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.
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. 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 exposed to postmodernist forms of 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 traditionalists and conservatives in all the other spheres of culture, in music, art and architecture. All of 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 inevitably draw derision and contempt.
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.
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.
* This is a rough designation as there are some recordings up to 1953 by Biagi and Di Sarli that are included in the canon.
I was just admiring how its done to the highest level: nobody got hurt, everybody had space, nobody passed the couple in front, not one boleo, not one gancho, …. And yet – sooo beautiful!
Facebook user comment on a Youtube video of a tango competition
It is common to find people make aesthetic judgements on social media about some people’s tango dancing. Such statements typically have the character of subjective affirmations. It’s difficult to argue with such statements as aesthetic judgements are notoriously difficult to render objective. Sometimes there are reasons given for preferring a particular style of dancing pointing to some objectively verifiable aspects such as absence boleos and ganchos. Then in response one can point out that in fact there are more than one boleo, and while there are no ganchos (which are not done in Salon Style Tango) most of the boleos are high:
These couples have a good amount of space which cannot be taken for granted at a crowded milonga or small venue, so that the length of their steps is not viable. The men’s backward steps, the extending of the leg backwards for a period of time, or the wide low boleos, would all create high risk situations in a social dancing context. These factors would create a sense of risk and tension among the dancers, and therefore provide a poor model for social dancing, for example, for those reading the Facebook post who take it as an informed judgement by someone who is in position to make such judgements, and so use these dancers as a model of competent social dancing.
Arguments about etiquette and the safe way to dance are kind of boring and so not all that effective in getting people to have second thoughts about dancing this way at milongas. What is more difficult but perhaps more interesting are judgements about what is beautiful. This is probably more effective in convincing people to go one way or the other. Yet the aesthetic response is viewed as essentially subjective and personal: we generally assume the truth of de gustibus non est disputandum, that there is no accounting for taste, that beauty is the eye of the beholder. How can I argue with the sentiment expressed in “And yet – sooo beautiful”. That’s a gut feeling of this person who affirms this dancing as of “the highest level”.
Perhaps at some time I would have shared this sentiment, or perhaps my response would be undecided, of the sort “It looks pretty, but does that represent what tango is really about?” We do not always automatically assume that our immediate emotional or aesthetic responses are always to be trusted, that they might not dupe us into following something false, insincere, or fake. Just because something tastes good does not mean that it is good for us. So in situations in which we do not trust our own judgement we judiciously fall on the verdict of informed authorities or critics. The problem is that in the arena of culture and art the critics have eschewed beauty as mere kitsch, as inauthentic clichés, and have instead opted for abstraction and originality. So for many people, aesthetic judgements have come to mean uninformed gut responses and the rule of the majority of the consumers on the market place, as in the case of Pop music.
And yet we do know that people who have some basic knowledge of music, that is, how music is constructed or composed, it’s grammar so to speak, the basics of harmony, rhythm, interpretation, do not automatically share the positive evaluation of the products of the music industry. They see through the tricks and hooks that are used to get the masses addicted to the likes of Lady Gaga, and recognise that contemporary music appeals to our lower instincts, is dumbed down, and makes us correspondingly dumber. Knowledge of music makes them more informed judges of its quality and value. While institutional music critics have come to reject tonal music in favour of abstract atonality, unlike in the art world, their influence is more limited due to the fact that most people could not sit through more than 20 minutes of such a performance.
So how could we go about evaluating the aesthetic value, the beauty, of tango dancing? I believe that anyone with sufficient experience of dancing tango will eventually come to the view that the beauty of tango dancing resides in part in the embrace understood as the couple being open to (rather than from) the other and fully embracing each other. It does not reside in the sort of mechanical embrace in which the couple merely touches each other at the fingertips, as a sort of mechanical support for the execution of one’s footwork and decorations, where the man is merely a sort of mobile wall for her ochos and firuletos, and the woman a sort of mobile chair for his sacadas.
