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IT WAS AN INCONGRUOUS SCENE: the lobby of a hotel on the shores of Lake


Champlain, the aloof, button-down reserve of New England suddenly violated
by six figures in black, some wielding violin cases. Shades of Coppola and
Scorcese? An offer you can't refuse? A contract to be made? Not really. It
turned out that the "hit" that night would be made by a near septuagenarian,
at the Flynn Theatre, in Burlington, Vermont. The "thug" really was a
musician, Astor Piazzolla, the "Father of New Tango." His weapon would be a
bandoneon, a kind of concertina invented by a nineteenth century Germannamed band for impoverished parishes unable to afford an organ. Piazzolla
and his five accomplices, the New Tango Sextet, would "knock 'em dead" just
as they had done at Lincoln Center in New York City, Zellerback Auditorium
on the Berkeley campus, and the Old Vic in Chicago. It was all part of
triumphant standing-room-only tour that made the rounds of fifteen North
American cities in the spring of 1989.

Gangsters, outlaws, tough guys - all are aspects of an image Piazzolla and his
cohorts carefully nature. After all, tango, born at the turn of the century in the
bordellos of Buenos Aires, was a dance once considered to "dirty" that men
and women were prohibited from doing it together. The words were often
obscene and only men - two machos - performed the dance in river front
dives and brothels of the port city amidst the pimps, whores, and knife
fighters who were later celebrated by Jorge Luis Borges. But in the 1920s,
tango found its way into the elegant salons of the monied establishment and,
with a measure of naughty respectability, it became the rage of Paris and
New York. In the 1930s and 1940s it became more of a family affair, suitable
for radio broadcast, sentimental, a symbol of Argentina's growing prosperity
and comfortable middle class. It was the era of Carlos Gardel whose hundreds
of tango recordings made him both a national hero and international
celebrity.

In the ensuing decades, interest in tango declined, especially among young


people who associated it with old folks and favored the angry rebellion of rock
and roll. Only with Piazzolla did tango eventually find a new lease on life,
often to the horror of die hard traditionalists. El Tango Nuevo was hybrid, a
mix rooted in jazz and classical music with the telltale throbbing tango pulse
"underneath (as Piazzolla would put it). It swaggered back and forth between
instinct and reason, pitting harmony against dissonance. It was complex and
contradictory, the struggle of modern life set to music.

Premonitions of stardom must have visited upon Vicente Piazzolla and Asunta
Menetti when, in Mar de Plata, in March 1921, they christened their only child
with a name that had a certain "astral" sound to it. Three years later, Astor
accompanied his father and mother to the United States where they found
work as barber and hair stylist respectively in the Little Italy of New York City.
Piazzolla's father purchased a motorcycle with a sidecar which he named The
Spirit of Buenos Aires and as further evidence of his longing for Argentina, he
bought his son a bandoneon from a pawn shop, Piazzolla remembers taking
to the instrument only with reluctance because baseball, soccer, and
especially boxing were his real passion. "Tony Canzoneri taught me how to
fight," Piazzolla recalls, "but boyhood buddies like Rocky Graziano and Jake La
Motta gave me such a pasting I didn't want to fight no more. But boxing
made me tough. That's what you need in the world of tango."

Piazzolla admits he was precocious, that much of his future success came
from some gutsy moves as a young boy, pushed by parents, especially his
father who early on opened a journal on Astor entitled El tambien tiene su
historia. Through a succession of teachers, the youngster did master the new
instrument and by age nine, he was performing professionally, touted as
something of a boy wonder, el pibe bandeonista. A street wise kid who
learned to speak cocoliche (pidgin Spanish), he was also prone to slip out at
night, sneaking into clubs in Harlem to hear Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
It was the beginning of a life long love affair with jazz. Close to home, he was
equally impressed by classical music - Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Bach.
A next door neighbor, a concert pianist from Hungary named Bela Wilder,
helped Astor transpose piano compositions for the bandoneon. To this day
Piazzolla confesses: "More than anything else, I am what I am thanks to
Bach!"

