Beauty and Interpretation: Canonical Tango Recordings


A. Milongas in Buenos Aires play only Golden Era tango music.
B. But there is so much great tango music, why insist on playing those old scratchy records? The noise is so annoying. Modern orchestras are just as good or better.


There is a schism in tango concerning the music played at milongas. I am not concerned with those who want to play electronic tango or non-tango music at their tango nuevo events. I will rather address the issue of pre-1950 vs. post-1950 tango music at ‘mainstream’ milongas in major cities.

The year 1950 is a rough marker of transition from Golden Era tango recordings to orcherstral recordings that are not considered by traditionalists as appropriate for the milongas.* In fact, for some the very concept of traditional Buenos Aires milonga culture is attached to the Golden Era music. It’s a completely different sort of practice. For them, you may call it tango if you want, but they don’t recognise it as an any significant way continuous with what they are doing but rather a radical, revolutionary, and in their view, regressive departure from the tradition that has really developed after 1950 but based on a canonical set of recordings.

So the question then arises what is it about these particular recordings that raises them to the status of canon that the latter, so-called modern tango recordings, are lacking? Why are there no post-1950 recordings that are allowed into the canon? This question is raised especially by those who view tango as a ‘living culture’ which is continuously evolving and who therefore reject the idea that tango is defined by static, rigid definitions that prescribe a particular set of recordings as defining the culture. They view this sort of attitude as essentially reactionary because it rejects the possibility of improvement. They don’t see why such old recordings, recorded on poor equipment on records that are a lot of noise, should be considered necessarily superior to more modern recordings which do not have noise, are recorded on better recording equipment, by contemporary orchestras.

There are two groups of people who might engage in this type of argumentation. First, there are people whose knowledge is limited to contemporary culture, that is, who have very limited knowledge of art, music and literature that predates 1960. For these people the 1950s is the end of ‘pre-history’, an era of chauvinistic semi-civilised dinasours whereas ancient history worth mentioning is defined by such personalities as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, John Coltrane and Miles Davis in music, Jack Kerouac in literature, and Maurice Duchamp and Andy Warhol in art. Anything prior to that is on par with Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, really the domain of archeology that has little relevance to contemporary life. These people see culture as constantly and instantanously evolving and transforming. As soon as something is created it becomes obsolete only to be displaced by the next act of creativity. Culture is the realm of constant change, novelty, creativity, transgression and originality.

For these people, the desire to define and preserve cultural practices (representational painting, classical music, classical architecture) is puzzling and out of place in the modern world, a desire ascribed people who lack proper education in how the modern world works, who reject the current reality and live in some weird isolated realm outside of acceptable society. For these people seeing a Caravagio painting, or hearing Beethoven is an experience in the same order as going to Disney World, but of course nothing like seeing the true innovators and setters of cultural standards like the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd: a truly deep and meaningful experience of the ‘old masters’.

Second, there are the actually educated people who do know something about the history of Western culture and do recognise that perhaps you can’t compare Andy Warhol or Jack Kerouack to Rembrant or Shakespeare. But they still believe that, great as they may be, the latter still belong to ‘museal culture’ that is at a distance from currely reality and therefore of limited relevance in the modern and post-modern world, consigned to academic curricula. These people can accept that there are those who will want to engage in outdated practices, but in recognising this they reject that such practices have any prescriptive or normative value. There is nothing better or to be recommended for doing so because to the post-modern intellectual all cultural expressions are fundamentally the same, so that there is no fundamental difference between Pergolessi’s Stabat Mater and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

In fact, the latter group of intelligentsia pay only lip service to equality and in the end view any attempt to conservation and preservation as an expression of oppressive bougeois values. All culture prior to mid-20th century is viewed as tainted with oppressive bourgeois values and thereby fundamentally suspect. Therefore, any attempt to say that Western cultural tradition is not merely a personal preference of some people who go to concerts, but is actually in some more universal way preferable or superior is instantly accused of being an expression of racist, white-supremacist attitudes. These are expressions that are no longer allowed to state in public.

The anti-Western attitudes of the educated intelligentsia who occupy the professorial posts in the academy, and the historical ignorance of their younger proteges, have the consequence of radical narrowing down discourse concerning cultural criticism. 
As has been noted by the philosopher Roger Scruton, cultural criticism is extremely important for culture to develop and flourish, and the loss of our ability to engage in critical thinking and discourse about culture results in degradation in the realms of art, music, and architecture.

