After running away to Europe from Argentina in 1957, composer Mauricio Kagel found a role as the imp poking fun at the dogmatic approach of the New Music establishment characterised by Stockhausen and Boulez. In a rare interview, classical music's black sheep tells Philip Clark about a lifetime of subversion, and how he foresaw the last year's hostage siege in a Moscow theatre. This article originally appeared in The Wire 232.
"Black mark against my name? Yes, and I worked very hard to get it!" Mauricio Kagel proclaims with an impish grin, as we sit in the book-lined snug of Amsterdam's Ambassade Hotel. Kagel was born in Buenos Aires in 1931, to an Argentine-Jewish family with strong left wing views. He was reborn in 1957, when he decided to escape from a Peròn regime that insisted its state composers conform to a rigid, dry neoclassical style. The irresistible pull of the Central European New Music scene prompted his relocation to Cologne, Germany, at a crucial moment in the development of post-war contemporary music. In Darmstadt, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez were focusing on the acoustic fabric of sound itself, rather than sculpting with notes on paper, out of a desire to instigate a musical Year Zero. Finding it purist and self-important, Kagel roundly rejected the hardline Darmstadt doctrine. Instead he set about plundering musical tradition and polluting modernist idealism, which makes him a kind of soothsayer for postmodernism. The previous year, his contemporary György Ligeti had also wound up in Cologne after fleeing the Soviet tanks sent in to crush Hungary's 1956 uprising. The two refugees found they shared a more tolerant and less dogmatic vision of modernism. "There were some European composers at this time who viewed me as a fugitive bird from Argentina that they wanted to shoot out of the sky," Kagel continues, "but I was immediately friendly with Ligeti, and we have always shared an interest in one another's work. There's a lot of space in this world for different positions and aesthetics. The only thing I ask is that the result has to be interesting. If somebody tells me that they want to produce boring music as a philosophical point of view then I accept it - but the boringness must be exciting."
Kagel is in Amsterdam to premier his new Doppelsextett (Double Sextet), played by The Schoenberg Ensemble under conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. The Dutch music scene has long regarded Kagel as one of their own, and he's built an enduring relationship with de Leeuw and the Ensemble's musicians. Not to mention with the Ambassade Hotel, which has traditionally welcomed maestros and auteurs. Kagel, however, smells a rat. As his eyes scan the surrounding shelves - which carry authors as diverse as Umberto Eco (another Ambassade regular) and blockbuster novelist Leslie Thomas - he delights in pointing out that the books look like they have never been read. In his work too, Kagel has long thrived on unpicking the often perilously thin divide between pretence and truth.
In a musical century dominated by impressionism, serialism, minimalism, totalism and postmodernism, Kagel has sidestepped 'isms' altogether. Instead he has doggedly interrogated modern music and its relationship to tradition. He has drawn on his background in musical theatre, coaching singers at the Teatro Colòn in Buenos Aires, to radicalise and disrupt the concert experience, while offering a critique on its performance conventions and rituals. Targeting the corrupting nature of institutions or vested interests is more important to Kagel the satirist and pasticheur than advancing a personal political agenda. Musically and politically, his vision can be summed up as anti-dogmatic, suggesting that fertile and stimulating ideas in the field of music - and by extension society at large - are trampled on by protocol and spin. Being a composer not a politician, Kagel frames his anti-establishment tendencies as musical discourse.[page break]
Although the bulk of his pieces are conceived for conventional classical forces, Kagel has never been afraid to question the grip of the score on Western art music. Unimpressed by the navel-gazing tendency prevalent in electronic music, Kagel instead embraces new technologies as expressive media in their own right. His Fluxus-style one-off compositions and happenings have introduced extramusical elements such as coffee grinders, walkie-talkies and electric fans; 'chromatic games' for light sources, tapes, etc (Camera Obscura, 1965); a 'score' which is actually a filmed collage of Beethoven motifs (Ludwig Van, 1970). Film and pieces conceived for radio form a significant part of his output. In these works, Kagel often turns his penetrating gaze on the global village and its responses to media messages. Kagel attacks the PR machinery of party politics in Der Tribun (1981), and the hold of organised religion in his stage work Die Erschöpfung Der Welt (The Exhaustion Of The World, 1984). His pluralist philosophy, he suggests, owes much to his formative experiences in Argentina, while his status as an outsider in German musical life allows him to take a critically detached view of the avant garde milieu in which he landed.
