As a budding composer, New Tango master Astor Piazzolla didn’t much care for tango. He wanted to be a classical musician.
But he would go on to achieve international fame and grudging recognition of the tango Old Guard for his New Tango. It was near the end of his life, and especially after his death in 1992, that Piazzolla’s music entered the contemporary classical music repertoire.
“It’s a long way around, but he got where he wanted to be,” says Argentina-born, Miami-based violinist Tomas Cotik.
On Saturday, the classical duo comprising Cotik and China-born, Florida-based pianist Tao Lin will perform “Tango Nuevo: The Music of Astor Piazzolla,” presented by South Florida Jazz at The Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center on the Nova Southeastern University campus.
Born in Argentina, Piazzolla grew up in New York. He learned to play the bandoneón, the German concertina whose melancholy sound is quintessential in tango, to please his father, a true tango fan. But even then, Piazzolla’s studies included transcriptions of music by Bach, Mozart and Gershwin.
Years later, back in Argentina, while already playing in and writing for important tango orchestras, he studied with Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and wrote what he later dismissed as “symphonic trash.”
One of those pieces earned Piazzolla a prize, however, and with it a trip to Paris and lessons with Nadia Boulanger, the fabled teacher of Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter and Philip Glass, among others.
But Piazzolla made his mark in tango — incorporating accents of Bartok and Stravinsky and operatic melodies as well as the rhythms of klezmer music; utilizing compositional devices such as canon and fugue but also jazz harmonies, a walking bass, electric guitar and a dash of improvisation.
And with New Tango, Piazzolla found his place in the classical world. Reinterpreted by chamber groups and orchestras around the globe, performed by artists such as the late Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo Yo Ma, Gidon Kremer and Daniel Barenboim, Piazzolla’s music entered the contemporary classical repertoire.
“Given his background and the background of many of the musicians he chose for his groups, it feels very natural to approach Piazzolla’s music with my classical training,” says Cotik, 37.
“Besides ... I grew up hearing his music all around me.”
Cotik and Lin, who first collaborated on record on an album of music by Franz Schubert in 2012, have released Astor Piazzolla Tango Nuevo (2013) and are completing a follow-up recording.
Going from Schubert to Piazzolla has been “a chance to explore something completely different,” Cotik says. “Some elements in Piazzolla’s music — his aggressiveness, the rawness — are the very opposite to Schubert.
“I don’t believe in classifications in music, but a constant question regarding Piazzolla’s work has been: ‘What is this music?” says Cotik, who holds a doctorate of music degree from the University of Miami and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Music Freiburg in Germany.
In part to answer that question, Cotik wrote a dissertation while at Freiburg titled “Serious Tango,” addressing Piazzolla, his many musical influences and his cosmopolitan background (he lived in Paris and Rome in addition to New York and Buenos Aires. “He might have been born in Argentina, but he was an international person.”
The echoes of so many places and music styles offer familiar entry points to his work — but it also can generate and feed some misunderstandings.
“Piazzolla has become so popular that it has become very appealing to insert a Piazzolla piece in a program as a crowd pleaser, but, to my taste, there are certain misconceptions about [his music],” he says. “A lot of Piazzolla’s music is over romanticized. Some people approach it with the preconception of this being some sort of ultra-romantic, passionate, melancholy tango. And while there are some elements of romance in Piazzolla’s music, I also very much feel the aggression, the violence in his music and what he called the mugre [grime, filth].”
Piazzolla’s music might demand virtuosic technique, but even a cursory listening of his quintets makes clear that he eschews perfection in favor of high energy and a coarse edge, perhaps a nod to the tough streets of his childhood and the rough-hewn textures of old-school tango.
Also, while Piazzolla collaborated with top jazz musicians such as Gerry Mulligan and Gary Burton; flirted briefly with jazz-tango; adopted the quintet, a format unprecedented in tango, as his group of choice, and was regularly booked by jazz festivals, he was not a jazz musician.
As one of his musicians once put it, Piazzolla “liked the idea of jazz” but was not interested in opening his music to jazz-style improvisation.
Rather, Piazzolla generally wrote for specific musicians who, in time, were trusted with certain interpretative liberties as well as a few fenced-in moments of improvisation — but in Piazzolla’s language. Otherwise, his music, including cadenzas and certain solos, is specifically written out.
Cotik and Lin do not improvise.
“I did what I call ‘adaptations’ of the pieces [for the duo], but I’ve put my fingers in the music as little as possible,” Cotik says. “He said what he wanted to say. We just want to do our interpretation of his music.”