Even as a lad, Piazzolla could have written a primer on how to succeed: "you
work harder than anyone else, you look for openings, create opportunities
from thin air, and you scramble like hell even if it means scrambling through
the transom of the guest apartment of Carlos Gardel!" It was 1934 and the
famous singer and matinee idol from Argentina came to the United States to
make recordings and do a movie with MGM. Word traveled through the
Argentine colony like wildfire and father Vicente was quick to respond. He
fashioned a wooden effigy of a guitar player, a gift young Astor could present
to the singer. The goal was to get the boy in the door and present him as an
up and coming bandeonista. As it turned out, Astor met up with an aide to
Gardel who had lost his key so he volunteered to climb through the transom.
He found the tango king asleep on the couch. The boy's winning ways and

fluency in English first earned him a jobs as tour guide and all purpose
translator, then a role as a paper boy in Gardel's melodrama, El dia que me
quieres. Impressed by Astor's ability on the bandoneon, Gardel invited him to
perform with the NBC Symphony during a recording session and then to join
the singer's world tour. Reluctantly, Piazzolla's parents declined the latter
proposal because Astor was too young. It proved to be a fortuitous decision;
Gardel died in a plane crash near Medellin, Colombia the following year.
The late 1930s saw Piazzolla and his family back in Argentina permanently. It
was the beginning of period of intense seasoning and also the continuation of
a precarious balancing act between the worlds of classical and popular music.
He was living by himself in Buenos Aires, making ends meet by playing tango
clubs along Calle Corrientes, taking his first tentative stabs at serious musical
composition. Artur Rubinstein came to town and with characteristic
determination, Piazzolla decided to call on him at his guest apartment. "It was
lunch time. I just banged on the door and he came out with a plate of
spaghetti. He invited me in and served me some tea. Trembling, I told him I'd
brought him a concerto and wanted his opinion. I practically cried when he
actually sat down and started playing my concerto on a magnificent
Steinway. Well, without an orchestral score it was no concerto. He told me it
was a sonata but that didn't matter. He saw I was serious about music, called
Juan Jose Castro and when he wasn't available, Rubinstein called Alberto
Ginastera. |He's going to take you on as a student, it's all arranged.'"

Thereafter, the "madness" accelerated at an ever increasing tempo: playing


until dawn with Anibal Troilo and his tango orchestra (the best in all of Buenos
Aires), doing homework at a table in some cabaret and riding colectivos to
arrive at Ginastera's home almost sleepless at eight in the morning. "You
can't imagine the contrast, all the racket of those dives and then the stillness
of the maestro's studio. It was not just composition, orchestration, harmony,
theory. Ginastera insisted on a total education: paintings, movies, theatre,
literature. I started reading Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mann ... Magic Mountain." As
if that was not enough, the young musician fell in love with the young
painter, Dede Baralis, and by the early forties, the couple had two children,
Diana and Daniel.

In 1944, unhappy with traditional tango, Piazzolla left Troilo's orchestra. Two
years later, he founded his own Orquesta del 46 as a vehicle for a new kind of
music then "gestating in my gut." Still a student of Ginastera, he was now
writing constantly, first a sonata that was more warmed-over Stravinsky and
Hindemith, then a Rapsodia Portena (1948) which more honestly quoted

themes and rhythms deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the Argentine


