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a new body for a new tango

A New Body for a New Tango: The Ergonomics of Bandoneon Performance in Astor
Piazzolla's Music
Source: The Galpin Society Journal , April 2009, Vol. 62 (April 2009), pp. 263-271
Published by: Galpin Society
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20753637
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A New Body for a New Tango:
The Ergonomics of Bandoneon Performance
in Astor Piazzolla's Music
The bandoneon is the signature instrument
during his early years, including Jazz and Art music.
of the Tango, a genre that originated more As a result, his music incorporated richer tonal
than a century ago and is still danced and harmonies, more rhythmic variety and improv
performed around the world in different styles isation techniques, compared with Traditional
and varieties. Since its origin, Tango has been Tango. For its instrumentation, he incorporated the
transformed choreographically and musically electric guitar and created a quintet (bandoneon,
by different artists who submitted it to different violin, piano, double bass and electric guitar) which
processes of hybridisation and fusion with different came to be the standard instrumentation for New
genres. One of the most important musicians who Tango groups. His innovations also included a change
contributed to the transformation of Tango was in the performance practice of his instrument, the
bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla, who is credited bandoneon, which is the focus of this article.
with creating the New Tango.
The term 'New Tango' presupposes the existence
of an 'Old (or Traditional) Tango' but the boundary
the terms suggested is sometimes artificial and does
The bandoneon belongs to the category of
intermittent aerophones, specified as free reed
not represent the fact that both styles nurtured instruments with hand-operated bellows (Dunkel
and influenced each other. However, that should be
discussed on another occasion and this article will
use both terms in order to differentiate between
1993:19). The development of free reed technology in
the early 1800s created possibilities for the invention
of new musical instruments. In 1835 Carl Friedrich
some of the performance practices it describes. The Uhlig invented a bi-sonorous square headed bellow
term Traditional Tango has been widely used by instrument he named Konzertinal, which did not use
scholars (Taylor 1976; Asian 1990; Archetti 1999; predefined chords like Demian's accordion (Vienna,
Collier 2000; Kutnovsky 2002; Azzi 2002; Cannata 1829) but single notes. It was eventually called
2005) to describe the Tango developed in the Rio de
bandoneon, a name that derives from the Akkordion
la Plata area (Buenos Aires and Montevideo) from of Heinrich Band, a promoter of the instrument
its origin around the 1880s until 1955 when Astor who modified and extended the original keyboard
Piazzolla created the term New Tango (Nuevo Tango layout (Mensing 2004). The instrument was created
to replace the organ in religious celebrations in
the open air or in small churches but because of
in Spanish) to describe his music and to differentiate
it from Traditional Tango.1
Born in Argentina but brought up in New York,
its technical difficulties it did not became popular
Piazzolla was exposed to different music styles until it was taken to Buenos Aires around the 1890s.
1 The Spanish adjective nuevo (or nueva, in feminine) is also found in other Latin American genres that label the
renovation of traditional genres, such as nueva trova or nueva canci?n. However, there is no connection between
Nuevo Tango and these genres or the political contexts with which they are associated.
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The Galpin Society Journal LXII (2009)
Figure 1. Rheinische Tonlage Bandoneon. All photographs by the author.
Eventually it became the signature timbre of Tango.2 tones) also called Rheinische Tonlage (see Figure 1),
with zonal distribution of buttons and bi-sonoric
The design was gradually modified and the number
of tones increased to 142 (some models have 152), operation. The most sought bandoneons are those
with 5 button rows for the left hand and 6 rows for
made by the Alfred Arnold factory, manufactured
before World War II under two brand names: Dohle
the right (Mensing 2004).
A ('Double A, meaning Alfred Arnold) and Premier.
Regarding the layout of the buttons in each box, the
Throughout his career, Astor Piazzolla played Doble
bandoneons can be:
A models. The reeds of these bandoneons are made of
a) Piano fingered: the disposition of the buttons
zinc which provides them with a great sound quality.
During the war, the manufacture of bandoneons
follow that of the piano, normally 44 buttons for
each hand, distributed in 4 rows.
stopped but it resumed after the war until the end
b) Zonal: the distribution of the buttons does notof the 1940s when Hohner bought the licence. The
conform to a scalar sequence of notes, though
other important brands are ELA (made by Ernest
some adjacent buttons form chords.
Louis Arnold, father of Alfred before leaving the
company to his son) and Germania (made by
On the basis of their bellows operation, there are two Hohner). Both these brands were usually made with
aluminium reeds. In addition, some German models
types of bandoneons:
a) Unisonoric: the same pitch sounds when opening
were imported to Argentina and renamed with the
importer brands like Casa America or Mariani.
and closing the bellows.
b) Bi-sonoric (also erroneously called diatonic): in The bandoneons used in Tango can be of various
colours: black, brown or dark red. The mother of
most voices (buttons) the pitch is different when
played opening or closing the bellows.
pearl that decorates the body of the instrument also
varies: nacarado (mother of pearl decorations in
all the bandoneon), medio-nacarado (more than 3
Most of the bandoneons that are used in Tango came
to Argentina from Germany between the 1920s
designs in mother of pearl but not in the full body),
and the 1950s in quantities estimated at between
?4 nac?r (only 3 decorations) and liso (plain with no
30-40,000.3 The models of bandoneons that are
played there are called Teclado Argentino 142-144 The bandoneon register extends almost to five
(Argentine keyboard with 142 or 144 number of
octaves. The right hand plays the high register
2 Exactly when and how the bandoneon reached Argentina is not documented. Some Tango historians such as
Horacio Ferrer believe that it was introduced by immigrants who arrived in Argentina in great numbers at that time.
Tango scholars also believe that the bandoneon's darker sound (compared to the accordion used in the first Tango
ensembles) made it the perfect instrument to express the melancholy of the immigrants, a theme that permeated the
original Tango music.
3 Julian Hasse, personal communication (July 2008).
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Maurino ? Bandoneon
Example 1. Piazzolla, Astor (1975) Suite Troileana. Transcription by Ricardo Fiorio.
Retrieved from http://www. inorg. chem.ethz. ch/tango/band/fiorio/escritura.html
(notated in treble clef) and the left hand the low
register (notated in bass clef). Two notes are linked
to each button, one sounding when the bellows are
compressed and the other sounding when they are
extended. (Dunkel 1993:14) This bi-sonor function
demands a complicated technique: the performer
has to learn four sets of fingerings, two for each
hand, one for closing and the other for opening the
There are three basic body positions for Tango
bandoneon performance. The first two have been the
standard practice of bandoneonists since the 1940s;
Astor Piazzolla introduced the third in the 1960s.
a) Classical position: the player is seated with the
instrument resting on the thighs and parallel to
the floor. This allows good instrument control,
favouring a legato sound.
The use of the bandoneon for polyphonic music
rather than as a melodic instrument produced a
complex distribution of the buttons following a zonal
rather than linear structure in order to facilitate
the building of chords (Mensing 2004). However,
the small distances between the buttons make it
possible to play the highest notes simultaneously
with low ones (Dunkel 1993:33) allowing the
production of chords of widely separated notes
which recalls the sound of an organ. Piazzolla used
this feature frequently as it is evident in Example 1
from Bandoneon, the first movement of his Suite
Troileana (1975). The music is for the left hand; the
versatility of the bandoneon is used to build chords
of widely separated pitches.
Each instrument affects the body shape of its
performer through the physical demands that emerge
from the interface between body and instrument,
which Clarke & Davidson call the ergonomics
of performance (1998:89). The nature of the
bandoneon and its technical and sonority demands
generate particular bodily responses. Its weight is
approximately 5.4 kg, necessitating some degree
of physical strength from the performer because
the weight is distributed unevenly at the extremes.
The greater the volume of air in the bellows, the
greater the force to open or close it (when closed,
the bellows measure approximately 13 cm and when
fully extended about 65 cm. which means a five-fold
increase in their air volume).4
Figure 2. Position (a) - Classical.
