Artistic tribute to the Centennial Anniversary of 'La Cumparsita' tango song


Here I present a series of artworks focused on acknowledging the contribution of music composers and song writers responsible for the creation of 'La Cumparsita', the most emblematic tango song of all times. My aim was to add to the ongoing cultural events and activities in Montevideo and elsewhere celebrating the centennial anniversary since Gerardo Matos Rodriguez conceived the composition during 1917. 


Mine is a very personal contribution and as such, is not concerned with issues pertaining cultural appropriation between Argentina and Uruguay. I focused instead on celebrating the pursuit of creative endeavors and the emotional value that they had imbued in our societies through generations. When I listen (and dance) to an orchestral interpretation of La Cumparsita, I am deeply moved with feelings of nostalgia, thoughtful reflections, pain and happiness, and that's the only thing I need as inspirational force to create.


As raw material for art, I re-purpoposed existing media elements such photographs, video and audio files and 'subjected' them to various methodologies already in use among creative technologists. I wanted to use 'modern technology' and its application to 'media elements from the past' in order to create something new from a different perspective. My approach does not attempt to attach artistic expression as means to correctly chronicle historical events, instead I took media elements from the past and used history as 'reference points' in which I freely explored visual experimentation.   



Historical events as reference points that I took into account


Gerardo Matos Rodriguez (b. 1897) conceived the 'backbone' or 'first draft' of La Cumparsita when he was 19 years old. The act of creation came to him one night as he was experiencing high fever as consequence of several days of health-related problems. During the subsequent day and while he was recovering, he asked her sister to help him write in musical notation what he had 'dreamed' the night before; it turned out it was a tango composition what he had conceived. Gerardo was not a formal musician and thus did not know musical notation at the time, because his sister had studied piano lessons and musical notation, she was able to help him create the first 'written record' of the song.


When Gerardo knew that Argentinean tango composer and orchestra director Roberto Firpo was performing at cafe 'La Giralda' in Montevideo city, he took the written record of his tango song and gave it to pianist Carlos Warren asking for improvement of the musical notation in order to approach Firpo with a properly written tango composition. Warren, who was working at cabaret Moulin Rouge -owned by Gerardo's father- at the time, conceded and improved the notation. In April of 1917, Roberto Firpo premiered La Cumparsita at cafe La Giralda in Montevideo and, in August of the same year, but this time in Buenos Aires, recorded what it would become the first version ever. According to Firpo, he appended to La Cumparsita a segment from one of his previous tangos written in 1910, 'La Gaucha Manuela' as means to add a third part to the composition, as Gerardo's version only contained two parts.


In 1924, when the 'tango cancion' was gaining traction Pascual Contursi and Enrique Pedro Maroni created the lyrics for La Cumparsita and promoted it with the name of 'Si Supieras'. Contursi, who had lived in Montevideo years before and knew Gerardo, succeeded in popularizing Si Supieras when Carlos Gardel recorded his famous rendition of the song. Although Gerardo wrote his own version of the lyrics years later, it wasn't successful enough and Si Supieras became the most recognizable lyrics to be associated with La Cumparsita ever since. 


Gerardo went on to compose more than 70 tangos, among them 'Mocosita' and 'Che Papusa Oi' but was La Cumparsita that placed him in the pantheon of immortals as countless renditions of his song had been created and continue to be created as of today. Equally important is the inexplicable emotion and intense feeling that is experienced when danced, and this has greatly contributed to its success. 



Collages with images from the past


I took advantage from the available images that are on the Internet and re-purposed them as artistic material to create my works. The first of them took as elements photographs of Gerardo Matos Rodriguez and a flyer of La Cumparsita respectively, to create my first work (Figure 1) that focused on the repetition of his portrait painted with different colors and displayed with different sizes. This was my approach to visually convey the enormous amount of renditions produced of La Cumparsita over the years, each one of them with its own characteristic. The color pattern of a flyer displaying students marching with a flag of La Cumparsita was used to set the background pattern of the work based on the arrangement of pixels according to hue.





The vertical and horizontal disposition of white lines in the painting was determined by the occurrence and position within two genes from the Yerba Mate plant (Ilex paraguariensis) of the sequence contexts ACTA and GAAT created by removing from the song title 'lA CumpArsiTA' and the name of the author all letters except A, G, C, T that corresponds to nucleotides of a DNA molecule: GerArdo mATos rodriGuez. The genes taken into account were (1) vacuolar protein sorting-associated protein 18-like (complete CDS sequence) and (2) 4-hydroxy-3-methylbut-2-en-1-yl diphosphate synthase (complete CDS sequence) and were downloaded from NCBI database. I wanted to create a link within the painting between tango and our cultural practice of drinking Mate. The presence of a yellow/orange circle above the shoulder of Gerardo's portrait represent sunrise and the beginning of a new phase in tango because La Cumparsita marked the beginning of tango played in four units of time or quaternary beams. 


La Cumparsita was premiered in cafe La Giralda by Roberto Firpo in Montevideo city during the month of April in 1917. Firpo would record the first version months later in Buenos Aires and in 1924, Contursi created the lyrics named 'Si Supieras'. Inspired by these historical events I re-purposed old images of cafe La Giralda, Montevideo and Buenos Aires cities and placed transparent repetition of them within a new painting to create the feeling of nostalgia and the pass of time (Figure 2). I alluded also to the dynamic and fluid exchange among artists living in both cities across La Plata river. 




The outline of a golden circle was placed in the center of the painting as a symbol of the tremendous success that the convergence of these events, persons and places ultimately brought upon La Cumparsita. The first paragraph of Contursi's lyrics appears in white and surrounds the outer side of the circle's outline. The circle alludes to the vinyl disc as well and the first recording of La Cumparsita by Firpo.




Enlivening images with music


In contrast to the static image, I wanted to explore a dynamic memory of Gerardo Matos Rodriguez because when dancing La Cumparsita, the evocation of the past is through active body movement. For this I created two video works in which the amplitude of the audio rendition of La Cumparsita by the orchestra of Juan D'Arienzo was used a data input to manipulate images and make them responsive to sound. I selected images of Gerardo's portrait (Video 1) and Gerardo's photograph in which he appears playing piano (Video 2), respectively. 






In the above video artwork the image of Gerardo's is enlivened and made dynamic by providing an abstract representation of him through the use of tiny rectangles that move across the screen with speeds relative to the amplitude of the sound and the brightness of each pixel in the original image. The size and color of rectangles also experience minor changes relative to the amplitude of the music. Fifty thousand rectangles of black color were used. 


In the second video artwork I explored the de-construction and re-assemblage of image based on music attributes such as the amplitude of the song, giving motion to the character as if he were moving his hands while playing the piano. For this I explored a technique that rendered circles in three-dimensional space relative to brightness of color for each pixel in the image and the amplitude of the song. This approach gave the video piece the impression of the artist dissolving himself into the music he composed, a poetic evocation of the past in present times.





Video 2. A brief segment of video artwork recorded with an iPhone while playing on my desktop computer.  














Mapping the sound of La Cumparsita


In order to glance at the structural architecture of 'La Cumparsita', my first experiments attempted at visualizing the amplitude and frequency attributes of the audio composition using the technique known as sound mapping. The entire length of the tango song is visually represented as if it were text: from top-left (beginning of song) to bottom-right (end of song). The visual attributes I used were (1) white short lines to display segments of the song that had amplitude/volume higher than 15%; (2) ellipses that displayed the transparency of color and the size/diameter relative to the frequency of the song at any given moment: size of orange/red ellipses relative to frequency of left channel and size of blue/violet ellipses relative to frequency of right channel. This implies that in the case mono audio recording of La Cumparsita, ellipses of the same size and color will be superimposed to each other; whereas on stereo audio recordings the position, size and color of the ellipses tracking the frequency the song will be slightly different (Figure 3). Thus old mono audio recordings of La Cumparsita will have a a color pattern of blue/violet whereas newer stereo recording will have orange/red and blue/violet color combinations (Video 3). 






