Copyright © 2002 - 2020 Chopin Society of Atlanta
Over the Borderline

Interview with Grzegorz Frankowski, a double bass player, the leader of the Piazzoforte Quintet, and the promoter of the music by Astro Piazzolla, an Argentinian musician and a revolutionary composer of the Argentinian tango

By Bożena U. Zaremba

Bożena U. Zaremba: How did the Piazzoforte project, which combines music by Chopin and Piazzolla, come into being?

Grzegorz Frankowski: It all began with meeting Kevin Kenner 1, both on a personal and artistic level, which launched the idea of bringing together Chopin’s and Piazzolla’s music. We realized that what Chopin is for Kevin, Piazzolla has become for me, and that these composers have a lot in common. In spite of the remoteness of their respective musical language, they have an almost identical place in the cultures of their homelands and the history of music. It’s clear that most people react to music with their emotions, and emotions are similar. Bringing the engaging and sensuous quality of Chopin’s and Piazzolla’s music together results in an incredible “explosive,” full of energy and emotions.

What do you cherish most in Kevin Kenner as a pianist?
Exceptional sensitivity and a passion to explore new kinds of music. It was amazing that a renowned artist like him—in a sense, completely fulfilled—decided to go in for entirely unfamiliar territory, with the full realization that he will be “crawling” out there, and that he did it with such devotion to our project and openness to all new things.

The ensemble is based on a string quartet.

Right, with a double bass added not so much as to make the group bigger and louder, but to balance the wider “facture” of the piano. The double bass gives it all a certain contour.

The double bass, at least in jazz ensembles, gives the harmonic base and the pulse. Isn’t it especially important in Piazzolla’s music?

That is a good question, because when we play Piazzolla, the bass is electrically amplified. This shocked people at the beginning, an electrically amplified instrument side by side with the acoustic ones! However, since in Piazzolla’s music—besides classical elements—there is tango and jazz, exposing the bass in the rhythmic section puts emphasis on the latter elements.

On the one hand, you are a classical musician, performing with classical ensembles, and on the other hand, you are a founder of musical projects and experiments that border on pop, jazz, and classical music. How does this all work together?

I wish that classical musicians were versatile and had broad horizons, as in the old times. Music academies should train musicians to perform a broad spectrum of music genres from different music epochs. Specialization, not only in music, is a curse of our times; we have specialists in Baroque, Romantic or contemporary music. Music academies also impose specialization on their students, and then musicians limit themselves to only one kind of music.

But isn’t it a matter of some inclination or talent for a particular genre?

Surely, but there are still a lot of musicians who do not fall into strict categorization. They will play a classical concert and then a jazz or an Argentinean tango composition. It is risky, but I have always admired those classical musicians who are flexible and can perform different genres of music. I cannot say that about jazz musicians.

Though jazz pianists have drawn from classical music for years.

Yes, but please note that these pianists have received excellent classical training from musical conservatories, and they just happen to have a gift for improvisation and have this jazz soul. Besides, these are isolated cases. Anyway, I expect my musicians to stray from conventions. When I invite a jazz guitarist, for example, I want him to find something in his sound or style of playing that, besides the ability to improvise, will show a different kind of accompaniment or a different kind of articulation typical of a particular type of music.

What fascinates you most in tango?

In classical tango, sensuality; in tango nuevo, versatility. This music is engaging, sensuous, and saturated with emotions. I am also fascinated by this South American zeal. To all of that, Piazzolla added counterpoint, Romantic phrasing, twentieth-century harmony, and elements of improvisation.

Many critics emphasize the erotic aspect of this music, but the love in tango, although full of sensuality, is unfulfilled.

I’m glad that I don’t have to explain this stereotype, which resulted from confusing eroticism with sensuality. For some people, these concepts are interchangeable, which is not true. Eroticism entails fulfillment, and tango is characterized by its absence. Tango unveils elements of sensuality but does not give ready answers. That is the attribute of great art, which activates our imagination and sensitivity to beauty.

