Method: Roland Dyens’ Immortal ‘Tango en Skaï’; a Study in Fluidity and Rhythm
From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY RHAYN JOOSTE
Tango en Skaï by Roland Dyens (1955–2016), is a short, quite famous showpiece that will put your technique to the test. This lesson will cover how to approach this challenging work and also how to achieve more authenticity in your tango performances.
Published in 1985 by Henry Lemoine, Tango en Skaï was one of Dyens’ concert improvisations until it was suggested he actually set it down. The title translates literally as Tango and PVC (Skaï being a French slang word for fake leather, or PVC: polyvinyl chloride). This is Dyens’ very Gallic way of signifying that this piece is a caricature of the tango or perhaps a witty replica of it. This lighthearted tone is further advanced by the notation Un rien canaille at the beginning (approximate translation: “a worthless scoundrel”) to instruct the performer to be a little vulgar or coarse with the proceedings.
This lesson will explore its required advanced technique, fluidity, tango rhythm, polyrhythms, and conquering plateaus.
Tango (originally an African Kikongo word that translates roughly as the place/people of the dance) is one that today instantly conjures up images of sensual dancing, Latin sentiment and infectious rhythm. Originating from the River Plata region between Argentina and Uruguay (the musical love child of the danzón and the milonga), its cultural influence quickly spread around the world via the shipping lines and migrant passengers. Essentially a paired dance, the music contains the scars from the clash of two cultures: European and African, and like many dances before it, such as the contredanse, it began life indecently in the barrios and slums and slowly worked its way upwards into society balls and respectability, so that by 1914, tango was the hottest dance craze in New York. By 1916, W.C. Handy had published St. Louis Blues, a piece that heralded the “Latin Tinge” with its syncopated rhythmic intro— a.k.a. the habanera/tango—thus establishing the popular foundation of the Latin influence in American music today. This ascent was later immortalized in music by the great Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla in his work for flute and guitar, Histoire de Tango, which traces the changing face of the tango in four pieces, each representing the form’s evolution over time.
The tango itself is characterized by staccato rhythms supporting a clear melodic line—and lots of attitude. There is very little classical polish or rubato, apart from a very subtle amount on the very end of phrases. The tempo has to be maintained for it to be authentic. So don’t slow down or pull the notes apart; as Dyens declares for his piece: “…there should be no rhythmic distortion.”
Tango en Skaï is arguably the most recognizable of Dyens’ vast output. It is a party piece that revels in its excess, but significantly never strays from the steady heartbeat of the Tango rhythm.
The basic Tango rhythm is a short syncopated ostinato cell (Figure 1, Habanera Cell ), derived from the Tumba Francesca cell which was born out of the mélange of musical traditions in displaced communities due to slavery in the Caribbean. It is found in two regional flavors—Spanish and Argentinean. The Argentinean ostinato is played slowly in 4/4—think La Cumparsita—and the Spanish ostinato is played march-like in 2/4—think Carmen. Both are normally played on a snare drum in an orchestral setting. Dyens has a lot of fun placing and messing about with the tango/habanera cells in various rhythmic variations throughout his piece, so keep an eye out for them.
Tango en Skaï will challenge your right hand pretty much straight out of the gate: bars 1, 2, and 4 require excellent control. The ability to select strings, pluck and damp notes, and control bass strings is essential to making the character of the tango apparent. This carries through the entire piece, but especially where there are chords.
The fragment below utilizes the original tango chords and rhythms of La Cumparsita—the small parade—to help get a feel for and to train the RH control mechanism. Originally written in the Tango’s earlier march-like 2/4 time signature, most modern versions are in 4/4 like this fragment. Notice how the opening rhythm is a variation of the habanera rhythmic cell. (La Cumparsita frag.)
Micro Study 1a is purposefully simple to help achieve the tango feel and to practice control. It uses half of bar 1, explicitly stating the staccato and tenuto notes. Aim to have the melody sustain over any chords, or dampened notes—use full planting to achieve this; a half-barre is needed to play the F over the A minor chord. Staccato accompaniment and a singing melody are what you are aiming for, so use a little more pressure on the a finger to achieve this.
Micro Study 1b is a stripped back form of the rest of bar 1, and has a 3:2 polyrhythm (see Figure 2) and a 16th-note melody over the bass eighths. The bass should remain firm and in-time as t3he triplet pulls against it. Practice with a rest stroke in the thumb, then planting back on the A string; this will help strengthen the RH bass control mechanism and clarify the voices. Once the triplet is secure, take out the bracketed note to get closer to Dyens’ original idea.
