TDM149DA Tangoes to a Nuevo Beat

April 25, 2016

Held every Thursday afternoon in Lowell Lecture Hall, Theater, Dance, and Media 149DA: “Argentine Tango: Culture, Music, and the Dance” is one of many classes offered for the first time this year in the newly established Theater, Dance, and Media concentration. The creation of this concentration has allowed this and other courses with performance components to come to life. "[The concentration] was looking for courses that in an exciting new way combined theory with practice to give students studio training in an art form to which they dedicate a semester of study,” says course instructor Thomas Wisniewski. “It was the perfect opportunity.”

Each meeting of TDM149DA features both practical and theoretical exercises. Classes open with lecture and discussion on a topic of the week—from early 20th century immigration to cultural history to tango dance and music history—relating to Argentina. The second half of the course serves as a dance practicum, or dance lab. “The whole idea [was to] give a training in tango salon, in social tango dancing, over the course of a semester,” Wisniewski says.

On Thursday, April 21, however, a scheduled change disrupted the regular rhythms of TDM149DA. Rather than Wisniewski himself, renowned Argentinian pianist Pablo Ziegler took the stage. Ziegler, a Latin Grammy-winning, world-touring figure in the modern composition and tango music worlds, had been invited to teach a masterclass for the concluding session of TDM149DA in collaboration with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Ziegler—referred to as “Maestro Ziegler” by all present, a sign of utmost respect in musical circles—was born in Argentina in 1944, where he graduated from the Buenos Aires Music Conservatory and established himself as a solo pianist, jazz ensemblist, and composer. His meteoric rise to musical fame began in 1978, when he joined the quintet led by Astor Piazzolla, known as the founder of nuevo tango, a new musical style based on traditional Argentinian tango that incorporated jazz and classical influences.

Though TDM149DA had featured several guest lecturers over the past semester, for some students Ziegler’s visit marked the apex of the program. “Pablo Ziegler's masterclass was by far the best event because we learned and talked about him so much in the past that it felt surreal to see him talk and play in person,” Claudia D. Oh ’17 says.

The guest session began with Wisniewski’s interview of Ziegler, in which the latter discussed his work, his life, and his passion for nuevo tango, a vibrant musical hybrid of American jazz and traditional tango. Starting with his earliest musical beginnings—his father, a tango violinist, introduced him to the music by taking him to a concert at the age of nine—and tracing the 60-some year musical journey to today, Ziegler touched on the various musical ensembles he had led and the figures from whom he drew inspiration. He referred often to his mentor and collaborator Astor Piazzolla, who was during his lifetime one of the world’s most prominent tango composers. Ziegler credits the late Piazzolla with his musical training, the development of his style, and his roots in the tango tradition. The discussion with Ziegler was punctuated by short clips of recordings from Ziegler’s past performances of his own and Piazzolla's work.

Following the interview, student performers Justin A. Dower ’17, Eli J. Kresta ’16, and Brian W. Ventura ’16, all accompanied by pianist Dylan Marcaurele ’16, sang, played alto saxophone, and sang, respectively. Ziegler’s comments focused on specific technical elements—more legato, more nuanced accents of downbeats, phrasing carried over the barline—that would produce the unique sound qualities of nuevo tango. “I was rather nervous going into the class because I’d never before played in a master class, and these two musicians are really spectacular,” Dower said. “[But] they were genuinely interested in helping me learn to better play in the style of tango, and everything they said was both kind and constructive.”

Wisniewski says the idea for this collaboration was first born last September, when Marcela V. Ramos—the program manager for ARTS@DRCLAS, an initiative at the David Rockefeller Center focused on fostering Latin American visual and performing arts at Harvard—asked him about potential artists for the spring concert series. His response was simple: “Pablo Ziegler.” Months later, that idea became reality, culminating in Ziegler and guitarist Claudio Ragazzi’s joint concert on April 20 at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts and the student master class at Lowell Lecture Hall.

The students themselves come primarily from social science, science, and humanities concentrations, though many have backgrounds in theater, music, or dance as well. Yet not all students have formal training in the performing arts, and Wisniewski says experience is not a necessity for TDM149DA. “I think you have to find a way to make music and music theory accessible to students without a formal knowledge of music…. I have various sets of exercises [including] hearing the beat, reproducing it with your body,” Wisniewski said.

His students seem to agree. “I think it's so cool that such opportunities are afforded even to students who aren't concentrating in Theater, Dance, and Media or music,” Kresta said. Physical elements like walking, snapping, clapping, and of course dancing, are embedded in the course curriculum in order to increase students’ comprehension of the subject matter—tango’s history, tango’s performance aspects, and the tango culture—itself. The class concludes with a group tango: one step, two step, to its own nuevo beat.

—Staff writer Qianqian Yang can be reached at

SOURCE: The Harvard Crimson