4 This information has been extracted from Dunkel (1993:21) and is based on an Alfred Arnold bandoneon
manufactured in Carsfeld, Germany c.1930s. Astor Piazzolla himself played Alfred Arnold models and wrote a piece
called Tristezas de un Doble A (Sadness of a Double A).
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266 The Galpin Society Journal LXII (2009)
b) One leg support: the player is seated with the
central section of the bellows resting on either the
right or the left thigh. This allows more volume
and stressed accents. For example, the use of a
special articulation called golpe (impact) prod
uced by stamping the heel and transmitting the
impact from the leg directly into the instrument
(Dunkel 1993:26).
Figure 3. Position (b) - One leg support.
c) Standing position: previously used among folk
music bandoneonists, Piazzolla first introduced
this method to Tango music. The position
involves standing with one foot on the ground
Figure 4. Position (c) - Standing.
and the other on a stool with the thigh parallel
to the floor. This allows greater sound projection
and force of attack (Dunkel 1993:21-2).
dubbed as fuelle (bellows).5 As bandoneonist Rene
Marino Rivero affirms:
The first two positions can be combined by the
performer within the same piece. For example, if the
[The bellows] react to the player's slightest movement
bandoneonist is playing first legato and later stressed
and turn those movements into vibrations - in both
accents, he or she could switch from position a to b.
This is the standard practice among bandoneonists
the physical and spiritual sense. At the instant the
formed air stream is converted into sound, it leaves
the instrument in order to once more become air
playing Traditional Tango and was the technique
used by one of the most renowned Traditional
(Dunkel 1993:5).
Tango players, Anibal Troilo. Today bandoneonists
often play either standing or seated depending on
In addition, as bandoneon player Julian Hasse
the piece; they usually choose a seated position explained to me:
for traditional Tango and an upright position for
contemporary Tango.
The bellows are so vital to the distinctive form of
Astor used to say that by playing in upright position
sound production and identity of the bandoneon that
bandoneon player is closer to the source of sound
among Tango players the instrument is sometimes
emission and it seems the instrument gets a different
the sound seems to come from the player's guts, the
5 An additional spelling of the word is also found in Lunfardo (portenos' slang): fueye.
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Maurino ? Bandoneon 267
Figure 5. Bellows operation - (i) Restricted.
Figure 7. Bellows operation - (Hi) Protean.
it in a kind of communion with his instrument. As
he said in an interview: 'the bellows is my other half
(Speratti 1969:30).7
There are three distinct ways of operating the
(i) Restricted: the opening and closing phases are
very short;
Figure 6. Bellows operation - (ii) Extended.
timbre, as if the harmonic range of the bandoneon was
This proximity with the instrument allowed
Piazzolla to breathe with his bellows; speak through
(ii) Extended: the bellows is fully opened;
(iii) Protean: the central bellows section rests and
the two manuals move freely.
In the first two methods, the air stream is
homogeneous and the third one, (protean) works
with air turbulences (Dunkel 1993:23). The protean
operation is performed in the one leg position
6 'Astor soh'a decir que al tocar parado el sonido parece salir de las tripas, el bandoneonista est? m?s cerca de la
fuente de emisi?n del sonido y parece que el instrumento tuviera un timbre diferente, como si se expandiera el rango
arm?nico del bandone?n.' (author's translation). Personal communication (July 2008).
7 'El fueye es mi otra mitad.' (author's translation).