capital. Despite the break with Troilo, he continued doing arrangements for
"Pichuco" and other tangueros, as well as working on movie scores (Buenos
Aires had become the Hollywood of Latin America). For a time he thought he
wanted to lead a classical orchestra so he studied conducting under Herman
Scherchen who then resided in Argentina. He also tried his hand at choral
music and organ with his Cristo y los Angeles Cantores, placing ever greater
distance between himself and his old cronies in the cabarets along Calle
Corrientes. Even those compositions that Piazzolla labeled tangos (Se Armo
and El Desbande) were anything but tangos for the old guard; in their
opinion, elements of jazz, classical formats, unusual instrumentation had no
place in real tango. Despite the lack of local support, Piazzolla steadfastly
pressed on with his experiments, encouraged by outsiders. First the
conductor Igor Markevitch heard Piazzolla's innovative Orquesta del 46 in
action at the Tango Bar on Corrientes, then composer Aaron Copland, whose
own work at the time was taking on a Latin American flavor, paid a visit to
the club. The Argentine was on the right track. This period of intense
searching reached a climax with Piazzolla's Sinfonia Buenos Aires, the product
of months of work in the relative quiet of Mar del Plata. It won first prize in
the international Fabien Sevitsky Competition in Indianapolis and soon
thereafter was introduced to local audiences by Sevitsky himself in a 1953
concert at the Facultad de Derecho in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, instead of
applause, the concert received mostly cat calls and jeering: "Go back to your
cabaret!" and "Your stuff is for barbarians!" On the streets of Buenos Aires,
where tango was serious business, Piazzolla was pelted with insults wherever
he went.

The year 1954 was pivotal for New Tango. Weary of snipping by the critics
(whom Piazzolla still labels the "self-appointed guardians of the status quo"),
longing for less provinciality and more tolerance for innovation, Piazzolla
happily accepted a fellowship offered by the French Government to further
his studies in Paris. The grant specifically recognized his Sinfonia Buenos
Aires as an important work. Piazzolla's wife would accompany him thanks to
another beca which would permit her to work with the French artist, Andre
Lhote. "To study with NadIa Boulanger, that was my secret goal," Piazzolla
later admitted. "I wasted no time locating her home and selecting what I
thought was my best new composition. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of
so many of her students: Copeland, Bernstein, Cassadesus, Francaix. |Did you
bring you work?' she asked at the door, and in no time she was at the piano
trying her hand at my new Sinfonietta.

|You're a great composer! Everything is perfectly written.' But then she said, |
Something is missing You sound like Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Hindemith but
you don't sound like Piazzolla. Where is Astor Piazzolla in all this? What do
you do!'"
For a brief time, Boulanger took on Piazzolla as a student. While exposing him
to the intricacies of the fugue and contrapuntal music she continued to
hammer away at the message: be faithful to your roots. "Look at Chavez in
Mexico, Villa Lobos in Brazil, de Falla in Spain," she would say. "They
transformed the music of their people into something beautiful!" One day she
persuaded him to play one of his tangos on the piano, and after just eight
bars, she took his hands and said "This is Piazzolla, not that. Throw the rest
away!" Soon after, she dispatched him with a kiss on the forehead and her
blessing: "You don't need me anymore."

With a renewed sense of confidence and the kind of focus and clarity that
often comes when one distances oneself from familiar surroundings, Piazzolla
began to write "like mad." "I promised myself I'd write a tango a day and
that's what I did. Tangos with names like Barbo, Imperial, Marron y Azul,
Contrastes, and Nonino followed one another, even one called Picasso.
"Before - Picasso, Brecht - they made no sense to me, but then I began to
really look at the paintings of Van Gogh, Cezanne, and most of all, Picasso. I
fell in love with them all." Piazzolla's bandoneon, the instrument which
ashamedly he had kept hidden away, got more respect, too. In his chamber
music it took on a legitimate role, its rhythmic slides, its sensual stabs and
shifts finding their places alongside the sounds of traditional instruments. "I
met Lalo Schifrin, the conductor, about then. He helped me get professional
musicians from the orchestra of the Paris Opera for recording sessions. In a
Parisian jazz club Piazzolla also heard Gerry Mulligan's octet in action and
began to imagine a porteno equivalent: Hugo Baralis and Enrique Mario
Francini on Violin, with Hector Stampone on piano, even an electric guitar! In
July 1955, Piazzolla was back home and soon after, his Octeto Buenos Aires,
in formal attire ("New Tango in tails"), made its debut.

