What are you looking at? Why musicians rather than dancing teachers should be in charge of milongas

One major difference between milongas in Buenos Aires and those elsewhere, I believe, is that on the global tango scene milongas are controlled by dancing teachers who attract students by way of performances and various events: classes, workshops, bootcamps, etc. that are focused on movement.

Dancing teachers are in the business of movement, and that is therefore their main focus. They are mainly concerned with dancing that looks good, that attracts attention, that is highly visible and fun to look at.

It’s a basic principle of psychology that the prior stimulus primes your interpretation of subsequent stimulus. If you look at a dancing performance then subsequent evaluation of dancing will be controlled by that prior stimulus, and thus will colour your perception of it.

Musicians by contrast focus on the music. As a result, their interpretation of movement will be less in terms of how attractive it is visually, but rather in terms of whether and how it connects to the music.

In other words, what you view as primary in tango depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re a dancing teacher tango is primarily the dance. If you’re a musician, tango is primarily the music.

It is an interesting question whether the music could exist without the dancing, or whether the dancing could exist with the music. It seems that the two modalities are inextricably linked.

Some musicians play tango music that demands a performance. Then those musicians will probably have similar preferences to the dancing teachers. And the performance oriented dancing teachers will prefer music and musicians who play the sort of music that’s good for a floorshow.

On the other hand, musicians who have good understanding of traditional Epoca de Oro tango music and the reproduction of this sort of music, where that is their focus, are going to be interested in how social dancing connects to this music. The music is going to be their point of focus and their judgement and interpretation of dancing will be coloured by their understanding of the music.

Because tango milonguero social dancing is very inward it does not really have pulling power to the wider audience. It’s traditional tango music that is more likely to attract people’s attention.

One problem is that those who deal with movement are mainly interested in performance, whereas musicians are less likely to be skilled at movement.

Still, I don’t think that this is the main obstacle.

Rather the main problem is that it’s the performances that attract audiences, and once performances become the main vehicle for attracting people to tango then this gives the dancing teachers the power to then impose their particular views about what comprises competent tango dancing.

Performance dancers and their preferred musicians can attract audiences, but then need to translate that into a social dancing scene. The basic spanner in the works is that performance dancers are clueless about social dancing and so create the Frankenstein global tango scene.

So really the music rather than the movement needs to be the leading factor in the attraction of audiences to traditional social tango. Therefore, the people in charge should be those who are knowledgeable in music, in playing music, preferably some tango music, and in music reproduction.

The question then is whether they can teach basic tango dancing.

In my view musicians can develop the necessary movement skills to teach tango milonguero dancing by taking lessons in Feldenkrais Method and reading Moshe Feldenkrais’ “Awareness Through Movement”. If they also take some Contact Improvisation classes that would be even better.

In other words, I see the ideal skillset for a tango organiser as being a musician, or at least being a competent DJ with good listening and technical skills, plus basic knowledge of somatic movement in the form of Feldenkrais Method and Contact Improvisation.

In terms of promotional skills it would be preferable to attract audiences to tango via traditional tango music rather than via performances.

One possible strategy that I am myself exploring is to make a deal with a cafe or cocktail bar to promote their venue if they allow you to play tango music for an afternoon or evening and everyone buys at least one beverage. They will usually have enough space for at least a handful of couples to dance in the milonguero style.

Scoring a rent-free dancing space: make yourself musically useful

I am currently playing unpaid gigs on my guitar in some cafes and cocktail bars.

What I’m finding is that the managers are quite clueless about audio. Often they’ve invested a lot of money in their sound systems but are unable to get quality sound out of them.

Apart from just not knowing how audio equipment works they are quite poor at choosing good music for their cafe or bar.

Like most people they have no idea what a DAC does. Just like the tango DJs, they simply plug their system directly into their device.

I hooked up my Chord DAC to their system and played music from the Tidal.com app. Totally blew their mind.

After the demonstration, they tell me that they’re planning to buy a mixer. I think they believe that the problem is a lack of EQ knobs to get better sound. It’s kind of hard to explain to people what exactly a DAC does and why you need good quality music files.

