Borges & Piazzolla

Astor Piazzolla:
Borges & Piazzolla
Information & Review

In 1965, Borges and Astor Piazzolla collaborated on an album of tangos and milongas called El Tango. For whatever reason, it was allowed to go out of print and was never transferred onto CD. In 1996, Emmanuel Chamboredon and Envar el Kari decided to “rescue” this work, and they recommissioned a new recording. To assemble and conduct the sizable musical ensemble, Daniel Binelli was chosen – the very bandoneón player who worked with Piazzolla and Borges on the original record. The result was Borges & Piazzolla: Tangos and Milogas, featuring the Argentine singer Jairo and the Chilean actor Lito Cruz, with Daniel Binelli himself on the bandoneón.
And what can I possibly say except “Thank heaven they did this?” Borges & Piazzolla is a wonderful accomplishment, one of those rare albums that seems truly charmed, brimming over with exuberance, wit, and passion. (Be warned: I am about to launch into an unabashed rave.)
When I first got this CD, I played it casually as I was working, just to get a preliminary feel for it. And while I certainly enjoyed it, I must say that most of it passed unnoticed, slipping by my busy and diverted mind. The next night I went out on the town, and as fate would have it, I was carousing with a few friends. (OK, so it’s not exactly stabbing a gaucho to death in a bordello, but nevertheless I did have a certain mind-set.) On my way home I started up my Discman, thinking I had a Beck CD in the player.
Much to my surprise, the unmistakable bars of a Piazzolla tango began. Maybe it was the chilly night with its full moon; maybe it was the walk home through the streets of the city; maybe it was just the result of a few drinks – but suddenly the album gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. In fact, I delayed my arrival home just to finish the CD, mesmerized on the steps of the local library, my head full of knife fights, mysterious candillos, and the romantic streets of a mythical BA. The next day I played it again, and then again, and since then I have not been able to get it out of my player.
Borges & Piazzolla is a short disc, but one that covers a lot of musical ground. Comprised of six stand-alone pieces and a suite based on the story “El hombre de la esquina rosada,” the work calls for a narrator, a singer, and no less than twelve musicians. And while this might sound a bit unwieldy, the whole thing works marvelously, combining elements of a tango band with a chamber ensemble, blending poetry with song, and all delivered with flawless virtuosity, seamless integration and an irrepressible enthusiasm.
The disc starts off with one of the most ambitious pieces, “El tango.” Constructed as a “musical poem,” the band backs Lito Cruz as he delivers a theatrical reading of Borges’ poem. The music is a whirlwind of color and texture, spiked with improvised effects that range from scratching nails across metal guiros, thumping instruments for percussion, and crazy sounding “glissés” gleefully ripped from shrieking strings. While the band in The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night was instructed to evoke tangueros playing in a whorehouse, this band seems more suited to a madhouse, and the frenetic energy of the music is perfectly echoed in the urgency Cruz brings to his verses. This is followed by “Jacinto Chiclana,” a milonga that calms things down with a beautiful melody touched off by a gently rolling Spanish guitar. This marks the first appearance of Jairo, a singer with a resumé that includes previous Borges collaborations and a seductive voice that touches every line with trembling passion. As the guitar gives way to a gorgeous violin melody, Jairo delivers the middle stanza in spoken word, underscoring the drama of Borges’ verse. The next song is “Alguien le dice al tango.” The most traditional work in the collection, this spirited tango winds down to a lovely hush before disappearing in a sudden flourish. “El títere” then emerges on a manic tune played on the bandoneón, accompanied by a scratching riff that recalls the opening number. It is one of the most energetic songs on the album, filled with stuttering musical runs, sudden stops, and strings that whistle like sirens. It is followed by “A don Nicanor Paredes,” my personal favorite. A milonga, the dramatic music weaves around Jairo’s lush voice, occasionally falling into perfect moments of pure chamber music. It is a dark song, a romantic evocation of a vanished candillo, touched by melancholy and a slight taste of bitter nostalgia. The final song, “Oda intima a Buenos Aires,” is labeled a “porteño ode” and brings back the narrator. It is also, according to Piazzolla, the most vocally audacious piece – to the narrator is added a large chorus of chanting men and wailing women. The result is a song charged with a sentimental grandeur possessing all the nutty beauty of an old Spaghetti Western score. While this could certainly sound campy, or at least parodistic, there is a certain level of “audacious” honesty present which successfully carries off the effect and draws the listener inside.
The final work on the disc is the multi-part suite, “El hombre de la esquina rosada,” a setting of the story often translated as “Streetcorner Man.” (Or, more properly, “Man on Pink Corner.”) Here we have Piazzolla in experimental mode again, and the work spans a lot of territory over its seven parts, even dipping a toe into the waters of serialism. Back again are the joyful bevy of effects, the scratching, the thwacking pizzicati, the whirring glissés. But here they sound less frenetic, more focused, and the twelve-piece band propels the work along with a sure and steady confidence. The vocal parts, too, are more mannered, especially the harshness of the narration in “Aparición de real” and the unresolved edginess Jairo brings to “Rosendo y la Lujanera.”
For a Borges fan looking to explore the world of Argentine music, I can’t imagine a better start than this disc. Though Valeria Munarriz covers many of these songs on her Chante Jorge Luis Borges – and she carries them off wonderfully – I still prefer these versions. Although whether you prefer a male or female singer may be a matter of taste, Binelli’s band is more comfortable with the complexity and energy inherent in the music, and they play more in the spirit of Piazzolla’s own recordings. The recording quality is excellent – each instrument and effect comes through with crystal clarity, and the vocals are rich, warm, and perfectly positioned. The bilingual liner notes helpfully reprint Piazzolla’s commentary from the 1965 recording, supporting that with remarks from Laura Escalada Piazzolla, María Kodama, and Daniel Binelli. There are also small biographies on Daniel Binelli, Jairo and Lito Cruz. Curiously absent, however, are the actual lyrics – a serious oversight I find difficulty to understand, given the excellence brought to all other facets of the project. I would also have welcomed some explanation as to why the original 1965 El Tango is no longer available.

