Recently my love for Tango music was rekindled when I played piano in a band for an informal dance during intermission at a San Francisco Symphony concert. Here are some gorgeous songs to give an example:
A la Gran Muneca
Part of what makes Tango magical for me is the juxtaposition of opposite moods. The music must be easy to dance to, so the rhythm is brutally crisp, forceful and rigid — but the melodies are fluid, rich and impetuously unrestrained. Sometimes these moods alternate, but usually they’re simultaneous. These opposite forces keep each other in check: whenever the melody tumbles into wailing passion, the rhythm seems to say “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, everyone has problems,” and when the rhythm gets locked into a pounding rut, the melody says “Hey, cheer up, look at that pretty lady over there.”
Given that Tango is a sexual dance between a man and a woman (traditionally), I realized that these two moods might represent masculinity and femininity. Viewed this way, the music mirrors the dance quite literally. Every note or phrase is played with a “masculine” affect — short and steady — or a “feminine” affect — improvisatory and emotional.
On the way to one of these Tango rehearsals, I listened to Save the Last Trance for Me by Paul Oakenfold. Trance may not be so fashionable anymore, but this is a serious fucking anthem. Anyway, I was reminded of Tango, because the beat is incredibly strong and raw — almost industrial, if you listen to only the first few bars. Every drum has unflinching impact. It sounds definitively masculine. But once you get to the meat of the song — the melody, the strings, the pastoral flute floating above — it’s just the opposite — supple, fluid, expressing blissful submission. Feminine, if you will. The two forces coexisting throughout give it an incredible feeling. If the drums were weaker, it would sound like sentimental mush; if the strings and melody were gone, there would be no warmth or feeling.
I started to feel kind of sexist using 1950s gender roles to describe music. I thought of that awkwardly antiquated view of Sonata-Allegro form, where the first theme is dominant and masculine, and the second theme is gentle and feminine. Obviously there are plenty of people and sonatas that invert the stereotypes, making that analysis offensive and stupid.
But I realized it illuminates a deeper truth: effective music often works to unite opposing emotions or states. You don’t need the gender descriptions. Sonata form dominated Western music for a long time — it must have been doing something right. I think the secret might be the pair of emotionally opposite themes, forced to intertwine and respond to each other. One of music’s strengths is its ability to evoke multiple emotions at once. I’m willing to bet that if right now, you tried to describe your favorite music ever — the stuff that puts you over the edge every time — you’d be contradicting yourself a lot. Majestic yet intimate, tragic yet uplifting, sweet but threatening, discomforting yet satisfying.
It’s a challenge to create music that evokes multiple emotions at once, because you can’t indulge your passionate impulses too much. You have to maintain a distant perspective on how the parts of the music interact, and restrain and balance everything appropriately. It’s counterintuitive that the most passionate, moving music is often created with a certain amount of detachment.