Was Piazzolla home free at last? Had he finally earned acceptance and
legitmacy? Hardly. He was propelled by renewed determination and the
backing of friends and a small but growing audience for his music but irate
tango purists still threatened his life over the phone or cursed him in public. A
taxi driver actually refused him service, sputtering epithets about his music
being communist and subversive. Once again, Piazzolla decided to bail out,
this time for New York City at the suggestion of Schifrin who had transited the

Argentine capital, as well as Dizzy Gillespie who sat in on a local recording


session and was deeply moved by Piazzolla's music. But running away was
not the answer. The three years in New York were a mistake, mainly
unceasing financial worry and low productivity. Colleagues in the United
States urged him to compromise by writing "marketable" stuff, especially for
the movie industry, but he resisted and finally withdrew.

The following decade was much kinder to el asesino del tango (the assasin of
the tango) as some critics continued to label Piazzolla. He formed a new
Quinteto Nuevo Tango, performing at his own club, Jamaica, which was
modeled after Birdland in New York. He inhaled the latest musical ideas
coming out of Brazil, while also incorporating rock and pop elements into his
music. Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, Sergio Mihanovich, Gary Burton all stopped
by to hear his ensemble play. Some of these musicians, later would propose
collaborative ventures with him. Locals too, particularly the poet and tango
scholar, Horacio Ferrer, collaborated with the composer in works like Chiquilin
de Bachin and Balada para un loco. Inspired by a soapy, serialized pot boiler
in the newspaper about Maria and Jose, Ferrer suggested a folk opera, an idea
which appealed to Piazzolla, who long had admired George Gershwin. Ferrer
did the libretto and by 1968 the Tango-operita made its debut at the Sala
Planeta on Calle Suipacha. Both a critical and commercial success, it did
much to muffle grumbling by the traditionalists.

The following year, Piazzolla did a record for Polydor Records called El Tango,
a narrative set to music based upon the short story, El Hombre de la Esquina
Rosada, with poems and other texts by Jorge Luis Borges. Piazzolla later
admitted it was more of rite of passage, the sort of enterprise expected of
him because collaboration with Borges meant legitimacy for all sorts of
creative people in Argentina. "Borges didn't really like my music, he loved
primitive tango, from the turn of the century, underground cafes, tough guys,
knife fighters bragging about how many they had killed. Years later he walked
out on a concert of mine in Cordoba. |Let's get out of here,' he was overheard
to say, |I don't hear any tango yet!'"
Borges' reaction notwithstanding, Piazzolla's music gained even greater
stature during the 1970s, especially outside Argentina. If it could be
described as cerebral and complex on the one hand, passionate and physical
on the other, then these were the very same traits one could assign to the
composer himself. One moment Piazzolla was cloistered in a vacation house
at Punta del Este writing startling fresh music. The next moment he was
posing next to sharks twice his height that he'd caught, as a latter-day

Hemingway, burning the candle at both ends. He was not an easy man to live
with for anyone who cherished stability, predictably, domestic bliss;
Piazzolla's first marriage ended in divorce in the mid-sixties. Then, in 1973,
the late nights, the chain smoking, the unmerciful pace and goals he set for
himself all took their toll in the form of a massive heart attack. It was the first
of several warnings that said, "Change your ways, Astor, or pay the price!"

Piazzolla tried self reform, but only temporarily. By the following year he was
back at it again in Europe, first living in Milan, then briefly in Switzerland at
the home of Ginastera and finally in Paris. A glimpse at his discography for
the period confirms his intense activity: collaboration with Gerry Mulligan, a
film score for Lumiere, which was directed by Jeanne Moreau, another for the
film Armagedon starring Alain Delon. He did concerts at the Llympia in Paris,
the Festival Venezia and others in Germany and Finland. Major commissions
as well as concert tours, began to come his way. But they were accompanied
by setbacks. Amelita Baltar, his companion of nearly seven years, left him in
1974 and the following year he learned of the death of Anibal Troilo, his
spiitual mentor in those days of early exploration. Yes, El Gato Piazzolla had
broken with El Gordo Pichuco Troilo but despite their aesthetic quarrels, they
had made up and remained close friends. In May 1976, Piazzolla released his
Suite Troileana, with a remarkable drawing on the record jacket by
Hermenegildo Sabat showing Piazzolla behind Troilo. The composer's
dedication on the inside reads: "Gracias Pichuco por todo lo que me has
dado." Soon after, Piazzolla took possession of Troilo's very own bandoneon, a
most cherished reminder of the departed master.

