My Blog has moved to

La Muerte del Angel (The Death of the Angel) is one of Astor Piazzolla’s works that has been arranged in various guises, by Piazzolla himself, and by others. The Cape Town Tango Ensemble’s new CD Tango Club features my arrangement.

Astor Piazzolla wrote Tangos that cover an astonishing musical range. Music for over 40 films share his catalogue  with dance music “concert tangos”  and symphonic works such as the Bandoneon Concerto. From solo flute to jazz ensembles to full symphony orchestra, Piazzolla continually pushed the boundaries of his musical language. He was a classically trained musician, so many of his arrangements of his own works are written out in such a way that a classical ensemble could perform them. His period of study in France with the world famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger reflected his lifelong interest in “serious” music. However, in his quest to rejuvenate the traditional dance tango, he incorporated the improvisations of Jazz, and the atonal experiments of the avant garde classical composers of the 20th century. The resulting Tango Nuevo (New Tango) is an exhilarating world where improvisation in the heat of the moment joins hands with strict rules of classical music in an intoxicating dance.

The written musical scores are often deceptively simple. Below is a sample of the skeleton piano score of La Muerte del Angel sold by Tonos Publishers. (Click on the score to view enlarged version.)

La Muerte del Angel - the skeleton score

This page forms the A section: rhythmic, incisive, aggressive. It is followed by a reflective, inward-looking B section with a laid-back, smokey jazz feeling. Two pages only. It is so simple one might be forgiven for dismissing it. Yet the seeds for a magnificent creation are contained in these two simple pages. The art lies in how this skeleton is transformed into a fully-fledged piece of music. Piazzolla made various arrangements of the work and each time he performed it, the improvisations were different.

Piazzolla and the Fugue: “TANGUIFICATED”

A fugue is a theme that chases a duplicate of itself

One of the formal classical styles Piazzolla used to particularly dramatic effect, is the Fugue. The word “Fugue” means “to chase” and that is almost literally the implication of the way in which the entries of the main fugue theme “chase” one another. With Piazzolla’s trademark rhythmic drive – bordering on obsessive compulsive – his fugues are particularly exciting. In a 1989 interview Piazzolla told Gonzalo Saaverda (transl. David Taylor):

But my main style is to have studied. If I had not, I would not be doing what I do, what I’ve done. Because everybody thinks that to do a ‘modern tango’ is to make noise, is to make strange thoughts, and no, that’s not true! You have to go a little deeper, and you can see that what I do is very elaborate. If I do a fugue in the manner of Bach, it will always be “tanguificated”.

James Waller: Fugue Icon Cycle (

And tanguified they are. While they are not rigorously worked out fugues in the style of Bach, his 18 month period of intense study of four-part harmony is evident in his ease of handling the fugal style. All Piazzolla’s fugues are fast and furious. He seemed to revel in the “thrill of the chase” afforded by this style of writing. Bringing in a theme for a second time, before the first play-through of it has ended, builds tremendous excitement and tension.

A Tango “FUGUIFICATED”: The challenge of “Post-Piazzollism”

"Autumn Fugue" (jnm_ua on

"Autumn Fugue" (jnm_ua on

I wanted to arrange this work myself, as much as hommage to Piazzolla and my passion for his music, and as an attempt to realise some of the sounds that the work conjured in my imagination. “Post-Piazzollism” is both the legacy of this great master, as well as the challenge for any musician treading this holy ground. In my arrangement, I did not use Piazzolla’s Fugue version of La Muerte del Angel as the starting point, but chose to attempt to create something new. There was something in the theme that just seemed to call for a “chase”. Whenever we performed this work in the past, we would work only off the piano score: each instrument embellishes and improvises around the basic structure.  Elements of Jazz enter the world of classically trained musicians, are we improvise “on the fly”.

Twyla Tharp's "The Fugue" danced at Juilliard (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

In some of our more confident concerts the fugue just seemed to sneak in all the time. Something about the harmony was so logically suited to imitation, that somehow it always turned into a fugue of sorts. I also enjoyed the virtuosity of the material, and having another keyboardist in the form of the accordion in the ensemble in addition to the violin, was just too good to resist. Various orchestral versions of this work exist. The many instruments in an orchestra make the composition of a fugue a more direct procedure than allowing a quartet or quintet of musicians to “improvise fugally” at will. While some of our improvisations were thrilling and on the edge, occasionally there was just a bit too much fugality for our own good. I felt the need to limit some of the artistic decisions we took on the spur of the moment, by writing down, and thus containing, some of the fugal elements. Naturally, this limited possibility for improvisation, for all the musicians in the ensemble. In the process, I killed off some of the potential “discoveries” we might still have stumbled upon in a fiery performance. But perhaps this sacrifice was for the greater good of the performance as a whole.

