Thursday, April 2, 2009


The tango melodies came to life in New York City in the late 1970s. I woke up in the middle of the night with a fragment of music in mind. It started growing into a full phrase so I got up, turned on the light, and wrote it down. This was the first theme (played by the flute) in the first tango, SoƱador/the Dreamer. All the other tangos grew out of this one fragment. A little later came the pulsing rhythmic phrase that links the tangos of the suite.

I was listening to a lot of old Carlos Gardel recordings at the time, and in homage to him I kept the harmonic vocabulary and structure of my tangos as
simple as the popular songs of that era. The challenge was to achieve some musical richness and complexity while keeping the overall feeling simple and light.

I imagined these tangos as music in a dance-theatre piece, and I eventually sketched out a plot — about two Argentinian tango dancers stranded in
1920s New York. While the tango was blossoming richly in their own country, America was entering the "Jazz Age", the time of the flapper, hungry for noise and raucous rhythms. What fascinated me was that tango dancers always maintain touch with each other, moving intricately in harmony, while in those new American dances — the Black Bottom, the shimmy, the Charleston — it was rare for partners to touch; rather than a passionate commingling there was an exhibitionistic frenzy, a contempt for collaboration and cooperation, a refusal of intimacy. This was the period of Prohibition, bootlegging, gangsters, and the wild speculation leading up to the stock market crash of 1929. The theatre piece would be about innocence rubbing elbows with corruption — and the different forms of passion.

The tangos were initially sketched as a vocal/instrumental line with chords, occasionally filled in with piano accompaniment. I also wrote music for "American" songs and dances of the period, but the theatre piece around them never crystallized. I closed the cover on the project when I left New York in 1980. ... When I came to Santa Fe in 1986 I was asked to compose something for the San Miguel Trio — guitar, flute, and oboe or English horn — and the tangos came to mind; I felt that the textures of a guitar trio would lend themselves well to a suite that was warm, lyrical, unhurried, intimate. (A remnant of the "American" music is heard in the alto flute solo in the final tango of the suite, a la Puesta del Sol/at Sunset.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Christina Hall-Strauss
12" x 12"
acrylic on canvas

The cover art for the Tangos/Matapolvos CD is a detail of this painting. For more of Christina's work, please visit:


(excerpt of the program note from the first performance of Matapolvos, September 18, 2005, by Serenata of Santa Fe, in the the Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Gail Springer, soprano; Pamela Epple, English horn; Elena Sopoci, viola; Deborah Barbe, cello.)

Matapolvo is the Spanish word for a slight shower that barely settles the dust (matar = kill, polvo = dust). The pieces of this suite are attempts at setting to music a few atoms of the great firecloud of Latin American history, so wrenchingly rendered in Eduardo Galeano's trilogy “Memory of Fire”, from which the text is taken.

In 1990 a friend mentioned this work to me, recommending it for its literary richness as much as for its courageous approach to history. 'History' books had rarely attracted me, often seeming to avoid, if not actively obscure, some essential truth. Latin America, in particular, had always appeared to me as a vast but distant turbulence beyond my powers of comprehension – an enigmatic, occasionally blazing nebula in a neighboring cosmos. I had come to assume that everything I ever read about Latin America would be packaged in either romantic (revolutionary) fervor or a gray academic flatness.

Here, now, was a three-volume work by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Glancing through, I saw that the format – short pieces, many less than a page, each with a date, a place, and a title – was completely original. Within a few pages, I was mesmerized. I realized that my aversion to history was in fact a hunger long disappointed with being fed stones. Suddenly, here was bread.

The trilogy is a mosaic of human enterprise, aspiration and folly, a living, breathing mythology, speaking of the specific in language that conjures the universal. Galeano’s prose is intelligent, musical, measured, serving up story after story of passion and violence, exploitation and innocence, mad comedy and horrific tragedy, in a deceptively understated manner. I found it tremendously noble and tremendously sad. The English translation I had purchased read like poetry, and the original Spanish, when I obtained it, even more so. Much later, I learned that I wasn’t alone in imagining this writing set to music; whole villages in South America have made operas and even held festivals based on these books since their publication in 1986.

Originally, I marked over a hundred sections for musical settings – an impossible undertaking. Useful restrictions came in the form of Pamela Epple’s invitation to compose a piece of a certain length for the wonderful chamber group Serenata of Santa Fe, with a helpful suggestion toward possible instrumentation. A familiarity with Gail Springer’s beautiful vocal flexibility further focused my choice of text. My aim was to compose a suite modeled on a good meal of Spanish tapas and wine — sharp and smooth, richly textured, varied and complex — abundance without excess.

My special thanks to Eduardo Galeano and Susan Bergholz Literary Services for permission to use the text, which comes from the third volume of the trilogy: “Century of the Wind”.