What about formal aspects of this music?

It’s interesting that, although Piazzolla’s music has elements of improvisation, the score can be written down. When Piazzolla invited jazz musicians, he wrote down their parts, including the improvisations, and they had to sit down and practice. In other words, improvisation in this music is closer to Baroque embellishment rather than to creating completely new melodic or harmonic structures.

Someone described tango as “the pulse of the society.” It has the authenticity and life force of, let’s say, American jazz and blues. I don’t think that Polish music has an equivalent. Even though Chopin drew so much from Polish folk music, it’s still parlor music.

Chopin is like a dream. It’s a childhood memory, a disguised allusion to Polish folk music. Folk dance, artistically transformed, has become an epitome of Polish music all over the world. Tango, on the other hand, is distinguished by its urban character. About 90 percent of music audiences, including fans of Piazzolla’s music, come from urban societies, and that is why they can easily identify themselves with this music. Also, tango is definitely unlike the rest of South American music. It originated in the districts of Buenos Aires where only a tiny percentage of the population was Argentinean. The core of the society which established that environment and that culture was made up of immigrants from Italy, Germany, Spain, or Poland. Piazzolla himself claimed that it was not Argentinean music (for which he made many enemies), but 90 percent European—“Buenos Aires music.” The Argentineans would like to see this music as an embodiment of their national identity, but the fact that tango is so well played by the Europeans proves that this music is understood by musicians all over the world.

… and by the audiences.

Yes, of course. Piazzolla divided his more than 70 years of life equally among Argentina, the United States, and Europe. This music has a cosmopolitan spirit.

The bandoneon 2 , so intrinsically associated with tango, also came from Europe.

The bandoneon was created in Germany to serve in the liturgy in place of the organ, so its origin is in the church. Then it was brought by immigrants to Buenos Aires and served as an accompaniment on the streets and in brothels, which is characteristic of the tango’s beginnings. Then it returned to the world’s musical scene as an icon for the tango. One of my projects tries to revive the bandoneon as a solo instrument to bring it back to the church, which is difficult because it carries so much baggage. I want to show that there is still transcendence in this music.

What is the general reaction to your experiments?

Since I have played borderline music for a while, I have gotten used to judgmental responses by different audiences. When we received the Fryderyk Award 3 for the best chamber music recording in 2006, I encountered comments that this is not really chamber music but pop. On the one hand, people connected with tango accuse us of drifting away from traditional tango, and, on the other hand, jazz musicians point out that there is too little improvisation or too few bold arrangements in our performances. So we have our friends and foes, and depending on where we play, we are perceived either as those who break the rules of classical music or those who have not matured to play jazz. I leave the problem of labeling to the critics. For me, the most important thing is that people respond to this music with their emotions and come to us after our concerts to talk about what they feel.

What is your role as the leader in the ensemble?

Mainly logistical. I try to create comfortable working conditions for everyone, and I do not claim the right to dominate artistically. On the other hand, there is no democracy in art—someone has to take responsibility for the whole product. Single ideas of the musicians add some color to the project, but if there is no formal structure imposed by one person, it will have no personality at all. There are no “group emotions,” because everyone has a different emotional “structure,” so if you want the music to be personal, it needs to have the emotional trace of one artist. When we play Chopin, Kevin is the spiritus movens4 ; in Bach, it is Maciek Lulek; and I leave Piazzolla only to myself [laughs].

July 24, 2007
The concert took place on October 21, 2007, at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center in Roswell, Georgia.
Please view the interview with the pianist Kevin Kenner, “Let the Music Control You,” in which he discusses this musical project.

See the interview with the pianist Kevin Kenner, “Let the Music Control You,” in which he discusses this musical project.
The bandoneon is a type of concertina, a musical instrument that looks like a miniaturized accordion.
A major award on the Polish music scene, sometimes referred to as the “Polish Grammy Award.”
Mastermind, leader (from Latin “moving spirit”)

Photo: Maria Hubner