We can see immediately, if we bother to look, whether a couple is focused on the embrace and moving in the embrace, or whether the dancers are focused on executing their foot routine and merely using the embrace as a supporting frame. This is not to say that there isn’t a mechanical or technique aspect to the embrace, but rather that this aspect must open the way into openness and active engagement with the other, without which the dance is really nothing more than the mechanical execution of technique. If the goal is the execution of set patterns, then that technique is always compromised in order to facilitate the footwork, and so there is a constant tendency in the direction of the fingertip embrace or worse, opening up completely and even going so far as doing a Salsa turn in order to dissipate the tension building up in the arms.
Second, the beauty of tango dancing resides in an immediate response to the music. Tango music, in particular the Golden Era recordings that are used at traditional milongas, is an aesthetic achievement and our dancing is both an aesthetic response and a creation. So we have to understand tango dancing as comprising an element of listening and responding to music. Again, we can see immediately if we bother to look what the couple hears or fails to hear in the music.
There are two ways to experience music. Nowadays the predominant manner of experiencing music is in the form of background noise or musac: in the supermarket, the elevator, or blaring into our earphones while we are busily distracted with things like shopping or eating. We rarely actually attend to the music and its various elements. Prior to the age of musical reproduction and ubiquitous audio devices people rarely heard music and when they did it was probably by sitting and listening to it, giving it a significant amount of their attention. In the era of ubiquitous music we have learned not to attend to music but simply to consider it as background noise. When we watch a tango performance we are mesmerised by the visual image of dancers in making loud moves and wearing equally loud costumes.
As neuroscience tells us, human cognition is characterised by a limited processing capacity at any given moment, and also the predominance of vision. Since the brain cannot process more than one thing at a time there is little mental space left to actually process the sound. We see the lovely shoes, dresses and tuxedos, and the whole thing roughly coheres with the background sound blaring out of the speakers, and we emit the gut response that it’s all “so beautiful”. The question is whether this is not equivalent of the sort of uninformed gut-level response one might have to Lady Gaga.
So what happens if we self-consciously ignore the tango dresses, expensive shoes, tuxedos, and workshop moves, and instead focus attention on the music itself, and then use that to evaluate the dancing as a response to the music? This cognitive technique changes the ‘framing’ of our perception and so will likely offer an alternative Gestalt. The frame of reference will no longer the superficial and less significant aspects of dancing such as dress and show moves, but more essential elements such as the music and movement as a response to the music.
I want to point to certain aspects of tango music that it shares with most tonal music that would be apparent to anyone who has some knowledge of musical composition, and that should influence how we respond to it in our dancing. In most Western music—pop, rock, hip hop, blues, as well as tango—there will be some parts of the overall sound which are low middle or high. Different instruments occupy different range on the scale from low to high. Monophonic instruments such as the double bass or the cello will play the low-end, violin or flute will be at the top-end. Polyphonic instruments such as piano, guitar or bandoneon can play over the whole range.
The different part of the tonal spectrum is associated with different musical functions. In many types of music such as rock, pop also tango the low-end and mid-range section keeps the rhythm, that is plays in such a way that supports the melodic playing of the high-end. So the rhythm section (usually the double bass, piano and bandoneon) and will usually play more staccato, that is, the rhythm will be tight and the notes will be short and separated. Also, the low end notes provide more of the feel of the music and often drive our movement more as can be seen from the fact that a lot of dance music comprises of a heavy bass. At the same time, these notes are more felt than heard, that is, you have to attend to them to consciously hear them.
A rhythm section (also called a backup band) is a group of musicians within a music ensemble or band who provide the underlying rhythm, harmony and pulse of the accompaniment, providing a rhythmicand harmonic reference and “beat” for the rest of the band. (Wikipedia)
The piano, bass, and drums comprise the rhythm section; their primary role is to accompany and provide support for the horn players as well as each other; they may also improvise solos. The pianist’s primary job is to play chords (the music that accompanies the melodies) in a lively, rhythmic fashion. (www.jazzinamerica.org)
Instruments such as violins, trumpets and also the high-range of polyphonic instruments (piano, bandoneon, guitar) play the melodic parts and will often play more legato, ie., the notes are long and connected, and also they will often play tempo rubato, ie., the notes will stretch time rather than keeping a strict rhythm.