Criticism, Conservatism and Reaction

While the progressives view all forms of conservatism as essentially reactionary, there is a possible way of defining the difference between conservatism and reaction. Roughly, a reactionary is someone who wants no change at all, whereas a conservative says: keep what works, change what does not work. That is, the conservative attitude is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Conservatives view the established order of things as the hard won achievements that ought to be preserved and are easily destroyed to our detriment. They reject the progressive view that the established status quo is fundamentally bad and all progress is for the better.

To return to our original topic, the question then is whether the definition of a canon that defines the milonga culture is reactionary or conservative. In fact it can be both: there will be some who will reject any change at all and others who would accept some additions to the canon so long as they don’t upset the milonga culture. Notice that the reactionary attitude does not necessiate cultural criticism because once the canon has been established it just needs to be replicated mechanically without any alternations being allow and so no need for critical analysis of proposed additions or changes. In that sense it is similar to the sort of progressivism that uncritically prefers novelty and transgression. Only conservatism requires informed criticism of proposed additions in terms of how they affect the culture and therefore whether they should be allowed into the established canon.

How then could we evaluate tango recordings in order to decide whether they belong to the canon, and on what grounds might we reject modern tango recordings from the canon of traditional tango? I would suggest some aspects of music recordings that are relevant to this issue. I base my insights here on my own analysis of recordings of orchestral and classical guitar music. A recording of a piece of music is literally a record of a performance of a composition at a particular point in time in a particular place using a particular sort of equipment. This recording will then be mastered in a particular sort of way and finally it will be reproduced from a particular sort of on particular audio equipment in a particular sort of space. All of these aspects determine the final experience. We can then only evaluate a given recording by way of comparison: comparing different performances, recording equipment, mastering process and reproduction equipment.

To say that a given recording is canonican is to say that it represents the benchmark against which other recordings are to be evaluated. This means that given all of the elements that comprise this recording as a cultural product it represents (or is recognised as representing) the highest achievement in the genre. That is, given appropriate reproduction of the recording it elicits the best possible experience in a properly informed listener. As with any form of art, musical appreciation does require prior training, and so the person experiencing the music must be familiar with the genre and understand its inherent values. A canonican recording will then be one that is representative of these aesthetic values and provide the maximal possible expression of these values.

The basic method in critical evaluation of a product of art is comparative, that is we take two examples that share the subject matter, and listen to them attentively in order to decide which one is better and then what renders one better then the other. This then provides us with some criteria for evaluating recordings more generally. One may take two or more recordings of Pergolessi’s Stabat Mater, or Tarrega’s Capricio Arabe, and isolate specific elements that render some better than the other. Given two or more recordings, ultimately one always tends to prefer one over the others and so one may legitimately ask why that is.

In classical or pre-contemporary music the goal of art is beauty, which means an aesthetic and emotional response, a feeling. Here it is generally recognised that some feelings are real or authentic, and others are fake or inauthentic. A work of art may aim to elicits certain authentic feelings and be more or less successful in doing so. Alternatively, it may actually be successful at eliciting feelings but do so in a shallow and inauthentic way. Kitsch art such as garden gnomes, Walt Disney characters, and even some works of high art which play on our emotions are considered inauthentic. They elicit a feeling or emotion without putting us in touch with a higher, universal or transcental reality that offers consolation and satisfaction, but offers only transient, consummable emotion. Thus, an authentic work of art is one where the artist has no only the skill to elicit an aesthetic response in the viewer or listener, but also aims to elicit an emotion, or image of beauty, which is authentic and transcendent.

Here we can see that both the intention and the skill of the artist—and in the case of recorded and reproduced music, also those in charge of recording, mastering and reproducing the music,—determines the success or failure of the work of art. An artist might seek to elicit authentic feelings and represent transcendent beauty and yet be limited in his skill to do so. A lot of medieval art sought to capture divinity but could do so only in limited ways that depended on the recipient to add the necessary ingredient of religious belief in order to project the transcendental value on the object. As artistic genius developed however great masters were able to achieve the skill to produce an aesthetic experience that communicated divinity. However, this meant also that some artists were able to use their skill and technique but without transcendental beauty in mind. The experience of beauty did not move one out of the realm of ordinary, profane reality and at least in that sense the feelings generated were not authentic, not a matter of higher transcendental truth that we seek in works of art.