The intellectual life of late 1930s and early 40s Buenos Aires, Kagel explains, was akin to the New York of the 1960s. Film, theatre, literature and philosophy were as much a part of his artistic awakening as music. The movie slapstick of Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin sat easily in his mind alongside his studies of 17th century philosophers such as Spinoza. His English Literature professor at Buenos Aires's Colegio Libre was the crown prince of magic realism, Jorge Luis Borges, and although Kagel believes the influence of Borges's narrative labyrinths on his own music has been merely "subliminal", his awe at Borges's virtuosic analysis of Romantic poets like Shelley, Byron, Blake and Tennyson remains undiminished. Kagel's musical experiences were formed by his local New Music society in Buenos Aires and later by his work as a vocal coach at the Teatro Colòn. Through the New Music society he got to gauge his own formative efforts against the works of established figures like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartòk. Meanwhile, his experience working at the opera house convinced him that art could also be absurd.
Kagel's most radical deconstruction of operatic convention is his plotless Staatstheater (National Theatre), completed in 1970. In one scene called "Repertoire", performers mime semi-jokey and purposefully banal gestures designed to puncture a hole in the pomp of grand operatic fanfares and egos. "I was very near to the birth of pieces when I was working at the Teatro Colòn and I learnt how theatre functions, but also how theatre doesn't function," Kagel explains. "Staatstheater was commissioned by the Hamburg Opera, but I think calling it an 'antiopera' is too easy. It's a deconstructed opera - written before deconstruction became fashionable - or perhaps an 'opera-puzzle'. In one scene, each singer is dressed in the role of a different opera. However, they are singing my music, and the result is a visualisation of opera's past. You might see Macbeth on stage, but what he sings has nothing to do with [Verdi's] Macbeth, and therefore the counterpoint between hearing, knowing and seeing works on a very complex level."[page break]
Since its first production, Staatstheater has only been revived in its complete form four times. Perhaps opera companies find its subversive implications dangerously revealing. Certainly, Staatstheater exposes the opera establishment's current vogue for adapting novels like The Handmaid's Tale or Sophie's Choice as the desperate last stand of a form that's mislaid its relevance. Ligeti has readily acknowledged the influence of Kagel on his own self-described 'antianti- opera' Le Grand Macabre, even though he had already deconstructed theatrical gesture himself in two works, Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, which predate Staatstheater. Otherwise Helmut Lachenmann's late 1990s masterpiece Das Mädchen Mit Den Schwefelholzern (see The Wire 228) is one of the few recent works with courage enough to fully develop Staatstheater's provocative stance. The subsequent neglect of Staatstheater has not deterred Kagel from following the impulses of his unique theatrical imagination. Probe (1971) has no performers at all, only a theatre director who indicates how the audience might interact with props like spotlights, microphones and loudspeakers. Other pieces have incorporated stagehands (Umzug), acrobats (Variété), gymnasts (Ex-Position) and even 111 cyclists (A Breeze) into the action. When Kagel was working at the Cologne Opera, he was amused to notice during the dress rehearsal how the conductor directed the rehearsal pianist as though he was a full orchestra. That deceit became the starting point for Aus Deutschland (From Germany, 1977-80).
"The sight of a conductor conducting a solo piano was surreal," laughs Kagel, "and I decided to do a piano opera. Other instruments join at the end, but the piano is always present. Sometimes there is one piano, sometimes two, and at one point the piano is offstage. The subject of Aus Deutschland is Romanticism, and I find the fact that the Romantic impulse has never stopped very interesting. I am a child of the 12-tone age, but even expressionism is a neurotic extension of Romanticism. And in 19th century Lieder [art songs] the idea of blurring the edges between male and female has always seemed to me to be remarkably modern. Most Lieder of Schumann, Schubert and Brahms can be sung by either male or female singers, and suddenly the object [the loved one] is not interesting, but the fact that he is singing that he's in love. It's an androgynous statement, and not important whether he is singing to a male or a female. I thought about how I could build a theatrical piece that played with these gender roles." The structure of Aus Deutschland displays Kagel at his most subtle. The images and subjects of different Lieder are fused into a free flowing sequence, but the sources themselves are buried at a subterranean level within the overall construct. While other composers might drop musical references as a crowd-pleasing ploy, there's nothing remotely ingratiating in Kagel's use of quotation. "Relating ideas to tradition but then starting again from the beginning provides me with a lot of creative energy and possibility for inventiveness," says Kagel. "There is an empty space, and in this space I am putting the remains of music. This is quite different from accumulating music as quotation, and in a composition I consider each quotation as a mis-success. When you hear a new work for the first time, more energy is required than listening to a piece you already know. Very few composers quote from pieces that are unknown, and the function of quotation is therefore to make each listener feel as though they are in luck."[page break]
Kagel's most recent subversion of operatic space is Entführung Im Konzertsaal (Kidnapping In The Concert Hall), which he completed around the turn of this century, some 30 years after Staatstheater. Before curtain up, the stage is set for a concert. However, when only half the orchestra turn up, Kagel creates the pretence that the rest are being held hostage at gunpoint backstage, while the kidnapper communicates with the conductor by phone. Expertly allying the eeriness of his score with theatrical illusion, Kagel leaves you convinced that there is indeed an assassination happening out of sight. Satirising the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief even as the success of the work depends on it, Kagel reveals the absurdity of opera's outmoded performance rituals. And by seeding the audience's doubts about their own safety with his plausible hostage scenario, Kagel injects a sense of danger and the dark unknowable into a hidebound tradition. "I've become accustomed to the fact that when people go to the opera they look at the stage but hear the music less intensively," he reflects. "I, however, take the theatre seriously, which means I try to compose the theatrical events on the same level of density as the music. Theatre has been contaminated by its repertoire and by a curious misinterpretation of musical history. I made the decision to look critically at this contamination. Style doesn't really exist in opera, and the genre seems timeless to me."
Since the Moscow theatre siege by Chechen freedom fighters last October, Entführung Im Konzertsaal's kidnapping scenario has acquired unexpected topicality. When it was performed in Birmingham at the end of 2000, the audience's belly laughs grew increasingly uncomfortable as the calamitous events unfolded. The drama ends in death, and Kagel himself is a little freaked that fiction and reality overlapped each other so quickly. "We're living in a world where catastrophes are already reality, and disasters are imminent. So what do we do? We do music!" he laughs sardonically. "If you are conscious of the way the world functions, then you must have real doubts and frustrations about being a musician or a composer. The death in this piece is backstage, but you know that a disaster has occurred, and that the musicians have been annihilated. When I heard about the siege in Moscow, the incredible thing was that the main tool of communication for the terrorists was the telephone. [And] in my piece the plot is realised through a telephone conversation between the conductor and the kidnapper."
When he first arrived in Cologne, Kagel had intended to immerse himself inside the legendary electronic music studio at the WDR radio station. After all, this was the studio where Stockhausen had just composed his groundbreaking electronic transformation of the voice, Gesang Der Jünglinge. But Kagel quickly realised that electronic music had as many duplicitous trapdoors as opera. "I found concerts of electronic music to be rather curious and melancholic events," he muses. "The audience were looking at the speakers as though they were musicians, and were perhaps even waiting for musicians to emerge from the inside. I knew that this could not work, and it was better to hear this music on the radio at home." Kagel's diagnosis of the difficulty in presenting electronic music has surely been validated by history. His response to the problem came with Transiciòn II (1958-59) and in the vast hybrid electronic/acoustic soundscape Acustica, completed a decade later. Transiciòn II contains in embryo Kagel's obsession with questioning the way musical notation operates in real time. Like Stockhausen's Kontakte (which appeared at exactly the same time as Transiciòn II), Kagel juxtaposes the sound of piano and percussion with its electronically generated accompaniment. The pianist can choose what order to play the 35 pages of manuscript, and is also at liberty to select other elements to plug the gaps punctured in the fabric of the composition. The percussionist's role as a transitional figure between piano and electronics is made literal on stage, as he or she plays on the piano's wood and metal guts. A prerecorded electronic tape provides a fixed point of reference, while a sound engineer tapes moments of the performance in real time and immediately fires 'samples' back at the musicians. Like the counterpoint between real and historical time in his Sankt-Bach-Passion (1985), the temporal irruptions of Transiciòn II mess with the audience's perception of artificial 'concert' time.[page break]
Despite its formal innovations, Transiciòn II is not secure in the confidence of its own distinctive harmonic or gestural language. However, by the time he created Acustica (1968-70), Kagel's compositional language had matured to reflect both his outsider status and sense of ironic distance from the 'established' avant garde. Scored for "experimental sound producers and loudspeakers", the first sound to emerge in Acustica is the squeaking of a slowly deflating balloon. Kagel's selfassembled faux-guitars and plucked, beaten percussion instruments forge an uncomfortable alliance with the electronic sounds, sometimes swamping them entirely. A warbling Italian operatic baritone voice occasionally rises to the surface, as Kagel builds a dynamic out of the cultural clash between conventional musical sounds and the emerging 'brave new world' of electronics. In Music For Renaissance Instruments (1965-66, in which Kagel writes contemporary music for instruments long regarded as obsolete) and Exotica (1970-71, where orchestra members must play 'ethnic' and foreign instruments which they've never seen before), Kagel explored further this dialectical tug between progressive aspirations and regressive apparatus. This appraisal put Kagel at loggerheads with avant garde 'establishment' figures like Stockhausen, who regarded his referential and ironic language to be riven with paradoxes and impurities. This was exactly the reaction Kagel had intended to provoke.
