Leading up to the release of his latest ATMA CD, 4 Buenos Aires, bandoneónist and composer Denis Plante spoke to ATMA about his passion for the instrument and for the music it has become synonymous with: tango.
I read that you became interested in the bandoneón while learning to dance the tango. Can you tell us the story?
Well, I took an interest in learning to dance real Argentinian tango several years ago in Montreal, and I just really liked the dance so much that I decided to form an orchestra. I was playing guitar at the time and I couldn’t find anyone who could play the bandoneón. But I found a bandoneón for sale, so I bought it, formed my own orchestra, and began to play bandoneón in my own orchestra.
How long did that take?
Two weeks. I started very slowly and began to play a few pieces with the bandoneón and then the guitar. And after two months like that, I could play the whole repertoire on the bandoneón.
How do you explain your passion for this instrument?
Well, I was already a multi-instrument player. I grew up in a family of musicians and I used to play many, many instruments — I’d sing and play percussion, etc. I’d been working with my parents since I was 15 years old, doing tours around Canada and Europe. I was already used to changing instruments and learning new things quickly, but when I found the bandoneón, it was like falling in love … and it was the only instrument I’d never played before!
It was very new, very fresh, and it’s also a very interesting instrument for a composer, since there’s little repertoire actually written for it, so it was like a new world to explore. It was so exciting that I actually sold my guitar too, in order to buy a bandoneón — it was a no-return proposition … kind of like Christopher Columbus crossing the ocean without knowing if he’d find something on the other side!
What are the most common misconceptions people have about the bandoneón?
Well, people think it’s an accordion — that’s the first and most common misconception. It’s not an accordion, and it’s not part of the accordion family. It’s part of the concertina family. It’s an air-compression instrument like the accordion, but it has a different key layout and the fact that it’s a free-reed instrument makes it different too. Actually, it’s more like a harmonium; in fact it’s the evolution of the harmonium. The inventor’s idea was to create a portable harmonium in order to play religious music at home or in processions or in small churches where there was no organ. But it never had a lot of success in its original vocation — it was in the brothels of Buenos Aires that the instrument became popular at last. We don’t know exactly how it happened, but it seems that someone sold his bandoneón in Buenos Aires, and from there it became the instrument for tango.
How does Buenos Aires inspire you as a musician and composer?
Buenos Aires is a very vibrant city, and it inspired the roots of tango. The music was born there, and most lyrics in tango songs speak about the city itself or the way people live there, so there’s a very, very strong connection. And it’s interesting that the famous tango composer Ástor Piazzolla actually grew up in New York, so when he came to Buenos Aires he had the same amazed impression of it as I did when I discovered the city. It’s a very big city with a culture of its own, and tango is a huge part of it.
You said something very interesting in your notes about Piazzolla, that “the voice of his music is the voice of suffering.”
The whole of tango is about suffering; every tango is a sad love story that ended horribly! That’s part of it, but it also has a lot to do with exile. It’s the music of people who left everything they had in Europe in order to come to the new world in America. When they arrived in Buenos Aires it was not an easy life, and for many people tango was very much like the blues in the sense it was a music that spoke of those poor people’s fates in the streets. I must add that it’s really very urban music; in other words, it’s not the music of Argentina, it’s the music of Buenos Aires. Argentina is a large country and in every other part of Argentina there are different rhythms. So the tango is really a phenomenon from the city.
So tango really is the music of Buenos Aires …
Well, the first thing that was called “tango” was the dance itself. And up until the 1920s, people would dance tango to almost any kind of music. The music we call tango came afterwards; composers began to write music that would fit well with the dance steps, and that’s how tango music was born. Piazzolla grew up in a time when tango was very popular. But by the time he was old enough to get his first gig as a tango musician, it was already becoming less popular; it became something more like cabaret music, different than what it used to be, which was a real expression of the people. So he rapidly became tired of the whole decadent, cheesy tango thing, and after ten years of playing in the orchestra like that, he exiled himself in Europe and began to compose his own vision of tango, which mixed jazz music elements and contemporary music elements.
That’s what we play on this new CD, 4 Buenos Aires. Every arrangement is brand new; I wrote all the arrangements specifically for this CD, so they have never been recorded before. It’s an homage to Piazzolla and there’s a lot of my own input in the music.
Last year you toured Poland, Russia and India with your Tango Boréal Show. What was that like?
It was very fun and exciting, and I got to play my own music with string orchestras in Europe. It’s very exciting to play this music in that context since there are very few people who can make it happen at a high classical level. We play in a classical milieu, as invited soloists with string orchestras, and as such, in Europe there are very few occasions to actually bring those two worlds together — classical music and tango. It was very exciting to do it our own way, our Canadian way of playing tango … very sophisticated!
Tango continues to be popular all over the world. How do you explain its universal appeal?
First of all it’s been around for a long time, it’s more than 100 years old now. Also, I think tango offers something unique in a world where people are more physically disconnected (despite being more connected through media). When you’re dancing tango, you’re in very close contact with somebody you don’t know, but you have to share the dance, you have to be very clear in what you expect since it’s an improvised dance – there’s no choreography. The dance is improvised on the spot. In a world where people have fewer chances to meet other people face to face, it’s a very formalized way to encounter others and share with them.
Also, for a classical musician, this music has something very special called a fraseo, a phrasing. When you read tango notation, it is expected that you will not play exactly what is written. You have to make it your own. And for that reason I can listen to any band, any player, blindfolded, and I know who is playing because I know the way they will phrase the music. On the CD you can really listen for that kind of thing: There’s a track called Loving, and in the written score it’s all whole notes; if you listen to what I play, you’ll hear something very different. The musicians have to improvise their way and make the tango their own. That’s very exciting for most musicians: for once you can really express your own interpretation. You cannot imitate, you have to find your own voice.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
Yes, Piazzolla himself had very rigorous classical training. Before writing his Tango Nuevo (new tango), he actually wrote a symphony and he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. He was in contact with the whole neo-classical movement and that was the main inspiration. When he returned to Buenos Aires to write his Tango Nuevo, he would write fugues, he would write rhythms like Stravinsky’s, so the classical music training was very present. Also, Piazzolla was fond of jazz. His whole life he wanted to play with jazz musicians, which he finally got to do when he was already well known. It’s an interesting fusion of everything that was good in the 20th century.
© Atma Classique, August 2012
Translation Jacques-André Houle