So when we look at the canonical Golden Era tango recordings the idea is that these express the aesthetic values of milonga culture which are in some sense ultimate, authentic and permanent. They elicit aesthetic experiences that transcend the disposable and consummable emotions generated by mere kitsch art. Some say that such music is transformative in some fundamental ways. That means that these artists aimed to represent transdendental beauty in these compositions, and also were able the highest level of skill in achieving this aim. It also means that the latter recordings either do not aim to transcendental truth, or if they aim in that direction, they fail to achieve this effectively. They might speak to some who project those values on those works, but they lack the sort of universality capable of speaking to anyone.

Sound is a complex phenomenon and in evaluating recordings we need to attend to nuances of interpretation, instrumentation, orchestration and ambience. A recording done on different instruments, constructed in a different era, providing a different sort of tonality, performed in different sort of acoustic environment, and recorded on different sort of equipment will make for a radically different rendition of the same composition. I’m a learner of classical guitar and ambitiusly decided to learn Tarrega’s Capricio Arabe which is a classic compisition for the instrument. I listened to two recordings, one by a young Russian virtuoso who played the piece fast, slurring over many notes, and another by David Russell who played more slowly. Listening to the first recording I nearly gave up on the piece as it seemed flat and hollow, but then listening to Russell’s rendition I understood the emotional and aesthetic depth in the piece that was completely absent in the first version. The virtuoso guitarist was exhibiting great skill but was running through the piece without the sort of understanding of what it was about that Russell exhibits.

Any piece of great music has many layers that both the musician and the listener discovers over time and then projects on the musical moment. The piece must touch on certain feelings that provide for consolation, redemption or atonement by connecting us to universal truths or values. Those who listen to tango music and hear crackling noise and poor recording, but seek shiny new polished recordings by modern orchestras are not attuned to these sorts of values. They are aware neither of the emotions that the musicians seek with greater or lesser success to inject into the music, nor of the nuance and ambience created by the material reality of the space, the instruments and the recording equipment that are all aligned to create the recording and that are captured in it. These material aspects are the canvas and the paint that provide the texture of the recording that cannot be replicated in any other ways.

That does not mean that one cannot capture authentic aesthetic values with different instruments or using different recording equipment. The issue is the assumption that innovation is either always better, or if one is a relativist, its neither better or worse, just different. Take for example the emergence of classical guitar. Bach composed pieces for the lute which was the main instrument in his time. The guitar came into prominence at a latter date so that pieces composed for the lute had to be transcribe for the guitar. The lute pieces performed on a lute versus guitar sound quite different. Yet guitarists like John Williams seek to retain some of the ambience and texture when playing Bach’s lute pieces that is characteristic to the lute while also maximising the contribution that the guitar can make. There will be difference but also continuity in the relevant respects that render the guitar performance satisfying.

From this point of view it seems that the issue with contemporary, post-1950s performances and recordings of tango music is not that it couldn’t achieve the level of the canon, but rather that it does not even attempt to do so. This is for a number of the standard reasons. In some cases it simply moves on from the canon and seeks to innovate without continuity, as in the case of Piazzolla. Most tango orchestras ceased to play music for dancing and instead redirected their efforts toward listening audiences such that the music is no longer relevant to dancing at all. In many cases, the music was simply recorded for the purpose of producing a cleaner, more up-to-date sound using more modern recording studio equipment and clean sound without the noise and the scratches. What is also lacking, however, in such recordings is the ambience and texture which give canonical recordings a certain immediacy and warmth. We get a very sanitised and often compressed sound that is so characteristic of contemporary recordings in all genres. Finally, interpretation and feeling is replaced by mere technique and virtuosity that merely seeks to squeeze out emotional highs without really understanding the subtle aesthetic values in the music.

Conclusion

In order to develop critical appreciation of music we need to both know the history of art and view it as important and relevant today. Then through a method of comparing different works we can discern the extent to which they aim to achieve authentic, lasting, transcendent beauty, and also succeed in doing so. We can then try to identify the specific aspects of the art work that are operative in providing or failing to provide the experience beauty. Unfortunately, the contemporary discussions do not even attempt to do so, mainly because our schooling in art elevated modern and postmodern art which merely seeks to be ‘creative’, ‘original’, transgressive and interesting. This has resulted in the situation in which we have effectively lost the skills and the language that we need to critically assess the value of cultural products so that we can preserve what has value and improve on it without destroying it.

Notes

* This is a rough designation as there are some recordings up to 1953 by Biagi and Di Sarli that are included in the canon.

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