"In Argentina I was not interested in folklorism," he says, describing the early evolution of his musical language. "I did not want to write tangos or Aboriginal music with wrong chords. I wanted to investigate the possibilities of 'expressive' music. However I found that when I came to Europe the biggest problem with 12-tone music was in the harmony. It was no longer possible to build a piece from the attraction and repulsion of chords. As the aesthetic of music has changed over hundreds of years, composers have continually found new ways to exploit the tension and release of chords and keys. Harmony is like breathing and needs to renew its supply of oxygen. I became conscious very early on that 12-tone music eliminated this possibility."
While Transiciòn II shadowed Stockhausen's Kontakte, Kagel's Hétérophonie (1959-61) experimented with form on a scale every bit as ambitious as the selfdeclared maestro's Gruppen for three orchestras. Premiered in Cologne in 1962, Hétérophonie presents a scintillating alternative to much of the atonal music of the time. In classical music, 'heterophony' is normally defined as the result of two or more musicians simultaneously performing different forms of the same melody. Kagel's piece expands this literal meaning into a heterophony made from collections of smaller micro-heterophonies. A group of 42 solo instruments (multiple soloists being a typical Kagel paradox) are assigned the instrumental colours of archetypes from the orchestral canon. Kagel likens the process to an organist releasing his instrument's stops to produce a preset sound. In Hétérophonie, there's a 'Varèse' stop, a 'Schoenberg' stop and one metaphorically labelled (after Debussy) as 'Prélude ˆ l'apres-midi d'une faune'. Against these borrowed moulds, Kagel uses a sophisticated vocabulary of graphic symbols in the rest of the orchestra to ignite a looser and more random heterophony.[page break]
The message of Hétérophonie is that by overhauling a traditional notion of 'orchestration' and devising methods that challenge the feudal system of control through which orchestras operate, the orchestra's rebirth as a creative force becomes a real possibility. Needless to say, the orchestra members who premiered it were perplexed by Kagel's intentions. By placing even the limited creative responsibility of graphic notation on the musicians' shoulders, Kagel had tipped the power balance between composer and orchestra musician in favour of the players. Predictably enough, the first musicians to perform the piece apparently found such freedom intimidating and openly criticised the composer. Kagel got his own back when he dedicated the piece to "the Marquis de Sade and the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra". "In my writing for this section of the orchestra, I purposefully made the direction and limits of what the players were to do unclear," clarifies Kagel. "That means that the musical notation and its realisation are suddenly in conflict. However, I never ask the players to improvise. I greatly admire the skill and inventiveness of jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, but asking classically trained players of New Music to improvise is only relatively possible. The best you can hope for is that they will spontaneously reproduce a given language, and this is also the extent of what many jazz musicians and improvisors can achieve. For real improvisation you have to create a new language, and many improvisors are therefore not as free as they would like."
Kagel has written that Hétérophonie is so dry that "after a few minutes one either turns off or discovers countless delights". The work is partly a wry comment on composers who are prepared to pull out all the stops, only to achieve an orchestration that sounds like Varèse or Debussy, completely unaware of their sonic forgery. But this humorous aside is buried within the concept of the piece, and it's not the punchline. Typically, the irony in Kagel's concert music from the 1960s is more often understated than overtly spelt out. From the 1970s onwards, however, his pieces become infused with a more explicit repertoire of droll reportage, satirical jokes and custard-pie slapstick. But he is far from mellowing. His new works are ever more pointed and penetrating in their investigation of the role of art in society.
