Music and Beyond: Pablo Ziegler finds his roots in Tango Nuevo

Pablo Ziegler will perform at Music and Beyond this week.

Pablo Ziegler is a Grammy-winning  composer, pianist and arranger. These days he is based in New York City but his roots run deeply in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His name will forever be associated with Astor Piazzolla and the form of music known as  Tango Nuevo. Ziegler worked with the legendary Argentine composer for a decade and has taken the lessons learned in his own musical direction. As a player he’s been compared to both Vladimir Horowitz and Bill Evans. Not too shabby. On July 5, he’ll be in Ottawa at the Music and Beyond Festival conducting the Thirteen Strings chamber orchestra on Thursday and on Friday he will be involved in a performance of his own version of Tango Nuevo. Before his concerts he answered some questions from ARTSFILE.  

Q. Mr. Ziegler it is a pleasure to meet you by email. Is Canada a receptive place for Tango?

A. Thank you for having me. I’ve been to Canada several times including to Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. I was with (Astor) Piazzolla in Montreal in 1980s where we had a historical video/DVD made. I always enjoy the energy I receive from the Canadian audience.

Q. Your were Astor Piazzolla’s colleague and friend. How did he influence you?

A. Before I met Piazzolla, I worked extensively as a composer of music for many films, TV series and theatre productions. I started performing with Piazzolla in my 30s and he showed me the importance of composing (from one’s roots), in my case this is Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since then, I started writing music in this way. So, that’s something I learned from Astor and I’m grateful for his advice. We were great colleagues because we shared the same identity and goal. He was my best friend, my father, my brother, my mentor, everything you can imagine. We enjoyed music, food, cooking, fishing among other things we loved together. We would talk about music and the next tour while we were fishing. We had a great time together.

Q. He is important in your life and in the world of tango and Argentine music but clearly he stands above that as well. Can you put him into some sort of musical context for me?

A. His composition is completely classical. It comes from his musical education studying with Nadia Boulanger and Alberto Ginastera. At the same time, he incorporated the flavour of Buenos Aires into his work, which is wonderful. When I joined the quintet, I asked Astor if I had to play exactly how it’s written on the music sheet and he said: ‘Play as you feel you should play.’ So I started improvising within his music and later Astor would join me in these improvisations. Towards the end of our collaboration, the improvisation in a performance grew so much that it sometimes lasted almost 15 to 20 minutes. Tristeza de AA which was performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival (this was captured on a DVD) is a good example. That’s how his music evolved through the 11 years in which we shared the stage.

Q Were you interested in the potential of tango music before your connection with him? 

A. When I was young, I thought tango music was for old people and I never played tango in public. The only ‘tango’ I liked was Piazzolla’s. Now I appreciate traditional tango and enjoy playing it in my way.

Q. His name is everywhere and the idea of tango and his repertoire is widely played today. Why does it connect with so many people around the world?

A. It’s quite natural that a great composer gets recognition after his death. The first Piazzolla boom came around the time I released an album with Piazzolla’s pieces for two-piano version with Emanuel Ax and later with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 1990s. Now that 25 years had passed from his death, I think his compositions are appreciated more and more. I believe the music of Nuevo Tango tells a story of Buenos Aires and that’s what attracts people because it’s based on the real story.

Q. As a musician you seem to have been influenced as much by classical tradition and by jazz. Are you as open as you seem to be to musical influences. Is this important to you? Why?

A. I graduated from the Buenos Aires Conservatory and my identity as a performer is as a totally classical pianist. But at the same time, I had a passion for jazz music and I followed whatever I liked. My composition is the result of my curiosity and the footsteps of my life. Being an artist, we should be influenced by anything you see, you eat, you feel, you smell and I believe all these experiences help me grow as a composer. For me, the genre is a label that people decide. I create whatever comes to my mind.

Q. You will be working with Ottawa area musicians in your program here. What will they be playing?

A. We’ll be playing some iconic pieces by Piazzolla and my compositions.

Q. How much rehearsal time will you have with them. Are you landing in Ottawa a couple of days before the show? Do like the spontaneity of such a collaboration?

A. Unfortunately, we have a very limited rehearsal time for this concert. But I will travel to Ottawa a couple of days before the show. I always enjoy performing with the orchestra. I believe it’s the best way to express my composition.

Q. What do you hope the audience will take away from your concert.

A. I want the audience to enjoy a journey to a night of passion and romance of Buenos Aires.

Music and Beyond Presents Pablo Ziegler
With Thirteen Strings
When: July 5 at 7:30 p.m.

Tango Nuevo
When: July 6 at 2 p.m.
Where: Both concerts at Dominion Chalmers United Church

Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.