A Book Review by Dr. Paul Allan Magistretti
Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir by Natalio Gorin (translated and annotated by Fernando Gonzalez) has been published by Amadeus Press in a new edition and is one of two excellent books available in English about the great bandoneon player and the 20th century's finest free reed composerand maybe one of the era's finest composers, period. Piazzolla certainly established a unique sound by synthesizing his feeling for tango with Bach, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ginestera and jazz and through this sound stirring both the passions and intellects of a large audience without any conflict between those often opposed aspects of human nature. Consider, Piazzolla's, music can stir our minds and through sheer intellectual appeal reach our emotions; conversely, it can appeal on a totally emotional level and end up creating a powerful resonance in our imaginations. Piazzolla seems to appeal on all levels interactively by virtue of a powerful, distinctive voice. He has created beautiful, complex works that seamlessly synthesize physiologically stirring rhythms and fugal densityno mean feat; all the while keeping the whole accessible to both the musically sophisticated and the naïve listener. A simple analogy would be: Piazzolla does what Chaplin did in movies; that is, Charlie combined wit, mime, intellect, social commentary, slapstick, irony and belly laughs in a single work that you could enjoy on any and all levels while laughing, crying and thinking (e.g., after watching and experiencing City Lights, consider the powerful ending). Anyway, readers of CFR need no introduction to Piazzolla and I can refer you to the many links herein. The present work under consideration, Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir is like a long conversation with the man and it seems fresh, direct and vivid, as if the maestro were still with us.
The first 157 pages are based on a series of interviews Natalio Gorin had with Piazzolla in March, 1990 at Punta del Este, Uruguay. Gorin had wanted to do a memoir since 1989 and when Piazzolla finally agreed, he said, "There is only one place to do this and that is at Punta del Este," where he could be relaxed and expansive. The two men talked there for three days and had two more sessions in Buenos Aires some weeks later. Gorin was going to go over the material with him in September with follow up questions, but Piazzolla suffered what would prove to be a fatal stroke in August and he died two years later without being able to assist the author. Gorin wasn't sure what to do with the interviews without having the subsequent follow up meetings with Piazzolla, but rather than let the project die he began to listen to the tapes and rework the material for the printed page into Astor Piazzolla: A Manera de Memorias, published in Buenos Aires in 1998. We have the results now in English via Mr. Gonsalez excellent translation and the book is like a long visit with Astor over cups of maté. In some ways the book may be better for not having been reworked with Piazzolla's help, because Astor's voice and character already come across so clearly, which is the beauty of the book. If the work had been revisited, perhaps changes would have been made, things restated, edits introduced and its spontaneous impact lessened in the processprocessing oral history can unwittingly undo what is essentially transparent but irreplaceable. What a work like this can deliver is something far greater than factual information and that is a present tense sense of a person and an opportunity to read between the lines the way you do when you sit down and visit with someone. Subtextual insight is a very subtle and important aspect of oral history; it is often what sticks with you, sometimes forever. An oral work like Memoir is a humble medium compared to an artist's body of work, but its direct, simple and seemingly artless embodiment affords us, who are left on this side of time, a singular means of retrieving a certain indefinable something from those who have moved on; it's the only illusion of friendship and acquaintance we will ever have with the departed. Memoir is a perfect complement to the longer and more wide-ranging study from Oxford Press, Le Grand Tango (Azzi and Collier) and it is of inestimable value.
As an example of what I mean in particular by indefinable something, let me quote a little of Piazzolla's own account of 1954 when he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. He had won a scholarship for his classical compositions and he and his first wife Dede packed up and left Argentina for France, where they lived in a small room at the Hotel Fiat on the Rue de Douai. Piazolla'a account (with ellipses) is as follows:
"I had two great teachers, as I have said: Nadia Boulanger and Alberto Ginastera. They taught me all the secrets of musical technique. I place Nadia a step above in my acknowledgment because she was the one who put me on the path: she was the one who made me discover the real Piazzolla, the one who ended my confusion. I arrived at Nadia's house with a suitcase full of scores, the complete classical oeuvre I had written to that point. Nadia spent the first two weeks analyzing the work. 'To teach you,' she said. 'I first must know where your music is going.'