So I think that if you’re smart and you have even basic knowledge of audio technology, eg., you know what a DAC is and own a good one that you can carry with you, and you can help them with their playlist and advice on where to source good quality music files, you can quickly score points and an afternoon for your tango party free of charge.

And if you keep clear of dancing large kinespheric movements you don’t need to be limited to dancing studios or large dancing floors and thus you save yourself those hefty rental fees.

Kinesphere, spatiotemporal efficiency and aesthetic effect

In previous articles I have argued for the following claims:

  1. Dance performance requires focusing on testing of the kinesphere in order to be visually impactful
  2. The horizontal push-pull image or partnering technique originates with studio-based teaching of performing artists
  3. Social tango milonguero dancing is characterised by what I’ve called “long spine” image as opposed to the “horizontal push-pull” image and efficient or controlled dancing at a milonga requires this
  4. This technique is outwardly manifested in floating knees and elbows.

I want to further elaborate these arguments in terms of the different focus of the performing artist and the milonguero social dancer, namely, focus on feet and hands vs. focus on knees and elbows

The performing artist is focused on visual appeal and this invariably demands regular testing of the kinesphere which in turn demands that the performing artist is focused on the extremities, namely, the hands and the feet. These are the furthest parts of the body that can effectively test the kinesphere. Thus, the performing artist is highly interested in what the hands and the feet are doing.

The consequence of this focus is that the technique, such as the walking technique or the partnering technique is characteristically defined in terms of the action of the hands and the feet. The other points of focus is what they call posture, the separation at the hips in order to swivel, and the powering or pushing into each step. All of this is motivated, I argue, by the interest in visual appeal and to aid large, kinesphere-testing movements. Because if you have that posture and swing the hips but you don’t take large steps, do high or wide boleos or large ochos, have a very large frame at the hands, etc. there is not much to look at.

On a number of occasions I’ve had the experience where I had negative feedback on my dancing from onlookers who were kinesphere-focused dancers and positive feedback from the woman I was dancing with. Which one do you think I care about? This is the difference between the attitude of the performance artist and their students and the milonguero social dancer. In order to dance effectively in a social context what you need is not visual appeal but what might be called spatiotemporal efficiency. I need movement technique that allows me to move to the music in sync with my parter such that I express the music, and in a way that minimises the use of space.

The issue of space can be confusing because often this is stated in terms of not upsetting other dancers rather than in terms of aesthetics of dancing experience. It is as if I have to sacrifice the aesthetics of dancing for the sake of not interfering with other dancers. I recently read on Dancing Forums the view that it is not necessary to have other dancers on the dancing floor to enjoy tango, and probably some people prefer to have more space. Of course, if you learned the performing artist dancing technique then more space is better than less space.

But I would turn the argument on its head and say that having less space, or the minimum space possible, forces milonguero social dancers to develop a highly efficient dancing technique which then results in better aesthetics. The crowded milonga is the ultimate teaching/learning tool of tango milonguero dancing, not as a “style” that looks this way or that way, but as a unique aesthetic dancing experience. Once you learn to dance that way you don’t care about what you look like and you have no interest in dancing the performing artist technique.

So the question is what is the technique that is unique to the miloguero social dancer that emerges naturally out of dancing at crowded milongas and can it be taught systematically. My previous argument was that it is the vertical long-spine image that is characterised by floating or high knees and elbows. Notice that it’s not the hands and feet but the knees and elbows. This is my argument, namely, that once you remove the requirement of testing the kinesphere you no longer have a reason to focus on the hands and feet, and the only question is what is the more efficient way of moving with your partner to the music.

Because spatial efficiency actually equals temporal efficiency. The less space you need to move through the faster you can move. The music moves and you move with it. To express the music in a tight connection with your partner you need to move fast, immediately. What’s more immediate, moving through a large space, with large movements of the extremities, or moving tightly within your intimate space (see …)? Music is time, movement is space. But space equals time (speed, immediacy), and you want time. For the aesthetics of social dancing you want an immediate response, and that means minimum use of space.

The artist must move through a lot of space because moving through a lot of space equals visual appeal. Little movement through space means little or no visual appeal. The dancing looks boring. Milonguero social dancers look boring. From the point of view of the performing artist that means no aesthetics, because no visual aesthetics. Performing artists, most of them, are incapable of seeing any other sort of aesthetics beyond the visual image. They and their followers are addicted to the visual image and are incapable of seeing past that. It’s the world that they inhabit, the world of the eye. The music and the physical sensations are just a background for them.

So then the next question is, if we’re not focusing on the extremities, on the hands and the feet, what should we be focusing on in order to move with spatio-temporal efficiency? Answer: knees and elbows. That might seem strange if you’re used to the standard tango lesson but it’s perfectly normal if you think about dances like the Charleston or Swing.

I’m not saying that you can’t move effectively by widely moving the extremities, or that dances like Charleston or Swing never involve testing the kinesphere with hands and feet. I’m saying that the wider the dance the more it depends on push-pull, wide use of space, and therefore greater difficulty and energy required to produce speed. It’s necessarily less “tight” and efficient. You can do it but you have to work hard. Finally, it’s not feasible in a packed dancing floor.

Tango milonguero social dancing focuses on the inward expressiveness within the embrace for its peculiar aesthetic effect, rather than the outward expressiveness of wide hand and foot movements and motion through space. It’s skinespheric rather than skinespheric. Unless you have experienced it you will find it difficult to be open to this as an aesthetic approach and will probably only be able to recognise the aesthetics of the visual approach. Even when dancing socially your mindset will be that of the performer and this will show to those looking on. You will look like you’re doing a performance in a social context. Twenty couples at a milonga dancing that way will look like twenty couples competing for attention at one of those tango dancing competitions. A couple dancing social milonguero type dancing will stand out on that busy dancing floor and will look decidedly inactive by comparison. It will look fundamentally different, and the students of performing artists will probably not recognise it as dancing at all.

Artists vs the milongueros: the spatial organisation of the milonga

Introduction

In my last post I wrote about the parasitic relationship of performers to tango milonguero. A conversation with the man behind Graffiti Tango has been very illuminating and has given me a lot of food for thought. It’s truly amazing how people who apparently participate in the same activity, tango, could have more divergent views and feel more contempt for each other’s endeavours. But I’m not entirely surprised because I see it all the time. The problem has always been articulating what is the crux of the issue.

It’s not an urgent problem for them, the artists or performers, because they dominate and control 90% of the spaces and channels of communication outside of Buenos Aires (although I think the recent situation has put a dent in their armour). The fact that the trad milonga scene still exists in Buenos Aires provides a sort of bulwark against their advancement but it’s going to be a struggle to maintain the traditional scene.

It is a problem for us, dancers of traditional tango milonguero, if we want to stop losing ground and to push back. Unless we can find a way of systematically introducing new people who are committed to the practice it might completely implode. To do that we need to be able to articulate clearly and succinctly what it is that we do and why it is better and why people should follow us and not them. Or at least, if they’re not satisfied with what they’re getting from them why they should join our side and stop supporting their side.

It seems that part of the difficulty in articulating the core issue has to do with the whole scheme with the styles of tango. Apparently what we milongueros do is a style, and then they’ll box us into the “pro-choreography milongueros” and “pro-improv milongueros”. And then they’ll impose their own categories and ways of thinking about dancing and evaluate our dancing against their narrow ideas about how you should “look” and your “posture” and so on and so forth.

We must find ways to resist all of their attempts to impose their categories, their understanding of “dance” which is based in the whole studio industry. But to do so we need to understand how they think about dancing, what are the categories that they use, what are the spectacles through which they view us with such contempt, in order to understand how we understand what we do and how we view them.

The standard way of dealing with this issue has been in terms of the notion of a “dancing style”. I believe that this is a wholly inadequate, two-dimensional categorisation that is only reinforced because it tends to benefit their side. If what we do is a particular style then they are free to flood the internet with images of their style and people can choose freely. They then adopt the stand of being libertarian, all the while they flood the place with their stuff and cancel anyone who disagrees.

I’m starting to believe that this is a wholly misguided and false way of viewing things and it’s the reason we are currently in retreat. Recently I’ve been thinking about concepts that originate with more theoretical analyses of dancing and movement. It seems to me that it may be better to categorise the different competing approaches to dancing tango in these terms, and doing so reveals a lot about their underlying nature and why they’re fundamentally incompatible.

