Agony of a genre and power in the name*

(Constitution of the Piazzolla aesthetics)

Carlos Kuri



What does Piazzolla produce in the  tango genre?

It is necessary to consider two lines to answer this question. On the one hand, tango’s musical, aesthetic and social conditions. And on the other hand, the operation that in this context Piazzolla carries out.

      1) Between the 20s and 60s, tango goes through a moment of hegemony and another of decline. Typical singers and orchestras had, until the end of the 50s, a social spreading and had mastered  the ‘’show’’; and also a stylistic development, a consolidation of their aesthetics. An aesthetics which had managed to amalgamate in an exquisite harmony, the structure of the orchestra (”orquesta tipica”), the place of the singers and the scene of the dancers.

It is throughout the perfection reached by the orchestra and through Anibal Troilo’s composition that, in 1948, together with Homero Manzi’s poetry and written for the sober and low voice of Edmundo Rivero, that the tango SUR is born (i), monumental work in tango’s history. It seemed that the genre’s mechanics would have reached there its highest point. In that trilogy of Troilo, Manzi and Rivero, in that very combination of singing, music and poetry (and without overlooking the dance), is where tango also seemed to have reached its limit.

Then, tango was not only an art, but also a socio-cultural code of what is considered “porteño” (ii). And it is precisely in that instance where the idea of genre acquires its strength. And even though the genre is a representation, a fiction that each music needs to be able to exist, to place itself in the chaotic and multireferential map of art, it is essential to take notice of the characteristics that this figure acquires in tango.

Tango not only makes of genre an aesthetic tool but also grants it an ethic efficacy. Tango adds an ethic requirement to the criteria used to identify the essential attributes of its music. Thus, a device is put in place to grant admission and refusal as to what is part of, or what has to be excluded from, the condition of tango, a device that has the same strength as the separation between good and evil.

2) Which is Piazzolla’s aesthetic structure that makes possible its exceptional incidence in the genre?

To answer this question implies to expose the way in which Piazzolla reaches a style. The route towards the style is made of strong conflicts, and even though the style consecration always means to reach good command of heterogeneous languages, in Piazzolla’s case, it was a fight that finally led to an inner tension, integral and beneficial, to the nature of his music.

What in the 40s would split him between his compositions of classical character and tangos, between his academic formation with Alberto Ginastera (iii) and his participation as bandoneon player in Troilo’s orchestra, between the Colón Theater and the cabarets, reached  a critical condition in 1954. Distanced from the bandoneon and busy with classical music, that moment can be condensed in the recommendation that Nadia Boulanger, with whom he was studying in Paris, gave him: “Your academic works are well written but you are in your tangos”.

There are many ways of understanding  Boulanger’s indication, but surely the most precise is the one not entangled in the question as regards “What did the famous Professor mean?” but the one shown by the consequences in Astor’s work: After that episode, Piazzolla returned to tango and to his instrument, the bandoneon. But instead of softly coming back to tango, he changes its place. What used to be classical or tango, now has to be classical and tango, but in the most effective way: The key is to work with classical music procedures on the roots of  tango. Without being alienated in the European musical tradition and standing on tango, he succeeded in taking  advantage of the full constellation of techniques.

Then Piazzolla processes the initial fight between his influences: that tension between his European formation, jazz and tango is not eliminated but instead changed into an aesthetic identity. Thus, a music which is as passionate as it is elaborated, and created from a new mixture and with no eclecticism, is born. That is the foundation of Piazzolla’s aesthetic.

From 1955 on, with the Octeto Buenos Aires (iv), Piazzolla definitely introduces the elements that alter tango and that inaugurate its contemporaneous expression, elements that for the porteño’s ethic and aesthetic world, constitute a heresy.

He eliminates the singer’s privileged place and thus he delves into instrumental works in a chamber-like fashion (an introducing the electric guitar, an absolutely foreign timbre for the genre, which also introduces improvisational dimensions to the music). He stresses counterpoint and incorporates an unusual harmonic elaboration for the genre. He definitely abandons the model of the “orquesta tipica”; he forgets and violently expels the dancer, accomplishing a double effect: he defines the auditory nature of his tango (the body is no longer needed to vent emotions in the dance floor but to feed from the tension and meticulous sound of the instruments). At the same time, and as a proclamation, he gives up al “tango-show” aspects.

From here on, the inexorable union between interpretation and composition has to be situated. The intensity Piazzolla wants for interpretation pierces the score itself, the question is to reach a physical throb of the written note. The bandoneon, his trademark as interpreter, his idea of phrasing, the unexpected treatment of tempo, the visceral explosions interrupting the calm, all go beyond mere excellence as an interpreter, they actually affect the way the score itself needs to be treated.

