Album Release

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Otoño Porteño by Astor Piazzolla

The idea: there’s a series of something on the table and someone decides to create a piece that depicts the poetic character of that something, kind of like the imposed ingredient on an episode of Iron Chef. Parsnips. Go!

Years ago, there was a particular series of paintings at the Louvre that I remember hanging around for a while. It was “The Four Seasons” by the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo  (1527– 1593).


These puny pic pastings don’t do them a pinch of justice. But it’s the idea... a dude... with time and talent... thinking about the subjects “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter” ...and creating something totally off the wall, as it were. Arcimboldo’s seasons are imaginative and beautiful.

It happens in music, too. Gustav Holst did the planets. Sufjan Stevens is working on to the United States.  Tchaikovsky did the months of the year. 

And then there are the composers that tackled the subject of the seasons, which ends me beating around the bush. 

Examples of composers who wrote a series on The Seasons are: 

Antonio Vivaldi 
John Cage
Darius Milhaud
Joseph Haydn
Astor Piazzola
John Thomas

Today’s focus: Astor Piazzolla

Otoño Porteño (translation: Buenos Aires Autumn) is a tango tune written not for solo harp but an ensemble of bandoneon, strings, electric guitar, and piano. Piazzolla (1921- 1992) was from Argentina, the “heart of tango” and this piece is among his 2500+ compositions for the genre of nuevo tango. Otoño Porteño was premiered in 1969. I guess Piazzolla’s Seasons weren’t conceived all at once,  but composed over the course of 6 years.

Luckily for the harp world, there is an Argentinean harpist who has transcribed a handful of Piazzolla’s works: Maria Luisa Rayan-Forero (b. 197???). I’ve seen and heard her live, but haven’t shaken her hand yet. In short: I’m a fan of hers. Her arrangement of Otoño Porteño is 1. difficult 2. doable 3. enjoyable. She took 6 chromatic instruments’ parts and concentrated them into one not-so-easily-chromatic instrument, keeping as much of the original color and mood as possible.  

Nuevo tango= a combo of  traditional Argentine tango, jazz, dissonance and extended harmony, and sometimes counterpoint. Melody is pointy. Rhythms are percussive and uncommon among the harp’s “normal” repertoire: end the the phrase with an accent?! Crazy crazy. 

I lived in Nice for a month, 6 years ago. It was just after I had arrived in France to study music, and I remember going home to the dorm one night very late. I had to cross Vieux Nice and a plaza that I don’t remember the name of, and as I came up the steps, there was a pack of dancers “getting down” to a loud boom box blasting tango music. I stopped, in awe. It was so beautiful- to watch how each couple interacted, the way the music altered their motion, the nice little ring they all made as each couple moved in the same direction, counterclockwise. It had to have been after midnight, and this tango club was enjoying their monthly get-together under the stars, and a very light rain.

This incident stuck with me. I try to picture these little dancers when I attack the Otoño Porteño. The good and bad news is that there are many, many pedal changes in this arrangement (there’s no way around it), and the harpist’s feet are so active, moving the pedals in rhythm with the music. Every gesture and effect are intentional, just as the dancers’ motion is intentional and timed. It’s like the harpist is dancing and playing at the same time. It’s fantastic! But tricky.

To be honest, I don’t see how Otoño Porteño reflects the poetic nature of autumn. :-D I don’t see red leaves and harvest, but seduction and tension. And French tango dancers in the rain. Nonetheless, I’m glad this arrangement is on my music stand. Thank you, Astor, Maria Luisa, and the Nice Tango Club!

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