We are more consciously aware of the high-end melodic section because it pops out whereas low-end is more felt than heard. But because its various characteristics, the high-end section is not typically ideal for constructing a dance because they will usually play more notes, giving the impression that the beat it faster than it actually is, and also because they do not usually keep a strict time. Lets say the rhythmic instruments (double bass, left hand of the piano and low end of the bandoneon) are playing a strict rhythm of four quarter notes per bar, whereas the high end (violins, high end of bandoneon, etc.) is playing high 16th notes interspersed with ample amounts of legato interpretations. Well, if you want to impress the onlookers who are consciously aware of the high-end you would probably follow that and pull out fast moves and smooth turns to squeeze out every ounce of passionate energy out of the melody line.
However, the rhythm section is not there merely as a sort of background that can be dispensed with. It is in fact the grounding that holds everything together, supporting the melody and allowing it to reach those highs. Connecting your dancing in the rhythmic low-end provides your dance with stability and grounding that helps to establish the connection to your partner and gives you control on the dancefloor.
Of course, the different aspects will be emphasised to different degrees. In tango, a composition will leave it open to interpretation of the particular orchestra to play the composition more stoccato or legato, and it is the balance between the two polarities that provides for much of the feel, tone or character of the particular recording.
When we become aware that the music has this structure and these elements, we can discern whether a couple is responding to the staccato, legato or rubato aspects of the music. Are they listening to the singer or the violins stretching out the notes with smooth turns or pauses, or are they responding to the bass and piano with their stoccato knocking out the rhythm. The music will differ in terms of the openness of different interpretations. If you are dancing to Biagi most of that will be stoccato so that dancing smoothly and pausing will feel strange. It would be equally strange to dance staccato to Di Sarli’s Dancehall Instrumentals. If you’re dancing to D’Agostino there will be more room for alternative interpretations and more variety.
From this point of view, tango dancing must consist of the ability to respond to the music, to be open to the music and what the music makes available. Instead, what we get in these tango competitions is a repetitive, smooth running through the walks and turns. When the dancers depart from smooth dancing, it seems to be mostly at those high points when the bandoneon plays a dense set of high 16th notes and the dancers do a set of fast stepping turns. Uninformed audiences see this as an exhibition of great skill, and in a sense it is that. The problem is that it is a skill at show dancing which is essentially inauthentic and, I would argue, therefore kitsch. As such it does not express any ideals that we ought to aspire to.
The social aspect
Finally, the beauty of tango resides in the social aspect. When we dance socially we do not dance as a lone couple but with other couples. In these competitions there are several couples on the dance floor,but the manner of their dancing is as if they were there alone, dancing independently of the others. They do not cohere as a group of dancers moving independently but in an emergent manner also in sync with each other, but instead are literally in competition with each other. The purpose of social dancing, and therefore the beauty ideally inherent in it, is the convivial atmosphere that is created by the people who know, trust and harmonise with each other. When that is lacking, what is left is the abstract beauty of the steps and figures that elicit an inauthentic emotion in the audience which, I would suggest, is the definition not of beauty but of kitsch.
A. In Buenos Aires traditional milongas only play Golden Era tango music.
B. Why be so prescriptive? People can dance to whatever music they like.
Insisting on using only music from the Golden Era organised in a particular way apparently seems to lack any justification. Those who insist on following a particular canon risk being viewed as being merely dogmatically adhering to tradition and resisting progress. After all, we are dealing with musical tastes and there is no accounting for taste. If people today dance to non-traditional tango music what might be the grounds for criticising this? It’s all tango music after all.