During many decades, tango tolerated with no fractures, extensions in the genre’s sphere. Tango first cherished De Caro’s orchestral transformations (with its  violin-based variations), Pugliese’s treatment of syncopation, the sophistication of Galvan’s arrangements, Troilo’s bandoneon innovations and orchestral exquisiteness and Salgan’s conciliator modernism. All of them helped to delimit that virtual vault of this genre. Differences and deviations were peaceful or, at least, likely to be treated inside his genre (v). 

The fracture introduced by Piazzolla was wrongly perceived as a menacing parricide, with the panic of losing the technical, aesthetic and ethic center. However, the cut used by Piazzolla to pierce the genre is not equivalent to a capricious deformation or to the intrusion of impertinent elements aiming at making it more complex. If Piazzolla has been a nightmare for the walled-in genre of tango, it is due to the fact that he drags it towards the dissolution of said interior.

It is neither the evolution nor Piazzolla’s exile from the genre but something more powerful what explains its fracture; to say it in another way, what Piazzolla does is to carry tango towards another geometric shape. It is to say that if the genre used to define itself in the clear distinction between interior and exterior, in the insistence of separating tango from what was not considered tango; with Piazzolla, tango is pierced with fugues, dissonances or references to Stravinsky rhythms, and thus we find ourselves in the presence of a tango being brutally contaminated by an ignored or rejected “exterior” musical constellation. With Piazolla, tango’s interior vanishes, well define borders protected by customs agents also vanish. From now on the tango identity will be defined differently.

This way, Piazzolla obtains a tango with such strength that musicians from Gary Burton to the Kronos Quartet, or from Milva to Gerry Mulligan (vi) can now get in touch with tango without threatening its identity. (He manages to settle an aesthetic, a place, where Al di Meola to Emanuel Ax, from Gidon Kremer to Phil Woods, can all co-exist).

 This operation, far from fusing genres or stimulating eclecticism, is made with the creation of a style (what allows us to say, “this is Piazzolla”, as we say “this is Debussy” or “this is Picasso”). Piazzolla succeeded in establishing a homogeneous language based upon differing and rebellious elements, not tolerated by the genre but dominated by the style.

Thus, there is a transformation (that makes us feel both the changes and the relationship with what tango used to be before Piazzolla) but also a mutation (that shows us the infinite distance, what makes Piazzolla’s tango impossible to be compared with tango before him) that unique step that goes from genre, from its agony, to the proper noun.


[i]  Homero Manzi (1907 – 1951) was one of the main poets of tango;  Edmundo Rivero (1902 –1986) is, together with Carlos Gardel (1890- 1935) and Roberto Goyeneche (1926 –1994) among the most important tango singers, among those who settled a style for the genre’s voice.

[ii] The word Porteño refers to the inhabitant of  Buenos Aires, a harbor city. What is considered Porteño includes, in this text, said city inhabitant, his habits and his social and emotional relations.

[iii] Together with Astor Piazzolla – his first pupil- one of the most important Argentine composers.

[iv] The Octeto Buenos Aires  was the first band Piazzolla formed; it had a radically different structure from the typical orchestra (generally constituted by four bandoneons, four violins, a piano, a contrabass and one or two vocalists) and Piazzolla himself considered it as the starting point of contemporary tango. Two bandoneons, two violins, a violoncello, a piano, an electrical guitar and a contrabass formed this band).

[v] It is about some of the musicians that marked the history of tango. Julio De Caro (1899 –1980), violinist, director and composer; Osvaldo Pugliese (1905 – 1995), pianist, director and composer, who spread his style of “rhythmic stubbornness”, from his piano to his famous orchestra; Argentino Galván (1913 –1960), mainly arranger; Anibal Troilo (1914 – 1975), director, kind of “Gardel” of the “orquesta tipica”, composer; as bandoneon player he reached a style that synthesizes the technique, the strength and the phrasing of the best bandoneon players that preceded him; Horacio Salgán (1916), great pianist, director and composer.

[vi] It is not the case of the 1956 recordings of Osvaldo Fresedo’s Orchestra (director, composer, distinguished for his melodic treatment of tango) with Dizzy Gillespie, reduced to a musical anecdote, isolated and with no aesthetic consequences.



* © 2000 Carlos Kuri thanks the author for agreeing to publish his work here. You can contact Carlos Kuri at: