Korey Ireland is one of the founders of the Community Tango Orquesta movement and maintains the website www.communitytangoorchestra.org. He is the organizer of the Berlin Tango Community Orquesta, founded 2011. He is a composer, tango teacher, and performer.
What is a Community Tango Orquesta?
It’s a group of people who are connected to the tango dancing scene who form the core of an ensemble. Then they seek out more players and members, sometimes other dancers. Others who are just interested in the music. There’s some process of regular rehearsals to prepare repertoire they could perform in a milonga.
The idea is to create music in a way that fits the expectation of dancers in a milonga, and create it without the need to make money on it. People are playing to support the project, not to earn a living.
There was this idea of volunteer and professional musicians playing side by side and something where the community supports the orquesta and the orquesta supports the community. It fit into a story that many of us were telling ourselves about tango, the community story in which we are part of an ecosystem that supports itself.
The observation was that the milonga couldn’t financially support live music on the scale of an Orquesta Típica, which is what the dancers are used to listening to.
What is an Orquesta Típica?
Fundamentally in the music of the 30s and 40s, the advantage of an Orquesta Típica is that relatively simple things sound full and exciting. If you play those same things with 3 or 4 musicians they sound thin and simplistic. In a way it’s just smoke and mirrors, but it’s successful smoke and mirrors. 12 people doing the same thing with a little harmony and a little crafted arranging and it sounds powerful. It sounds moving. The trio or the quartet could play the same content with an equally well-created arrangement for dancers, and it will almost never sound so compelling. It lacks richness. The compensating factor for that is that we have amplification that didn’t exist in 30s and 40s.
There are quartets that can pull it off. It’s not that you have to have 12 people to have a good tango band. But you need 4 virtuosic musicians. Everyone in the band is a superstar. It puts a high bar for the players. In the early 2000s there weren’t quartets playing dance music at that level. And there were no Orquesta Típicas. At that time there was very little professional music being created for dancers. There was a dancers’ experience that live music was a negative thing and not something to get excited about.
At that time, musicians who were playing in milongas didn’t appreciate what the dancers wanted or needed and didn’t feel valued or appreciated by the dancers.
Now we have lots of Orquesta Típicas that are playing for dancers. It isn’t the case that regular local milongas can afford these groups, but it’s building.
The Community Tango Orquesta is an Orquesta Típica. To support this our website offers arrangements, because the arrangements from the original orquestas were lost. If you went to the music store “Hey I want to buy an arrangement of Cumparsita for Orquesta Típica” even in Buenos Aires there is no market for this. They are not commercially available.
What happened to the original arrangements?
The orquesta would hire an arranger and the arranger would handwrite for the orquesta. Every copy had to be handwritten. They were originals. There were not printed copies. No one bought scores. They weren’t published – aside from a publisher in Paris, Universales, who published sextet scores in the late 40s and 50s. These sextet arrangements are modern and ornamented, but not ideal – not what dancers are looking for.
A lot of the original arrangements were thrown away. Some were destroyed in a fire. From time to time someone comes across a box of scores in an attic. There are some original manuscripts that have been recovered. There’s a group called Tango Via in BsAs who has been collecting for years with the promise of making available to the public and has not fulfilled that.
So this was the first urgent thing when we started the project. The answer was to write it ourselves. To listen to the recordings that were good representations of that song for dancers and try to figure out what they are playing and write it down. These are transcriptions. You take someone’s performance and you notate it. Most of the arrangements in the CTO website are transcriptions. Some are original arrangements or things that don’t closely resemble the recording. But 85% are transcriptions. I’m involved in 100% of them. Some of them are things that were done in collaboration with other people. Right now there are not pieces available in the free section of the website that are done by other people. I only have things there that I have the right to give away.
So in our website there is enough repertoire freely available that if someone can wants to start a CTO here are 28 pieces available for any group to start learning.
How did the CTOs get started?
There were a couple of things happening on the East coast of the US which I think were seeds. Tango de los Muertos was a festival which ran from 2005 to 2009 and had the feature every year of having a “Monster Orquesta”. The organizers of the festival were proponents of live music. So they invited music groups who would play as part of the festival and then at the end the groups would play together. It evolved over the years to be a workshop for musicians. The first year there were small ensembles who then came together to play. I wasn’t involved the first year.
