue with the alphabet: If you start with a, you can go really fast, but if you start with a randomly picked letter, it takes a little bit of time for you to gain full speed. The way we've learnt it, the alphabet isn't 26 small items, it's one thing.

The brain also likes repetition of portions - at least for a while, until it gets bored. Back in ye olden days, we used to buy LPs and CDs, one at a time. This was a nice portion of information - it kept us interested until we knew every song by heart. I've also wondered if we learnt the songs quicker because they appeared in a set order on the record, but this is just an unscientific assumption. I never use the shuffle function in iTunes, though. I've always thought "there are too many tangos, if I don't play them in the same order, there's no way I'll remember any of them".

And I still have trouble remembering this music. A tango may sound fine in my head, but when I try to sing it, I realise that I don't really know it properly. I've even found myself singing the A section of one Canaro tango, then switching seamlessly to the B section of another. The way I'm listening to tango isn't optimal for learning. And when we go out to dance, the music is constantly on shuffle.

I guess the orchestras that played at the milongas in Buenos Aires didn't play their tangos in the same order every night. But they did get to play for more than one tanda at a milonga, which allowed the dancers to get familiar with each orchestra's style. Everybody would know how D'Arienzo anno 1938 sounded like, simply because D'Arienzo was playing live throughout 1938.

I'm willing to bet that most dancers knew each tango a lot better than we do. This music was pop music! It was played on the radio, and people bought the records and played them on their gramophones at home. And I'm sure the hits were played often, by popular demand - so it would have been easy to learn each new song. Many tangos were even transcribed into easy piano versions, and people bought the sheet music and played their favourites themselves, at home and for friends and family.

So there's a huge difference between the learning climate in Buenos Aires during the Golden Age and the learning climate outside Buenos Aires in 2013. The budding tango music lover of today needs to find her own way of learning about this music.

To make our brains work with us, it might be an idea to listen to our tango music in realistic portions. Listen to CDs that have an orchestra and year on the cover. Sort your music by orchestra/year/vocalist. Make smaller playlists. Use the shuffle function with care.

Make a library system in your brain, not just in iTunes.

Mentors would also be good. This will be for another blog post though: I'm splitting this topic up because many brains - my own included - don't like long blog posts.

Which, come to think of it, sort of proves my point…

15 January 2013

The languages of tango music

(conversation from real life)

Classical music person: "I don't like Mahler. I've tried, but I can't bring myself to like his music."

Me: "Oh well, we all have composers we don't like. I, for instance, don't like Schubert."

Classical music person: "I think you're a dolt if you don't like Schubert."


Why is it so important for us that other people share our musical taste?

Music is just entertainment, isn't it?

"You don't speak my language, we can't talk."

The way we use music makes me think of the way we use language. Let's look at languages as specified structures of sounds. We use these structures to communicate what we need, so a community has to agree upon a shared system (letters, words, pronunciation, spelling, grammar).

Language also helps us define who we are and where in a society we belong. You can use - or even change - your language to find your place in a community. Variations of a language, like slang or a dialect, will have an impact on how you're percieved and how you define yourself.

Then there are codes (like irony), cultural events (like how the word "Soup Nazi" suddenly means something, but only for Seinfeld fans), plus preconception: your own cultural baggage (like thinking French is a romantic-sounding language because you've seen in Hollywood movies that romantic things happen in Paris).

Both the content of a message and the person who sends the message will be understood and evaluated based on these things. The way a message is expressed will also be evaluated based on how clear it is and how it measures up to the quality standards which are often set by the experts in a community.

I think all of this can also be said when we try to describe music as a phenomenon.

"You don't speak my language, you don't belong to my tribe."

Tango dancers co-exist in the same community - i.e. we all define ourselves as tango dancers, and we try to share the same territory: tango associations, milongas, classes, discussion forums - even tango as a state of mind. We also share a musical language. But somehow, many of us are drawn to specific dialects of this language, so we're forming tribes within our territory.

When I started dancing, I preferred nuevo and some of the latest classical tangos. In a territory where I was unfamiliar with the people and the laws, I chose the part of the musical language that was the easiest for me to understand. The nuevo music was closer to pop music, and its low tempo and lack of details and complexity also made it easier for me to dance to. The latest classical tangos were also nice; they had a structure that matched my preconception of tango being dramatic.