Laban’s concept of kinesphere

The term kinesphere was coined by Rudolf Laban and the definition is as follows:

“the sphere around the body whose periphery can be reached by easily extended limbs without stepping away from that place which is the point of support when standing on one foot” (1966, p.10)

Space and Relationship

I’ve done a few of improvised dancing/movement workshops and one of the standard things that we were doing was to explore our kinesphere, eg., by visualising that we’re inside a bubble and we’re touching the inside surface of the bubble. The website continues:

This spherical space around our body shifts as soon as we shift our weight. It is also the first area of movement exploration before going into “space in general”. It follows anatomical limitations, being actually more elliptic than spherical as constitutionally, the average body has a wider area of reach forward than backward. Visibly speaking the kinesphere stays invisible until the moment we move within it and make it tangible by leaving our trace-forms, the spatial consequences of our movements

Now, I’m not going to go into the intricacies of this analysis but only say that it is possible to view performance movement as essentially the exploration of (a) kinesphere, and (b) space. Space is not referring to an abstract 3 dimensional container of all physical things, but rather the phenomenological space that is relative to a perspective.

Proxemics

On the issue of space the website talks about Proxemics:

Proxemics is a recent terminology (1966, E. Hall) that is part of non-verbal communication, defining that in daily life, the distance between people runs in parallel with their interpersonal relationships. It establishes four different spheres of relationships (each subdivided into far/close): Intimate, personal, social and public, which respective distance span may vary from one culture to the other.

I think that this is a very useful for the purposes of analysing what’s going on in various approaches to social dancing and why the experience of different sorts of dancers can be so different.

For example, we might notice that “personal space” is still pretty close to the body, and that the distance between personal space and intimate space is very small. Indeed, so small that you could argue that depending on the type of hold, open vs. close, changes the spatial relationship of the partners between personal and intimate.

Second, we might notice that dancers might share their personal space with other couples, or they might only share their social space.

Third, we might also notice that performances will tend to occupy by necessity the bigger public space, meaning, moving far beyond social space.

The point is that given the requirements of a performance to sustain the interest of an audience, the performers need to be moving in such a way that they’re constantly (a) testing their kinesphere, and (b) testing the public space.

That means at least that their movements of the extremities, ie., arms and legs, will tend to be outstretched to the limits, and will move in a wide variety of ways within that kinesphere bubble, with elongated steps, boleos, ganchos, sacadas, etc. This is by necessity, because a dancer who does not do these things is not interesting to look at.

Then, having done a lot of this kinespheric movement they will want to move in space, not the intimate or personal space, nor even in the social space, but the wider public space of 3.5 metres or more.

So you will see that a standard performance will comprise of long walks and turns in place, and if they can do both at the same time, ie., the kinespheric movements and spatial movements, so much the better.

If these people then teach social dancers then naturally there is a limit to which these movements can be adapted to dancing on tight space. They might not be testing the public space, but on the other hand the general nature of the dance will in the area of (a) testing the kinesphere, and (b) testing the personal and social space.

Thus, no milonguero will fail to notice that dancers taught by artists are typically unable to dance in the intimate space, and also that they cannot tolerate any infringement on their personal space. Their form of dancing totally fills up their personal space so that you don’t want to enter it at all, whereas at a trad milonga you’d be brushing shoulders with the other couples with no worries at all.

Skinesphere and The Underscore

Contact Improvisation is usually practiced in jams that are relatively unstructured, but one of its originators, Nancy Stark Smith, developed a more structured protocol. It’s interesting to reflect on similarities of this sort of structured approach to partnered dancing to the Milonga. Let’s take a look at Nancy Stark Smith’s Underscore which is “a structure that organizes a contact impro and allows people to work together in a warm-up or an improv session.” (Seattle Contact Improv Lab). I italicised the aspects that seem relevant to milonga and crossed out aspects that seem not relevant:


  • Arriving:
  1. Arriving energetically: bring the focus to the present.
  2. Arriving Physically: bring the attention to the sensation you have in the body at this moment
  3. Pow-wow (optional): coming together to talk in a circle (names, injuries, how long it will last)
  4. iv. Pre- ambulation: (optional): go through the space, open connections with the space and the people after the talk. 
  • Skinesphere: What’s inside the skin, sensation, what we feel in the small dance.
  1. Bonding with the earth: to relax the body, to feel the support from below, connection with the floor
  2. Mobilising, agitating the mass: To mix the mass with the air, by jumping, moving, to get a new organisation afterwards.
  • Kinesphere: Attention to what you can reach with your limbs.
  1. Low kinesphere: Dome, centre on the floor.
  2. High kinesphere: With the centre high. 
  3. (Maybe a moment to balance, to increase our tone.) 
  4. Expanding and traveling kinesphere: The base of it is the connection with your centre and with the floor. Breath. 
  • Overlapping kinespheres: We start to be more conscious of the others in the space.
  • Connections: Short connections happening during the Overlapping Ks. Between one and the other is your solo.
  • Engagement: At some point we start to be more implicated with the connection.
  1. Development: developing a duo
  2. Resolution: disengagement, end of the duo
  • Re-circulation through the score: Allow the sensation to continue. Where am I? What do I want to do? Don’t cut it, don’t escape to drink water.
  • Open Score: We can use different ways to re-enter the score.
  1. Observation
  2. Re-Entrance
  • Final Resolution of the room: The beginning of the last chapter. Each person resolves his own activity arriving to stillness where we can feel the experience of had been dancing.
  • Disengagement of the whole pattern: From the stillness we imagine the group as a crystalline form, and when we are ready….end of the total design.
  • Reflection and Harvest: Introspective revision of the body. And then harvest, you may write or draw or…
  • Sharing: Harvest’s celebration. Listening to the authentic of the personal experience, we learn, we feel.

Reflecting on The Underscore, kinesphere, proxemics and the milongas

It seems to me that we can analyse the differences between milonguero and artist milongas in terms of the underscore. Traditional milongas are a sort of a score of this sort, a structured experience that organises space and relationships in specific ways that allow you to focus and move through the event in a determinate way. It should be possible to write down this score in similar way, but it would require also reference to such things as the organisation of the music and invitation by way of the cabeceo. The music and the movement would be such as to support sustained focus on partnering within the intimate space throughout each dance, and moving energetically in and out of dances and tandas.

One the other hand, dances organised by artists or their students are typically characterised by the constant testing of kinesphere and social space on the dancing floor, and heavy use of high energy music that sustains these larger movements. Music is consistently loud and high energy. Dancers do not ease into the dances but plunge into them at full speed and sustain this level of activity throughout the dance. When the music stops they stop abruptly to wait for the next bout of activity.

As a consequence, these events despite their superficial features, have a very different focus, and spatial and temporal organisation. The focus is scattered and the high level of energy does not allow for the awareness of space and time that you get in traditional milongas. They’re both higher and lower in energy. They’re more active and louder, but it’s difficult to develop any sort of flow in dancing. You’re moving and superficially therefore dancing but it’s a struggle to develop and sustain any sort of flow. After all, you’re basically performing.

We can also say that so-called milonguero dancing at such events is anything but. First, dancers who might be said to use some sort of a milonguero dancing technique, such as a close embrace or leaning, are dancing among artist-trained dancers to music curated for these sort of dancers. The people dancing around them and the music will negate their attempts at dancing “tango milonguero”.

Second, many people who dance a milonguero “style” in that they dance close embrace etc. use the space in the same way that the artist-trained dancers do. Their movements, typically walks, ochos, turns, sacadas, even boleos, will test their kinesphere and personal space and therefore negate their milonguero hold. On the other hand, you can have people who use are relatively open embrace, meaning no contact at the chest, but use the space in a way that is consistent with traditional milonga, that is, they do not test their kinesphere or social space.

This is why the artists do not see any meaningful difference between what they do and what they call the milonguero style. The latter, as they understand it, is just another style of performance tango. Except for the close hold at the chest level, it is otherwise structured in the same ways as all the other artist tangos. In order to have visual appeal it must test the kinesphere and public space in the performance, and when taught by performing so-called milonguero dancers it will still be bigger than traditional tango milonguero dancing.

