On the occasion of being honored by Mona Isabelle’s invitation to teach a course she titled “how to dance on contemporary music” at the venerable Tangoloft Berlin, I feel I should say something about my relationship to music.
The title of this post refers to Mona’s phrase in our recent interview, “I play Mona Isabelle music!” I like this phrase because it means that we each have a musical style in the same way we have a fashion style.
This post is not a lesson and it’s not an exhortation. This is about my musicality, my own personal relationship to tango and music.
First of all, I know nothing about music except how it makes me move. I don’t count, I can’t sing. I dread DJing.
Second preambulatory point: For the 5 years prior to starting to dance tango, I spent 3-4 nights a week listening to “jam” music. That’s a genre of jazz-funk with a lot of improvisation. The “dancing” that is done is internal, alone, with eyes closed, facing the band, rarely moving the feet. It’s not much to look at. But I think it was good training for the complexity of tango music, because what “the hippy shake” is about is registering different rhythms and melodies with different parts of the body simultaneously.
Mona and I, and Andreas Rochholl, a contemporary music director, spent two weeks discussing the proper title for the course. We were unsuccessful in developing a name, and so we stuck with Mona’s original term, ‘contemporary’, knowing that it’s both vague and inaccurate. My dear friend DJ Elio Astor prefers the word ‘neotango’ music. Here’s our interview in which he explains why. Personally I feel that the word ‘neo’ is arbitrary, proliferating jargon and factionalism but without a substantive message.
Andreas and I discussed the landscape of language relating to time and genre. There was no answer there, no boundary that makes sense. If we are dancing on Chopin, is it contemporary music? I said “maybe we want a word that describes the music, regardless of when or where it is from.”
I made a play for the word ‘powerful’. Because to me what traditional tango music lacks is power, and that’s what I get and like about the music I like to dance on (which is not all alternative music). Powerful music for me has deep sounds and it has emotions.
I have never heard melancholy in tango music. Or any emotion, other than the sentimental sensations arising from having spent 5-6 nights a week for 10 years in various cities around the world dancing to it, drinking to it, falling in love to it, having my heart torn out to it. But the music itself for me has the emotional content of traffic, ranging from neutral to annoying. For me emotions are linked to bass sounds, which don’t exist in tango until late Pugliese, and very long notes, especially if I’m to feel any emotion to a voice. Short and high-pitched notes have no emotion for me.
I think this is because this is as close as contemporary music gets to the music of my childhood, which was opera music. For me, emotions are linked to slow, dramatic scores, stronger, symphonic instruments and big, searing emotional voices. For me emotional music is Opera, especially Puccini (my favorite is Turandot) or Saint-Saëns (my mother, for unexplained reasons, started every day with Symphony No.3 in C Minor, Opus 78, the “Organ Symphony”) and nothing in the traditional tango repertoire compares to that. Tango instruments are too high-pitched and light-hearted and tango voices too controlled. So coming from that background, if I’m listening to contemporary music, I need Sinéad O’Conner screaming over bass saxophone before I’m going to feel something.
The heaviness and drama of Gotan’s Paris, Texas and Amor Porteño send me to tears within seconds every time.
Roberto and I love, and want to dance on, very heavy and aggressive dubstep, like Minoru’s “Reckless“. (We’re organizing a video about this.)
My favorite live music dancing experiences have been with solo musicians. I feel a relationship. And they can improvise with the dancers as an orquestra cannot.
So I invited cellist Karel Bredenhorst and his loop to play for the Bread and Tango Practica last February and we also made an experimental lab (“The Third Room”) with Andreas in preparation for the 2016 Hauptbahnhof Contemporary Tango Festival.
At this lab I had some revelations about what I want from music at this point in my dancing.
1. I want music that forces the mark (my partner, or myself if I am marking) out of any habits or conventions of tango.
For example, I never every need to make three steps of a giro -back, side, front- again. I’ve done that movement so many times. It’s not interesting. It doesn’t move me. I don’t need to do it again. I want music that doesn’t let that happen to me anymore.
2. During the workshop Andreas challenged the dancers to “be in love with” the music, just as we are in love with our dancing partner.
Uncomfortably, I discovered that when I am in love with the music, I lose my ability to be an obedient revel – a point of pride for me in my dancing, and also, I believe a correct and fundamental dimension of Argentine Tango. (See my posts: “is it a conversation?“, my first attempt to define “is tango art? and if so what makes it unique as a dance?” [answer: consequence], and my attempt to articulate tango’s gift to humanity through its deep gendered relationship.)
3. As my investment and sensitivity grows in tango, I become more fragile. Joy no longer easily floods me. I cannot swoon to forceful marking. I am no longer grateful that any woman will revel with me; I want her to be competent. I need the room to have a pleasing geometric volume. And I can no longer finish dancing to a song that doesn’t move me. The need to be authentically creative, to be able to be present, trumps etiquette. At our lab, everyone danced both roles. When my mark wasn’t feeling the music, I took over, or I broke the juggernaut by dropping the embrace.
I am not in this underpaid game to teach people to be elegant and dignified. I am in this war, like the last wars I fought, for our humanity, for our creativity, for freedom, for our depths that I cannot yet well name. For our power.
Pour some music on my body that demands I find my power.