Enrique Binda

Tango had its cuts

uch has been talked about cuts in tango as a dance, but we are not interested in this term as for this aspect. In fact, we are going to talk about the cuts concerning the outstanding points of its evolution in the period that, vaguely and arbitrarily, is known as Guardia Vieja (old trend), assimilating this concept into the dynamics that are observed in the growth of living creatures, that clearly mark the different stages of its existence.

After an innovation which causes a cut takes place, the musical framework begins to become uniform by adopting the new trend and, in this way, all end up being similar to each other until the new evolutionary rupture appears.

From this point of view, the first cut might have been its massive emergence as musical genre. This occurrence, which is verified through documents, took place in the carnival balls of 1903, even though it had already been a popular genre in them for several years. After that, the organizers were very careful in highlighting the performances of tangos, by even announcing as an open competition how many and how new were the numbers. The venues where this took place were either the halls that reunited the working class and the immigrants or also the downtown theaters set up as dancing tracks.

The latter were usually frequented by a higher social class because of, among other reasons, the admission fee price. This forces us to reconsider either the worn-out story about the rejection supposedly provoked by tango or the time when it was publicly accepted as music genre which customarily is thought as having happened ten years later.

At these salons and theaters, the aggregation that played the music numbers was an orchestra or band lined up by a large number of players due to the venue sizes and the great number of attendants which demanded a large mass of sound to fill the area. So the performance of the incipient orchestras, later called “típicas” (in fact, trios or quartets) was put aside.

On the other hand, the recording industry, still in its beginnings, was as much as possible careful with the musical quality of the recordings because the disc was an expensive product and the buyers would not have accepted something mediocre or simply bad in exchange for their money. The above would justify their delay in recording.

This prompts us to indicate a second cut in our analysis, given in this case by the documentary appearance of recordings by a tango orchestra (orquesta típica), a privilege granted to the one fronted by the bandoneonist Vicente Greco. Listening to these discs recorded in the early 1910 allows us to come to some conclusions.

The first one is that even with a small number of players (a quartet in this case) it was possible to make a recording. Then why hadn’t it been made before? Let us remember the above as for the quality expected in the performances and let us notice its lack in this orchestra’s performances which even at times is out of tune and fails to keep the beat. If we add this to the evident commercial decision of having used the most popular (and presumably best) orchestra of the time to secure sales we draw the conclusion that this type of primitive orchestras included players with poor technical and musical proficiency.

In other words, if the group headed by Greco was the most successful, let us imagine how the others would sound like. And because of that they did not cut recordings. But it also generally happens that what is popular it is not necessarily the best and, consequently, there would be better orchestras which because they played in a more complex way they did not get a wider acclaim and due to that they had not cut recordings. But we have to stick to what is documented.

These commentaries are not made with a pejorative intention, because we are aware of the importance of these orchestras in the consolidation of tango, being finally the cornerstones of its development. But we must not ennoble or deify these pioneers as it is frequently done. A praise that is not suitable to the sound testimonies that they themselves have left. It is worthwhile saying that some of them were able to evolve as musicians in the following years and succeeded in reaching the level of other colleagues who were trained in conservatories.

Another conclusion that these recordings by Greco allow us to draw is the intended preponderance of the bandoneon sound in the recordings. Discarding technical errors in an activity which already had ten years of experience, we must admit the interest and importance given to this instrument in the tango orchestras due to the prestige that Greco had as player.

A special paragraph deserves the importance of the phonograph as a vehicle to spread tango until 1910 as we have said that was basically played by bands and after that by tango orchestras. This device had a double or contradictory effect, imposing a determinate way or playing style and later, when something more evolved appeared, it became the executioner of the previous one causing a change in the popular taste by adjusting it to the new forms. For example, the phonograph imposed the bands and placed them off the market after Pacho, and made that they scarcely recorded again and those which did had disastrous figures in sales.

It has come to our mind the idea of inserting a digression, maybe contradictory at this point. We will say that the aforementioned supremacy of the tango orchestras turns out fully valid after the third cut that we will explain later. Because up to it (Pacho in 1912) the market was supposedly avid for records played by orquestas típicas, according to what Francisco Canaro says in his memoirs. But it had to do with only the ten discs recorded by Greco because neither the Columbia company for which he had recorded nor the other rival recording companies tried to repeat for two years the supposed success with more recordings. And it poses an unanswered question opened.

So we arrive at the aforementioned third cut caused in 1912 by the start of Juan Maglio’s recordings which brought to ruin everything in connection with tango recorded up to then. This was due to the performing quality of this orchestra and its varied repertoire that included bandoneon solos by its leader. The playing is not legato and in unison like in the first orchestra led by Greco and we can notice even incipient attempts of passages that although we cannot call them “solos” they bring a certain preeminence of an instrument upon others.

The explanation is simple: at least the violinist José Bonanno and the flutist Carlos Hernani Macchi read music which allowed them to analyze the sheet music and take, within the conception of the time, the greatest advantage. Then the result was: organized performances with good intonation which were more pleasant to the ear. Previously, there were excellent recordings made by bands like the Municipal or the one belonging to the Police, but as we said above, thanks to Pacho they belong to the past. Furthermore, it is interesting to highlight that the wide tango repertoire recorded indicates a consolidation of the genre and the appearance of new composers.