Virgin Sacrifice in Piazzolla and Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps meets Tango

Aysem Sunal and Priit Kripson in Le Sacre du Printemps, with choreography by the legendary Mauricio Wainrot. (Paul De Backer)

Ritual slaughter of innocent victims for the good of the greater community, is an archetypal event common to humanity:

Aslan, the titular animal in C.S. Lewis’ 1950 book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , is a good exmple. The Christian Bible abounds in tales of Human Sacrifice, in adition to the obvious metaphor of Christ. Even a modern film aimed at a youth market such as Ice Age 3 has a Sloth Sacrifice Ceremony. Sid the Sacrificial Sloth, narrowly escapes certain death in the heart of a volcano, simply by virtue of his own innocence (some might say stupidity turned vritue). Piazzolla’s work on the death of the angel is definitely cut from the same psychic cloth.

La Muerte del Angel was created for Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s 1962 stage play Tango del Angel, in which an angel heals the spirits of the residents of a shabby Buenos Aires neighbourhood. Munoz required a narrative suite that encompassed a story of innocence, deceit, violence and death, and reconciliation. The death of the angel is required for the purification of the humans. The drive and aggression in this work reminded me a lot of another famous ritual Virgin Sacrifice. Stravinsky’s earliest conception of The Rite of Spring was in the spring of 1910, in the form of a dream: “… the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice to the god of Spring in order to gain his benevolence.”

The record cover for Seiji Ozawa's recording of "Le Sacre du Printemps"

For many, Le Sacre represents the explosion of the tonal and rhythmic anarchy of the 20th century. To me – given the 20/20 vision afforded by a hundred years’ human rhythmic endeavour –  large sections of it seem eminently danceable. My experiences of intense music making with the CT Tango Ensemble – either by ourselves in concert or in the sacred space of the rapt improvisations or choreography of various dancers – has given some of our performances and element of ritual. The primal ritual of human sacrifice resonated with me when playing Piazzolla’s angel sacrifice. I fear I identified with both the victim and the aggressor. As composers both Stravinsky and Piazzolla are able to depict violence and aggression. Perhaps for that very reason, the music of the victim is all the more poignant.

In making the arrangement I felt that the sound of the violin is often the voice that speaks for both Piazzolla’s and Stravinsky’s sacrificial victims. Therefore the violin has a rhapsodic cadenza linking the violence of the chase with the contemplation of the angel.

"Salome" (Aubrey Beardsley). Another sacrificial victim in which the Pure Eve and the Fallen Eve are draped in the same veil

While the concept of an angel implies purity and virginity, the sensual nature of Piazzolla’s melodic material more than hints at carnal desires. The eroticism of the melody is irresistible and undeniable. The eroticism of the tango is likewise not to be disputed.  In his Tango Operita Maria de Buenos Aires, Piazzolla created the character of Maria as an allegory for the tango itself: death and resurrection, the fall from grace, transcendence.

I tried to bring these apparent contradictions to bear on this arrangement. I enjoyed the ambivalence of melodies that can change perspective from the hunted victim to the hunter. The violence projected through the Tango rhythms and Stravinsky’s pungent harmonies just seemed to fit together. Archetypal concepts float around in the ether. The last gasp of the victim before the final chord of death, an accordion melody symbolising both the spiritual purity and the carnal knowledge of the angel. But most importantly, making the arrangement was a delightful experiment. I tried to expand my definition of both Stravinsky and Piazzolla, and explore a link between them in the collective subconscious. In the process I had a lot of fun.

Free Piazzolla Scores can be downloaded from This site is Tango-Nirvana!

Stravinsky on his arrest in "the land of the free" for adding a different harmony to "The Star Spangled Banner"

For more on Stravinsky’s approach to rhythmic rebellion, see On the rhythm of “The Rite of Spring” by Edward Green. Stravinsky was not only rhythmically rebellious. He was arrested in Boston for changing the harmonies of The Star Spangled Banner. Apparently this law still exists in America, forbidding  reharmonisation of this anthem. This law has not been as strictly enforced in recent years. Marvin Gaye even created a reggae version (for which he was not arrested).