One day, finally, she told me that everything I had brought with me was well written but that she could not find the spirit in it. She asked me what music I played in my country, what I wanted to do. I had not told her about my past as a tango musician, much less that my instrument, the bandoneon, was in the closet in my room in Paris. I thought to myself: if I tell her the truth she will throw me out the window. Nadia had been a classmate of Maurice Ravel, teacher of Igor Markevitch, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein. Robert Casadesus and Jean Françaix. By then she was already considered the best teacher of music in the world. I was a simple tanguero. But after two days I had to tell her the truth. I told her I made my living arranging for tango orchestras. I told her about Anibal Troilo, about my own orchestra, and how tired of all that I thought my future was in classical music. Nadia looked into my eyes and asked me to play one of my tangos at the piano. So I confessed to her that I played the bandoneon; I told her she shouldn't expect a good piano player because I wasn't. She insisted, 'It doesn't matter, Astor, play your tango.' And I started out with Triunfal. When I finished, Nadia took my hands in hers and with that English of hers, so sweet, she said, 'Astor, this is beautiful. I like it a lot. Here is the true Piazzollado not ever leave him.' It was the great revelation of my musical life."
The above story, directly told in Astor's own words validated reading the entire book for me and there is much, much more. But you can clearly see how the soul of the man comes through and how this oral history brings alive a momentous event in the artist's creative life. The book is riveting as history, Piazzolla lore and as a wonderful recounting of moments of trivia and times of epiphany, the kind of story of a life which all artists would liveif the gods were kind and a muse like Boulanger crossed their paths.
Some time before the opportunity to review Memoir came up, I was in a bookstore and examined the two books (Memoir and Le Grand Tango). I later bought Le Grand Tango directly from Oxford Press because it turned up on an irresistible sale directly from the publisher and I thought that the sale opportunity, the book's apparent thoroughness and a scholarly approach was a good place to start. Then, when Memoir was offered for review, I thought it would be easy to do and I'd find the book chatty, somewhat thin and a redundant experience after the longer work; that wasn't the case. I felt that the two works did something quite different. In many ways, Memoir, with its brevity and oral history roots gave me a greater sense of the man and his music than the larger work. Music is an audile experience and what better way to approach it than to experience without intrusion or editorial refraction the voice of the composer himself over an extended period of time. The immediacy of a first person narrative can't be overestimated and if we carry the literary analogy further, Le Grand Tango gives a different, no less valid, but essentially third person perspective.
Filling out the main conversation in Memoir is a postscript of three chapters. In "The Penultimate Goodbye," Gorin writes an extended essay on his friendship and matters not covered by Astor in the interviews. "Milonga for Four," is a chapter containing four brief reminiscences. First, one by Horacio Ferrer, Piazzolla's sometime lyricist, librettist and "the best poet he ever worked with." Then, Anahi Carfi (a violinist with Piazzolla's various groups) recounts his experiences; Atilio Talin weighs inhe was Astor's manager for a decade and "never gave him away for free." Finally, the jazz great Gary Burton adds his impressions from having admired and worked with Piazzolla on recording sessions. "My Crazy Bandoneon" is a brief discussion of the instrument with a key chart of both hands (pull & push) by Leopoldo Federico and Roberto Di Filippo; the latter was considered by Piazzolla as the finest technician of the bandoneon he ever met. The book has excellent appendices of terms, musicians, a discography and a chronology. What it doesn't have can be found in the more extensive Le Grand Tango. I would say Memoir is a perfect way to start a Piazzolla library and Tango will augment it nicely.
Natalio Gorin has been a journalist for more than thirty years working on the daily Clarin, the largest newspaper in Argentina, as well as other publications. He had a special passion for the tango and for Piazzolla in particular. He eventually became a student of the composer's life and work; they met in 1971 and were personal friends until Astor's death in 1992. He presently resides in Buenos Aires and frequently travels giving lectures and presenting the work of Piazzolla.
The translator and editor, Fernando Gonzalez, while a native Argentinean has long resided in the United States. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, a columnist for Downbeat and he has been an art, culture and music critic forThe Miami Herald, as well as The Boston Globe; he is and remains a long time student and admirer of Piazzolla's work.
No matter what the depth of your interest in Astor Piazzolla, this is an excellent book to have and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
(260 pp., 49 b/w photos, 2 line drawings, 1 music example; 6 x 9 inches. Hardcover: ISBN 1-57467-066-2, $34.95; paperback ISBN 1-57467-067-0, $22.95.
Available from Amadeus Press, an imprint of Timber Press, Inc. 133 S.W. Second Ave., Suite 450, Portland, Oregon, 97204-3527 Phone (503) 227-2878,
(800) 327-5680. Fax (503) 227-3070. www.amadeuspress.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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