I discovered the music of Astor Piazzolla, who was born on 11 March 1921, on 4 July 1992, the day he died. When RAI, the Italian national television channel, reported the sad news and paid tribute to the great Argentine composer, the network broadcast his music. The strikingly original music that I heard for the first time that day embodied not only the bold rhythms of Argentine tango, but also melodic evocations of Piazzolla’s Italian musical heritage, and the dissonances of jazz and klezmer that Piazzolla overheard when his family lived on the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1920s. My fascination for his music has persisted from that day forward.
Having studied saxophone at the Conservatorio Statale di Musica ‘G. Rossini’ in Pesaro, I came to the United States to pursue advanced degrees in saxophone performance. Thanks to fellowships from the Italian Embassy and Michigan State University, I went to Buenos Aires to do research related to my doctoral dissertation on the performance of Piazzolla’s music.
This music gets under one’s skin immediately. I felt I needed to breathe the air of the porteños, the people who were born in Buenos Aires, where tango is a way of life and the core of their identity. While there, I had the privilege of examining the composer’s original manuscript scores and interviewing people who had worked closely with Piazzolla: his wife, Laura Escalada, his librettist Horacio Ferrer, and his fellow musicians Pablo Ziegler, Daniel Binelli, José Bragato, and Arturo Schneider. Since then, my concert repertoire has often featured compositions by Piazzolla. In fact, the entire programme of my Carnegie Hall début consisted of his work.
“I had two great teachers: Nadia Boulanger and Alberto Ginastera. The third I found in a cold room in a boarding house, in the cabarets in the 1940s, in the cafés with orchestras on balconies, in the people of yesterday and today, in the sound of the streets. That third teacher is called Buenos Aires: it taught me the secrets of tango.”
His fusion of experiences and influences enabled Piazzolla to develop a style with its own unique aesthetic identity, thus creating a new world of tango, in which artists from different musical backgrounds could all coexist. Taking what he learned from his teachers, he composed classical music inspired by his heroes Stravinsky and Bartók, combined it with American jazz, and embedded it within tango music. He invented something altogether original and distinctive, often experimenting with new instrumental line-ups such as solo “bandoneón” and string orchestra, quintets, sextets, octets, and a nonet.
Piazzolla took the tango from the dance hall to the concert hall. His broad spectrum of changes included a richer harmonic language, demotion of the singer, and elimination of the dancers and other aspects of the ‘tango show’ in an attempt to draw the attention of listeners to the music of the tango. Ultimately, Piazzolla achieved the recognition and acclaim that he sought in the field of classical music, a place earned, ironically, through tango, his tango.
As well as a composer, Piazzolla was a virtuoso performer of the “bandoneón”. The velvet sound of his instrument captured the eroticism, nostalgia, and melancholy of restless and displaced people such as himself. Because I believe that the sound of the soprano saxophone is somewhat similar to that of the “bandoneón”, and also has the capacity to replicate the human voice and express a wide range of human emotions, I wanted to adapt his work for performance on saxophone. As I prepared the orchestrations for solo saxophone with chamber orchestra, my first priority was to preserve Piazzolla’s original concept. I transcribed the solo “bandoneón” part for soprano saxophone. I was confident that this instrument would match the range and melancholic timbre of the “bandoneón”, even though the saxophone produces sound from the vibration of a single wood reed, while the “bandoneón” uses fourteen metal tongues, or reeds. On this album I imagined the sound of the maestro, the breath within his voice and his ability to express a range of emotions.
Piazzolla’s new tango music represents love and death, or to put it more accurately, sex and death. I am happy to share Romance del Diablo… let the demon of love carry us towards unexpected horizons.