Chasing Perfection

The reason Francisco Amor’s singing, or Troilo’s playing, were so good is not because of technical perfection. They were good because both of them understood tango—and knowing tango beats technical perfection every time.

So the obvious question is, how do you get to know tango? What does it even mean to know tango? I’ve talked before about an endless series of doors. Sometimes you open one, but sooner or later, you come up against another. I don’t want to get carried away with analogies, but another way to look at it is that tango is a search for tiny bits of information. The bits are around, but they’re in unexpected places. Not only do you have to be ready to see them, but you have to put them together in the right way. You have to connect the dots. Let me take a minute to talk about a few dots I’ve connected in the last couple of years.

Perfection is our goal in almost everything. Whether it's building a wall, or flying an airplane, or playing sports, the more technical skill you have, the better job you'll do. Perfection may not be attainable, but the closer you get the better. Sure, there are books about how you shouldn't try to be too perfect... about the problems caused by trying to be a perfect mother or husband or human being or something. But the point of those books is simply that trying too hard can cause psychological stress—and that can make you obsessed and weird. Which of course, in the end, really just says that by trying to be too perfect, you become less perfect. But to actually reject perfection? It never even entered my mind.


Perfection: The Blue Angels


Which is why I was a little surprised when my worship at the altar of perfection seemed to lose a little of its fervor about a year ago. I was thinking about making some short videos to demonstrate posture and step. I figured, well, if I’m going to demonstrate these things, they should be just right. But as soon as I began, I realized that making them perfect just didn't seem all that important to me any more. Then, I got in front of a mirror, and I noticed that I wasn’t dancing with the same precision as before. A couple of years earlier, my dancing was technically quite good. I'd spent so much time filming and studying the best dancers that I really began to figure out the biomechanical part. As a result, Alejandra and I developed a relaxed, polished style that people in the milongas found very attractive. But now, my steps didn’t have the crispness or discipline they used to have, and my posture was a little relaxed. The sharp edge wasn’t there. I was forced to face the fact that my dancing was no longer perfect.

At first it bothered me. What was happening? It was strange… I still knew what to do, and I certainly wasn’t tired of tango. In fact I enjoyed it more than ever. But I didn't seem to even have the motivation to investigate where the edge went. It was like losing something that didn't matter that much.

A few months later I was watching the movie Si Sos Brujo (for about the fourth time), and I heard something. The old maestro Balcarce was talking to one of his young musicians about the violin. The young man was one of the best young musicians in BsAs, and he had just asked Balcarce what he thought about the tangos he and his friends were playing. Balcarce said he liked them. He said he thought they were very good... but then he said something very quickly that I had missed earlier. Balcarce turns to his wife and says:

                             "… what was it the Fat Man said? To express tango you need to muddy it up…
                                you need to drag the bow a little. You have to compadrié it."

Maybe I didn’t hear it the other times I watched the movie... but it's also possible that I wasn't ready to hear it. I realize now that he wasn't just saying you have to add a little "street" style to your tango—to put a little bit of an arrabalero accent on it. I think he was trying to tell the young man something more profound. He was saying in a very gentle way that there is more to tango than the innovation and technical precision displayed in his music. And in a way, he may have even been saying that talent and technical precision can somehow hinder the expression of tango. But how can that be? Do you actually need to give up a little talent and hard earned technique to play real tango?

I began to think about it, and then I connected it to something I’d already put in Chapter 6. It's the saying by the old jazz musicians about how you must first learn the music, then you must learn your instrument… and finally, you must throw it all out and learn to play. But the thing is, if you’ve spent years perfecting your technique, then "throwing it out" or "muddying it up" means that you have to reject something. They aren't just saying you have to put a cool neighborhood style on it. They seem to be saying that you actually need to give up some of the proficiency that you worked so hard to attain. And the result is that you'll actually be taking a step back from perfection! If you follow it through, there’s no other way to look at it.

It’s a mysterious thing. Does rejecting perfection somehow make room for something else? If so, what? Or is giving up a bit of skill—in a sense, dying a little—just a part of understanding tango? And is it something intentional... or does it just happen one day? All I know is that something inside of me has thrown a little of it away. I didn't plan it, and I didn’t even know it was happening. But it did.


The Fat Man

Anibal Troilo
Troilo gave everything when he played.
He once reluctantly admitted that he sometimes even cried.


Listen one more time to the ending of Suerte Loca—the part after Fiorentino stops singing, where Troilo comes in. This is a man at the top of his game. He’s at the center… probably the most respected man in tango, in front of his orchestra. They have just played through a performance of one of the greatest tangos ever created, and his friend Fiorentino, the average singer who he stuck by and helped, has somehow managed to rise to the occasion. Troilo has stayed in the background through most of it, and now, it’s his turn to finish with the bandoneon. Here it is—the difficult instrument that defines tango—played by the man who defines tango. At the height of tango's popularity, and the height of his powers:


SUERTE LOCA, Troilo con Fiorentino


Listen closely to the ending. It isn't complex. In fact, it's almost anticlimactic. There’s no striking display of keyboard artistry—I've been told there were bandoneonistas who were actually more technically skilled than Troilo. And it isn't loud, either. It's almost like he’s playing with a blanket draped over the instrument; like a man practicing in a small apartment who doesn’t want to disturb the neighbors. It's as if he's playing casually... but if you listen very, very closely you may notice that he subtly changes the volume level as he plays. It's always changing... slightly up, then slightly down... like a man carefully adjusting the volume knob on a radio. He plays humbly and simply... but Troilo puts more of himself into that last half minute of Suerte Loca than most people put into a lifetime of tango.

Suppose you could buy a ticket and go back in time to some smoky milonga where he was playing. Would you skip it if you found out he was sick, but he was going to gut it out and play anyway? He probably wouldn't be quite as sharp. Or maybe you heard Fiorentino had a sore throat and his voice would be a little off. Would the tango be diminished? Would you sell your ticket?


Tango Waits

                                                               “I realized… like I was shot…
                                                                like I was shot with a diamond bullet.
                                                                A diamond through my forehead...
                                                                and I thought, my God… the genius of that!
------------------------------                                                                        --Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now


There’s one more thing about Troilo:  He said the smartest thing anyone has ever said about tango. He nailed it in four words. It’s my hobby to analyze and discuss things about tango on this site. I've written tens of thousands of words, but the sum of them doesn't come close to what Troilo said. So I'll try to be a little more like Werner Herzog. I’m just going to put it out there, and let you decide. It may not mean much, or it may mean a lot. Or it may hit you like that “complete, crystalline, pure” bullet that separated Col. Kurtz from his sanity in Apocalypse Now.  Either way, this is all you need to know about tango:

"El tango te espera."



That’s it. I read back through this last page, and I realized it's full of questions—and I don't think we answered any of them. But maybe that's okay, because after all, we're talking about tango. People were trying to figure it out long before I came along, and they'll still be at it after I'm gone.