If you have never tried to play 3 beats over 2 see the below example for the rhythmic displacement. (Figure 2, Travel ex.) This does require some independence and practice away from the guitar and as such this polyrhythm is an excellent “transport” exercise: Sitting in a traffic jam or on a bus, put the melody in the right hand and the bass in the left and tap the rhythms out on your knee until they are internalized.
Micro Study 2 hones in on the diminished arpeggio in bar 3 and simplifies the rhythms slightly to make it easier to read, as well as placing it in 2/4 to break it up visually (and mentally) across the fretboard. Practice each bar until secure, then put them together. How you instigate this arpeggio is important to achieving fluidity, so take note of the RH finger suggestions. Due to the symmetrical nature of the dim chord, it is possible to fret this in a variety of ways. Dyens’ fingering has been mostly retained (with an added slur), however that should not stop you from experimenting with your own. To cement the fingering, I suggest using broken rhythms to practice this and work up to 16th notes (see this Villa-Lobos Method from Classical Guitar Summer 2016 for more).
Of special note, be aware these two bars require a lot of RH mechanism movement to be accurate, so slide the RH down over the strings in bar 1 where the music moves from string 6 to string 1; after that the RH will hover for bar 2. If you are still struggling to attain speed, separate the hands and play this as an open-string ex. only and concentrate on the string- crossing.
Micro Study 3 (a diminished chord from bar 5) is a practice example that utilizes rhythmic intensity to get the speed bursts up. Use full planting on the slow passes. Note: These are grouped in fours, as they are not triplets, which are easily played with this finger combination.
Micro Study 1c is all about that quintuplet acciaccatura on the third beat of the first bar—a distinguishing ornament in tango music, normally done at the beginning of a phrase. Possibly it is one of Dyens’ inside jokes? This study transforms it to strengthen left-hand slurs and will help counting tuplets (irregular groupings), which are easier with Konnakol (the South India rhythmic syllable system). Again, try this away from the guitar to get the feel for five beats. This micro study has many aims, so pick one and concentrate on that first, only moving on when you have it.
Tango en Skaï has an A B structure with repeats; the A section is always followed by a two- bar intro, bars 1–2 and then bars 22–23. However, we get a better idea of what Dyens was aiming for in his structure using popular music terms: Intro, (A) verse, (B) chorus, and then bridge. It is typical in tango music that the verse is march-like and staccato, with a chorus that has more rhythmic variation and excitement, which is why Dyens has added arpeggio runs and a lot of pizzazz in the B section.
Fluidity is the ability to play effortlessly, smoothly, easily, or naturally, and is the noun that best describes what most guitarists yearn to attain: speed; Fluide is what Dyens has written above bar 14’s 32nd-note sextuplets. For clarity, Micro Study 4 places this bar into half-time, and concentrates on the Cmaj7 chord shape at the seventh fret. Stagger placing the left-hand fingers down 4, 3, 2 and then 1. Once you have it under your fingers, place the bass chord notes back in, as per the original. Again use rhythmic variations to cement this into your hands if needed.
Remember: Speed is a consequence of relaxed effortless technique, which is achieved through mindful repetition. Do not practice in long sessions where it is possible to daydream. Turn off all the wonderful gadgetry available today apart for one: a metronome.
This piece is the perfect vehicle for achieving new technical plateaus. So, practice it with the metronome set slow and beating on eighth notes; you will then be able to advance your technical ability while still maintaining all the syncopations and flourishes. Push until the music is inconsistent, and then relax back to a slower speed. Make note of where it comes apart at the higher tempo; those are the areas that need further isolated practice. Work on those and then again push the tempo up until it falls apart, or until there are no more issues. This process will help you ascend onto the next level.
Dyens has ended his tango very typically, and in style, with what is colloquially termed “chum chum.” Every tango orchestra has its own variation on how to end these two chords— V– I; a suggestion is to come up with your own.
Although Tango en Skaï is a challenging piece, it can advance your technique significantly if worked on in a systematic way. We are blessed that Dyens was such a generous, both as a performer and a teacher, as such there are a wealth of YouTube videos of him playing and teaching. Below are a few suggestions for getting to grips with this Tango. Here he is live for the Guitaar Salon in 2012:
And here is an impromptu performance mid master class with Michael Sheridan:
The humorous sentiment Roland Dyens has secreted in this composition is now poignant as we approach the first anniversary of his passing, so it is fitting that the last word on this piece should be his:
“Try to create for this little work the party atmosphere in which it was born, without being unduly serious or overly compassionate. Keep a smile deep inside you and remain detached.”