A few days ago, last Saturday morning, I opened iTunes on my computer and entered “adios nonino” in the search box. I’m not sure why. Over fifty tracks showed up, eight by Piazzolla. There are many more out there, more every month it seems.
I listened to every one I have, for about five hours, more or less straight through. Excessive? Certainly! Eccentric? Absolutely! The result? Adiós Nonino, always a favourite, is in my ears and soul and I’m compelled to write about this glorious, emotionally rich and sophisticated piece of music.
Yesterday I entered the sheet music into Noteflight and finished identifying and marking down the harmonies, then posted the score along with a few comments on the form and character, here.
In today’s post I write about the background of Adiós Nonino’s composition, what Piazzolla thought of the music, which of his versions he liked most, with Youtube links to them. And I’ll tell you why this music means so much to me.
Pizzolla made about twenty arrangements of this piece: some much more adventurous than the first cut, not necessarily better, just more complicated; and some I consider failed attempts.
In Piazzolla’s Own Words
We are fortunate to have Piazzolla explain himself in his own words. In the early months of 1990 he met with journalist Natalio Gorin for a series of interviews and discussions. The intention was for Gorin to write a book about Piazzolla’s life, musical training, his career as bandoneonist and composer.
Gorin never had the opportunity to ask Piazzolla all the questions he had. They were planning to get together again in September but in August, while on tour in Paris, Piazzolla had a cerebral hemorrhage and stroke. He never recovered, and was declared clinically dead two years later. But Gorin had most of what he needed to write an encompassing and interesting look at the life and career of a gifted musician and composer.
The first edition was published in 1991, titled “Astor Piazzolla: A Manera de Memorias”. The second edition, published in 1998, included an expanded discography, completing the portrayal of Piazzolla’s life, and as Gorin writes in the preface, “to enrich the memoir with testimonies that are key to the story…bringing forth personal memories, experiences, and ideas explored over hundreds (thousands?) of hours of conversations with his friends, his acquaintances, his enemies, and most of his musicians.”
Fernando Gonzalez translated the second edition into English, annotated and expanded the text with a long and interesting introduction, more detail about Piazzolla’s experiences with Carlos Gardel and Aníbal Troilo, an appendix listing the names of the musicians who played in the various ensembles Piazzolla had over the years, and an up-to-date discography. The book was published as “Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir” in 2001.
I first read this edition about two and a half years ago and have gone through most of it again during the past few days. It’s a fascinating, informative read and I highly recommend it. The Piazzolla quotes below come from the Gonzalez publication.
Piazzolla’s Opinion of Adiós Nonino
Most of what we need to know about Adiós Nonino comes directly from Piazzolla (through Gorin and Gonzalez). At one point Gorin asks Piazzolla to pick his better pieces. Here’s his reply:
“The number one piece is Adiós Nonino. I challenged myself to write a better one and I couldn’t. It has a very intimate feel, almost funereal and yet it blew everything up. The day we premiered it with the Quintet, the musicians said ‘This one isn’t worth shit. No one is going to like it.’ And yet there it is…Adios Nonino ended wrong but like life: it just fades away. People liked it from the start, perhaps because it has a mysterious air, a melody that plays off a very strong rhythmic foundation. Then it changes key and finally that glorious ending with a sad resolution. Perhaps that’s why people liked it: it was different from everything else.”
(Piazzolla’s father, Vicente, was nicknamed “Nonino” and Piazzolla referred him as Nonino throughout his life.)
Why Piazzolla Wrote It
Again, from the memoir:
“And to close that very bad year of 1959, one day the phone exploded like an atom bomb. I was performing with (Juan Carlos) Copes in Puerto Rico…when I received a call from Dedé (his wife)…from New York. Nonino had died in Mar del Plata. It was too much.
“When I got back to New York a few days later, I asked to be alone in a room in the apartment, and in less than an hour I wrote Adiós Nonio. And then I cried as I had few times before in my life…In that piece I left all the memories I had of my dad.”
Piazzolla had written some of the music before, in 1954 in Paris, a piece titled “Nonino”. It was dedicated to his father. And who would care about this music today without Piazzolla’s revision, re-made with deep feelings of grief and sadness and loss? Nonino is mostly rhythmic, and Piazzolla kept that aspect, though significantly altered, and added the sweeping, poignant lyrical section.
