Sex roles: is tango compatible with women’s empowerment

When tango emerged out of the primordial swamp the world was still in the grip of an oppressive patriarchy. It was an era of primitive practices such as religion, lifelong marriage, female modesty, enforced monogamy, and complementary sex roles: homemaker housewives and breadwinner husbands. After many millenia we are finally emerging out of the darkness into a brave new world of feminization which liberates us with atheism, equal partnerships, no-fault divorce, serial polygamy, career women, single mothers, government schooling, alimony, welfare and affirmative action. A fundamental social transformation which liberates women from their traditional roles at the cost of men (whose jobs and income must be sacrificed to the benefit of women who are not their wives) and the family (which must not impinge on state’s power to indoctrinate the new generation) is bound to have affected tango which is not a world unto itself and whose participants are bound to reflect in their behavior the norms of the new utopia.

The respective roles of the two partners in tango are not marginal to the practice. They reflect the place of sex roles in traditional society, the putative patriarchy. In traditional society men and women have always and everywhere occupied distinct and complementary roles. Men have been out in the world either hunting or, more recently, earning a living so as to provide for their family. To do so they had to exhibit skills and characteristics such as planning, goal-orientation, and rational decision-making as well as a natural sense of responsibility for their dependants. Women looked after the home and the children, for which the husband provides. In this world women have evolved to seek the protective male energy and the men to seek the nurturing female energy. These complementary roles are reflected in tango in which the woman lets the man lead and the man needs the woman to follow, and this complementarity of the roles and the provision of the respective type of energy offers much of the satisfaction of the dance.

In the new feminized society the two partners are equalized: men become more like women and women become more like men, that is, they both become more androgynous. Both sexes are expected to be able to fulfill both gender roles and this is supposed to be natural. True, men and women still dress differently, but this has become a merely external matter of fashion. gearjunkie_legacy_imagesThe urban lumberjack look with bushy beards, Timberland boots and flannel shirts no longer signal any corresponding masculine skill at physical labour such as chopping down trees or anything else for that matter. Hyper-feminine fashion with high heels, immaculate hair and copious amounts of makeup rarely signal actual feminine nurturing energy, which is instead expressed in a vacuous, narcissistic sassy attitude that men find superficially attractive but ultimately draining.

Although based in our basic nature the competent performance of sex roles does require preparation and training which the government schooling characteristically neglects or worse, actively discourages. The free expression of masculinity in boys is increasingly viewed as ‘toxic’, whereas girls are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and be more assertive.

Both sexes are to a certain extent capable of fulfilling both of the traditional roles: men can become more like women and fulfil the female role, and women can in times of need perform in male role. Men can learn to cook, clean and look after children, and in some cases they even dress and behave like women. Women can also work and provide for the family, have careers, and some girls who are tomboys even dress and act like boys.

Instead of viewing such behavioural plasticity as eccentric and marginal, radical feminists, SJWs and transgender activists draw a different conclusion: the sex differences between men and women are a mere social construct, a vestige of an oppressive patriarchal system of men’s power over women, gays, transsexuals, minorities, etc. Further, they insist that gender and sexuality are fluid and people can pick and choose their identity like fashion, as the mood suits them. Sexual identity is subjective and we see a proliferation of gender pronouns and other similar outrages.

Radical feminists view statistical differences in occupations or income levels not as caused by the differences in the choices that men and women make but the oppressive patriarchy whereby women and other oppressed groups (but mainly women) are prevented from career advancement by a ‘glass ceiling’, and are discouraged from going into certain professions by being saddled with artificial sex roles. Women who choose the traditional role of the housewife or caretaker are browbeaten for their complicity in the patriarchal oppression of their sisters.

