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            Every artist aspires to develop a personal voice, and every good artist eventually does so.  But few arrive at a style so personal and so reflective of a unique vision that, while nonetheless achieving great international popularity, it is strictly sui generis.  The music of Ástor Piazzolla is just that.  Single handedly he created a musical genre and style that began with the traditional elements of the Argentine tango, but was infused with so much of advanced twentieth century “classical” techniques, that the result almost obscures its popular roots.  Jazz, Stravinsky, Bartók, dissonance, counterpoint, ubiquitous chromaticism, and varied orchestration—they all are incorporated into Piazolla’s musical take on the tango.  His achievement might be compared to a hypothetical situation wherein Stravinsky decided to base all of his compositions—with all of his modernist, challenging elements—on a transformed Viennese waltz.  Just one genre subjected to almost every new cutting edge technique.  That would be personal, indeed!  Yet, Piazolla with his more than one thousand compositions has achieved something like that.   Ravel employed a similar approach in his La valse, but that was just once.  While many aficionados of traditional tango music—especially in Piazolla’s native country, Argentina—are less than thrilled with his novel style, he has garnered an enthusiastic following around the world with audiences and a variety of professional musicians.

            Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but moved with his parents in 1924 to New York City, living in Greenwich Village, immersing himself in the musical culture and atmosphere of the great city.  Jazz, classical music, the blues—all were his métier—all the while his family exposed him to traditional Argentine music at home.  And although he and his music are inextricably bound to the sound of the bandoneón (the indigenous Argentine accordion, rather like a concertina), it was indeed in New York City that his father brought home from a pawnshop, little Ástor’s first bandoneón.  All the while Piazolla studied classical music, simultaneously composing his first tangos.  A meeting with the tango immortal, Carlos Gardel (of Por una Cabeza fame), cemented his life-long dedication to the genre. 

            He moved back to Argentina in 1936, and there ensued a long and remarkable career as composer of tangos and performer in myriad musical groups—all the while pursuing a side interest in classical musical composition.  Moving well ahead in his career, by the early fifties he was immersed in the study of Stravinsky and Bartók, studying composition with Ginastera, listening to lots of jazz, and composing “classical” music.  In 1953 he won a major prize with a symphony that he had composed, and was off to Paris to study with the famed Nadia Boulanger—teacher of such luminaries as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Elliott Carter.  Savvy woman that she was, she disabused Piazolla of dreams of becoming another Bartók, and insisted that he must acknowledge his brilliance in the tango, and to follow it for his success.  And so he did, but not without taking with him his deep engagement with the techniques of jazz, blues, and complicated contemporary art music.  The result was his unique style, what is often called tango nuevo.

            In the following years he became a legend in his native country, composing hundreds of pieces, continuing to play in and lead many different tango orchestras, and building a worldwide reputation.  Typically, his works were performed by a small tango group, generally, but not always, consisting of bandoneón, violin, electric guitar, double bass, and piano.  Inevitably, his compositions were also transcribed for a large variety of instrumentations.  He toured the world, almost Zelig-like, appearing on television, in concerts, recording with a variety of artists—a true universal musician.  He composed chamber music, orchestral music, and made music with everyone from Gerry Mulligan to Mstislav Rostropovich.

            Libertango is one of Piazolla’s most popular compositions, recorded by artists in over five hundred releases.   The title alludes to Piazolla’s conscious artistic shift—or liberation, if you will--from traditional tango style to the new “Tango Nuevo.”  And that will be easy to hear in this alluring composition, which, while obviously preserving so many of the beloved musical elements of traditional tango, nevertheless strikes out in new artistic directions.  Traditional rhythms are often eschewed for new ones, but without losing the innate intensity of the genre.  Novel is the incorporation of Piazolla’s signature chromatic harmony, forming the foundation of for the soaring, romantic lyric lines intrinsic to the tango.  It’s all a refreshing take on an old beloved style.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan