Not everyone dances only when they are happy. Some dance to remember, others to forget, and some purely to feel anything and everything at once. Astor Piazzolla’s “Five Tango Sensations” is a suite of works that captures this sentiment perfectly. The suite itself is split into five sections (Asleep, Loving, Anxiety, Despair, and Fear) and was originally composed for a relative of the accordion (the bandoneon) and string quartet in 1989. Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla was well known throughout the world of music for having married classical, jazz, and tango music almost flawlessly into a new genre: that of “Tango Nuevo”. The suite premiered in New York the same year it was composed and immediately recorded by its composer and the Kronos Quartet. Piazzolla himself played the bandoneon for the original recording, exhibiting his virtuosic skill on the instrument.
The five compositions on this album were written after Piazzolla experienced a bout of serious illness. The session the composer recorded with the Kronos Quartet proved to be his last studio recording: he would fall into a coma the following year and never awaken. During his life, Piazzolla revolutionized the traditional tango to imbue it with new life, and he bids farewell to a musical life well lived and loved in the most moving ways possible in the five brief musical explorations that make up the suite
In Asleep, we are introduced to a dreamy world of dancers. Some made of wind, some made of the spring pollen and blades of grass blown by this same wind. The listener is at once comforted and curious. Piazzolla’s bandoneon has a knack for this, transporting lovers of music to a world where they are free to ask as many questions as they wish… without their eagerness to find answers spoiling their ability to enjoy the moment. The word dreamy does not quite do justice to the feeling of presence which is created in this movement. “Here you are” it seems to chime “now what are you going to do about it?” The lilting melody creates musical architecture, which is mysterious, yet inviting, daring the listener to venture forth in search of meaning.
Loving creates in the listener’s mind that all-too-familiar scene from a foreign romance film. A smoky bar. A mysterious and attractive individual whose colorful trappings pull the entire room into focus. There is smoke, perhaps a streetlamp. Whether indoors or out in the elements, this movement focuses on broadening our understanding of this dreamlike tango world with yet more delicious questions. Who is the stranger? How can they be reached? And what are these feelings that make the world all around shimmer with warmth and light? When the movement finally ends, the listener is left alone with these thoughts and the refrain to ponder on…
Anxiety is a movement of spirals. The thoughts of the listener begin to spiral as the rhythms and melody take on a slightly menacing quality. We are being pulled in a direction we cannot entirely control, and the scenery goes whirling by. The composer utilizes fast changes of pace to create a disorienting effect, but it is used sparingly and always accompanies a slower contrasting section which serves as an inquiry into where this descending melody is headed… and why it is so urgent. Near the end of the movement, the listener is almost treated to the answer… musically speaking it is just on the tip of the brain of one’s tongue. And then it is gone… now there are twice the number of worries, leading the listener down an all-too-familiar path.
And so the dream fades. The listener is treated to Wake (Despertar), the movement which is by far the most painful to endure. It is the realization that the monotony of the daily struggle is upon you once more, and the dream may never return. Sharp rhythmic accents serve as a blow to one’s musical heart. A violin solo languishes in the back corner of a forgotten room, and the memory of the splendorous dream fades faster with every passing second. For any who has awoken from a tremendously exciting dream only to forget the best parts once pencil is hurriedly put to paper, this movement could very well become your anthem. Yet this segment of Piazzolla’s Tango Sensations is not entirely devoid of warmth. No longer sensual, the heat we feel is that of familiarity, surrounding a beautiful melancholy which the listener encounters in cascading musical passages throughout. Will there ever be another dream so real and full of promise? And what if the opportunity to enjoy such a dream might never come to pass?
The hobbling, stilted rhythm of Fear is exceedingly effective at alarming the listener at their own anticipations of sensations, not unlike the dread of each barefoot step placed on a floor made of ice. There is an excitement, but more predominantly is an uncertainty and disjointed feeling of running without one’s full balance throughout this movement. As the listener familiarizes themselves with the central melody, we feel a sense of dread build with the intervening of the strings. At least in the dream, the uncertainty was welcoming. Here, all seems pointless and alarming. As real life turns too unsettling to bear, the composer gives us reprieve. We have danced a dance of Life and Death, Confusion and Knowing, and now we are free to meditate on our own lives and selves without the music to guide us. Piazzolla’s masterful suite knows just where to turn, how to play with our emotions, and how to stir the memories from the deep recesses of our collective minds. Of the Kronos Quartet version of the suite, Adam Greenberg says it best: “Piazzolla plays his heart out on his trusty bandoneon, and the Kronos players accompany to perfection.” A tragic work of beauty, passion, and everything in between, you can take in the captivating colors and sounds of Astor Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations at our upcoming Buenos Aires concert!