So rather than allowing women to follow their natural preferences radical feminists reject that such preferences exist and instead attack traditionalist women who refuse to be competitive and career-seeking. time_newellemmettRadical feminism wants women to become more like men. The result is that we have a generation of women who are competitive but also unhappy, angry and aggressive. They often cannot easily compete against men who are naturally gifted—or perhaps encumbered—with high levels of testosterone, upper body strength, and an autistic persistence. But they are told that they ought to be as good as men at careers and various competitive pursuits. Denial of such differences leads to situations like transgender ‘women’ easily dominating female sports. Only people in deep denial, having been immersed in the ideology of radical feminism, could fail to see the obvious absurdity of what is being attempted.

Likewise the idea that same-sex tango dancing can be the same thing as traditional tango dancing can be entertained only by people who have been subjected to lifelong indoctrination into radical feminist ideology. The problem, however, is much deeper than that because the current generation of career women and compliant men have been subjected to decades of government schooling that seeks to erase sex differences and leaves them completely unprepared to perform these traditional roles. If tango depends on the ability to perform these roles within the dance then the new androgynous tango is a completely new type of practice. But as such it is unsatisfying if one comes to tango precisely because it offers the possibility of expressing one’s sex role.

Because the competitive career women do sometimes long to feel like women and likewise the compliant urban lumberjacks do sometimes want to be allowed to feel and act like men beyond mere external appearance. Unfortunately tango in itself cannot reverse feminist indoctrination and gender fluidity ideology. What you end up with is the shadow of tango: an egalitarian, androgynous dance in which the roles are performed as a mere formality. The assumption is that the partners are equal and the compliant men expect women to express themselves and compete.

In fact men express their protectiveness precisely by avoiding acting in an overtly protective way so as to not cramp the woman’s style and to ‘give her space’. Unencumbered by potential accusations of toxic masculinity female leaders lead in a way that women actually want men to do so, that is assertive and yet protective. Women are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and take the male role as men step aside. Given the background female empowerment ideology it is but a small step for these women to draw the conclusion that they must be naturally better leaders than men. Since men have learned over time that assertiveness and protectiveness on their part is essentially oppressive they can hardly be blamed for doing everything to avoid satisfying this need. The result is that on the contemporary feminized tango scene we see the shadow of the dance, failing to satisfy the very needs it would naturally meet.

Post Scriptum

Pointed commentary on vapid consumerism and fake musculinity of urban lumberjacks (and their causes) from Blue Collar Logic:

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Musicality: the connection of music and movement


The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga. … The music derived from the fusion of various forms of music from Europe.

Wikipedia entry on Tango

This month, our popular Musicality Workshop is back “Dance to D’Arienzo”.

Workshop announcement

Tango is a feeling.

Tango Teacher


Apart from the Female Technique Workshop another popular type of class one sees commonly advertised is the Tango Musicality Workshop. I don’t recall taking one of these but in those classes where the topic is the music one would expect to find the exhortation to listen to and to feel the music. I have serious doubts whether exhortations of this sort have much effect since there is no system for teaching how to feel the music if one doesn’t already. When there is an actual attempt at systematic teaching the focus is often on the different interpretation of different orchestras. These workshops are typically taught by dancers who have little or no knowledge of music beyond dancing to it: they neither play music, know any music theory nor have any knowledge of ethnomusicology. The standard ethnomusicological story is like that we see on the Wikipedia entry: tango spontaneously emerged out of a fusion of various European and African genres in the back streets of Buenos Aires due to the intermingling of European migrants and African slaves.

Occasionally one does see announcements of musicality workshops conducted by musicians who play tango. From what I see these go into technical detail that is more relevant to the craft of the musicians themselves rather than helping dancers interpret the music in their dancing. Instead of looking at the historical antecedents of the music and providing an understanding that helps dancers listen to it, interpret and be moved by it in their dancing, musicians are mainly concerned with the form of the musical score that is written down.

There is an apparently unbridgable divide between musically illiterate dancers and teachers on the one hand, and musicians on the other. The latter seem unable to communicate to dancers about music as it is related to dancing, that is, to movement and gesture. Workshops run by musicians seems to focus on music theory and the various aspects of the way tango compositions are organised, but do not put the music in any historical context to provide us with some understanding of its origins. Nor do they break down the music to those of its components that are relevant to movement and gesture. In fact, judging from the fact that most contemporary tango orchestras are play in a way that is either completely undanceable or at best barely danceable, it seems that contemporary tango musicians themselves have little to no understanding of the aspects of tango music relevant to dancing.