In the same time frame as TdlM there was the San Francisco Tango Exchange. Each year there was a music thing as part of its package of offerings. I don’t remember what they called it. There was a more orquesta rehearsal with arrangements and parts that played at the milonga. It was the brainchild of Homer Ladas. He created an organization which later took over the festival.
At the same time there were tango jams going on, around 2005. Dancers who payed an instrument could get together and play some tango music. This was a forerunner of the CTO. Ben Bogart was one of the instigators, in Providence RI. Ben wrote out lead sheets that the musicians could use to play together without having a full arrangement, without having a lot of rehearsal time. During the milonga, the musicians would be in another room and then if things were working and they could go to the milonga and play a little set. There wasn’t a requirement or expectation, but there probably usually was a performance.
Evan Griffiths in New York was a very capable piano player and into this idea of jamming and playing tangos. Alex Krebs in Portland was active at the same time and connected with all of these people. He had his own Orquesta. He wasn’t focused on things happening collectively with other people, but Alex did briefly have a CTO in Portand. There was a woman at Yale, Mari Black. She got involved in the last years.
The last year of Tango de los Muertos, I was charged with directing the workshop and we knew it was the last year, so we made a big push for new material and one of the people who was there was Sharna Fabiano and she came away from that weekend thinking this should exist not just within the frame of a festival but something that could be an ongoing project, specifically in her community, Washington DC. We were both in BsAs after TdlM and we talked about the possibility of doing this in DC on an ongoing basis.
I am aware of at least 12 CTOs in different cities around the world. The idea is spreading and every year more people try it. I don’t think all the attempts succeed. I don’t hear about it when they die, I only hear when they are born. My intuition is that even if a given group in a town at a moment stops, people who participate in that group people go on playing tango in some form. Maybe they join another group, or start a group. The big volunteer group often spins off smaller semi-pro groups. That’s a pretty healthy pattern. People who are more committed or play at a higher level form smaller ensembles who play for money.
In some cases they are supported by an organization and have budget, structure, duties, officers, from the start. In other cases it’s more informal. Inevitably at the heart of it is a small group of people who desperately want to see it happen.
I would love to have some sort of census data, something more objective. How many people are participating? How often are they performing? What is the revenue stream? It would be interesting to have some hard data about the project in different places. Curiously in DC that was one of the things that set off their separation, or transition. The parent organization wanted to get funding and they wanted to document it, show the impact. The orquesta was more interested in just making cool music. They weren’t interested in documenting the social impact of the project.
Dancing to Live Music
I haven’t really asked myself before why it should matter that there’s live music for tango dancing. We have these great recording and they are awesome to dance to and we know them very well, and it’s very comfortable to dance to. Why would it matter to have people in our time and cities actually making this music? The answer is that it’s different when it happens in that moment in that space with those people.
We have great recordings of romances and love scenes. Why do we need to interact with people? We already have movies and books. It’s not the same when it’s not your own moment, your own experience, your own creation.
There’s a creative space between the music and the partners and the rest of the dance floor where something happens, something indeterminate and sometimes really wonderful. And that again is one of these things that I think is a little bit rare and precious in our culture now. In my own daily experiences, so much of what I consume is prepackaged, edited and produced and ready to consume. To be in a situation where I’m engaged in something that doesn’t have a wrapper, that hasn’t been screened and proofed and where you’re making the thing in the moment on the fly. That has value. I think somehow even though of course the music is prepared long in advance, what happens in the moment in the milonga is still somewhat spontaneous. A million little choices about how everybody feels, how we hear each other, how our instruments sound in the space. The details are practiced, but the experience is alive, dependent on the moment.
I think maybe it’s also a way of dealing with the anachronism of tango. I used to think it was a problem for those of us not born in BsAs. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Tango music is an anachronism. It doesn’t exist any more. That culture, that time, how one spoke, phrased, stood, expressed musically, is an anachronism. It’s not part of our time and our world. What can we create in our time and world that’s still meaningful and still serves this role of inspiring the dance? I think every tango musician or group, especially those concerned with playing for dancers, is working on this question. It’s not unique to a CTO. But the CTO has the luxury of being able to experiment without losing its income. The big advantage of not being paid is also that you don’t get fired.
