The (Nearly) Lost Art of the Tempo Change

What tango teaches about tempo as a shared, collective experience.

AUDIO LINK for Astor Piazzolla: The Vienna Concert (1983) is here.

Around the 45-second mark of “Verano Porteno” on the sparkling The Vienna Concert, composer Astor Piazzolla and his Quinteto Tango Nuevo do something that’s common in tango and classical composition – and increasingly rare in music created on digital audio workstations. They change tempo. Together.

The piece begins in a rustic clip-clop resembling the gait of a horse. The calming pulse evolves into more insistent downbeats, and before long the piece becomes a frenzy, an almost militaristic surge.

That lasts a minute or so, and then at 1:52 the rhythm disappears entirely, overtaken by a love lament from the violin. The other musicians continue to play, supplying chords that suggest a state of suspended animation. They’re following violinist Fernando Suarez Paz, and when a new tempo appears, around 2:14, the five all land on the downbeat together. There is no guesswork; the musicians agree on the cadence and all its component parts.

“Verano Porteno” moves through several more vivid stop-on-a-dime transitions. Each succeeds because the musicians are reacting in a unified way, following Piazzolla as he punches out chords on the bandoneon with the exactitude of a percussionist.  Sure, the musicians are handling their individual roles, but at the same time, each is attending to a shared — yet, crucially, unwritten — flight plan for how the next tempo, the next destination, will feel. Anticipating it. Creating the conditions for it to flourish.

Of course tango, even old-school tango, is full of these moments. The music’s tradition involves gracious ballroom dances and solitary swoons of despair; one of the things Piazzolla did in “New Tango” was to smash those emotional zones together. A boisterous celebration can crash into a mood of abject loneliness before the ear can fully process what’s going on.

Those thrill-ride tempo changes, and the Quintet’s assured navigation of them, feels like an exotic thing now – almost a relic from an earlier time. Partly that’s a function of the way records are made now, on computers and largely in sections, with each contribution lined up on an endlessly mutable grid. Changes in tempo or timing or “feel” happen in the darkened rooms of post-production. When a change of tempo is needed, the producer just fires up a software plug-in similar to AutoTune and nudges things forward or backward, finessing  in microslivers.

I’m not arguing against the efficiency or awesome power of the digital audio workstation. Just noting that as happens so often with technology, there are tradeoffs. What used to be basic performance practice for musicians working in most every genre is in danger of becoming a rarified thing.  

When you encounter it, when you hear five people like the Quinteto Tango Nuevo on a stage executing effortlessly together while steering from one tempo to the next, it almost feels like magic. Like a special effect in a movie.

It’s not magic, though. String quartets do it constantly, intuitively. Gypsy jazz groups too. Contrasting slow and fast sections (and the ramp-ups between them) are one ingredient in the secret sauce of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”

In a way, it’s one of those aspects of art that exists behind the art. The thing that’s unspoken, that can’t be transcribed, that defies frame-by-frame analysis yet is always there. By the end of Piazzolla’s Vienna performance, the time has changed up too often to count. It’s been goosed, stretched apart, discarded, picked back up, overhauled, exaggerated, mocked, celebrated, pushed to extremes. The pulses are impressive one to the next, but more impressive is the way these musicians agree on the details in executing the transitions from one rhythmic zone to the next. And more impressive, still, is the fact that there is no drummer in the back calling the shots. None is needed.

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