REVIEW: Borges & Piazzolla in New York

Argentina Culture in New York TeatroStageFest & Americas Society presented “Borges & Piazzolla in New York,” an intimate conference with Maria Kodama (Jorge Luis Borges’ widow), Daniel Piazzolla (Astor Piazzolla’s grandson), and Hernán Lombardi (Minister of Culture of the City of Buenos Aires) moderated by Terrance McKnight (WQXR) Oct 5 2012. The discussion was beautifully translated by Americas Society Music Director Sebastian Zubieta.

by Keith Widyolar, October 6, 2012

Borges & Piazzolla in New York

It may seem odd at first to draw a connection between these two giants from the culture of Argentina, author Jorge Luis Borges and bandoneónista Astor Piazzolla, creator of Tango Jazz which he called “Tango Nuevo” (not to be confused with the style of dancing Tango to alternative music with stage moves). But if you consider it a moment, the connection slowly appears.

The most obvious connection is an album of tangos and milongas called El Tango that Borges and Piazzolla created together in 1965. The album has gone out of print, but was rerecorded in 1997 as Borges & Piazzolla: Tangos and Milogas.

Borges & Piazzolla were Universal Thinkers

Borges writes often of the universe. Piazzolla’s music, though Argentine, is universal. Daniel explained that his father loved Borges because there were similarities in their thinking. Hernán Lombardi, Minister of Culture of the City of Buenos Aires, added that “Buenos Aires is a place that is open to ideas from everywhere. Borges was a voracious traveler. This is not a coincidence. The world comes to Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires goes out into the world.”

Astor spent his childhood years in Greenwich Village. His grandson, Daniel Piazzolla, explained that the young Astor tap danced for money and was given music lessons in the neighborhood by a Hungarian classical pianist, a student of the Russian master composer Rachmaninov. The lessons were paid for with pasta and sauce. Maybe this is why tango is so popular in Russia and many fine tango orchestras come from Moscow today.

The music lessons were part of Astor’s father’s dream to have his son play tango. On his birthday in 1929, when Astor was hoping for a baseball, his father gave him a bandoneón that he had found in a pawn shop. Since their apartment was small and pianos were expensive, Astor translated his music lessons onto the bandoneón. In 1934 Astor met the iconic tango singer Carlos Gardel here in New York. Gardel tutored him and even invited the young man on tour. Astor was not permitted to go which was fortunate because Gardel and his entire orchestra were soon after lost in a plane crash on that tour.

So both artists were universal thinkers and part of the dialog between Buenos Aires and the world. Interestingly Mr. Lombardi was one of the key voices in getting tango recognized by the UN’s cultural arm UNESCO, as part of the intangible heritage of humanity in 2009. About this accomplishment, he said that Argentina was just lucky that when UNESCO started considering intangible heritage, Argentina starting with the letter “A” was first on the list.

We think one of the best demonstrations of the universality of Piazzolla’s music is to go onto YouTube and search for “Libertango,” one of Piazzolla’s master works. You will find performances of the song from everywhere in the world, on every possible instrument, in every possible style. You will find everything from classical orchestras to children on kazoos, and many of them are very good.

Great Art Mixes the Past with the Present and the Future

Borges wrote short stories, essays and poems that are often puzzling contemplations of existence that stretch the boundaries of awareness. When Piazzolla first brought his “Tango Nuevo” to Buenos Aires, people criticized it saying this wasn’t tango. They counted the meter or bars in the music and decided it couldn’t possibly be tango. Yet today, what most tango bands play and what most people know as tango music is Piazzolla’s “Tango Nuevo.” Ironically, “Tango Nuevo” has bypassed the traditional form to become the standard.

When asked if like Jules Verne, Borges predicted the future, his widow and collaborator, Maria Kodama, replied, “In every era there are many artists, but only a few stand the test of time as true creators of the period, Da Vinci for example. These creators, often without knowing it themselves, plant a seed of thought. Some time later, someone else with a similar sensibility takes that seed and grows it into something real.” Today doctors in neuroscience are using the ideas of Borges for inspiration of their own explorations.

Daniel Piazzolla's Escalandrum at Americas Society
Daniel Piazzolla’s Escalandrum at Americas Society

New York Latin Culture Director, Ximena Ojeda added, “When Daniel Piazzolla played his composition ‘Lunfardo,’ tonight, you could hear a shadow of the old tangos of the past, you could hear Astor’s “Tango Nuevo” representing the present, and you could hear his grandson Daniel stretching the form still further into the future.”

The City of Babel

When asked why he programmed this event at the Americas Society, Sebastian Zubieta told us, “I believe dialogs between big cities are important and Piazzolla lived here in New York.”

Perhaps we can find a connection between these two universal artists and their relevance today in Borges’ own words. One of his celebrated short stories, “The Library of Babel,” begins:

“The Library of Babel. By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 23 letters… The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries…” Borges

If you change three words (“23 letters” and “Library” to, “12 tones” and “Music”) you get a description of Jazz:

“The Music of Babel. By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 12 tones… The universe (which others call the Music) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries…”

Babel of course refers to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel where people spoke with one language and sought to declare themselves by building a tower to heaven. God came to earth to see what was going on and noted that by speaking with one voice the people could accomplish anything. Therefore he confounded them with many languages so they could not understand each other and scattered the people across the earth.

Slowly but surely the people of the world are overcoming the barriers of language and place, the prejudices of history, and coming together once again. We asked Susana Tubert, Executive Producer of TeatroStageFest, what was the importance of this event? Susana replied, “We produce great Latino theater for all audiences in all communities so that people can see a little bit of themselves in our stories. The values of these artists transcend the barriers that we sometimes find in the United States.”

As we rebuild the World Trade Center downtown, what kind of tower are we building? The World Trade Center of the past was one of the places that first unleashed the forces of globalization which are rippling back upon us now. Hopefully part of the foundation for the future of the new tower can be found in the universal voice of people like Borges and Piazzolla.

“The City of Babel. By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 12 languages… The universe (which others call humanity) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries…”

TeatroStageFest: Borges & Piazzolla in New York
Americas Society
680 Park Ave (at 68th St)
(212) 628-3200

October 5, 2012

TeatroStageFest: Escalandrum + Paquito D’Rivera & Ute Lemper
315 West 44th St (between Eighth & Ninth Ave)

October 6, 2012
Doors 5pm
Show 5:30pm

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