In 1984, Piazzolla returned once again to Buenos Aires, and finally his
countrymen embraced him as the rest of the world had: the native son who
had breathed new life into a musical form grown complacement and
repetitive. Appreciative Piazzolla tried to help them understand: "I write
music, not just tangos." Whatever the stuff was, it kept flowing. In the 1980s,
he did three films scores: Henri IV, Sur, and Tango: Exile of Gardel which won
a Cesar Award for best film music. In the latter film, shot in Paris, the words of
Juan Uno, a poet, were celebrated: "Being is risk . . . Mix styles and smash
formulas . . . Perfection is death. Long live imperfection." They were the very
same creative principles long espoused by Piazzolla himself. In the recording
studio, too, he continued to collaborate with first-rate artists. He produced a
stunning hybrid for Atlantic Records with American vibraphonist, Gary Burton;
then a new concerto for bandoneon with his old pal, Lalo Schifrin, and the
Orchestra of St. Luke's for Nonesuch Records. Increasingly popular in the
United States, his music was featured in the Broadway production, Tango

Argentina, which toured the United States in 1986. The next year he wrote
the score for Graciela Daniele's musical theatre productions, Borges and
Myself and Tango Apasionado. In response to a request from the avantgarde
Kronos Quartette, he wrote his Five Tango Sensations and composed other
works for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in New Mexico.

In retrospect, it is easy to say that Piazzolla was running on empty and should
have seen the warning signs. After all, even the titles of some of his projects
had a portentous ring to them: Frantic, the film by Roman Polanski in which
his music was featured; Tango: Zero Hour, the recording with American Clave
produced by Kip Hanrahan; Dangerous Games, the smash sensation of New
York (then at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston) once again choreographed
and directed by Graciela Daniele. But Piazzolla refused to heed friends' advise
that he slow down which was all the more urgent since he had undergone
quadruple bypass surgery because of continued heart trouble. In mid-1989,
on the heels of his taxing fifteen city tour of North America with his New
Tango sextet and yet another round of concerts in cities of the Southern
Cone, he went to Paris intent on doing a full scale opera. The American Music
Theatre Company based in Philadelphia had proposed that he made good on
his long time dream: a tango/opera called Gardel, with Placido Domingo in
the leading role and sets designed by the painter and Piazzolla's good friend,
"Menchie" Sabat. It was June when something snapped. Suddenly Piazzolla
was close to death. As word of his cerebral hemorrhage flashed to Buenos
Aires, his daughter and son rushed to his side. The plane bringing him back
home was met by President Carlos Saul Menem. By then, Piazzolla was a
national hero.

At this writing, Astor Piazzolla's condition is tenuous at best. Careful therapy


has brought him a long way back from the brink and yet he has also had
lapses that suggest his days as composer and performer are behind him. It is
a tragedy and yet, were he to assess his life of intense adventure and
productivity, almost certainly he would do it the same way all over again. I
recall that chilly day at the hotel in Burlington, Vermont, when I was startled
by the dramatic gangland entrance of the composer and his sidemen. I also
recall his hearty laughter when later, during the interview, I told him that old
"chestnut" of a musician's joke, about the piano tuner, Mr. Opporknockety,
who refused to work on a lady's piano a second time: "Ah, Madame, I cannot
return. Opporknockety only tunes once!" With a wry smile, in his still almost
unaccented English, Piazzolla responded: "Yes, it's the school of hard knocks,
knocking at doors until they open, believing in yourself, being yourself. It
cannot be otherwise!"

Caleb Bach, a freelance writer and researcher, teaches art and Spanish at
Deerfield Academy in Massachussetts.
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Bach, Caleb. "Astor Piazzolla: a new-age score for the tango." Americas Sept.Oct. 1991: 14+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
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