The apparent lack of serious inquiry in to the historical origins of tango seems to be due to the prevailing assumption that tango is sui generis so that it is neither necessary nor fruitful to inquire into the supposedly “dark” origins. This is surprising given its apparent sophistication and effectiveness in inviting movement. The reasoning seems to be that unlike the European tradition in which there are obvious and studied continuities from the Renaissance to Baroque, Classical and Modern periods, tango is more akin to the popular or Ethnic musical genres that spontanously emerge from the natural creativity of the common folk. This is largely a myth which has the unfortunate consequence of creating the sort of confusion and misunderstanding that propels the contemporary dancer into fallacies such as that tango is a ‘living’ culture that is constantly and randomly ‘evolving’ by adapting to the current circumstances.

The task of gaining a proper understanding of tango music is especially urgent for those who want to preserve traditional tango practice. It can be safely said that there is a general lack of understanding of music in general, and tango music in particular, among tango dancers as with the wider public. This lack of understanding means that people do lack the ability to listen to tango music and make informed judgements. It may be what is behind the many tango fads and kitsch ‘nuevo’ forms (see Beauty). If we could find a way of teaching people to understand the underlying structure of tango music and to appreciate it this would go a long way towards reinstituting the primacy of danceable traditional tango and thus reversing its degeneration into vacuous cliches that we see on the dancefloors of most milongas outside of Buenos Aires today.

One of the problems that we encounter here is a communication gap between those who understand music and those that they are trying to teach. Musicians are comfortable communicating to other musicians or to music students who are willing to invest time and effort into understanding the intricacies of music. However, the rule of pedagogy is that things need to be simplified to the level of the student so as to then bring the student up to a level where the knowledge gained is useful, as to do otherwise is to lose the student. Musicians tend not to understand this necessity to simplify in order to bring people along, the result being that musicality is taught by people whose background is studio dancing but who have inadequate understanding of music as a form that cannot be picked up in the dancing studio but that is written and has its own sort of structure.

Myths of diversity and popular culture

The cliches that we hear in Tango workshops and read online is that tango emerged in Buenos Aires in the latter part of the 19th century out of a mishmash of European and African genres, out of the intermingling of immigrant workers from Europe with African slaves practicing Condombe rituals, in the back streets and the brothels of Buenos Aires. It gives the impression of a cultural form emerging sponteously out of the creative spirit of the lowest strate of society generating something truly spectacular and transformative.

This idea of emergence may sound plausible to those who are exposed to the fads of Western pop and rock music that apparently create something novel every decade. In fact, pop is based on an extremely limited musical vocabulary and what makes up for this poverty is the addition of an ostinato rhythm added by the drum kit or electronic drum machine. This phenomenon, which causes the addiction of the mass of consumers of pop and rock is quite new in music. Prior to pop, rhythm emerges out of the music itself rather than being added externally by the drum kit. As Roger Scruton points out in Understanding Music, without this external addition, much of pop would lack its impact. Scruton writes:

There is an extreme case of ostinato phenomenon, in which rhythm seems to become detached from harmonic and melodic organization, so as to be fired at them from outside, as it were. I refer to rhythmic ‘backing’, as exemplified by a certain style of pop.

To see how the ostinato rhythm is external to much pop music compare Genesis “No Son Of Mine” (1991) with an ‘acoustic’ version (here and here) struggles to maintain the momentum generated by the drumkit in the original. When played on acoustic guitar with no drums at all much of the impact of the original version is lost and the result is a rather low energy song.

The apparent novelty in pop music generally is spurious, as the songs are built around rather short chord progressions repeated cyclically with little internal rhythm generated melodically or harmonically but imposed by an artificial beat. The reality is that music of any sophistication or complexity is a fairly technical skill that is hardly the domain of the poor and the illiterate. Most complex musical genres emerged over extended periods of time passed on from one generation to the next. Music that requires any sort of orchestration, ie., that has several musicians playing different instruments playing in concert has to be written down. It is more likely that, as with the various forms of rock music, novely involves several variations within a genre are created, much as funk and RnB are variation on jazz.

While it is common to find today many musicians who play in rock or pop bands who do not know how to read music or know music theory, this is possibly only because much contemporary music is a variation on the blues, that is, they use a standardised cycle of basic chords (either triads, power chords or 7th’s). Tango music, especially the danceable variety, is more complex. While Carlos Gardel might have run through a chord progression on his guitar while he sang, a tango formation of four or more instruments playing for dancing is already a complex affair that is unlikely to have spontanously and organically emerged out of the back streets of a port city. It is much more likely that, as rock is but a variation on the 12 bar blues, tango is a local variation on a more permanent tradition that has a longer and wider span.

The view currently in fashion is influenced by a sort of relativist anthropology, emphasising diversity rather than commonality, seeking to find the ‘roots’ in the oppressed underclasses rather than privileged culture. My view, by contrast, is that music of any complexity involves cumulative development and technical training of some sort and is unlikely to emerge spontanously out of an illiterate oppressed underclass. We are not talking here about banging out a rhythm with a couple of sticks. The building and playing of instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and bandoneons demand sophisticated technical skills and materials that do not come easily and cheaply. I suspect that the idea that illiterates can play tango music is significantly due to the fact that a lot of modern music such as rock seems to be played by semi-literates. But as I said, much of modern ‘guitar’ music is based on the 12-bar blues and most 12 year olds can learn to play a blues tune in a handful of lessons, after that it’s all pretty much the same.

The standard sort of anthropological readings of the history of tango are politically correct in that the current academic fashion is to stress the lowly origins for popular culture, diversity, difference from the formal European tradition, and the transgressive aspect whereby these forms challenge the mainstream or acceptable culture, where white Europeans intermingle with dark women in seedy locales. Thus, a reviewer of Chasteen’s 2004 book “National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance” writes that:

Dance could unite people across boundaries of class, race, and – since the dances under study are couples dances – obviously gender. Yet precisely because popular dance ruptured those boundaries, elites, the state, and the Church all considered dances with African cultural influence transgressive to the social, political and sexual order of things. … Chasteen argues that the story of transgressive popular dance is one of race mixing, a reason official culture so long opposed it. Indeed Chasteen posits that Church and state never succeeded in repressing transgressive dances since powerful men enjoyed the “privileged sexual access to poorer, darker women” (p. 204). The full extent of the sexual politics …

We can see how these sorts of narratives are spun by academics following the current fashion in political correctness and ‘radical discourses’, with plenty of ‘transgression’ and ‘oppression’ to get the book accepted by academic publishers and ultimately to be ordered by dance departments and paid for by university libraries. In other words, in the present climate of academic ‘culture studies’ this is the kind of thing you need to say for the book to be accepted by predominantly female, leftist, probably lesbian and certainly radical feminist dance department and sociology academics: a narrative of the ‘appropriation’ of exotic African cultures and ‘oppression’ of poor dark women by powerful white men.

It’s all very exotic, radical and titilating, but whether there is any truth to it or not (which is questionable) pretty much useless from the point of view of a person wishing to learn how to dance tango as a form of self-improvement and personal development. On the contrary, I suggest that the understanding of tango in terms of the evolution of the structure of tango music, rather than giving us spontaneous diversity of local musical forms, provides us with an understanding of what they have in common and the connection between them. While perhaps less radical and titilating, and more boring and bland, showing connections and continuities with established mainstream culture provides, in my view, a more useful way into the form for the student.

The basis of danceable tango: the habanera rhythm

I suggest that tango is actually a part of the evolution of partner dances that can be traced all the way back to British country dance in the Renaissance. My suggestion is, instead of reading the standard ‘radical’ accounts of the origins of tango in the back streets of Buenos Aires, a better way to gain insight into the origins and structure of tango music is to read the Wikipedia article on the Cuban Contradanza, subsequently known as Habanera. Cuban Habanera is the key point of connection between the English country dance and European contradanse on the one hand, and Tango and the other latin folk dances on the other. The key contribution that Habanera makes to European contradanse is the addition of an African rhythm.

I propose that in order to understand the basic rhythmic structure of tango we need to trace it back to its roots in the habaneira rhythm and to understand (i) what the habaneira rhythm is, (ii) what are its varieties, (iii) where it originates, and (iv) how it influences dances such as tango. In addressing these questions in the simplest way possible my primary source for the time being is going to be Wikipedia. So I will cite the Wikipedia entry on Contradanza and insert my comments. The roots of tango trace back to English country dance, subsequently known as Contradanza. Wikipedia informs us as follows:

Contradanza (also called contradanza criolla, danza, danza criolla, or habanera) is the Spanish and Spanish-American version of the contradanse, which was an internationally popular style of music and dance in the 18th century, derived from the English country dance and adopted at the court of France. Contradanza was brought to America and there took on folkloric forms that still exist in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Ecuador. In Cuba during the 19th century it became an important genre, the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African rhythm pattern and the first Cuban dance to gain international popularity, the progenitor of danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha, with a characteristic “habanera rhythm” and sung lyrics.Outside Cuba the Cuban contradanza became known as the habanera – the dance of Havana – and that name was adopted in Cuba itself subsequent to its international popularity in the later 19th century, though it was never so called by the people who created it.

So here we can see that what became known as the Habanera in the 19th century was derived from the English country dance that traces back to the Reneissance and contradanse of the Baroque period. This form subsequently became rhythmically based on an African rhythm in Cuba and came to be known as Habanera which forms the basis for many folk dances in South America. Let us continue:

The contradanza was popular in Spain and spread throughout Spanish America during the 18th century. According to musicologist Peter Manuel, it may be impossible to resolve the question of the contradanza’s origin, as it has been pointed out by Cuban musicologist Natalio Galán in humoristically labeling the genre as “anglofrancohispanoafrocubano” (English-French-Spanish-African-Cuban).

The most conventional consensus in regard to the origin of this popular Cuban genre was established by novelist Alejo Carpentier, in his book from 1946 “La Música en Cuba.” In that book he proposes a theory that signals the French contredance, supposedly introduced in Cuba by French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803), as the prototype for the creation of the creolized Cuban Contradanza. However, according to other important Cuban musicologists, such as Zoila Lapique and Natalio Galan, it is quite likely that the Contradanza had been introduced to Havana directly from Spain, France or England several decades earlier.

The earliest Cuban contradanza of which a record remains is “San Pascual Bailón”, which was written in 1803. Certain characteristics would set the Cuban contradanza apart from the contredanse by the mid-19th century, notably the incorporation of the African cross-rhythm called the tresillo. The habanera rhythm can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.

The basic habanera rhythm is most familiar from Bizet’s Carmen. It is made up of a Tresillo as demonstrated in the following visualisation:

This basic rhythm gives tango music the swing that invites people to dance. Play the same tango more legato and it becomes listening music. This is the reason the post-1950 tango recordings that are predominantly arranged for the listening audience are not danceable. In the same vein, you can not dance to traditional tango unless you are able to hear and respond to the underlying swing of the habanera rhythm, or more specifically, the Tresillo beat, that is implicit in all danceable tangos. Conversely, once you are able to discern this rhythm dancing to traditional tango becomes fairly straightforward.

Below are some more videos with examples of the Habanera rhythm as well as some discussion of the rhythm in relation to tango. Unfortunately the latter are all in Spanish with no available subtitles.

