I can’t really do justice in just a few hundred words to how important Astor Piazzolla was for tango, so I won’t try. Suffice to say that there is tango before and after him, and that he brought it nearer to European classical music, jazz and experimental music while retaining its slightly seedy, street-music heart, and also made it far more visible around the world. You could probably compare him to Ravi Shankar in terms of how he changed the way the world thought about the style of music he played.
Anyway, Piazzola’s most famous albums are probably the trilogy he made with US producer Kip Hanrahan. Justifiably the most famous of these is ‘Tango: Zero Hour’; every home should have a copy. The second, ‘La Camorra’, isn’t quite as famous or quite as brilliant, but is still well worth checking out. However, I’m going to talk about the third of these albums, which no-one really seems to mention much – ‘The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night’. Whether or not this album is as good as the other two, it’s certainly my favourite, probably because of the way I came across it. The finale to the album is one of the pieces of music used in Wong Kar-Wai’s 1997 film ‘Happy Together’. The film follows two men from Hong Kong, living in Buenos Aires, and the ups and downs of their passionate and tempestuous relationship. The most important thing about the film, rather than the plot, is the aching sense of longing the film evokes: the two men being so much in love even though their relationship is bad for both of them, their separation from their homeland, and their wish to visit Angel Falls, the original purpose of their journey to Argentina on holiday, which becomes an unattainable, Grail-like object of longing. The film is desperately sad and haunting, something which is increased by the masterful use of music. Two or three pieces are used repeatedly throughout the film, in different scenes, like memories whose different nuances are revealed when they are remembered at different times. One of these pieces of music is the finale from ‘Tango Apasianado’, the suite which became ‘The Rough Dancer…’ Its most striking uses are in the almost abstract shot of Angel Falls – which the two men never see – and the beautiful scene of them tangoing in their kitchen; nothing is going right, but they have each other. I couldn’t get the music out of my head for days after I’d seen ‘Happy Together’, and I still can’t separate the music of this album from the feelings the film evoked. Novels, films and music can produce profound affects depending on how exactly we encounter them, related to what else is going on in our lives, and there are certain artworks that it seems almost impossible to talk about with critical distance because the affect is so bound up with that artwork, for us. Maybe it even has something to do with our sense of subjectivity. I have no idea whether ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ is actually a good novel, for instance, but I certainly know how I feel about it.
Back to ‘The Rough Dancer’. The music is a tango suite commissioned by the Intar [sic] Hispanic American Arts Center for a stage production, and originally included lyrics too. The adaptation for this album is instrumental, and although I’ve got no idea of the narrative of the original show, there are clues some of the titles: ‘Knife Fight’, ‘Butcher’s Death’. Even without knowing the stage show at all, this music sounds like it tells a story, as it moves from mournful, nostalgic love themes on Piazzolla’s bandoneon to jerky, violent-sounding stabs at violin strings. The piano, violin, guitar and clarinet all get their time to shine, with the bandoneon leading them all onwards. The music sighs, it wails, it skips with childish happiness, it screams, it smiles ruefully, it even sniggers (listen to the guitar on ‘Street Tango’). In addition to emotions, the album is evocative of images. Tango is always bound up with particular stereotypes of Argentinian culture, but this album really does evoke a seedy, backstreets world where it’s always about 1:30 am, some time at the beginning of the twentieth century. The liner notes from Fernando Gonzalez describe “a muddy and baroque world […] fast knives and fast dancers, rough milongas and rougher cañas.” He describes the album as “Piazzolla imagin[ing] Jorge Luis Borges imagining” this world.
The comparison to Borges makes perfect sense, because like the murky world imagined in his story ‘Death and the Compass’, nothing is quite what it seems here. ‘The Rough Dancer…’ is Borgesian not because of the underworld of flick-knife-brandishing, sharply-dressed gangsters it evokes, but because it is – as the title implies – cyclical. Themes circle back and repeat throughout the album, leaving you unsure whether you’ve heard this melody half an hour earlier, or whether you’re remembering it from some time in the past you’re not sure of. The whole of the ‘Milonga for Three’ is repeated, first with Piazzolla playing the main theme on his bandoneon, and secondly with – bizarrely – Cuban salsa legend Paquito d’Riviera tearing the melody to bits with his saxophone. The theme comes back again in the finale, used so effectively in ‘Happy Together’. And that finale is nothing but: the very last track on the album is a fifty-second ‘Prelude to the Cyclical Night (Part Two)’, a Part Two which either never comes or has, perhaps already come… This album is as much the Borges of ‘A New Refutation of Time’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ or ‘The Circular Ruins’ as of ‘Death and the Compass’. Time seems to work differently for this album; musical themes emerge out of a dreamlike time where things might have already happened or maybe not. Are things repeated, or are you remembering something you’d forgotten? Or is it just that a trick is being played, and the melody is so predictable that you simply know where it’s going and so feel that your recognise it?
As you can probably tell, I love this album – maybe because it appeals to my pretentious side, maybe because it has an emotional effect on me, maybe both. Either way, it’s a great example of just how much Piazzolla –and his collaborators, lest we forget that he was far from a lone genius; his various Quartets, Quintets and Octets contained some amazing musicians – changed what tango could do. You could probably try to dance to this album, but I don’t know how far you’d get before you had to make yourself dance backwards.