Even those who do insist on a particular sort of traditional music take a self-consciously relativist stance and say that traditional milongas play this sort of music, and that this music is preferred by a particular group of people, namely, the traditionalists, and they have a right to hold on to their traditions. In other words, we are dealing with a particular ‘form of life’, a particular group of people in a particular period of time who have a particular set of musical preferences. There seems, however, no way of justifying why this set of preferences should be in any way better than non-traditional ways of doing things. Nonetheless it does seem that those who defend the traditional tango music feel that the traditional way of doing things is somehow correct, and that the innovations are somehow worse, but there seems to be no way of expressing or articulating the reasons for this feeling other than to say that this is not our tango or how we do it, or how it’s traditionally been done.
Perhaps we can view the situation in tango as just a special case of the wider phenomenon of the difficulty associated with the criticism of contemporary music, and of art more generally. Many people feel that contemporary music is degraded and in fact worse than older styles of music, and that contemporary art is no longer really art, in particular, it is not beautiful or dignifying but is ugly, puzzling, kitsch and often enough degrading and disgusting. Yet the critics appear to endorse this art and so it fills up museums and commands high prices. Although there is still a distinction between pop music and classical music, contemporary classical music that is being funded by state agencies is atonal music that few people actually want to listen to. Again, critics have come out against tonal music as full of clichés and therefore no longer art and found a way of justifying the funding, composing and performing music that no one wants to listen to. The question is whether these wider developments in contemporary culture have any relation to the increasing presence of non-traditional tango music and non-tango music at milongas, and what it can tell us about its effects.
The philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton has written several books on art and music, addressing questions of cultural criticism. I believe that his writings are very relevant to the issues in tango, and I want to draw attention to a number of points on which his ideas can illuminate the discussion. He asserts that much of what passes for culture today is a culture of ‘fakes’ or ‘kitsch’, that is, a culture of fake emotions. Art and culture, he says, has throughout history provided a source of truth and meaning, and of authentic feeling. At a certain stage, however, people have noticed that certain artists produce works that play on our emotions in an inauthentic way, that the emotions that are elicited in us are somehow fake. The term kitsch from Yiddish came to be used to refer not merely to cheap decorations that produce a transient consumable emotional response of the sort characteristic of Disney characters but also of putative works of art that only succeed by producing false, inauthentic emotions. Scruton follows Plato in the view that art succeeds when it is able to idealise beauty and make it transcendent. Art should aim to present us with transcendent meanings and ultimate values that are beyond mere utility of transient consummable feelings.
We can understand modern art and its rejection of beauty as a reaction against kitsch and cliché, and insistence that a work of art must present us with a new way of seeing things. Modern and postmodern art rejects beauty as a source of false emotion, hence as kitsch, and instead emphasises novelty, originality and transgression. In a reaction against cliche and mere technique, now to create a work of art you need to do something completely new that has never been done. As Scruton points out that in reaction against repetition and cliche contemporary art has in fact produced an endless set of clichés. In reacting against cliches and repetition art schools have merely succeeded in producing and endless set of cliches: artworks today are really just an endless variation on Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Parallel developments are seen in classical music where tonality has been declared obsolete and atonality as the only way forward irrespective of whether people want to listen to atonal music or not.
On the other hand, in the realm of consumable pop music the degradation of taste and general dumbing down of the consumer has not escaped any intelligent observer. The music is now electronically produced, with repetitive catchy beat, dumbed down lyrics and ever simpler melody. As Scruton remarks, in the song “Poker Face” Lady Gaga mostly sings in a single note. Scruton argues that people are dimly aware that pop is dumbed down and is not really all that good for them but they can’t really say why. He suggests that one way to helping young people to learn to understand music is to teach them to play a musical instrument. They then can start developing a way of talking about music. I have noticed that at milongas which play particularly bad music, the participants seem not hear the music at all. The music seems to be just background noise that vaguely coordinates their movements but often enough they hardly respond to it in their dancing. When asked typically they have absolutely nothing to say about it.
Scruton’s point is that people do make judgements about music even in the case of Pop, it’s just that they are the wrong ones. One typically needs to have some way of thinking about music by way of a comparison. There must also be the idea that listening to bad music is literally bad for you and that listening to good music is good for you, that what you listen to has consequences for learning and state of mind, eg., that it succeeds or fails in satisfying our needs beyond the transient feeling. One does come across people who play classical music who nonetheless hold that same belief that music is just a consumer choice, that is, who refrain from making judgements, and implicitly do not see that the experience of music really matters. Classical to them is just as valid as pop.