As early as 1960, with his Sur Scène (On Stage), Kagel had satirised the New Music scene by devising a convoluted and near-meaningless text that parodied the kind of heated polemical discussions about New Music heard at festivals and conferences. Instrumentalists shadow the direction of the speech with gestures that are sometimes expressive, but are more often as pompous and vacuous as the text. By 1979, Kagel had extended this concept to the radio piece Der Tribun (1978-79), in which he himself took the role of an orator delivering a polished political speech against a background of triumphalist brass band music. But the words are gobbledegook, arbitrarily cobbled together from soundbites and slogans that he had invented in the style of newspaper headlines and political interviews. If Sur Scène parodies the self-important regard with which the New Music scene views itself, Der Tribun satirises similar faultlines in the Western political culture of style over substance.[page break]
Radio and film have allowed Kagel to act on his critiques of the concert hall and opera, and also to engage with electronic media. Written to celebrate the bicentenary of Beethoven's birth in 1970, Ludwig Van exists both as a film and in a version for chamber ensemble. In the film, a camera slowly pans around an imaginary 'Beethoven house', where fragments of Beethoven's music have been pasted onto the walls (one of the set designers was the artist Joseph Beuys). Meanwhile, the players read the music from photographs of these haphazardly arranged scores. Because they have been arranged for the eye and not the ear, the grammar of musical notation - clefs, key signatures, time signatures and the correct ordering of bars - has been obliterated, and instead the listener hears Beethoven's music through a smudged and distorted looking glass. Though it's subtitled Homage Ë Beethoven, the piece questions the classical music heritage industry's obsession with anniversaries. Kagel's satires have led some to view him as the joker in the 1950s avant garde pack. But enjoying Kagel's jokes without appreciating the darker undertones of his satire is to underestimate the subversive nature of his ideas. Kagel himself is in no doubt that humour is a grave business.
"Yes, I have a sense of humour," he admits, "and already as a child I was very suspicious of people who were terribly serious. You know, to say 'I am serious' is a quite ridiculous statement, and if someone is ideologically serious it is often a mask. Humour has metaphysical and philosophical dimensions that touch me on a deep level, and I can only take people seriously if they have a sense of humour. In our profession there are many people who use seriousness only to stress how important they are as a composer or a conductor. However, with humour it becomes possible to express a wide spectrum of ideas." Kagel has recently found a natural home on the decidedly postmodernist and often whimsical Winter & Winter label, founded by Stefan Winter. Among W&W's first Kagel releases was the extraordinary radio piece Playback Play, which was inspired by a visit to a music sales fair. Poking fun at the inflated sales pitch of a music industry sector more concerned with ringing cash tills than art, Kagel works into its textures the simultaneous looping of canned music and live performance deployed, he dryly notes, by the organisers without much discernment.
In contrast, the newly issued CD of Kagel's First Piano Trio from 1985 (coupled with Black Madrigal, and played by The Schoenberg Ensemble) grew from the blissful experience Kagel had when he was preparing his theatrical epic on the Devil, Der Mündliche Verrat (The Oral Treason, 1981-83). "The trio is an instrumentation of the theatrical work that explores the characters in a new way," he comments. "Before Der Mündliche Verrat went into production, I'd written my music as a piano score. I like the idea of trying to work in the exact opposite way to how I normally approach a piece, and when I was preparing for the theatre piece, I wrote the music first and then looked for texts. I therefore wrote sections of very different character, and this is why I say the Piano Trio is built from character pieces."[page break]
The premiere of his Doppelsextett reprises Kagel's relationship with The Schoenberg Ensemble, who exemplify the qualities the composer expects from musicians engaging with his scores. "Difficulty is not really the issue," he contends. "But the musician must have the impression that if he works on the part, he will do it better. The way a composer communicates to musicians and then to listeners is through notation, and this code has to be decipherable or else it is not a proper code. One of the major problems with interpretation is how to avoid merely reproducing a particular idea of a piece. A performer has to become the composer as they play the piece.
"The French," Kagel concludes, "have a marvellous word: déchiffrer, which means 'to read' the code, rather than 'to copy'. This is what I am asking my performers to do."
Kagel's Piano Trio is on Winter & Winter. Hétérophonie and Der Tribun are on Wergo, and Mode has scheduled new versions of Transiciòn II and Phonophonie for the autumn. Auvidis/Naive have a seven-volume Kagel edition (including St-Bach- Passion), and Deutsche Grammophon have just reissued 1898 and Music For Renaissance Instruments. A new performance of Ludwig Van and other works is available on Aeon. Kagel is the featured composer at this month's Aldeburgh Festival - details from www.aldeburgh.co.uk. Thanks to Ian Pace