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 talking about  the question of Golden Era vs. post-1950s or modern tango music at mainstream milongas rather than that of electronic tango or non-tango music at tango nuevo events. The 1950s marks the transition from Golden Era tango recordings of tango dancing music to orcherstral recordings that were performed for a listening audience.* For the tango traditionalist the very concept of traditional Buenos Aires milonga culture is attached to the Golden Era music.

So the question arises what it is about these particular recordings that raises them to the status of canon that the more modern tango recordings are lacking? Why are post-50s recordings not allowed into the canon of traditional tango? This question is typically raised by those who view tango as a “living culture” which is continuously evolving, who therefore reject the idea that tango is defined by (what they view as) 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 reject the idea that 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.

We can distinguish 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 before 1960. For these people the 1950s is the end of ‘pre-history’, an era of chauvinistic semi-civilised Neanderthals, 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 instantaneously 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 cannot 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 current 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 bourgeois values. All culture prior to mid-20th century is viewed as tainted with oppressive bourgeois ideology 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 narrowing of discourse concerning cultural criticism. As has been noted by the Sir 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 necessitate 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 specific point in time in a specific place on specific instruments using specific sort of recording equipment. This recording will then be mastered in a specific sort of way by the recording engineer and finally it will be reproduced from a specific sort of recording medium on specific sort of audio equipment in a specific sort of space with specific acoustic properties. All of these aspects determine the final experience of the music being reproduced. 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 canonical is to say that it represents a 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 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 canonical recording will then be one that is representative of these aesthetic values and provide the highest 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 others. Given two or more recordings the listener will tend to prefer one over the other and so he will think about why that is.

In classical or pre-contemporary music the goal of art has always been 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 transcendental reality that offers consolation and satisfaction, but offers only transient, consumable feelings of pleasantness. 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 consumable 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 transcendental beauty in these compositions, and also had 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 ambitiously decided to learn Tarrega’s Capricio Arabe which is a classic composition 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 to express 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 re-arranged for the newer instrument. 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 the post-1950s performances and recordings of tango music is not that it couldn’t achieve the level of the canon but rather that they typically do not attempt to do so. This is for a number of reasons. In some cases such as Astor Piazzolla they move on from the canon and seek to innovate without continuity. Also, tango orchestras stopped playing music for dancing altogether and instead redirected their efforts toward listening audiences in the music hall, at home, on TV or the radio, so that the music was no longer relevant to dancing at all. In many cases the music was simply recorded or remastered for the purpose of producing a cleaner more up-to-date sound using more modern recording or mastering equipment. What is lacking, however, in such recordings is the ambience and texture which give canonical recordings their immediacy and warmth. We get a very sanitised sound with added reverb and compression that is so characteristic of contemporary recordings in all genres. Finally, and what is probably the main issue, the interpretation and feeling that you get in orchestras used to playing for live audiences that have to get people dancing is lost and replaced by the approach of the big concert orchestra whose task is to squeeze out emotional highs.

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 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.