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.