One sees this at outdoor music concerts where people come with picnic food and wine to listen to a symphony pumped through large speakers in sub-optimal listening conditions, distracted by the cheese, crackers, drink and conversation. Although this is putatively classical music, it is hardly a case of sustained, focused listening that is required to actively engage with the work. In some places people regularly check phone messages during a performance. Clearly, while playing an instrument and attending classical concerts can provide with a way of becoming more articular and intelligent about music and making judgements about music, there are attendant beliefs about listening and its significance, namely, you need to take it seriously as a source of authentic feeling and not merely view it as another consumer choice.
It seems to me that many, perhaps most, people who come to tango are sort of like the musicians and audiences of classical music who view it as merely another consumer choice. They might feel that it is somehow ‘better’, that is, classical music is better than pop, or tango music is better than other latin music, or traditional tango is better than non-traditional tango, and they might even be able to provide some reasons. They would nonetheless struggle to move beyond mere cultural relativism or personal taste in justifying a taste for this rather than that. They still do not view the music as a source of authentic feeling which is intrinsically more satisfying and transcendent. For it is this move that is required in order to be able to say that the difference is that between art and kitsch, between authentic and fake feeling, between ultimate and utilitarian values. Without that distinction we are merely dealing with different consumer choices. This seems to be the current state of tango: it has been turned into a market of consumable fake emotions.
So in order to justify preference for Golden Era music over non-traditional tango music, other than on either culturally relative grounds or in terms of mere personal choice, one must say that traditional tango music is a source of authentic feeling and aesthetic experience in a way that non-traditional tango music is not. This requires on the one hand some understanding of how music is constructed in terms of rhythm and tonality, and on the other hand the idea that there is a difference between art and kitsch, between authentic and fake emotions, and that this difference is important. You may understand music and say why Lady Gaga is not as good as Wagner, but still not see why that is important, so that you go Wagner’s concerts and view that as a mere personal preference and consumer choice rather than as a source of transcendental experience and authentic emotion, so that you’re just as satisfied with a symphony in the park with ample quantities of white wine. Scruton points to opera producers who do a postmodern take on the material. Presumably these people understand music and how it works and they proceed to desecrate it nonetheless.
So there are two elements that seem to be necessary in order to resist the onslaught of kitsch in tango: informed judgement and consecration. You need to have some way of thinking about the material, a basic vocabulary about music and a systematic method of some sort. Also, you must see its importance as a source of authentic or fake feeling, as sacred or sacrilegious, as real or fake, as art or kitsch. The assumption must be that there is such a thing as the sacred and the experience of the sacred. That is, one must reject the cynical view of art as essentially an expression of originality and novelty through transgression and therefore as proceeding by way of desecration. Also, while kitsch objects such as plastic statues of saints common among the Catholics can be imbued with sacred meaning, art succeeds in creating a language to communicate the transcendent experience of the sacred that has appeal beyond the simple devotee. In other words, we must assume that the experience of the sacred is real and important, and that there is a medium through which we can experience the sacred, and that is the medium of art.
While it is not easy to articulate exactly which elements in art allow it to be a source of authentic meaning and emotion, a comparative method offers a systematic way of trying figure out what these elements might be. Scruton employs this method to discuss the difference between classical and modern architecture, and by virtue of what design elements the former succeeds and the latter fails to provide buildings that serve as desirable living spaces, the use of vertical vs. horizontal elements. This comparative method can be used to similar effect in isolating the effective elements that provide for success or failure in art, music and dance. We may ask how tango music of the different periods differs, which feelings it arouses, what makes it more or less successful, authentic or fake. Similarly, we may compare different ways of dancing tango and ask whether the feelings and values that it expresses are more or less real and whether it provides for an authentic or meaningful experience or relationship, whether it’s in the realm of utility or of ultimate ends.