The Wikipedia article on Contradanza tells us that the habanera rhythm’s time signature is 2/4. An accented upbeat in the middle of the bar lends power to the habanera rhythm. This can be written as follows:

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This rhythm can be heard in the bass line of these examples of habanera. In the first set of examples we can hear how the habenra rhythm is incorporated into what is otherwise Eurpean music by the Cuban composer Manuel Saumell (1818-70) who was trained and workded in Havana and was one of the first to introduce Cuban folkloric musical styles to a classically-grounded genre. In the first interpretation we can hear a transition from what sounds like European dancing music to distinctly Cuban habanera when the double bass and shaker comes in with the habenera rhythm:

In the following sample the piano plays the habenera rhythm with the left hand which gives the pieces a swing:

The  bassline in the following samples sounds very close to Bizet’s Carmen:

Wikipedia:

Syncopated cross-rhythms called the tresillo and the cinquillo, basic rhythmic cells in Afro-Latin and African music, began the Cuban dance’s differentiation from its European form. … This pattern is heard throughout Africa, and in many Diaspora musics, known as the congo, tango-congo, and tango. … The syncopated rhythm may be vocalised as “boom…ba-bop-bop”, and “da, ka ka kan.” It may be sounded with the Ghanaian beaded gourd instrument axatse, vocalized as: “pa ti pa pa”, beginning on the second beat so that the last “pa” coincides with beat one, ending on the beginning of the cycle so that the part contributes to the cyclic nature of the rhythm . . . Carpentier (2001:149) states that the cinquillo was brought to Cuba in the songs of the black slaves and freedmen who emigrated to Santiago de Cuba from Haiti in the 1790s . . .

Contradanza subsequently formed the basis for variations in Cuba and elsewhere, such as danza habanera, danzon and danza:

although the contradanza and danza were musically identical, the dances were different . . . A danza entitled “El Sungambelo”, dated 1813, has the same structure as the contradanza – the four-section scheme is repeated twice, ABAB (Santos 1982) and the cinquillo rhythm can already be heard.

Habera rhythm in tango

The habanera rhythm forms the basis of the early tango and continues in some form throughout:

The Argentine milonga and tango makes use of the habanera rhythm of a dotted quarter-note followed by three eighth-notes, with an accent on the first and third notes. To some extent the habanera rhythm is retained in early tangos, notably El Choclo and “La Morocha” (1904). . . .

In 1883 Ventura Lynch, a student of the dances and folklore of Buenos Aires, noted the milonga was “so universal in the environs of the city that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (bailecitos de medio pelo), and … has also been taken up by the organ-grinders, who have arranged it so as to sound like the habanera dance. It is danced in the low life clubs . . .

Here is an example of a habanera El pañuelo de Pepa by Manuel Saumell we can almost hear a danceable milonga in the bassline, played either by the Viola in the first video, the left hand on the piano, or the guitar playing the rhythm in the trio in the second video below:

 

What is interesting is that the 1-2 pulse of the milonga emerges out of the more complex habanera rhythm which can be counted 1 and-2-and 1 and etc.

Conclusion

To summarise, musicality workshops that focus on different tango orchestras, taught by studio teachers who merely point out how they interpret a given piece of music or orchestra, cannot teach students how to listen to music. On the other hand, while musicians understand technical aspects of music, are often unable to explain how this relates to music. An additional barrier to understanding tango music is the fact that most people nowadays are exposed to pop music which does not demans active listening and which generates energy and drive through the addition of a loud drum beat that is external to the music itself, such that without this external beat the music itself has little drive or energy. When there is no drumming learners are lost as to how to hear the underlying beat or pulse of the music. Finally, adding to the confusion is a faux anthropology that insists that tango music was created by the lower classes in Buenos Aires.

The proper approach that I propose is one that is historical and musicological. That is, it exhibits tango in its proper historical context as historically derived from Habaneira, which forms the pivotal connection between European Contradanza on the one hand, and Argentine milonga and tango on the other. When we recognise this important historical contuity we can start learning to learn to listen to tango music in an intelligent, informed manner, and thus to start to understand it. We can understand how the different tango compositions are elaborations and layerings on a basic theme of the Habaneira, and how it is this basic theme that provides the driving energy that invites and sustains our movement. Thus, a proper historical and musicological understanding is the necessary basis of education in musicality for tango and a foundation for further study of individual tango orchestras.