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268 The Galpin Society Journal LXII (2009)
(position b above) and in the standing position (c),
both of which use the force of gravity to cause the
manuals to fall. This produces a larger air column
and hence more power and sound projection which
is more distinctive and violent than in the upright
position. In addition, this position enables the
performer to emphasise the accents more vigorously
In his memoirs Piazzolla explained the embodi
ment of his New Tango in relation to traditional
bandoneon performance practices, identifying why
he chose to play standing with his left foot on the
ground and placing his right foot on a stool while
supporting the bandoneon on his right thigh:
I played seated for many years, like most of my
colleagues, until I became a soloist. Then I felt the urge
of searching for another position that corresponds
more with my personality. When seated, I had the
sensation of being tied. So I stood up, I secured my left
leg on the ground and put my instrument on my right
leg (Gorin 1998:150).8
The study of the mechanics of the human movement
helps to show how Piazzolla shaped a New Tango
body for the bandoneon player, a completely different
ergonomics: a new body for a new music. The centre
of gravity of an object (including the human body)
is the point at which the whole weight of the object
is considered to act. Its position depends on the
distribution of the weight of the object (Watkins
1983:65). While the bandoneon player is seated, the
centre of gravity is at the hips; by playing in upright
position, the centre of gravity rises to near the
level of the player's navel. In addition, standing on
one foot reduces the size of the support base. With
Piazzolla's position for bandoneon performance the
base of support is smaller (only the left foot) and
the centre of gravity is higher (upright position). It
is therefore more difficult for the body to remain
stable since greater control must be exerted over the
centre of gravity. In addition, standing on one foot
(asymmetrical stance) requires much greater control
of the muscles of the grounded leg, especially in the
ankle joint (Watkins 1983:72).
Considering this performance posture, a search
Figure 8. Bellows operation - Balanceo.
for more physical comfort should be ruled out as a
cause of this significant change. What, then, are the
reasons for this posture adjustment? A clue can be
found in Piazzolla's discourse: 'When seated, I had
the sensation of being tied' (Gorin 1998:150). In
traditional bandoneon performance, with a seated
position, the initiation (the body part(s) with which
the movement is started) (Moore & Yamamoto
1988:192) remains in the upper body (arms, head,
chest), whereas in the upright position the initiation
can be located either in the upper or lower bodies.
The movement initiation can be located in the legs,
chest, pelvis, head or arms; opening a range of new
'choreographicar possibilities as is evident from
watching a Piazzolla performance. In performance,
Piazzolla's body seems to be in an unstable
equilibrium, he constantly redistributes his weight
in order to maintain stability. His body language is
therefore further in tune with his music: the New
8 'Durante muchos anos toque sentado, como la gran mayoria de mis colegas, hasta que me convert! en solista.
Ahl senti la necesidad de buscar otra posici?n que se adecuara m?s a mi personalidad. Sentado me daba la sensaci?n
de estar atado. Me pare, clave la pierna izquierda en el piso y acomode el instrumento sobre la derecha/ (author's
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Maurino ? Bandoneon
1 vl?
13 V
17 V [
V Close bellows using valve I I Opening phase
Example 2. Piazzolla, Astor (1969) Otoho porteno (bandoneon part). Buenos Aires: Editorial Lagos, bars 13-16.
Tango rhythm is constantly engaged in a kind of
Marconi, eventually incorporated this technique
unstable rhythmic equilibrium. In Traditional
when playing seated.9
Tango, where rhythmic variety is not as pervasive
as in New Tango, the patterns of movement when
seated are compatible with a music tailor-made for
dancing whereas in Piazzolla's music the upright
position, freeing the initiation of movement to more
body parts, adjusts perfectly to the new musical
concept. This is evident from the way that Piazzolla
used to play seated at the beginning of his career.
At that time he was still performing Traditional
Tango as bandoneon performer in Troilo's orchestra
and in his own first orchestras (1940s and 1950s)
during the period of the Traditional Tango. He only
changed his posture in the 1960s, when his music
started to change.
At this point, it is clear that Piazzolla's position
increases the technical difficulty of bandoneon
performance, as it is more comfortable to play
supporting the instrument on the lap while seated. In
addition, the weight of the bandoneon is distributed
unevenly to the extremes such that it needs extra
strength to keep it straight while playing in upright
position (Gorin 1998:237). There are two techniques
that try to solve these difficulties. When using the
protean position (see Figure 7) and playing with
one hand, Piazzolla placed the manual (keyboard
box) corresponding to the hand he was playing
on his thigh and open the bellows from the hand
he was not playing on. This was quite frequent in
Piazzolla's technique, but does not rule out the fact
that he could play with both hands while in protean
position. Other bandoneonists, such as Nestor
Additionally, the technique called balanceo
(balancing) was incorporated to facilitate the closing
of the bellows. It consists in changing the orientation
of the manuals from vertical to inclined (keyboard
facing up) while balancing the centre of the bellows'
folds on the supporting knee in order to be able to
close the bellows more easily (see Figure 8).