–22 May 2004

CD

Tracks

1. El tango (Musical poem; 6:21)
2. Jacinto Chiclana (Milonga; 3:01)
3. Alquien le dice al tango (Tango; 3:27)
4. El títere (Milonga tanguera; 2:20)
5. A don Nicanor Paredes (Milonga; 3:45)
6. Oda intima a Buenos Aires (Porteña ode; 2:36)

El hombre de la esquina rosada
(A suite for 12 instruments, narrator, and singer.)
7. I. Aparición de Rosendo (3:47)
8. II. Rosendo y la Lujanera (2:15)
9. III. Aparición de Real (3:21)
10. IV. Milonga nocturna (2:48)
11. V. Bailongo (1:15)
12. VI. Muerte de Real (4:43)
13. VII. Epílogo

Personnel:

Astor Piazzolla – Music
Jorge Luis Borges – Texts

Jairo – Voice
Lito Cruz – Reading poems
Daniel Binelli – Bandoneon
Julio Graña – Solo violin
Andrés Spiller – Solo oboe
Sergio Balderrabano – Piano
Arianna Ruiz Cheylat – Harp
Diego Sánchez – Cello
Benjamin Bru Pesce – Viola
Brigitta Danko – Second violin
Martín Vásquez – Electric & Spanish guitar
Enrique Guerra – Double bass
Omar Angel Frette – Percussion
Héctor Gerardo García – French Horn

Liner Notes from 1965 LP

Astor Piazzolla:
Before commenting on this record’s music I would like you to know what it means to me to be a collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges. The responsibility has been big, but even larger the compensation when I learned that a poet of his magnitude identified himself with all my tunes – and it will be even greater if you share that feeling.
The music for “El hombre de la esquina rosada” was composed in march, 1960, in New York City. The work came out of an idea by choreographer Ana Itelman, who adapted sentences from Borges’ short story. The score is for narrator, singer, and 12 instruments.
The musical treatment ranges from the simplest tango essence to hints of dodecaphonic music.
The music for Jorge Luis Borges’ poem “El Tango” has been especially composed following and respecting its contents. This gave me the opportunity to experiment with aleatoric music in the percussion scores. The recording has been made exclusively by my quintet, which means noises you hear were made solely with their instruments. The violin produces a percussive effect by hitting the end of its handle with a ring, doing “pizzicati” with “glissé,” imitating a siren with a “glissé” on the string, imitating sandpaper with the end of the bow behind the bridge and a drum by doing “pizzicati” with the nails between two strings. The electric guitar imitates a bongo, sirens with “glissé” effects, add minor seconds and strange effects with six strings open behind the bridge. The pianist hits treble and bass notes with the palms of his hands, and with his fists on the lower notes. The bassist hits the back part of his instrument with the palm of his hand, makes “glissés” on the bass strings and hits four strings with his bow. Bandoneón imitates a bongo by hitting the box with the left annular finger. It also has, on a side, a sort of metallic guiro to be scratched with a nail. All these effects were improvised to introduce so-called aleatoric music into tango.
The milonga “Jacinto Chiclana,” the tango “Alguien le dice al tango,” and the tango-milonga “El títere” are the simplest tunes in this recording. Simple because they simply follow the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges’ poems.
”Jacinto Chiclana” has the spirit of a milonga played with guitar, that is, the type of improvised milonga.
”Alguien le dice al tango” can be considered, melodically and harmonically, within the 1940s style, and “El títere” could be defined as the prototype of light, joyful and “compadrón” rhythm of the turn of the century.
Due to its dramatic contents, I have composed “A don Nicanor Paredes” on an 8-bar measure of Gregorian chant and resolving the melodic part without artificial modernism – everything very simple, deeply felt and honest.
The “Oda intima a Buenos Aires,” composed for singer, narrator, choir and orchestra, is perhaps the most audacious of all tunes for singing. Despite that, its melodic line is simple. It begins in ascending chromatic mode and ends up in descending chromatic mode.
To all . . . my thanks for having the opportunity to make this record.
–Astor Piazzolla
Notes from the Milan CD:

