• Sarah Kwok

Art of the Tango Fugue - November 28-December 1

Vetta Chamber Music presents Art of the Tango Fugue on November 28-29 and December 1. The concert explores and connects the works of J.S. Bach and Astor Piazzolla with music for bandoneon and string quartet. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview bandoneonist Jonathan Goldman, read on as he discusses the bandoneon, how he connects Baroque to tango, and why listening to Piazzolla will make you feel like there's a movie running in your head.

So, tell me about the show

The Art of the Tango Fugue is a concert that I’m really excited to be playing with Vetta. It’s not the first time that I have performed with them, as several years ago I did a tango program with Joan Blackman and Linda Lee Thomas and others as a tango quintet. This program is personal for me – it’s a project that I’ve had for many years that draws parallels between the music of Astor Piazzolla, considered one of the great composers of tango art music, and the music of J.S. Bach. The concert looks at one special part of Astor Piazzolla’s music – music in the form of fugues.

Some might be wondering what a fugue is – it was one of the most important musical forms in the Baroque period. It’s a strict piece of music where a single unaccompanied melody begins before other voices enter and imitate the melody played by that first voice, fitting together to make beautiful harmonies that are the result of this melody being layered over itself. J.S. Bach was the all-time master of the fugue, and he wrote the Well-Tempered Klavier, a collection of 48 preludes and fugues (a prelude being an improvised short piece that precedes a fugue), and these 48 works are the watershed fugues of music history. At the end of his life he also wrote The Art of Fugue, a mysterious piece that is a series of fugues all based on the same melody. The last one was left unfinished as he died before he could complete the work, and it is often performed with the last fugue trailing off into silence. It’s very poignant, and you can almost hear the moment when the master of the art of counterpoint lifts his pen from the paper one final time.

Astor Piazzolla is a very different composer who performed tango throughout his life, and he also had a solid background in classical concert music. He studied with the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera and the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, so he was fully immersed in both Argentinian tango and the forms of Western art music. One of the things I wanted to do with this concert was to bring out Piazzolla’s double allegiance to tango and Western art music, the latter represented by the fugue. I arranged all of the fugues that we’ll be performing for the ensemble, which is bandoneon and string quartet. These fugues are tango music, full of tango rhythms and tango emotions, while at the same time they also work as strict Baroque-informed fugues that pay tribute to Bach. We will also be performing a work by Piazzolla that is not often heard, called Five Tango Sensations. It was the last piece that he recorded in the studio and was written for the Kronos Quartet and bandoneon. I use the five movement of this work as preludes to Piazzolla’s fugues, so in that way we alternate preludes and fugues in the way that Bach did in the Well-Tempered Klavier.

I found a quote of Piazzolla’s from an interview in 1989 with Gonzalo Saaverda where he said “If I do a fugue in the manner of Bach, it will always be “tanguificated”. I also find it interesting that tango dancing is essentially walking (but in a very elaborate way!), while the meaning of a fugue is ‘to chase’ – are there any of these elements in the music?

In general Piazzolla’s music was not meant for dancing, it was meant for listening; he was very adamant about that. That being said, it has danceable rhythms and choreographers have used his music over the years. But it’s true that tango is mostly a walking dance, and a fugue by its definition is running – in French, when you say ‘faire une fugue’ it refers to a child running away from home, the idea of running is there. And indeed, Piazzolla’s fugues tend to be fast and rhythmic, exhilarating and dramatic. A Bach fugue can be solemn or it can be jaunty, and his fugues run the gamut of all different tempi, different emotions, and different dances. The idea that a fugue, with its imitating voices and contrapuntal texture, can also be a dance is something that already existed with Bach – who sometimes composed ‘fugue-gigues,’ so I thought it would be nice to make that connection between Bach and Piazzolla, in the way that you can hear Piazzolla’s fugues as being at once a fugue and a tango, and there is no contradiction between the two.

Can you talk more about the Five Tango Sensations?

They actually began as film music – the first version of these pieces were used for a film that has more or less been forgotten, and Piazzolla re-used the material to compose the Five Tango Sensations. They’re tango sensations in the sense that he wanted each one to capture a different sense or mental state [note: the five movements are Asleep; Loving; Anxiety; Depertar; and Fear]. This music was cinematic in origin, and it has this way of immediately evoking a certain scene or emotion. When I play this music, audience members often come up to me and say ‘I was imagining a whole scene in my mind,’ or, ‘I was playing a movie in my imagination’ and that captures a lot of what Piazzolla’s music does: it has this amazing power to evoke images in the mind.

Many people will also be unfamiliar with your instrument, the bandoneon.

My instrument is not one that you hear very often in North America, but it is very common in Argentina. The bandoneon is a cousin of the accordion – it’s not an accordion, but it is a kind of squeeze-box, with bellows and buttons. It was Piazzolla’s instrument; he was a virtuosic master of the bandoneon. It has an interesting history – it was invented in Germany in the 19th century and it eventually migrated to South America with the wave of immigration from Germany and other parts of Northern Europe. It came to Argentina and became embedded in the tango tradition, so much so that it’s considered the emblematic instrument of the tango. The bandoneon is an incredible instrument, it has a melancholy sound that is nothing like the joyful sound we associate with the accordion. It sighs, it sings, and from an acoustic point of view it blends really nicely with the sonority of the string quartet. That’s one of the reasons why I love presenting this concert, as it shows how the bandoneon can fit into a chamber music texture.

The bandoneon is so closely tied to tango, but it’s a versatile instrument – is there non-tango music written for the bandoneon?

Well, the vast majority of bandoneon literature is at least obliquely related to tango, but I’ve done research on another small but significant repertoire: in the 1960s, famed avant-grade pianist David Tudor (the pianist best known for premiering many of John Cage’s piano pieces) took up the bandoneon and commissioned works for the instrument, sometimes with live electronic sounds, by leading experimental composers like Pauline Oliveros, Mauricio Kagel and Gordon Mumma. If you’re so inclined, you can read more about it in a journal article I wrote on the topic: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/americanmusic.30.1.0030?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

If you haven't yet heard a bandoneon live, here's your chance! I can guarantee you'll be enchanted by its sound. Hear it yourself when Vetta Chamber Music presents Art of the Tango Fugue at West Point Grey United Church on November 28 at 2pm and November 29 at 7:30pm, and on December 1 at 2pm in Pyatt Hall.

More information: https://vettamusic.com/event/art-of-the-tango-fugue/

Jonathan Goldman: http://jonathangoldman.ca/

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