I know from the CTO it makes a huge difference for how we play what the dancers in front of us are doing. When we’re in a milonga where there’s not much excitement on the dance floor or the dance floor is not very inspiring, we don’t play very well. When the milonga has energy, we get excited, we care more. We play up to the level of the dancers. I was a little surprised to find this. We had a couple of experiences with very different dance audiences and I noticed it had a big effect on how we played. So I guess the effect goes in both directions. We certainly hope we affect the dancers, but the dancers also affect the musicians. The core motivation is just to facilitate that experience.
I think there’s an important place and great value of amateur music. In Europe there was a time when a music afficionado was someone who was not professional but who played at a very high level; the level could be considered professional, but that wasn’t their profession. Now ‘amateur’ means second-rate. But there was a time that it didn’t have that meaning.
Tango music is well suited for amateur players. The thing that make it exciting and particular is not so easy to duplicate, even for very experienced and capable musicians. It’s one thing to say can you play the notes in tune and at the right time. It’s anther thing to make it sound like tango?
This dance-era tango music is a good area for amateur musicians. The music is structurally quite simple and can be arranged in a way that’s not virtuosic. That’s a guiding principle of our arrangements. They are accurate but they are written to be able to be played by amateur musicians. They are simplified. I think especially with the approach to writing the bandoneón parts, using the possibility of having 4 players to create the work of one player makes it easier for all 4. The original scores are much more technically challenging than what’s on the website, but they are only playable by pro musicians.
Originally there was the question can we make the level of the music challenging enough that the pros who come won’t be bored? In the Berlin CTO, 5 of our 18 participants have played for money as musicians. I have this intuition or inner voice telling me that the more capable the player the less important it would be for them that it is technically difficult and the more connected they will be to the why of the music. If it takes them 200 notes to create that why, that’s not better than if they could create it in 4 or 5 notes.
There’s also a danger for artists in any context of feeling a sense of entitlement. I understand it. It takes a lot of time to develop the capacity to play this music well. Having invested all that time and you show up in a milonga, it’s easy to feel you deserve to be loved and appreciated and paid very well. But then one could stop and think everyone in the room is investing a lot of time and energy and effort in this art form. Some of the dancers have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to develop their dancing just to be on the floor in that moment. I think somehow it’s useful to put our entitlement aside. We’re doing this because we think it’s beautiful. We’re not entitled to anything other than the satisfaction of creating something beautiful.
A dancer comes up to me after and says “wow that was really exciting. I’ve danced to that song 100 times but it never felt the way it felt when you guys play it. It’s a really different experience to dance to live music. Thank you.” This is the little electrical impulse that keeps the engine running. The players hear that and they are very motivated to keep going. It’s an intoxicating feeling that you are part of a tradition that you really care about. As if you could be part of the process that DiSarli’s orquesta participated in. Even if you are doing it in a little milonga on your town for 20 people but you are part of this myth of tango music and dance. That’s very compelling and motivating.
We played last Friday. I was totally unmotivated. I had a million things to do. It wasn’t in my mind. Got there, set up, band arrives. And somehow, I realized we’re doing this thing again and in the moment I’m excited and high and the experience of being part of that exchange. By the time i broke down the equipment I only got about 4 hours sleep that night. But I’d do it again the next week. It felt like participating in something that’s related to what I love. That’s a part of what I value. That’s a great feeling to be able to do that. That’s probably somewhat rare to have the opportunity to participate in something that’s related to what you fundamentally value.
Maybe an interesting point in all of this is the role that the dance plays in keeping the musicians motivated. We had a fabulous singer two years ago, she sang a couple of shows and she was a professional in Argentina, and she had other projects, and she couldn’t keep singing with the orquesta for free. We didn’t want to pay her and others wanted to sing for free. Then she started dancing. I think her connection to the dance gave her a different motivation, and different perspective on being part of the orquesta. Now she’s very active with the orquesta, she performs with us regularly, and is most reliable in terms of rehearsing. The change was that her experience as a dancer changed her motivation for participating in the orquesta project. For me that’s interesting because it suggests one appreciates more the music-making if one has the experience of dancing to the music. Or maybe the music-making is more fun or more rewarding if you have been on the dance side.
I think there’s a very strong social experience about creating music and dance in the same space together. There are some dances that only exist with live music and for very good reason. There’s an electricity from both sides that you only get when both sides are spontaneously participating. On the very basic level I think the experience of being a part of that event, where musicians and dancers are meeting and creating together, that’s the reason to do it. And of all the stories we tell ourselves in tango, that’s the one I haven’t yet gotten cynical about. (Also dancing with strangers).
People who play in CTO do it because they are happy to have a role in that scene, in that network, in that constellation. I think part of the motivation is that it’s a way that people become important to the milonga who may not otherwise feel important.
Only 1 or 2 of 18 participants in the Berlin CTO are not dancers. The dancers have more longevity in the project. They have a different level of commitment or connection to it. Because of the excitement of having danced to it, you approach playing differently. Also the social situation in the milonga. They find a space they like by being a member of the Orquesta.
Logistics and details
It’s presented as a volunteer project. In all cases it’s clear from the front that we’re doing this for the cause and not for the expectation of money. The Orquesta members don’t get paid, but in some places there’s a director with a salary. I imagine every Orquesta works out its own details around these things. We tried in Berlin to divide profits, and at the end it was just a joke. It was a lot of administrative overhead and ended up being €20 per person.
I think musicians should get paid. It makes a little tension for me – the idea of having a structured thing where music is being made without the musicians being compensated. And an ongoing project. But there’s this piece of reality in it.
There are inevitably some costs involved in the project. Rehearsal space, renting equipment or instruments, travel costs for members or a coach or a workshop leader. Overhead in the project. This is handled with fundraising or grant writing or tapping into other resources.
In Berlin the Orquesta receives an honorarium for performances and this money offsets the operating costs of the Orquesta.
It was a surprise challenge that the orquesta might be competition against professional groups. It hadn’t occurred to me. It’s flattering that we were asked to play on some big events and then there came the question what should we do because we don’t need the money but we don’t want to take the work from groups who do need the money. In general the policy sense has been when we are playing in a situation that could support a professional group, we charge something that doesn’t undercut professionals. We don’t charge as much as an orquesta of our size would charge, but we charge as much as the orquestas who share that market space would charge. I don’t mind if we take work away from pros because we please the dance audience. But we shouldn’t take work away from musicians because we’re cheaper.
When get an invitation, we use doodle to find out who can play on this date and we see if we have enough players to do it, then we answer the invitation. We can’t take a gig if we have no piano player available.
To make it sustainable, we need to understand what motivates people. There’s this basic tension between quality and inclusion. For a project that’s called a CTO inclusion is a given. We want to be open to musicians with enthusiasm and interest for tango. But quality is somehow essential in order to maintain the motivation. If people are playing for the experience and not for money or compensation then that experience has to be a good one. If it’s unpleasant to play then you lose musicians very quickly. So then there’s a challenge to stay open to people of all levels but keep the quality so it’s rewarding for the musicians who add a lot to the group. Every one of these projects that I’m aware of struggles with that issue. Every project depending on the organizer has their own solution to it. In some cases it’s more exclusive and depends on invitation. In other cases its wide open and there isn’t an expectation of very high quality. In Berlin we’ve been somewhere in the middle. I’ve only once had to ask someone to stop playing in the Orquesta. Their participation was costing us other Orquesta members. We just had one of our better violists retire basically because the rate of progress wasn’t satisfying for them.
There’s an assumption in an ensemble that you learn at home and in the rehearsal you put it together. This is widely understood it’s just not always true. Unfortunately it doesn’t follow a sensible relationship to people’s ability. If would be tolerable if more capable musicians spent less time learning and caught up in the rehearsal. But in fact those with good training come ready, and those who need extra time come to rehearsal to learn their parts. This makes it awkward for those who’ve already learned. This is the piece we haven’t yet solved. It’s not motivation to show up or to play in the milonga for free, but to invest time between rehearsals in learning the music. For some people it would mean studying their instrument and taking lessons. This is sometimes inversely related to ability. Better players are more in the habit of training and taking lessons than less experienced players.
