(above photo of Mauricio Kagel from www.chamberoperamemphis.org)
An artist’s originality depends less on ingenious invention than a strongly personal point of view. Mauricio Kagel, who has died aged 76, held a unique position in music of the last half century.
While widely celebrated elsewhere, in Britain he remained perhaps the least well known of the great post-second world war avant garde composers. Only Luigi Nono was comparably under-exposed; Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis all, to some extent, reached a wider public.
Kagel’s originality reflects his status as an outsider. Born in Buenos Aires, he came from an Argentine-Jewish family of leftist political views. He did not study music at university or conservatory, but privately with several teachers – none for composition, incidentally – and he studied philosophy and literature at the University of Buenos Aires, where the poet and short-story-writer Jorge Luis Borges was one of his lecturers. Kagel became a repetiteur at the famous Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and music adviser at the university, as well as being editor of cinema and photography for the journal Nueva Visión.
Film remained a practical interest after Kagel moved to Cologne in 1957 on a West German government scholarship. He lived there for the rest of his life, with frequent trips abroad as a guest professor or artist-in-residence.
By the mid-1950s Cologne was one of the great centres of avant garde musical experiment, where Stockhausen was king, but Kagel came to succeed, or replace, him as a magnet for aspiring composers at the Hochschule, and instituted a new course in music theatre.
Although Kagel had no formal education in composition, he acquired a mastery of new vocal and instrumental techniques with surprising speed. Anagrama, a large-scale piece for solo singers, speaking chorus and instrumental ensemble, was written only one year after Kagel’s arrival in Cologne and remains one of the most striking and inventive pieces of its time; it may even have had an influence on Stockhausen’s Momente and Berio’s Laborintus II.
…There is hardly an aspect of contemporary culture that Kagel has not playfully pulled to bits and reassembled like a Heath-Robinson contraption: “early music” was desiccated in Musik für Renaissance-Instrumente (1966), opera and ballet turned inside-out in Staathstheater (1970), Country Music and Nostalgia affectionately travestied in Kantrimiusik (1975), colonialism (characteristically reversed as non-Europeans invading the Mediterranean) lampooned in Mare Nostrum (1975; revised in 1997), the circus celebrated in Variété (1977) and totalitarianism caricatured in Der Tribun (1979) – a harangue which is perhaps too much like the real thing. More recently, The Pieces of the Compass Rose (1988-94) reflect the paradoxes of “world music” with amiable nonchalance.
There have also been tributes-with-a-difference to other composers: the film Ludwig Van celebrated the bicentenary of Beethoven’s birth in 1970 with a burlesque representation of the kitsch cultural tourist industry in which, effectively, Beethoven became a mere consumer product. In Variationen ohne Fuge (1972), Brahms and Handel once more join battle, as they had, very differently, in Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. Stravinsky is grist to Kagel’s mill in Fürst Igor (1982), and Debussy in Interview Avec D (1994), in both of which Kagel re-creates, in ghostly form, music of the past, bearing a relation to it much like Miss Havisham to her wedding day.
For the tercentenary of JS Bach’s birth in 1985, Kagel composed his Sankt-Bach Passion – a perfectly respectful re-enactment of Bach’s own life in the manner of one of Bach’s Gospel settings. Kagel characteristically quipped, “No one believes in God any more, but everyone believes in Bach,” a half-truth, as he would surely have admitted.
If you’re unfamiliar with his works, ubuweb has two important albums, Acustica and Der Schall, available for download here: http://www.ubu.com/sound/kagel.html. Some of his films are available here: http://www.ubu.com/film/kagel.html.
Listening to my vinyl copy of 1898 right now. If I get the chance to update this post with more downloads, I will.