This is the reason why the whole dancing styles scheme is imposed by artists but is irrelevant and detrimental to understanding traditional tango milonguero. We could say that the whole studio dancing industry is a sort of processing scheme, sort of like with food processing, which is designed to take vernacular dances and churn them into some sort of performance choreography that is then used to market these as social dances, except that what you get is the junk food of social dances: it’s been processed and there’s nothing natural about it even if the input into the process were natural ingredients.

Conclusion

Talking about different styles of tango seems to obscure some more fundamental differences among the approaches to dance because they simply point to things like movement, but they fail to draw attention to more basic aspects of movement. Looking at the situation in terms of theoretical concepts and approaches in dance such as kinesphere, proxemics, and the underscore we can point out deeper aspects of how dancing is understood by the different groups and why there’re really fundamentally incompatible. This then can hopefully help us to articulate more clearly the reasons behind our approach and thus to dissuade people who are attracted to traditional tango from attending classes and events that are organised by artists.

The parasitic relationship of performing artists to social tango

Today I chanced upon a blog of a tango teacher in Montreal called Graffiti Tango. It seems like he has been running a school for a long time. Many of the things he says, and he says a lot, seem to resonate with me, both in terms of some of his views about teaching and some wider political issues. However, while he was saying some of the things that I might say, I noticed that there was a significant difference of perspective.

This teacher has as dance background and a lot of his material is concerned with performance. When he talks about improvisation, for example, he’s referring to improvised as opposed to a choreographed performance. This couldn’t be more different from the way that I use the idea of improvisation which has nothing at all to do with a performance for an audience.

This actually connects to a broader issue concerning the relationship of performers to social tango dancing generally, and I don’t just mean dancers but also musicians. For I also found myself at odds with live musicians whose music was very good, but whose perspective on tango was radically different from mine.

My general impression is that both musicians and performing dancers have a parasitic relationship to social tango dancing, in particular traditional milonguero dancing, and their influence has a generally detrimental effect on the latter, whether or not they themselves are able to perceive this or intend it that way.

For example, when I was in Buenos Aires a couple of years ago there was a tango band from Poland doing a tour of the milongas. I chatted with them after their performance at Salon Canning. Later at another venue I complimented the leader who was on bandoneon on playing traditional tango because all the bands I’ve seen so far in BA were doing some sort of Piazzolla stuff.

Instead of accepting the compliment the guy shot back angrily that they normally play Piazzolla stuff. The next time they were playing at a milonga he announced that their normal repertoire is Piazzolla stuff. When they finished and I asked him politely why that’s relevant at a milonga he became really aggressive, telling me that it’s his artistic history or something of that sort.

My general impression was that, while they were very competent musicians, this guy at least has very little interest in the traditional tango music that he is playing or for that matter respect for the people dancing there. But the milonga scene provide them with a ready-made audience and a source of income. But instead of biting his tongue when talking to a fan of traditional tango he became confrontational, showing how little regard he has for the people paying his salary at the door.

I feel a similar sort of attitude from many teachers who seem to have a performance dancing background, and who have to lower themselves to teaching social dancing, but who really look down on the traditional stuff. A typical response from an Argentinian teacher when I mention tango milonguero has been that they (meaning the milongueros) don’t do anything. As with the musicians I feel a contemptuous vibe from these people who, as far as I can tell just by looking, have never been to a traditional milonga, and if they ever danced socially at all it was at one of those hipster nuevo places like La Catedral.

Traditional milonguero dancers are very welcoming and happy if anyone takes an interest in tango, but my impression is that these musicians, performers and nuevo teachers are parasites on traditional tango dancing. All of them tend to push tango in a particular direction, towards more dramatic tango pieces (Pugliese, Piazzolla, etc.) and bigger “kinesphere” movements, meaning movements that are very stretched outward and highly visible. Everything is invitably bigger, and in their view therefore better.

It’s understandable given that they’re trained in the performance arts. But then they’re dealing with social dancing. Can you see the possibility of a disconnect?

The thing is that when you consider the results, the global tango scenes that are built by attracting an audience by way of this sort of dramartized material are invariably fragile and lack any sort of coherence or cohesiveness. There’s loads of lessons, workshops, shows, performances, videos and images, all having the effect of obverwhelming your consciousness with a hyperstimulus.