From the 1960s until his last performance in 1990,
Piazzolla used the upright position with protean
operation of the bellows in both his chamber groups
(such as the quintet) and with big orchestras; this
is the obvious way to operate the bellows because
when standing, only one leg is available to support
the instrument. The upright position emphasised the
idea of a bandoneon soloist in a context of chamber
Tango music (compared to the seated position of
the usually four bandoneons in a Traditional Tango
dance orchestra) and the fact that Piazzolla seemed
to enjoy?in his role of musical director ?a better
view of his musicians while playing.
In his memoirs, Piazzolla described the way he
liked to perform on the bandoneon: 'My fingers are
a machine gun ... I play with violence; my bandoneon
has to sing and shout' (Gorin 1998:152).10 In addition,
in this position it is easier to play when opening rather
than closing the bellows. Piazzolla very rarely played
closing: his performance of the musical phrases had
a limited extension (as much as he could or wanted
to expand the bellows).11 Most of the time he did not
expand the bellows to its limit of approximately 65
cm. and used the bellows' valve (the mechanism that
9 Julian Hasse, personal communication (November 2008).
10 'Yo toco con violencia, mi bandoneon tiene que cantar y gritar' (author's translation).
11 Some bandoneonists play only opening the bellows because they are limited technically and are not knowledgeable
of the fingering technique for closing. This was not the case of Piazzolla who was proficient in playing when both
opening and closing the bellows.
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270 The Galpin Society Journal LXII (2009)
allows the bellows to close without sound emission)
the melancholic legato sound or steady rhythmic
to shut it for the next phrase. Even though he beats that were suitable for the social dancing of
occasionally used the balanceo technique in order the Traditional Tango. His innovations were more
to expand the phrases, in general he composed and consonant with the hectic pace of life in 1960s
interpreted the bandoneon parts to allow the use of Buenos Aires, a city that grew and transformed
the bellows' valve as a wind performer would allow radically during that decade.
time for breathing (and to force the comparison
even more, the circular breathing technique used to CONCLUSION
extend the phrases in some wind instruments could This article has described how Piazzolla's changes
equal the bandoneon's balanceo technique). But, to the performance technique affected the sound
unlike most wind instruments, where the sound output of the bandoneon and his compositional
emission is produced by blowing, the opening phase methods for the instrument. Were these a mere
of the bandoneon uses the suction of air, what can be
consequence of his decision of playing standing or
called suction phrasing. Example 2, Otono porteno
were they an aesthetic choice? Piazzolla explained
that playing standing gave him more freedom,
but other explanations are possible, such as more
emphasis on his role as a soloist, to highlight his
position as musical director or even for egotistic
reasons. Such reasons must remain speculative,
(1969), shows how Piazzolla's bandoneon phrases
were composed and played. In the audiovisual
recording of a performance (Lacombe 1984), it can
be seen that Piazzolla closed the bellows at every
quaver rest.
but it is evident from this study that the standing
position introduced new performance techniques
While playing with the instrument by opening, while restricting some others or making them more
the sound is brighter than when closing. The effort difficult. It created a new body of performance more
that Piazzolla chosen technique imposes on his
consonant with the unstable equilibrium of New
performance is also recognised as a source of musical Tango, liberating the music from the rigidity of
expression, it is Piazzolla's sound trademark and can the predictable rhythms that suited social dancing.
be summarised as follows:
Additionally, the standing position brought new
sonorities to the Tango soundscape that portrayed
more accurately the transforming city of Buenos
Aires and widened the choices for the bandoneonists
high sound projection
force of attack
who can now choose between standing or seated
bright sound
positions, depending on their repertoire or their
performing preferences. For these reasons, the new
suction phrasing
The sound characteristics that Piazzolla introduced
in his New Tango established a departure from
style of performance pioneered by Piazzolla has
been adopted by a significant proportion of the next
generation of bandoneon players.
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