Episode 2: Mad Hot Tango!
In this activity students will listen to and analyze characteristics of tango music, especially rhythm, and experiment with variations in tempo.
National Music Standard
6, Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
In this episode violinist Caeli Smith plays a wonderful movement from Astor Piazzolla's L'histoire du tango (The history of the tango), called "Bordel 1900." Originally written for flute and guitar, this version was arranged for violin and piano by Tim Ribchester. In the rehearsal scene, we see Caeli and Chris O'Riley working with Pablo Ziegler, a pianist who collaborated with Piazzolla for many years and carries on his musical legacy.
Astor Piazzolla was a major influence on the development of the tango style during his long career, which began in the 1930's and ended at his death in 1992. Born in Argentina to Italian immigrant parents in 1921, he was playing tango music and composing by the time he was in his late teens. The tango originated in the dance halls of Buenas Aires in the late 19th century and was a well-established and beloved hallmark of Argentinean popular music by the time Piazzolla began his career. But Piazzolla's great musical curiosity and versatility (he also composed in classical and jazz styles) drew him to experiment with the "classic" tango form (to the dismay of some purists!). In 1953 he won a prestigious competition for composers and went to Paris to study with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger. She recognized his unique musical vision and encouraged him to express it. The result was nuevo tango, music that incorporated classical and jazz elements into the tango form, drawing musicians and music lovers of many tastes into its spell.
Television or computer, DVD player, video of Episode 2, pencils, paper
- Begin by brainstorming different types of rhythm that students are familiar with. Which of these are especially associated with dancing? Examples: waltz (see the Chopin Waltz in C# minor) and merengue (performed by Furia, an Australian Latin band). Explain the meaning of syncopation (a stress on a normally unstressed beat, or no stress where one is expected), and see if any of the rhythmic examples students have identified contain syncopation. Classical music often contains syncopated rhythms, as do jazz and popular music (such as George Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm").
Listen to "Bordel 1900" and identify two or three rhythmic patterns that are repeated frequently. One example is the syncopation that begins at measure 64.Score courtesy of Editions Henry Lemoine, used by permission
- Divide students into small groups of 4 or 5. Have them clap or tap the patterns they hear. Try speeding them up and slowing them down. How does that affect the impact of the rhythm? Ask them to identify the meter/time signature and the tempo of the pattern they have identified.
- Discuss how repetition, syncopation, and other metric variations affect the mood and impact of the music. How do you think tango music and tango dancing affect each other?
Find out more!
About Caeli Smith
In addition to being a serious violinist, Caeli Smith is one of From the Top's Roving Reporters, producing audio interviews for the radio show and writing for From the Top's monthly newsletter. To read more about Caeli, hear her radio show performances, and read her articles, visit From the Top's web site:
To hear this piece in its original instrumentation (for flute and guitar), watch the excellent video of a performance by Dawn Weiss (flute) and John Mery (guitar) on YouTube. The professionally produced video includes a pair of tango dancers:
You can also see Caeli playing with Tim Ribchester, who arranged the version that is played on the show:
To watch Piazzolla in performance with cellist Yo Yo Ma, visit:
And just for fun, watch the documentary movie about New York City public school students in a city-wide ballroom dance competition, Mat Hot Ballroom (available on DVD).
About Astor Piazzolla
A comprehensive biography of Piazzolla in English is Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, by Maria Susana Azzi and Simon Collier (Oxford University Press, USA, 2000, ISBN-10: 0195127773).