21 November 2014

A box of chocolate

From time to time, I wonder whether my taste in music is sophisticated enough. Where others talk warmly about the complexity of the orchestras in the 40s, I might just as well be found dancing to Orquesta Típica Victor anno 1930.

But I’m thinking that a good milonga is like life.

Sometimes, it’s seriously dramatic and complex, like a Troilo-Marino tango. Sometimes, you just want to curl up on the sofa with a cup of hot chocolate with cream and Canaro-Maida. Sometimes, life is just pure fun and merry-go-rounds, like a D’Arienzo vals from 1939. Sometimes, it’s an elegant night at the ballet, like a Di Sarli 1950 instrumental. Sometimes, it’s Bingo night with De Angelis.

Well, maybe not Bingo night. But all the rest.

Happy weekend!

The music:

Milonga porqué llorás, Orquesta Típica Victor with Ernesto Famá 1930
Torrente, Aníbal Troilo with Alberto Marino 1944
Milagro, Francisco Canaro with Roberto Maida 1937
Castigo, Juan D’Arienzo with Alberto Echagüe 1939
El abrojo, Carlos Di Sarli instrumental 1958

19 November 2014

What am I saying? The dilemma of the inner dancer

(young piano student plays piece without dynamic variation)

Me: “I guess you forgot about the dynamics this time."
Student: "I did SO not forget. I thought about it the WHOLE time!"

***
In my piano teacher's studio at the music conservatory, there was this picture: a portrait of a man leaning forward with one hand cupped behind his ear, like he was trying to hear something. The picture was placed on the wall vis-à-vis the person seated on the piano stool, so the man would always be in front of whoever was playing. "He's there to remind us to listen", my piano teacher explained, "Not to hear, but to listen to how we really are playing."

I think this is the most important thing I've learnt about performing: that the idea of what you want to say could get in the way of your ability to see whether you're really saying it. When I'm playing a piece, I might become so absorbed in the music and in my feelings for it that I forget to listen objectively. I might feel the dynamics very strongly inside - so strongly that I don't notice that my playing isn't dynamic.

It's every artist and performer's dilemma. And it’s also a dilemma for tango dancers.




"But I'm not an artist," you might argue. "I don't do performances. I just want to go to a milonga and be in the arms of a lovely person and move my body to the music."

The thing is: this dilemma does not only apply to performing as such. It applies to all kinds of communication. It's my dilemma as I'm writing this post, even. Every time I want to convey a message, the question arises: Am I capable of looking at my communication from outside my body and brain and heart? Am I expressing what I want to say in a functional way, with precise tools, so that there are chances of being understood correctly?

Am I expressing anything at all, or do I just feel?

This is where things could get impossibly philosophical. But I believe that this is just as much a technique question as a philosophical one. Let’s say that dancing is communication WITH my partner ABOUT the music (or maybe about how the music makes us feel - to me, this is basically the same thing). To do this, I need to learn to know the music, and I need to learn techniques for how to change the quality of my movements so it describes the different qualities in the music.

And then I need this thought with me: am I communicating?

There’s nothing wrong with just feeling, of course. But the moment we want to express ourselves, or express the music, this thought becomes one of our most important tools.

11 November 2014

The beat: prison or guide?

“This music is just bam-bam-bam.”
“The traditional music is only about walking on the beat.”
“It’s like a march.”

***

From time to time, people tell me that they don’t like the traditional / Golden Age music. Recurring arguments are that it’s too rhythmical, and that newer tango music is much more interesting because the tempo changes throughout each piece. People want to “play with the rhythm” (i.e. tempo changes), describing the beat as some kind of prison that prevents them from being creative, from expressing themselves through the dance.

And so people get stuck with this idea of the beat being something boring and monotonous. They focus so intently on what they are missing in the music that they don’t notice the things that actually are there to play with.




The most important thing to remember is that we don’t have to step on every beat. As a matter of fact, on behalf of followers worldwide: leaders, please don’t step on every beat. It can’t be said often enough. “Walking in tango” doesn’t mean "walking on everything". Instead, think of the beats you don’t walk on as guidelines for your next step, like light posts in the street at night. This way, you’ll be able to keep track of time and pinpoint the timing of your next step.

I'd like to describe tango music as a weave of instrumental voices, like a carpet. Each tango is a unique carpet with different colours and textures, with its own pattern where some colours and textures are dominant and others less dominant or even absent. The beat is just the warp that is the base for this carpet; the strings we need to weave all the different-coloured threads around. It’s what keeps the piece together. If we listen actively, we might discover that not all instruments are playing new tones on every beat. We’ll always find pauses, and tones that stretch past the next beat and maybe even the next one, giving us the opportunity to break our own movement patterns.

This doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to step on a whole series of beats, if the music inspires us to do so! The key word is, like with so many good things in life, variation.

Good examples for beginner listeners: Poema and Invierno - there's a steady beat, but if we rest throughout the long tones in the melody theme, we’ll get a much more varied dance.

Poema - Francisco Canaro with Roberto Maida 1935
Invierno - Francisco Canaro with Roberto Maida 1937

Also:  a post I wrote about this last year, with examples from Noelia and Carlitos.