But the kingdom of Pacho would last a couple of years until 1914 when the recordings of Roberto Firpo began. He was a player and composer that would give rise to the fourth cut. But it was not him who introduced the piano in recordings: paradoxically, our criticized Vicente Greco included it in his second series for Columbia in 1912. But not even Pacho had taken notice of that because he continued using the guitar for the rhythm function. And here is precisely the question: because Greco assigned to the piano a mere rhythmic role while through Firpo it became a driving and harmonizing element.

This new orchestral conception is combined with two other differing aspects: the numbers composed by Firpo and the fundamental role assigned to the violins. In 1913 there was only one in charge of Tito Roccatagliata and as from 1914 the second appeared with Agesilao Ferrazzano. The interpretive quality of these two excellent musicians allows the appearance of a great innovation: the “counter melody” of the second violin. This event, added to the revolutionary repertoire composed by the leader (“Alma de bohemio”, “El amanecer”), makes this orchestra something unique and completely different to the ones of its time. It suffices to listen to a recording by Pacho or others and make the comparison with one by Firpo to appreciate it.

In sum, we would say it was an orchestra that was ten years ahead of its time because, save for the recordings by Arolas in 1917, it was necessary to wait until 1920 with the Típica Select (in which, Oh, what a coicidence!: Roccatagliata played first violin) for hearing something within that conception.

Inexplicably, it is Firpo himself who after around 1917 abandoned this serious musical trend and began to approach the pieces with a spirit that we can label as jocular, with other use of the piano, with his players providing a chorus for the pieces, etc.

But thanks to the path opened by Firpo, the old model of interpretation resigned itself to have its swan’s song in 1915 with the Quinteto Bolognini and even later in 1916 with the one led by Félix Camarano. Both were excellent examples of a style that, however, would never come back.

Then we turned Firpo’s innovations up a notch by means of Eduardo Arolas in his recordings of 1917 which represent the fifth cut. Its importance does not rely, at least regarding the recordings, on the interpretive work by the leader playing bandoneon but on the conception of his compositions, even more mature and complex than those by Firpo. Furthermore, his way of playing really touches the spirit due to what we could call his pathos, maybe it was the musical reflection of the human drama its leader was experiencing. This way, however, perhaps due to the non-transferability of its essence, had neither followers among his contemporaries nor do we have recorded testimonies of the later work by the brilliant Arolas.

All these changes or interpretive moods were later summed up in the work of an aggregation put together especially to cut recordings in 1920, thus producing the sixth cut. We are talking of the aforementioned Típica Select, formed around the piano played by Enrique Delfino, the bandoneon of Osvaldo Fresedo and the violin of Tito Roccatagliata. To them a second violin and a cello were added. This orchestra established the interpretive antecedents about how tango is to be played and paved the way to the imminent era of sextets.

We have expressly set aside something (this for many may seem sacrilegious) that would deserve a CUT in capital letters: the appearance, in 1917, of “Mi noche triste (Lita)”. Because it included lyrics with a development containing a plot, sometimes it seems to be regarded as the first tango that existed or, at least, the first one to be taken into account. But as we are precisely analyzing a musical genre, we have made our approach focusing on what it is its obvious essence: its music.

Going on with it, we will say that the style opened by the Típica Select was continued, always taking into account the recordings, after 1922 by the orchestras led by Osvaldo Fresedo and Carlos Vicente Geroni Flores, to them the one fronted by Juan Carlos Cobián was added in 1923. It is not by chance that all these aggregations had recorded for the Victor label, a company that gathered the orchestras of the evolutionary trend until the beginning of the next decade.

Its direct competitor, the Odeon or Nacional, grouped those with a simpler interpretive style and without harmonic embellishments to the original sheet music. Within that trend we have the orchestras led by Roberto Firpo (after his regression), Francisco Canaro, Juan Maglio and Francisco Lomuto.

As for establishing a new cut, the logical one would be, towards 1924, the appearance of the Julio De Caro orchestra, beginning the so called Decarean period. But we think that that orchestra, to which we do not intend to belittle at all, in fact, consolidated ideas which, as we have seen, had been forged years before. Because of that, it would be fair to define a ”Fresedian” or “Cobian” period, because the latter were those who introduced the style at issue, in that order, to audiences and in recordings.

However, taking into account the acclaim achieved by Julio De Caro and his firm loyalty to this interpretive way throughout his long career, we establish with him this seventh cut.

The following and last one within the scope of this essay can be placed approximately ten years later when the era of the sextets came to an end (It may be compared to the equivalent of the so- called chamber music in the classical genre) when orchestras with a greater number of players were put together and was necessary the help of an arranger to establish an ensemble and different roles for each group of instruments. Juan D'Arienzo was the classic example of the earlier ones in this trend (eighth cut).

As you may see, there have been numerous periods that turned into old the previous one, hence talking about Guardia Vieja, as it is usually done, without defining the parameters on which this labeling is intended to be based, it lacks of practical sense.

In fact, if we attempt to define it due to the complexity or differences of a particular tango, as when as limit is given the appearance of “Recuerdo” by Osvaldo Pugliese, we have to ask ourselves if, for example, “Cenizas”, by José María Rizzuti (1923), “Idolos” by Fresedo (1923), “L'adivina” or “Snobismo” by Cobián (1922), or even before, “Lágrimas” by Arolas (1916) or the above “Alma de bohemio” by Firpo (1914) were not so much revolutionary and musically appraisable.

If the parameters were the musical richness of the interpretations and the emergence of a style that would have left behind the previous ones, the end of the famous trend would be in 1914 with Firpo. Also, if the definition had been based on the number of players and the officially established arrangement, the date would have to be postponed to 1934-1935 with Juan D'Arienzo.