Bandoneon: Seth Asarnow, Bryan Alvarez
Violin: Cynthia Mei, Brooke Aird
Piano: Dan Highman, Doublebass: Christopher Johnson
(Sextet members as of Fall 2011)
SFTM interviewed Seth one evening in Summer 2011, at Seahorse Restaurant in Sausalito where Seth plays live music on Wednesdays.
SFTM: How did you get into tango? We heard you were already an established jazz piano player before you started tango.
SETH: Well, a few tangos, such as "Nostalgias" and "A Media Luz" were favorites of mine since I was very young. I listened to them on my parents' 78 rpm records. But after seeing the show "Tango Argentino" in 1986, I immediately wanted to play the bandoneon. The bandoneon is an imperfect instrument; antiquated, with eccentricities. The odd placement of buttons and delicate internal structure are very unusual. But it's these very imperfections that make it so charming. Some newer instruments that have been made with so-called 'improvements' have lost a lot of the character I find so desirable.
SFTM: How did you start your sexteto? Why did you choose this format?
SETH: I really wanted to do an Orquesta Tipica but it was not possible due to budget constraints. Our first gig was in May 2010. We started with two bandoneons (myself and Julian Ramil), two violins (Cynthia Mei and Michael Thomas), piano (Peter Hwang) and double-bass (Chris Johnson). Daniel Highman joined us recently to replace Peter on piano.
SFTM: What do you want to achieve with your sexteto?
SETH: I would like to capture the essence of the old Argentine orchestras, in the style of the golden age of tango. I'm trying to capture the feeling of the music from that period. Nowadays very few musicians have the ability or the desire to play in this style, not only in terms of the tango but with classical music as well. This is what I'm trying to preserve. There will always be people playing in contemporary styles.
SFTM: Why don't other musicians play in the style of the old orchestras? Is it too difficult?
SETH: It's not a question of being technically too difficult; the challenge lies in capturing the authentic feeling of the period, which can be very difficult. The attitude, tone, phrasing and other subtleties that you hear in the past are unlike how people play today. And as I mentioned before, many musicians do not desire to sound like musicians from 80 years ago.
SFTM: Some people say you play the best live tango music in the U.S. Why don't you record your music?
SETH I feel there are great recordings available already - the original recordings. Unfortunately the orchestras on those recordings have long ago disbanded. The point of my group is so that people can have the chance to listen and dance to this music played live. There is a much different energy and tone to live music than recorded music.
SFTM: Most arrangements from the Golden Age orchestras are lost. How do you manage to capture the essence of the orchestras from that time period? What is your process?
SETH: When I play in a duo, for example bandoneon and guitar, it's more improvisational, but with a larger group like a sextet or an orchestra, we need to have arrangements written down. Often a particular tango appeals to me while listening in the car. I start listening carefully, isolating the various instruments, and that gets me thinking about how to reorganize it to make it work in a sexteto format. It's often difficult to pick up the parts that are in the background because of the poor recording technology of that time. Eventually I'll write down the complete detailed arrangement for each instrument. I do not use chord symbols and other musical shortcuts familiar in jazz, because there's a huge difference between jazz and tango. In order for it to sound authentic, I write out every note. Of course, only so much can be written down on paper, and the exact way the music should be played can not be transcribed. A good musician can interpret the music and perform it as it was meant to be played. My job as a musical director is to help them understand how to do that, and how their part coordinates with the others. In the end, the result is a combination of these three things - quality of the arrangement, the musical direction and the ability and sensitivity of each musician.
To contact Seth Asarnow: