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Kate Price - 'cellist

Astor Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango

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"Tango is a way of life."

Kate Price says. "It says so much. Your imagination can just go simply berserk. You can interpret the dance and the rhythm in anyway you please. It makes you infected and affected as well with the spirit of being alive. The reason I think it's such a powerful dance and form of expression is that it's possible that it can be incredibly polite and elite and socially acceptable, but equally kids on the street dance tango."

The Composer

Astor Piazzolla saw the possibility of the tango and developed it as the uniquely personal vehicle of his musical expression, rather like Chopin in the mazurka, or the Strauss family in the waltz and polka. He was born in Mar del Plata, in Argentina in March 1921. When he was 4, his parents moved to New York. His musical studies there included the bandoneon and the piano (with a pupil of Rachmaninov). the Piazzolla family returned to Argentina when Astor was in his mid-teens, and he made his mane a bandoneon player in various bands, and as a composer. His composition studies continued with the father of Argentine music, Alberto Ginastera, and conducting with Hermann Scherchen. The turning point in his career came during a visit to Paris in 1954 when he met Nadia Boulanger; her pupils included many of the greatest composers of the late 20th century. Back in Buenos Aires he formed the Piazzolla Octet, and began a new phase in his approach to the tango. 1976 he formed his Quinteto Tango Nuevo (New Tango Quintet) and made several albums of Essencia Musica (1978) Tango Zero hour (1986) and The Rough Dancer And The Cyclical Night (1988) are the most important. With these recordings Piazzolla's music found a world audience, curiously at roughly the same time as his literary contemporaries Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Luis Borges. Piazzolla suffered a cerebral thrombosis in Paris in 1990, and died back home in Buenos Aires in July 1992.

Taking the native music of the dock-side bordellos, cafes and night-clubs of Buenos Aires, Astor Piazzolla made them the vehicle of a peculiarly personal, and Latin America world view. Piazzolla is a latter-day representative of the performing/writer type of artist. In the Argentine tango he found the ideal vehicle for his creativity. And what an amazing range of imaginative possibilities he discovers. From 1946 with El Desband, which some consider his first work, to 1990 and Le Grand Tango, he composed some 800 pieces.


The Tango

Tango originated in the poor neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, developing from the older native song from, the milonga, and the Cuban habanera, which had already been popularised in Europe via Bizet's Opera, Carmen. I've heard, but haven't been able to confirm, that is was danced by the men queuing outside brothels. The great difference between tango and its predecessors is in its rhythmic variety and vitality. The movement of the dance seems full of a repressed violence. With the dancers in close physical contact it seems to be a metaphor for the battle of the sexes, the frequent pauses, the breaks in the line, suggesting hopelessness of any attempt to "get it together", of any meaningful communication, or holding on to happiness. Is this the reason why Tango has remained popular throughout the 20th century?

Kate Price says "In life you have a search for excellence and compassion hopefully you experience extreme love, but (tango) is extraordinarily disciplined and out of the discipline comes the greatest freedom. Piazzolla has become the Bach of Argentina. The structure is incredibly light."

The American composer, John Adams points out how Piazzolla shares with the Brazilian, Heitor Villa Lobos a fondness for long Bach sequences. These sequences are a way of controlling the structure and increasing the emotional temperature as the cadences are postponed time and again, and finally resolved. This is the key to the fundamental eroticism of tango. Le Grand Tango exploits this technique remorselessly.


The Background to the Recording

This electric (and electrifying) version of Piazzolla's Le Grand Tango originated in a children's concert. Kate Price's own sponsor Gwent Europark, also sponsored a huge centenary gala event in which the combined orchestra's of the West Monmouth Schools, joined with the orchestra from a German school they were associated with. Kate was asked to become involved. The first thing she did was to bring in the conductor Howard Williams. She had know him for several years at Music Camp, where his talent for getting the best out of young musicians - and his Elvis Presley spoof - is legendary. Faced with a huge and unbalanced array of instrumentalists of varied ability the normal cello "pops" would never have worked and it had to be something the kids enjoy. "I know what we could do," Kate told Howard, "Le Grand Tango - but it would need arranging.

Howard Williams took on the task and the rehearsals duly began. "Faced with a 200-strong orchestra which included 21 clarinets, and every brass instrument in West Wales, me and my beautiful Ruggieri cello didn't stand a chance." they tried to amplify me on their school sports day amplification equipment but that didn't work. At supper the night before the concert Kate said "You will either have to raise me or find an electric cello". Everyone around the table fell silent.

"I remembered that a viola player at junior college had brought a viola from a maker just outside Monmouth, and that he'd said the'd make a prototype electric cello. So I traced the student and got hold of the maker, Ieuan Owens".

I rang him up. "Hello, I'm Kate Price and you don't know me, but I've been given your number, and I wonder if it would be possible that if you are free tomorrow could you bring your cello along to West Monmouth School at Pontypridd to see if I could play it at a concert tomorrow night?"

So, Ieuan turned up the next day and produced out of a normal cello case something that looked like a beautiful wooden sculpture but also looked as though something had eaten the sides out of the cello. The length of the rehearsal was only the length of the piece. It was an amazing experience and I said I would love to play the cello in the concert.

It was very successful and afterwards Mr Owens congratulated me and asked whether I'd mind if he made me one as a present. At which point the Hollywood Bowl got to hear about it and wanted to hear a demo. So we made a demo with my new electric cello (called Percy). This CD is the natural successor.


Percy - the Electric Cello and its' Creator

There is only one Percy. It is a remarkable instrument which to quote Ieuan Owen's description "has a solid wood body since the sound produced via piezo-electric multi transducer bridge through to amplifiers which can be adjusted to arrive at the kind and quality of sound required. This facility opens up an enormous range of opportunities for both makers and players, offering a new music direction with boundless and yet undreamed of possibilities." Ieuan Owens adds, "I can think of no-one better than Kate to further this claim."

Ieuan Owens' interest in instrument making goes back ot his own schooldays when his woodwork teacher also build beautiful violins. After war service in the RAF, Ieuan went into teaching himself, all the time continuing his research and development of musical instruments, eventually becoming an Inspector. He was closely involved with the establishment of the Newark and the Welsh Schools of Violin Making.

Ieuan Owens retired in 1980, and since then has concentrated on the design and manufacture of electric violins, violas and cellos. He says he feels he owes it to his generation to be designing and making "in the spirit" of his generation, with the tools and discoveries which are now at our disposal, but wherever possible retaining the best of what has gone before.

Piazzolla would have approved. He always said he "played for the younger generation"


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Last updated 19/04/01