Figure 3. Visual pattern of Domingo Federico's rendition of La Cumparsita when frequency from left channel (orange/red), right channel (blue/violet) and both channels are taken into account. Hover over the figure to access the three visual compositions.  







Video 3. Visual composition based on DiSarli's rendition of La Cumparsita. Because of the computer processing power required to record each frame in real time as the music plays, the video is not exactly synchronized to the music. This issue does not occur when artwork is directly projected onto a wall from the computer with our recording frames. 




Adding a visual dimension to an audible rendering of La Cumparsita provided a different perspective and allowed me to associate groups of visual elements to certain passages or segments of the tango song.  




Visual representation of TRADITIONAL, EVOLUTIONARY and AVANT-GARDE renditions of La Cumparsita


Starting in the 1920s, tango composition and orchestration followed two distinct paths or schools, each with its own musical structure and style: the traditional school and the evolutionary school. Traditionalists not only emphasized rhythm and danceable tango, they also featured higher number of musicians in their ensembles (four bandoneons and four violins in addition to other instruments). Its members included Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro and Francisco Lomuto, among others. Evolutionists on the other hand, were concerned with the improvement of tango through the study of melody, harmony and interpretative techniques and their ensembles consisted primarily of the tango sextet format (two bandoneons, two violins, double-bass, and piano). 


The structure of La Cumparsita is composed of three main parts with a strong melodic first section, a rhythmic second part, returning to the first melody for a strong ending (third part). When I applied the same sound mapping procedure to renditions of La Cumparsita from traditionalists, evolutionists and avant-garde orchestras I could identify three distinguishable visual sections, at least for the following renditions from the 32 I examined: Canaro and Ortiz, Vardaro and Federico, Piazzolla and 'El Arranque'. 







Figure 4. Visual compositions based on renditions of Canaro and Ortiz. Hover over figure to access figures.   








Figure 5. Visual compositions based on renditions of Vardaro and Federico. Hover over figure to access figures.    








Figure 6. Visual compositions based on Piazzolla's rendition of La Cumparsita





From the other 26 renditions that I analyzed, different visual patterns emerged that did not follow the characteristic tertiary structure. From these, the renditions of Mosalini and Bianco with 4 and 5 sections respectively are interesting to note (Figure 7):


Mosalini & Bianco:





Figure 7.Visual compositions based on renditions of Mosalini and Bianco that presented patterns of 4 and 5 sections respectively. Hover over figure to visuals. 





The renditions of La Cumparsita by Troilo and Pugliese are interesting because the visual patterns obtained differed substantially, with Troilo particularly stressing the first section and Pugliese stressing instead the last part of the song (Figure 8). 


Troilo & Pugliese:





Figure 8.Visual compositions based on renditions of Troilo and Pugliese. Hover over figure to visuals.




And here are the visual patterns for the rest of the renditions:





Figure 9. Visual compositions based on the renditions of Biagi, Calo, Ciudadanos del Tango (version 1 and 2), D'Agostino, D'Arienzo, De Angelis, Di Sarli, Racciatti, Forever Tango Orchestra, Giora Feldman, Diaz, Colangelo, Laurenz, Lomuto, Rodriguez, Sassone, and Tanturi. Visual interpretations of La Cumparsita featuring the singers Alberto Castillo, Carlos Gardel and Julio Sosa were also included. 




It would be interesting to extend this work to all available renditions of La Cumparsita from Maglio until today in order to create a comprehensive study on comparative tango visualization. This would allow musicians and historians to approach their studies with a new body of information and resources that can provide a useful complementation to their work. In this sense, an artistic approach to La Cumparsita from the fields of digital art and creative coding as shown here, derived into a novel insight of its composition and the evolution of the orchestral renditions over time. 


Visual representation of musical renditions of La Cumparsita allow auditory impaired persons to grasp or sense a musical icon so important in the culture of Uruguay and Argentina.   




Final thoughts


In this essay I've combined artistic expression with computational tools and historical research, allowing myself to take a multidisciplinary approach to the topic of La Cumparsita. 





Collier S, Cooper A, Azzi MS, Martin R (1997). Tango: the dance, the song, the story. Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd (London).



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