But the consequence of this hyperstimulation is that social dancing itself becomes an anti-climax. It can’t possibly match the heroic efforts of the various performers who take centre stage. It’s inevitably diminished and rendered inconsequential.

I have to witness it, talk about it, be exposed to it, even if my main interest is the dancing with that woman in the flowery dress across the room. But I won’t have a chance to dance with her again because all the dudes in the place are worked up into their show routines and she feels violated and won’t come back.

The Montreal teacher discusses pedagogy but his main topic of interest seems to be his fellow teachers, his own Argentinian teachers, performances, his own performance history, and like stuff. What if I’m not interested in any of that but just want to know whether, if I come to his milonga, there will be great music and great dancing to be had. I can’t tell from his blog. I find that when I look at these public materials on these tango scenes, I don’t exist at all in their conceptual scheme, in their “meta-language”. It’s all about them. But I need to read more of his blog, it might be there somewhere.

Giving Epoca de Oro music room to breathe

In the last few days I’ve been listening a lot to the 1935-38 D’Arienzo recordings transferred by TangoTunes. These records are really the essence of tango. I’m not saying that the others aren’t great or important. But this is really where the tango journey needs to begin and it remains a constant point of reference for everything else, much as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is the central point of reference for modern jazz, the place where you would want to begin in that genre.

For the Argentine tango people I guess it will be something like Pugliese or Troilo, but for milonguero dancers it must be the early D’Arienzo. It’s pure dancing music with enough swing and drive but without the slightest excess or pretense, just the perfect dose to get you moving.

The other thought I’ve been having is that this music demands the “headroom” to be allowed to breathe and rewards thoughtful curation. These recordings reward creating a sound system that milks every ounce of available nuance.

What I mean is, there’s music that sounds pretty much the same whatever your sound system. Even in high resolution files and a great DAC you just don’t get that much detail or sense of space. It’s still very two-dimensional. I find this with a lot of electronic music or processed jazz like Nicola Comte.

By contrast, every improvement in my system down to the connectors and room acoustics is rewarded by Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue: the soundstage, timbre, resonance and detail. It’s very enjoyable.

It is the same with the early D’Arienzo. On a budget sound system it just sounds small and flat. Get something medium range and it sounds tolerable. But give this music attention and room to breathe and it comes into it’s glorous fullness. This music demands attention, but if you invest some money, thought and the effort you are rewarded.

What do I mean that you need to give the music room to breathe? It’s a metaphor which is this: whereever there is a bottleneck in the listening system the music is sort of crushed into an indistinguishable mash of sound with little detail, separation, space or depth. It just becomes a flat blurred image, a facsimile of the original thing.

You basically get the content of the music in the sense that you can hear the melody and the harmony, but none of the physical sensory richness that is there in the original performance as captured in the recording. Your ears quickly get tired of listening to this auditory junk and you probably decide to listen to something else.

Now, the bottleneck can happen anywhere in the whole chain from the musician to the listener:

  1. the music itself might be inadequate (musicians, instruments)
  2. the space in which the music is recorded (studio acoustics)
  3. the process of capturing the music (microphones, recording medium such as tape)
  4. the process of mixing and processing (mixers, filters)
  5. the process of transferring the recording to a digital medium (transfer process)
  6. the digital medium itself (music files resolution)
  7. the computer player software for reproducing the digital medium (iTunes, Mixxx, Traktor, Audirvana)
  8. the device for converting from digital to analogue signal or DAC (internal, USB audio interface, dedicated USB DAC)
  9. connectors/cables
  10. amplifier
  11. speakers
  12. the acoustics of the listening room

We can divide this chain into two parts:

  1. from the recording to the transfer into the digital medium (steps 1-5)
  2. the reproduction of the digital medium (steps 6-12)

As consumers of music we only have choice in the selection and reproduction of the digital medium, and so the question concerns the choice of music that is well recorded such that investment in high quality reproduction will pay off.

For a long time I have believed what I think many people in tango believe, namely, that the Epoca de Oro recordings are of poor quality whereas the newer recordings made by orchestras after that period are much better. I now think that this belief is false and confused logic.

The reason for this belief is primarily the equipment that is used to reproduce the music. More recent tango recordings do sound in a certain sense better on a wider variety of equipment, including on budget equipment and software and played from MP3 files.