Links to more about the Cape Town Tango Ensemble:

Milonga del Angel-Cape Town Tango Ensemble Dancing with Angels

CT Tango Ensemble Homepage

Astor Piazzolla: Cobble Stone to Dance Floor

CT Tango Ensemble MP3’s and Video Clips

Download tracks from our first CD El Tango en Africa on Rhythm Records

"Tango Nuevo I" - Pedro Alvarez

My Blog has moved to

In the darkness there is rustling sound. Feathers perhaps? Wings? Then I hear a heart beat,  a heel scraping on the floor. I have my hands inside the black Steinway, my fingers and nails scraping the metal strings. Behind me, Stanislav is tapping a steady rhythm against the buttons of his bandoneon. The Double bass unobtrusively takes over the heart-beat rhythm. I pull my hands out of the piano and sit down. I reach for the first exposed notes. Bare. Glassy. Transparent. With each note the scene starts coming into focus. With the minimum movement, and hardly any notes, we have painted a dance floor, set the lighting, perfected the colour scheme. Then out of the darkness the bandoneon starts to sing. And with that sound –  the collective memory of the soul of Argentina –  Piazzolla’s Angel begins to dance her Milonga.

Milonga del Angel (Dance of the Angel) was one of the first Piazzolla tangos the Cape Town Tango Ensemble performed and we have been playing this work for almost a decade. We have played it in many shows and concerts and have decided that the time is right to record it on our latest CD – Tango Club.

"Tango Nuevo II" - Pedro Alvarez

Milonga del Angel (Dance of the Angel) forms part of a cycle of Angel works Piazzolla initially created for a stage production. The Four pieces  are:

i) Introduccion al Angel (The introduction of the Angel)

ii) Milonga del Angel (Dance of the Angel)

iii) La Muerte del Angel (Death of the Angel) and

iv) La Resurreccion Del Angel (The Resurrection of the Angel).

The works were not all composed together. For Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s 1962 stage play Tango del Angel, in which an angel heals the spirits of the residents of a shabby Buenos Aires neighbourhood, Piazzolla added new pieces to an earlier tango that gave the play its name. Munoz required a narrative suite that encompassed a story of innocence, deceit, violence and death, and reconciliation.

Angels form a strong motif in the works of Astor Piazzolla, Argentinean maestro of the Tango Nuevo. In Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir Natalia Gorin quotes Piazzolla: “I have to tell the most absolute truth. I could make it a story about angels, but that would not be the whole story. Mine is of devils mixed with angels.” Milonga del Angel sums up much of the change that Piazzolla brought about in Tango music. In our concerts, the Cape Town Tango Ensemble often play a “traditional” milonga form the early part of the century and juxtapose it with our beloved angel. Based on the candombe rhythm – itself reflecting the Habanera – Piazzolla turns away from the structures of the popular dance tangos. There are no simple AB or ABA structures, no choruses that return and no varied repeats. The work flows in a continuous sweep. An intense tone-poem, the work shows many of Piazzolla’s strongest trademark gestures. Repeated pedal notes that stay the same while the harmonies change overhead, create delicious tensions and exquisitely tender resolutions. A casual and fluent approach to chromatic shifts conjure seductive textures.

The Piazzolla influenced by modern 20th century composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok is also to be felt, especially in the final build up of the work. Exquisite dissonances and powerful harmonic movements make the resolution of this tango one of Piazzolla’s most poignant.

The Cape Town Tango Ensemble recording of Milonga del Angel uses Piazzolla’s own arrangement for Quintet as a starting point. Piano, Bandoneon, Guitar, Violin and Double Bass work together to create an orchestra of tremendous variety. We have performed this work in various permutations, from Duet for Piano and Bandoneon or Accordion only, to a sextet adding a second violin and guitar. With each different configuration, my experience of playing this work is different.

“The Zen Of Tango”

When performing without a Double Bass, the responsibility for the rhythmic drive lies strongly with myself, the pianist. The deep bass notes provide the basic rhythm of the milonga throughout – the heartbeat of the angel. When I have to play the bass, of physical necessity I can focus less on the melodic material. Often, while the violin and bandoneon are soaring in the heavens with the angels, – while I keep the “engine” going in the bass – I feel more than a twinge of jealousy. Which musician with a heart would not be touched by that exquisite melody? At the same time, the responsibility for the bass part gives me a very different experience of the work: I understand the structure better, experience the harmonies very directly. I feel the harmonic rhythm and how it is so closely linked to the pulse. The rhythm is so primal, that occasionally it is enough to propel the structure of the music forward, by itself, uncluttered by ornamental melodies.