Coaching is precarious in an ensemble with mixed levels of experience and ability. It’s not a given that the founder has the most experience or higher level. It should happen naturally that rehearsing becomes a group process. That doesn’t happen easily. It’s a constant search. It’s really helpful that someone has an agenda and a plan and can move things forward. At the same time, it’s a skill to take advantage of the knowledge of group as a whole and to engage people who have a lot of knowledge, information, resources, that those people don’t become passive.
For years I’ve been trying in an informal way to empower people who are more skilled to help the less-skilled people. I ask the more experienced person to help the rest of the strings. Informal is not the right way. There should be some role or public acknowledgement as the senior player or section leader. It feels a little to me against the flavor to make a hierarchy. There’s an education program in Venezuela called La Systema. More-experienced players have the responsibility to help less-experienced players. I’ve been thinking for years how to do that in a way that’s transparent and positive for everybody. In La Systema the fundamental motivation is also economic. It’s a chance to find a source of income. There’s motivation because there’s a chance to survive.
With the group of Berlin we’ve been in the habit for years to play through something. I share my points and then I ask what else is there? So we work with suggestions, between a lead and cooperative rehearsal.
The group needs someone to make decisions. Three of the groups I’m aware of in Germany, I have a regular presence in. I come as a workshop leader or guest musicians or clinician, and then it serves a function that they can look to the outsider as the person to set a direction, an aesthetic direction for the group. I’ve grown into it because I see it being necessary and I see it not necessarily hanging on musical authority. That avoids the ambiguity about whose perspective we’re going to take. We could all listen to the same recording and come up with 3 theories of what’s happening and how to achieve it.
Is there something in sounding like tango that’s special? What I can say is that the way of playing tango music in this Golden Era is emotionally-laden music. It’s music that is from start to finish evoking feeling. One could say that of every music. But Bach is about form and perfection and clarity and beauty but in abstract sense. Tango is a music about joy and pain and love and regret, things that aren’t necessarily lofty aesthetics but basic human drives. To translate that into the way of playing is another approach. Fundamentally different from playing Bach or Mozart.
I try to keep an eye out for that piece, and it’s something that maybe doesn’t come out every rehearsal, but every couple of weeks we need to come back to the idea, what’s the feeling? What story are we telling? What’s the underlying impulse that can inform our musical choices? There’s a trap for musicians playing in this orquesta format. You have a picture on the page in front of you of what the music is supposed to sound like. You have dots and lines and very strong indications of the expressive content. The trap is that it’s possible to just execute instructions instead of responding to your own feelings. In any music, but certainly for tango it’s important to step back from time to time and say yes but what is it supposed to feel like? I’m often amazed at how unaware we are sometimes of the answer to that question. And also about how effectively the style or feeling of the music can be changed by asking that question. We can wrestle with timing of phrasing or accent for weeks and we come back to the feeling and suddenly we find the way to play it. It’s the difference between the description of the thing and the thing itself.
The Future of CTOs
I’m very curious. I would love to see in 20 years what became of this idea or this project. What i would love to see is that in 20 years it’s totally irrelevant. That there isn’t a need for a subsidized tango music experience, a volunteer tango orquesta, because there’s enough dancers, there’s enough good musicians, there’s enough tango music to keep the dance alive.
At that point, maybe there’s still some role of CTO for fun. I thought of the CTO originally as serving the dance community. But i can imagine the dance community gives an audience for the community orquesta to be heard. The tango music scene and the dance scene could be strong enough that it’s superfluous, it’s not a practical benefit. I hope it’s tolerated. The experience – it’s nice to think of social music. There’s a role of making music together that isn’t about a professional level or making money or perfection.
I find myself feeling a little nostalgic for a time of naïveté. Where we all looked at tango as a mission or a problem that invited creativity and innovation, investing energy. And I haven’t been surrounded by that for years. I haven’t seen or felt that for a while. I wonder how that’s affecting the CTO project as a network because I think it really needs that.