This probably has something to do with the way in which they are mastered after the recording. But there is cost to this in that there is a lot of subliminal information that is lost in that process, information about space and timbre which the EdO recordings retain.

There are number of reasons why the Epoca de Oro recordings have been difficult to reproduce at a satisfactory level. Assuming that steps 1-4 result in a recording on a shellac record that is satisfactory, it is necessary to transfer this recording from the shellac medium into a digital form.

This has not been really satisfactory until recently audio engineers started transferring this music onto 24bit/96kHz FLAC files at TangoTunes and some also at Archive.com. This is to my knowledge the first time that we have high resolution transfers of this quality. Previous transfers to CD don’t come anywhere near this and their deficiencies are the reason for the false belief that these recordings don’t sound very good.

But this is just the beginning, because even with these transfers in hand I think that it takes a lot of care to present this music adequately. The system for reproducing music in the digital medium comprise the following parts:

  1. player software
  2. digital-analogue converter or DAC
  3. amplifier
  4. speakers
  5. connectors
  6. room acoustics

The music player software on the computer needs to be designed with the aim of quality reproduction of high resolution music files. I use Audirvana but there are others. The biggest mistake seems to be to use player software because of low cost, convenience or ease of use, such as iTunes, Traktor Pro, Mixxx, etc. The goal is to have the best quality reproduction of sound, and this requires using software that delivers the best sound quality.

In terms of hardware, it seems to me that the most money needs to be spent on the DAC. I myself have not understood this for a long time, mainly because I was still stuck with ideas about high gear that I got from the 1980s. I falsely assumed that the equivalent of a record player or tape deck is the player software on the computer. In fact, it’s the DAC which transfers the digital into analogue signal.

But spending a lot of money on a DAC won’t pay off if you’re using compressed MP3 files on iTunes. A high quality DAC like the Chord Qutest takes the high quality sound from the HiRes 24/96 files on Audirvana or equivalent and turns it into magic. It’s the DAC that creates the sense of space, depth, detail, etc. that is available in a quality recording of a musical ensemble playing classical, jazz, or EdO tango.

What you then need is an amplifier-speaker combo that is able to take this magic and move the air in your room to deliver it to your ears. Again, the amplifier needs to be designed for quality music reproduction and have the power to drive the speakers. The speakers also need to be made of quality parts and need to have a combination of woofer and tweeter with a quality box and crossover.

It all has to be well designed. The amp should drive at least 45 watts into each speaker depending on sensitivity and the speakers should provably have 6-8 inch cones to move enough air. The power and the cone size need to be adequate to move enough air fast enough to deliver the sound. It’s generally not a bad idea to use active speakers, either active studio monitors or quality active PA speakers, that have the amp already built in.

Two things that most people probably don’t think about but that are discussed and debated at length by audiophiles are connectors and room acoustics. In general, I would say that you don’t need to spend 100s of dollars on these things but you do need to give this some serious consideration. You will be probably losing sound quality if you’re using cheap cables:

  • power cables
  • USB cable from laptop to DAC
  • connector from DAC to the amp or active speaker
  • speaker cables

These should be reasonable quality, with quality copper wire, shielding and plugs.

The other thing is room acoustics. Even if you invest time and money into all that I mentioned above it won’t sound very good if you’re listening or dancing in a room with naked walls, windows, mirrors, and floors. These are reflective surfaces for sound, and the sound reflected off the surface will arrive at your ears at a different time than the sound coming directly from the speaker.

Your brain will not be able to process this and the sound will be smudged and distored, with boomy bass, and sound that is not focused. Two things need to be considered:

  • the speakers should be placed well away from walls, probably around 1 metre
  • there need to be surfaces that absorb a good amount of the sound, especially off glass surfaces and walls, such as soft furnishings, sound absorbing curtains and panels.

All of this might sound like a lot, but it’s what you have to do to give the system headroom to deliver the music to your ears. Any bottleneck in this chain diminishes the music, makes is small, unclear, lacking in depth and resonance, losing detail. It’s all smudged, boomy and loud. The music requires the headroom to breathe and when it does it provides real satisfaction.

Otherwise you might just as well stick to playing electrotango on your Beats speaker.