Laura Escalada Piazzolla:
The Borges-Piazzolla encounter was magic and inevitable at the time. Of that meeting this work was born, a pride and heritage to the world from two great Argentines.
As chairwoman of the Astor Piazzolla Foundation, I congratulate Milan for re-issuing this beautiful alchemy in which poetry and music join for our delight.
Thanks, Georgie. Thanks, Astor. Thanks, Milan.
–Laura Escalada Piazzolla

María Kodama:
Faithful to his father’s teachings regarding the impossibility of remembering, to treasure in our memory reality as we first saw it, Borges does not believe in history. History does not exist, because it is between the distortion of facts through innumerable generations who told them and he, a poet, through words inspired by a muse, through sacred words, who will undertake the impossible – changing the past.
In “Fundación Mítica de Buenos Aires,” of his book “Cuaderno San Martín” (1929), he says: “men shared an imaginary past.” This will allow Borges to locate, despite history, the foundation of Buenos Aires in his barrio, Palermo. He recovers that past through memory to modify it at will. He thus tears up the fabric of a “fallacious history,” and attempts to recover the first, archetypical vision – that of myth.
Mythically founded, his city will be populated by the compadritos – men who owe deaths but are not cowards. These men from the slums, as described and sung by Borges, will make a special frieze. They will be courageous and will always respect the codes of the society in which fate made them be born. Hostile men, fearful of tenderness and feelings, they will allow themselves to be drawn by tango music – that “brothel’s reptile,” as Lugones called it.
In Borges’ memory was a nostalgia for Arolas and Greco’s tangos he had seen danced in the streets when he was a child.
Those are the tangos he will like all his life, a preference shared with that of milongas, because of their ironically cheerful rhythm.
Borges will write tangos and milongas for the pleasure of his readers. He will write them to exorcise the image of revenge, abandonment and cry of tangos and trying to make his characters become “full men.”
–María Kodama

Envar el Kadri, Producer:
In 1995, Emmanuel Chamboredon and I agreed upon producing a record to rescue a work made in 1965 by Astor Piazzolla with Edmundo Rivero and Luis Medina Castro, based on poems by Jorge Luis Borges.
We thought it was necessary to give it the importance it had due to the quality of the authors and the symbolism they evoke anywhere in the world – that of Buenos Aires, cradle of tango music.
These poems by Borges are a tribute to the city and a certain lifestyle of its people, for whom “courage is better/hope is never vain,” which is being lost among the foldings of the “global village” and a conformity lacking ideals. Astor’s music is also associated to this celebration of an archetypical man “capable of not raising his voice/and (yet) gamble his life.” As Astor himself said, his music, especially composed for this work, ranges from “the simplest tango essence to aleatory music, dodecaphonic music and Gregorian chant.”
With the support of his heirs, we called upon performers who could match the bet: Daniel Binelli, who puts his talent in bandoneón and conducted the work; Jairo, who recreated the magic of these songs with his art; Lito Cruz, who incarnated Borges’ characters as if they were in front of us, and first-rate musicians who would not only read notes but made music with their souls, as Piazzolla wanted.
This juncture of art and talent, poetry and music, made producing this record – with Laura Fonzo’s sophisticated techniques and the valuable cooperation of Alejandra Kaufman – become a source of pure emotion instead of what is generally just effort and work. Surely, you will be able to discover and share that yourselves when you listen to it.
–Envar el Kadri, Producer. Buenos Aires, December 14, 1996.

Daniel Binelli:
In the realization of this album I gave all of my heart to the memory of Astor Piazzolla and Jorge Luis Borges. Throughout the whole performance I have tried to reflect Astor Piazzolla’s intense and inimitable style. For that, I had a qualified group of Argentine musicians who contributed all their art to join me in this great project. Jairo’s singing and Lito Cruz’ voice reading poems finish up the framework for this wonderful work by Borges and Piazzolla, which was composed in the 1960’s.
–Daniel Binelli

CD Information

Borges & Piazzolla: Tangos & Milongas is the 1997 remake of the Piazzolla/Borges collaboration El Tango.

Borges By Piazzolla
Piazzolla / Audio CD / Released 1997

Other Borges-related Works by Piazzolla:

El Tango (1965). Piazzolla and his band set some of Borges’ poems to music in this out-of-print 1965 LP.

The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (1987). A cycle of 14 pieces loosely inspired by Borges, this work was commissioned for the Hispanic American Arts Center’s production of Tango Apasionado.

Other Borges-related Works by Jairo:

Jairo canta Borges (1976). An album of settings of Borges poems.

 


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3 May 2004