At other times, when the Bass is taken care of by an actual Double Bass player, I am taken aback by how transparent the sound of the bass notes can be, as compared to playing it on the piano. Ironically, by adding another instrument the texture becomes thinner, and if anything the overall volume even becomes less, as one spends more time listening than playing. My approach as the pianist is to add what is needed only when it is needed. When instruments are “absent”, the piano has to take on a structural function, filling in the rhythm, making sure no melodic bits go missing. But in a larger ensemble, I sit back and listen. Only then can I create something that adds to what is there already.

Guitarist James Grace

For the recording of this track on Tango Club, we invited guitarist James Grace to fill out the Quintet for which Piazzolla had originally composed this work. Mostly we perform concerts – and this work – without a guitarist. This “absent voice” frees me to make creative arrangements that combine the melodic material of both the guitar-part and the piano-part. Both instruments can create melody as well as chords. The piano wins out on power and being able to sustain sounds through that wonderfully convenient device called the “pedal”. However, the guitar adds a unique quality that the piano can not. A plucked sound that clearly delineates  the beginning of each note, is unique to instruments such as the guitar or the harp. The sound is translucent – simply because the instrument can not sustain the vibrations that long. This brings a new delicacy to Milonga del Angel, and to me, who has now been performing this work in various guises for almost a decade, it suddenly is brand new, fresh and created anew.

I even feel a sense of “ownership” over some of the passages. At one point guitarist James had to play a modulation that I would usually have been taken by the piano. And he had the temerity to do it differently to the way I did it! Being my tactful self, I obviously informed him of the “correct” way to play it, and –  dear man – he did it my way. well, as close as he could, given the rather obtuse or even inaccurate descriptions we musicians are forced to use in the world of conventional language. Almost “right” But not quite. He is a wonderful musician with many years’ experience of different styles of music, and in the end, those influences reflected in how he played that three note change of harmony. It is not surprising at all that two mature performers would have a different response to the same chord, and two different interpretations. What is surprising though, is my sense of ownership of that bar! I however managed to relinquish control of those three notes, and for better or for worse, that is how they stand on the CD!

Stanislav Anguelov

Stanislav Anguelov used to perform this work on the accordeon – not the traditional instrement used in Argentina for the Tango. He is stylistically so acute that many Argentinians believe he plays on the bandoneon when in fact he plays the accordion. Yet, in his dedication to the Tango genre, he bought himself a bandoneon – “a devilish and crazy instrument”. He has taught himself this instrument that is notoriously hard to learn and perform on. He even flew to Buenos Aires for lessons. When the bandoneon starts the “Song of the Angel” after the brief moody introduction, the sound is unlike any other you can imagine. The bandoneon is like a voice. It can breathe, tremble, cry, and whisper. Certainly, the transition form performing it with the instrument of Stanislav’s primary virtuosity – the Accordion – to his secondary instrument – the Bandoneon – was difficult for the ensemble. We had to be more careful never to push the tempo. We had to be a little bit more deliberate about making certain transitions. But in the end, the struggle taught us more respect for each individual element that makes up this masterpiece.

Violinist Jacek Domagala

When a group knows a work this well, and have played together so often that we have even performed on stage BLINDFOLDED to demonstrate our levels of awareness, there is a danger of simply clocking in another play-through. We never want to simply replay well-rehearsed work we could play in our sleep. As a study exercise – and to sharpen our levels of “listening” with our souls – we swopped material around. The violin played the piano part, the bandoneon played the bass, and so on. It was as if for months we had been playing in a dimly lit room and someone had suddenly switched the spotlights on. Suddenly we were made intensely aware of what the other instruments CAN DO and what we CAN NOT do. The piano can not vibrate or slide notes the way Jacek Domagala can on his violin. Charles Lazar on Bass can not growl with the same sharp bite that the accordion can. And the Bandoneon can not sustain long clouds of harmonies on which the other instruments can do their dance. We left that rehearsal session with a fresh love for the music and the contribution made by each member of the ensemble: each vibrato, each colour added to this ensemble, either by the particular qualities of the instrument, or the particular qualities of the soul of the person playing it.

CT Tango Ensemble (Photo: Jenny Altschuler)

Useful links

The CT Tango Ensemble also performs La Muerte del Angel on their new CD Tango Club. To read more about them, please follow the links below.

Cape Town Tango Ensemble homepage

Cape Town Tango Ensemble Facebook Page

Rhythm Records downloadable MP3’s of the CT Tango Ensemble

Astor Piazzolla: Cobblestone to Dance Floor

Cape Town Tango Ensemble MP3 and Video Clips