Is it a party or a war?


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The meaning of art

I had a discussion the other day with a relative of mine who just finished a school for tattoo artists. The discussion evolved around the meaning of having a tattoo and what if you don’t like something after some time. In between other things, he mentioned something that struck me as quite interesting. A tattoo or any other piece of art doesn’t have any meaning on its own. It is us that we assign a meaning to it. What he meant was that oftentimes art doesn’t have a specific meaning but we connect it in our minds with something personal.

You might hear a melody and it might remind you of childhood memories while for someone else it might be connected with the sad emotions of losing a dear one. The meaning and the emotion that art evokes in us depend mostly on our personal experiences and lives. In the example of tattoos, a dolphin, for me, could symbolise summer and the sea which I love, while for someone else, it could symbolise freedom or intelligence. Who knows?

An unofficial experiment

A year ago I started posting periodically on the Facebook page of the blog some songs and I was asking people to write me the first word that came to mind when they listened to it. I don’t remember any specific examples to mention but I remember that I was always surprised at how different emotions, ideas and even objects were connected in people’s minds with a melody.

I also tried the opposite. I would ask people to tell me the orchestra or song that came to mind given a specific word. In such a question, I asked for a song that people have connected with the word “passion”. Believe it or not, out of the few answers collected there was not a single song of Pugliese between them! Later a friend saw me in a milonga and told me how surprised she was that nobody mentioned a song by the orchestra which in most people’s minds (or at least in our minds) is connected with passion! Who knows? Maybe Pugliese’s music is not so passionate after all.

It was a kind of experiment which made me see the reality. We are all different beings, have different lives and different experiences and we may connect the same artefact with so many different things. Nothing is obvious. The fact that I find a song passionate, angry or happy doesn’t mean that it is the same for everyone. Of course, there are some commonalities here and there… but nothing is set in stone. I mean, musicians write their melodies following some rules that they know that more or less will lead to a specific result. But the way each and every one of us interprets this result is a totally different story.


Recently I also asked in the Facebook group (if you haven’t joined yet… you are missing out on a lot of fun!) about lyrics and if people read, translate or understand them and how it affects their dance. Most people who could understand or knew the meaning of lyrics pointed out that they inform their dance.  Lyrics make things clearer when it comes to a song. Knowing them can help you understand if the song is happy, sad, romantic, etc and what is the story it tells. It gives us a hint of what the artist intended to communicate and it makes our lives easier as a dancer since they can help us tune better with our partner.

But what happens when there are no lyrics? Given that we assign meaning to art based on our experiences is it possible that we are totally out of sync with the creator’s intention? Is it possible that we don’t get the point of the composer and we dance to the song communicating something totally different from the initial intention? And if yes .. can someone say that this is disrespectful to the songwriters or the orchestra? Or are we simply lost in translation?

The story of El Marne

A few months ago, in a class with Horacio Godoy, he was analysing the structure of the song El Marne. He explained that the song was written by Eduardo Arolas as a tribute to the decisive battle in the river Marne in the First World War. When someone knows this, they can listen to the song with a totally different ear. The first part (approx. first 30 seconds) creates suspense before the battle, the second part (next approx. 30 seconds) imitates with its strong beat the marching of troops in battle and in the third part the composer creates a picture of hope for the future after the end of the war.

There are many versions of the song from many orchestras but knowing this, when you listen to the version of Troilo, it can really break your heart. Especially towards the end, where the melody of the second part reappears for the closure he stops the characteristic rhythmic melody right in the middle and plays a tearful solo on his bandoneon. It’s almost like you can hear the bandoneon crying. Right after this, when the piano enters, it plays some notes on repeat and the sound reminds us of a machine gun.  Well… This is going to be tonight’s Goodnight Tango… So don’t worry you will find this version on the of the post.

It’s been a couple of times since I listened to the story that I happened to dance to the song but in versions of D’Arienzo. These versions although they have some similar ideas like sad countermelodies on top of the battle etc., the sadness in them is not so evident. Moreover, they usually came in Tandas of D’Arienzo with other upbeat songs like El Puntazo or Yapevu and Felicia.

You can imagine the struggle in me when I was dancing to it. On one side, I had the sad story of a war that the composer wanted to communicate and on the other side the happy upbeat mood of the whole Tanda and even of my partner. It definitely made for some of the strangest Tandas I have ever danced. But on the other hand… I don’t know the intention and the story of the other songs. Maybe all of them are connected to something sad. Maybe, I was dancing all of them with the wrong message in mind! Who knows?… But in the end… Does it matter?

If we are the ones who assign meaning to art with our expression… why can’t we make a sad song into a funny, happy or playful one? The composer might have had a different idea in mind… but aren’t we artists too when we dance? Aren’t we allowed to use the vehicle of music to communicate our own message with our dance? I don’t know… I still don’t have an answer to that… I am as torn as I was when I was dancing to El Marne!

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango

You already know tonight’s goodnight tango. The first version is the one of Troilo which manages to communicate perfectly the composer’s intention. His bandoneon solo towards the end is just tearful when you know the meaning of the song. The next is one of D’Arienzo’s versions. If you didn’t know the story of the song… would you say it is a happy one or a sad one?

So how about you? Do you ever search for stories behind songs? Do you try to understand what the composer tries to communicate? Do you try to align your dance to it or do you assign your own meaning? Do you think it is disrespectful if you don’t align with the composer’s intention? Let me know… would you be as torn as I was when I was dancing to El Marne?

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2 responses to “Is it a party or a war?”

  1. gregor Avatar

    intersting question! have a look at this yt video, deals with the similar topic in a pretty much different context (performing classical music). I would go with Glen Gould and see the performer/dancer as a cocreator with the freedom of putting something in the performance/dance which actually might not intended by the composer. btw in literary studies it´s widely accepted that the author is not necessarily the best person to interpret his own work. And bands like scott bradley´s postmodern jukebox or scary pocktes do a phantastic job in showing unexpected aspects in classic, well known pop/rock songs which make us hear them completely new. another point: In tango dancing I personally would avoid to dig too deep into (mostly just read about) contexts but always go with my initial naive impulse as reaction to a song, simply for the reason that my partner – at least in europe or non-spanish speaking countries – rarely would know the lyrics or understands the singer. So by relying too much on preknowledge I create a cleft between me and my partner, just as you decribed your experience… no good. I know, the tango talibans will kill me for this but at least in dancing I activly and consciously disregard the lyrics (mostly).

    1. Christos Kouroupetroglou Avatar

      Hi Gregor,
      First of all, thanks a lot for the comment. It’s super interesting… especially the video you linked. It’s a discusion without a correct or wrong answer and everyone is obviously free to choose.
      In general, I tend to agree with your approach to ignore the story or the lyrics of a song and go with the instict that the music triggers. Also, with orchestras that are loyal to the lyrics like Troilo you don’t have such a problem… they guide you in the cirrect direction already with their music.
      However, the question which comes up then is… How can you un-see… un-hear… forget some of those stories you find out? I wonder if sometimes is better to stay in blissful ignorance…

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