Feeling in tango: music, movement and space

Most people assume that in tango most attention should be given to the movement, and then you need some music and some place to execute the passionate dance movements. If the music and the place is good that’s a bonus, the icing on the cake. But the main thing is the movements and that’s where people spend the majority of their time, money and effort (see Economic incentives in tango). I, on the other hand, came to the view that this is precisely backwards because tango is primarily music and only secondarily the movement. Without adequate attention to the music the movement is not satisfying whereas with good music you don’t need much movement to enjoy the event.

For example, you could, if you wanted to, execute the tango movements to other sorts of music, classical or latin, but it would not be tango. Indeed, some people dance tango movements to non-tango music, but that’s not tango, just tango movements to some random music. Then also, even if the music is tango, if it’s the wrong sort of tango music, ie., it’s Piazzolla Tango Nuevo, or Electrotango, or some contemporary recordings, or some traditional recordings but of poor quality, then you really don’t have tango. It’s the background holistic understanding of what tango is that is fundamental in what we end up with and whether it provides us with value. This is not really interesting to people who want to use tango for other purposes such as self-aggrandisement, attention seeking, social networking, some sort of “activity”, etc. I’m interested in tango as a particular sort of aesthetic experience that you get at some milongas in Buenos Aires, but almost never outside of Buenos Aires.

If tango is primarily a particular sort of music, then one thing that follows from that is that it cannot be separated from the space. Music and space are actually one thing because our acoustic perception is inevitably tied up with the perception of space in the sense that (a) the physical space in which the music is performed or reproduced affects our experience of the music and (b) the quality of the perception of music, ie., the quality of the acoustic signal that is processed by the brain, is to a significant extent the perception of the music in space. That is, music reproduced at a high quality, on a high quality (ie., high fidelity), high resolution audio system, is experienced as pleasant when we are able to perceive the instruments in a three-dimensional space, as separated from each other, and also to distinguish their unique timbral qualities, over and above the content of the music (the notes and harmonies) and the type of instrument being played. But the “high quality, high resolution audio system” is not merely the electronic equipment that is used but must also include the space in which the sound resonates. The same electronic equipment will sound significantly different, better or worse, depending on the type of space in which it is being used. The space or place also has visual aspects such as colour and furnishings that determine the mood or atmosphere.

I recently participated in an online conference on classical architecture in which the discussants were discussing all sorts of topics such as neuroscience, ecology, geopolitics, fractals, affordability, etc. At no point did they mention things like acoustics and they apparently had no vocabulary for thinking about mood and atmosphere. If architects interested in classical architecture aren’t even able to conceptualise these things this explains why we end up with uninteresting, uninspiring buildings and spaces with awful acoustics and the ambience of a prison. Just consider the modern art gallery with bare concrete walls and cubical shapes and lots of echo. Would that be a good place to dance tango? I think nowadays many people think it would because it’s “arty”, but I tend to disagree.

Similarly, tango lessons are conducted in dancing studios which are the worst possible places for this. They spend most of their money on the floor and the wall to wall mirrors, and then put in a sound system that is just loud enough and with enough bass for the funky dancing. Then you pay for the rental of a space which is completely inappropriate for tango: you don’t need the mirrors, you don’t need that much space, but you do need good sound and ambience. So you’re paying for the wrong things. Another common sort of place are church halls, which are marginally better due to lack of mirrors but otherwise just as bad being large, empty and with low quality sound systems.

The only way to evaluate these things is by way of a comparative method: when you dance in different sorts of spaces check in with how you feel: what’s your mood like, do you feel like dancing, do you feel comfortable, relaxed, tired, bored, tense or restless? Is your energy high or low? This will to a large extent be a function of the space and the sound. Most often I find that milongas are in spaces that are noisy and then the sound is loud, sharp and jarring. This is the result of the combination of low quality sound system and a space with poor acoustics. The result is that if you’re not either dancing or talking or engaging some sort of distracting activity you feel uncomfortable. Instead of feeling relaxed and refreshed you come out exhausted, much as you do after a session of drinking at one of those resonant beer halls at which you have to shout.

In order to be able to assess the situation you need a “reference system”, that is, a space that is adequate or close to ideal, perhaps a listening room in your house with a good quality audio system, or even a pair of high fidelity headphones that you can use in some nice architectural spaces. This will give you a benchmark against which to evaluate spaces and sound equipment. While there’s usually almost no information provided about what to expect in terms of acoustics and ambience, you can often make a prediction based on any images of the dancing space, and also by asking the DJ what sort of DAC he’s using. A picture on the promotional Facebook page or poster of a large, empty, resonant space like a dancing studio, a church hall or similar, and a cheap DAC (<$300) or no DAC are sure signs of an awful sound and poor ambience. Don’t expect to enjoy spending significant amount of time in that sort of a space.

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