I found the earlier tango music much more complicated (like Biagi's pauses and heavy stressing of some weak beats or the last part in a D'Arienzo tango, packed with flying notes). Also, this music's structure sounded old-fashioned and naïve in the meeting with my cultural preconceptions. Basically, this was something my grandmother would dance to. And the terrible sound quality made it sound even more old-fashioned. I also found it disappointingly non-dramatic.

With time, I understand a lot more of the tango music language, so I am free to take my preferences to another level: I'm still choosing music I recognise, but I choose differently: the music that matches my personality, my mood and my favourite ways of communicating. And with this, I also choose my tribe: the people that understand and interpret the tango music the same way that I do.

When I use the word "choose", it's not necessarily literally. The process of getting familiar with a musical language is probably too complicated for me to control every aspect of it. There's one thing I can control though: my will to check out something I don't like. I just have to determine if I dislike something because I don't understand it, or if I dislike it even if I understand it.

And we all have to determine how we should behave in the meeting with people from other tribes.

2 January 2013

A Caló challenge

The first thing I do when I start tagging a tango, is to check if I have more than one version - it could be different recordings from the same orchestra, or just different edits of the same recording. The last one often offers some surprises.

The biggest surprise this far has to be Miguel Caló's "Qué te importa qué te llore"; recorded in 1942 and sung by Raúl Berón.

I have two versions of this tango - and they are identical, except for the beginning, which is totally different in these two versions. You can listen to them here:

* Version 1

* Version 2 or use this player (the 4th track)

This is what I'm hearing:

Version 1: four measures legato + piano transition 1- four measures staccato + piano transition 2.

Version 2: six measures staccato + piano transition 2, which means that this version doesn't have piano transition 1, the one we hear at 00:06 in version 1. We only have the last tone of this piano solo, which is a strong indicator that somebody's been cutting. And the legato strings are also gone.

The two first measures of version 2 replaces the four first measures of version 1. These two measures can be found later in the song - at 00:20. I think this part has been copied and pasted at the beginning.

Conclusion: Version 1 must be the original one.

These recordings are totally identical from approx. measure 5 / 00:08 (version 1) and measure 3 / 00:04 (version 2) through to the ending - even if the tempo / pitch is slightly different; version 1 is higher and I think a bit quicker. Which pitch is correct, I don't know.

Age Akkerman took the challenge and compared the two versions - and you can see the cool graphs of his results here.

(this is an edit of one of my earlier Facebook posts)

1 January 2013

A country called Tango

My first tango efforts were made in Jekteviken, Bergen some years ago. As most beginners at, well, anything, I had high hopes of mastering the art quickly. When the beginners' course was completed, black dresses would be donned, red roses would be put behind ears and drama would prevail.

After the first class, I had realised that 1) this tango thing was somewhat different from what I had visualised and 2) it was an undertaking that wouldn't be completed in a jiffy. A quitter should, normally, have been in the making.

But, against all odds, this turned out to become the first and only enterprise that I've insisted on sticking to even if it's making me feel more useless than successful. There's this Friedrich von Schiller quote: "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens" ("Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain"). It's been several years, and I'm still, stubbornly, trying to figure out this tango thing.

Actually - as you may also have realised since you're reading a tango blog - this tango thing is more than a thing. It's a whole country.

It's the dance form itself, deceivingly easy in its description: "you only need three steps: forward, side, back".

It's your body, it's other people's bodies. Shapes and sizes and smells.

It's the music: lots and lots of orchestras and singers and styles. Thousands of recordings. Scratching and whining and old-fashioned arrangements and lyrics you don't understand.

It's more than one hundred years of history that you don't know - not properly, thoroughly.

It's a community with all kinds of rules - written, unwritten, discussed by all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds.

It's tradition and transition, it's polarities and passionate Facebook debates.

It's uniformity and individualism, collectivity and egoism.

It's things to love and things to resent.

The tango thing is a country, and we're all immigrants.

This blog will be a travel journal written by one tango immigrant. As is the case with most journeys: things may have been seen by others before, but not by all. I hope you'll see something new on these pages.