TangoVoice

Here you will find my replies to the discussion on TangoVoice which are being censored by the owner without his or her notification as of mid-2018. TangoVoice apparently did not censor any discussion until the issue became hypergamy and misandry in women. Below are my responses that are being censored.

Sacred and profane values in the postmodern world

Currently it is possible to say that there are two sorts of Argentine tango. One is the milongas in Buenos Aires that maintain the traditions of tango. The other are the milongas outside of Buenos Aires that are primarily commercial outfits. Whether or not they promote themselves as traditional and are operated by Argentines, the latter are fundamentally oriented to commercialising cultural product and seem to inevitably downgrade the value of the tango experience. Traditionalists insist that tango cannot be commodified and commercialised.

In the modern world traditional values are being replaced by instrumental values. These two sorts of values are fundamentally different. Instrumental values are concerned with means to ends. I have a goal and see something as a means to an end. When I learn to dance I must view learning and dancing as a means, as instrumental, to some further ends. Ultimate values, on the other hand, are concerned with the ends that we are ultimately aiming for. There must therefore be a disagreement about the ends of dancing tango between the traditionalists and the consumers of tango outside of Argentina.

When one looks at much of the marketing for tango on the internet the images resemble that of ballroom and club dances. The dancers are cool, fit and sexy, wearing cool and sexy outfits, engaging in a fun and exciting activity. These images reflect contemporary culture which has dispensed with ultimate values in favour of short-term hedonistic gratification. There is no attempt to achieve the sort of experience of transcendent beauty that was the end of art until about a hundred years ago. Instead, music and dance aim only to provide entertainment.

There is, however, a difference between art and entertainment. The philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton tells us that the goal of art is beauty and that we need beauty to make life worth living. If we only ever experience mood lifting entertainment we will in the end feel spiritually depleted. Therefore, people came to the view that art has a spiritual function to put us in touch with beauty that transcends ordinary reality and is thus redeeming.

Commodifying a form like tango must therefore inevitably involve corrupting it in one way or another. It requires appealing to our lower instincts. It requires the product of kitsch art which provides immediate gratification but only by producing feelings and experiences that are inauthentic. The problem is that, because beauty is no longer valued in culture generally, we have lost the ability to evaluate critically the products of the mass culture industry. The education system no longer teaches the history of art other than in order to contrast it with the achievements of modern and post-modern art that no longer aims at beauty, but merely at novelty, creativity and being interesting, at ‘deconstructing’ ordinary reality in order to desecrate it.

Because so much of contemporary culture is oriented towards this sort of desecration, those who have been immersed in postmodern education, that is, the mainstream, government education, have no way of understanding what traditionalists are talking about when they insist that there are certain ultimate values. It is extremely difficult to critically unpack the aesthetic values in cultural products like music, painting, architecture or dancing. Modern architecture is invariably ugly and dehumanising, and yet it’s not obvious why. Contemporary music is dumbed down and degenerate and yet we have lost the ability to explain why we should prefer something else.

The traditional practitioners of Argentine tango are therefore not alone but share this difficulty with conservatives in the other spheres of culture, in music, art and architecture. All of modern (or postmodern) culture is set against tradition, viewing it as an expression of an oppressive patriarchal system that needs to be abolished in favour of a new utopia that dispenses with beauty and instead is constantly creative. It views the function of art to desecrate, to show what is ultimate and beautiful as being really kitsch and ugly, and instead to elevate what is ugly or ordinary to the status of art and culture. In such a culture insisting on traditional values and pointing to the beauty of a practice that ought to be preserved will variably draw derision and contempt. In short, contemporary postmodern culture is an inversion of culture as it was even up to the early 20th century, and therefore it is no longer possible for people immersed in it to comprehend those earlier values because postmodern education has transformed and inversed language and the values.

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.