Learning From Early Music

2011 July 10
by Simba
Early Music by madabandon, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by  madabandon

In a sense, dancing Argentine Tango in 2011 in a country far away from Argentina is an inescapable anachronism. How could it ever be authentic? Should it be? Shouldn’t any art form evolve and develop in a quest for ever improvement? In the (un)concious choice between opposing traditions, which would be the right to follow?

Now, these questions are not unique for tango of course:

The idea of revival has become a touchstone for the Early Music Movement, and consequently the fact that some styles of performance have been going on long enough to develop and build their own continuity presents some philosophical complications.


Labels such as “authentic performance” and “composer’s intentions” have likewise been mostly abandoned, but this time primarily for philosophical rather than practical reasons. There are two basic facts underlining this decision. The first is that knowing precisely how a work was originally performed, especially one rather distant in time, is not really possible. The second is that, perhaps with a few exceptions, composers do not state their intentions with regard to hypothetical performances hundreds of years in the future. The idea that the composer “wants” the music to sound today exactly as it did for the first performance is simply a philosophical one.


[The] composition of a piece, especially one which we would want to hear centuries later, was a creative act made in the context of creative musicians. In this sense, if musicians today are to abandon any creativity when rendering old music, then they are not authentic, because that is not the frame of mind under which the original was made. The same frame of mind is indeed impossible today, because the piece will never be new again. Of course, for many individuals, it will seem new, and that is part of what has made the revival aspect of early music so successful and exciting.


Maybe we have something to learn from the Early Music Movement. Tango dancing is from a not so distant past, but it has not been very well documented, and that leaves us with many of the same problems as interpreters of Early Music.

As I understand it, one important conductor of early music is Roger Norrington, and one of his pet peeves is the contemporary (over) use of the vibrato. (According to Mark Katz, due to the different needs of recorded music, a ‘phonographic effect’. A recommended read.) Norrington has some interesting thoughts on the motivation for searching information on early performances.

[If] Brahms expected to hear a particular sound, I want to know what that was. Or at least I want to hear it a few times before deciding that it is rubbish. But what I have discovered, all the way from Monteverdi to Mahler, is that when music is played as it should be, the sound is wonderful, the expression is wonderful and the instruments match together.


[They] are beginning to realise you don’t need to put vibrato on everything, like sugar. I know that I’m still the only conductor that really asks them not to. And that many great musicians simply don’t know why they should even reconsider what they essentially learned in college. But I can’t live without trying to see the skull beneath the skin. In the end, I know this project might still fail, or be shelved for 30 years. So if, on the day I die, the world is playing without vibrato, of course I will be delighted. But even if they aren’t, I’ll still be delighted because at least I did.


This mirrors some of my thoughts about learning how the old milongueros danced back in the day.  I may or may not want to dance exactly like they did, but it’s worth giving it a try. Maybe, just maybe, they actually knew something that has gone out of fashion, forgotten by most teachers and considered unimportant by most dancers who ‘just want to dance’. There are not many left, but there may still be things to learn from the few milongueros still with us, or from people who studied with them.

One might find that through learning about the idiosyncrasies of a time past, we can discover something that — even if it is not new — feels new and refreshing. That by improving our understanding, we can reintroduce the creative act where it seemed lost in new fashions and conformity. That by imposing constraints, paradoxically, we might find freedom.

Maybe we need an Early Tango Movement?

5 Responses leave one →
  1. 2011 July 11

    Maybe, just maybe, they actually knew something that has gone out of fashion, forgotten by most teachers

    I think you’re right. One example being that the BA milongueros knew that one best learns to dance by actually dancing. The few who did adapt to teaching in the new class-based model never lost sight of this.

    This fact has either been forgotten or, more likely I think, was never known or understood by most of today’s class teachers, particularly those who themselves learned mainly second-hand – in classes. Today those teachers’ classes are increasingly separating men from women, for example placing men and women in lines facing each other, practicing their parts separately. And in solo exercises, even to the extent of putting men and women them in separate classes – so-called men’s/women’s technique classes where they teach one half of a move in a setting where students are deprived of any chance of finding out whether it actually works for real.

    Separating people in order to teach them to dance together is something I never saw used by e.g. Gavito, Tete or Ricardo Vidort. That method turns on its head the way that they learned and did their best to pass on. For them, dancing tango comes from the music and the embrace. Without the embrace, you’re not dancing tango. Eliminate the embrace, and you also eliminate means by which each learns to dance from another. In the words of one the few new-method teachers who have realised how very wrong they were:

    The problem is that we missed something in the teaching, I take total responsibility, and other colleagues should do so as well. I can’t pass on what I have learned. I was crazy about creating, because I saw a new vein in the evolution of the movement. I threw myself into that, and I lost the way to be able to pass on the tango essence that I have very much inside. Because of this I feel that lately there are a lot of people who don’t understand or know what the real essence of this dance is. … Currently, not only has the essence been lost but the weight of the dance as well, its density and importance.”

    Full article here.

  2. 2011 July 11

    Ask any young jazz musician how he developed and he’ll tell you by listening to and studying with jazz legends.

    No one can dance tango like anyone else and do it from the heart. We all feel it differently. Why aren’t there more who are interested in learning from the milongueros? I don’t know. I’ve been asking myself that question for ten years. All it takes is going to the milongas and observing them.

    These days most men are being trained by women tango teachers, not by men of the milongas. The results are obvious.

  3. 2011 July 15

    Interesting thoughts. They might echo what Oscar Casas was thinking about when he talks of ‘nuevo milonguero’. Oscar has developed a huge knowledge from his association with dancers of Ricardo Vidort’s generation, yet doesn’t seem inclined to try to teach anything like an exact ‘milonguero tradition’ but seems (like it or not) to treat that tradition as a resource. It would be a pretty futile endeavour to recreate exactly the dance of the 1940s: out bodies and minds might be similar, but they aren’t the same. We bring our own histories to our tango.

    It’s also great that video and YouTube have combined to give us an easy way to record and watch something that is slipping away from us. A great start has been made, but there’s more to do, and little time left. Moreover, there’s a slightly younger generation who may have lived close to the older dancers for many years. But the early music parallel isn’t quite exact because there’s no score to be both followed and interpreted when you dance.

  4. 2011 July 15
    John Morton permalink

    “Maybe we need an Early Tango Movement?”

    Yes, but if not that, then use of an Early Tango learning method called finding your own (way of) Tango. I’ve spent much time trying to make sense of tango and what is taught – indeed, of what I had been taught.

    My conclusion so far is it doesn’t make sense to try and make sense of other peoples’ many different ideas of Tango. The way of the milongueros is just the most natural way of dancing the music together in harmony. It is our Anglo Saxon diffident culture which gets in the way.

  5. 2011 July 18

    @Chris: I didn’t have teaching in mind specifically, but why not? Not sure that would be the lesson to be learnt though, seems most milongueros learnt by walking a lot on their own, then learning the woman’s part, then dancing with skilled peers before finally venturing out to the milonga, or so the story goes.

    @TC: It’s obviously not an exact match, but by recognizing we bring something of our own, yet seeking information on the tango of the golden age (or before or after) can still be useful/interesting without embarking on a futile quest for authenticity.

    @John: Finding your own way is my conclusion as well, but I do find information on the dance of the milongueros to be a great resource, even though they may be contradicting each other. Also recognizing that not everything makes sense (for you) was a great relief, Anglo Saxon or not.

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