Piazzolla’s Favourite Versions
Gorin asks Piazzolla how many different arrangements there are of Adiós Nonino. Piazzolla answers:
“Something like twenty…If I have to pick one I’d choose the arrangement for the Electronic Octet. Its strange. That group does not bring up the best memories for me. There are two other arrangements I like: the one for the Nonet and the last one I did for the Quintet, which sometimes I think is perfect in sound and craftsmanship.”
I simply can’t understand the Electronic Octet version being Piazzolla’s most favourite. Elsewhere in the book he says the ensemble and direction he took his music was a mistake. I couldn’t agree more. The Electronic Octet was formed in 1976 and lasted about two years. The playing of Adiós Nonino is fatuous, lacking substance and integrity, with drums and other percussion, synthesizer, flute and saxophone. And it never seems to end. Don’t take my word for it. The live recorded tracks from the album “En el olimpia de paris” are on Youtube. Adiós Nonino starts at 23:50 and lasts an excruciating 12 minutes.
Formed during the early 1970s, the Nonet, called Conjunto 9, was another of Piazzolla’s exploration of, I guess you’d call it jazz-tango fusion. Piazzolla speaks fondly of this ensemble in the memoirs but it is a misstep. The Nonet recording isn’t on my list of the best versions either: too jazz-infused with drums, electric bass and organ. The last 2 minutes are an improvisation on the themes, starting on the organ with an increased role of the drummer. It is just too disjunct and doesn’t mesh with the first four minutes. The Nonet’s Adiós Nonino, from the 1974 album “Libertango”, is on Youtube, here. Not successful, to my ears. Yet it is better than what came next with the Electronic Octet.
(Piazzolla made some very successful jazz-like recordings with two famous jazz musicians: with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, “Summit” in 1974; with vibraphonist Gary Burton, “The New Tango” in 1988. These recordings are well done and I enjoy listening to them).
I linked to these 1970s recordings because Piazzolla thought they were among his best arrangements of Adiós Nonino and we must take him at his word and listen to them. But that doesn’t mean we have to agree with him. No artist is perfect and experimentation sometimes leads to less than successful results. And sometimes to greatness, as had Piazzolla’s revolutionization of tango music. He must have recognized his wrong turn. He disbanded the Electronic Octet and returned to his roots, forming another quintet (the “New Tango Quintet”) in 1978. And once again played more “tango-like” arrangements. (Albeit, very far removed from what most consider tango music. Call it “concert tango”, or simply concert music, as desired.)
The first Quintet version was heard at the top of the post. Piazzolla said the second Quintet version is perfect in sound and craftsmanship. It is truly a masterpiece. I’ll write about the interpretation next time. Here it is, recorded live in New York’s Central Park in 1978:
What Adiós Nonino Means to Me
I have a special connection with this music. As I wrote in the About Me page I played some Piazzolla as a young jazz musician. Adiós Nonino was one of those pieces. But that was only youthful exploration. Wonderful, new, and fulfilling at the time, yet somewhat shallow in retrospect because I lacked context. Context came two years ago.
My father died suddenly and unexpectedly, as had Piazzolla’s. And like Piazzolla the loss hit me hard. Coincidentally, I had read the passage quoted above, where Piazzolla tells about the news of his father’s death, just a few weeks earlier. I didn’t write a world-class piece of tango music but my wife and I did dance to one, Adiós Nonino of course. Now one isn’t supposed to dance to Adiós Nonino; circumstances demanded I do so. I can’t say we danced tango, but if a deep emotional connection with your partner and to the music is what tango dancing is about, then we danced a quintessential one. A dance I will never forget.
This gloriously intense music: so diverse in its emotional range, mostly sad and full of remorse, with feelings of loss and grief, longing, anger, confusion; yet with passages of sublime tenderness. Sometimes there’s driving rhythm; other times an other-worldly transcendence. The music is written with great clarity of mind and focus.
When I listen to this piece of music I want to experience a very wide range of emotions – the music enables a tremendous diversity. I don’t want theatricality and excess. Nor do I want sentimentality. The interpretation should be more like a requiem – a funereal feel, as Piazzolla said – than an exercise in wild displays of excess. No ridiculous drum beats and foolish electronic noise. I want depth, truth, integrity, and honesty. An interpretation which grabs me by the heart and doesn’t let go until moments after the music has stopped.
In the next post I’ll write about some examples which do exactly that, the Quintet versions and some recordings by other musicians.