Remembering Mauricio Kagel
The death of the avant-garde composer-cum-teacher robs music of a truly inspirational figure
Mauricio Kagel's death yesterday, at the age of 76, is a huge blow for contemporary music. First of all, there's the shock of the news – Kagel was hugely active as composer, teacher, and inspirational figurehead for generations of musicians, and he was due to take part in a major retrospective of his music in Frankfurt this weekend – and then there's the knowledge that music has lost one of its most important and ironic consciences. Growing up in Argentina, where he studied with Borges, he moved to Cologne in 1957, and spent the rest of his life in Germany. He was both an essential part of the avant-garde and a knight's move away from it, both in terms of his identity and his compositional priorities. But it's precisely that lateral gaze on the conventions of music, theatre, film, and politics that gives Kagel's music its lasting power and ability to communicate. He had a reputation as musical humorist and absurdist in the 1950s and 60s, in pieces like Match, scored for two cellists and a percussionist-cum-referee who polices their musical battle, or Antithese, a piece he filmed in which a studio technician fights a losing battle with the mechanics of the music technology, ending up mummified by a nightmarish web of magnetic tape. But there's more than parody going on his music, whether of the serial techniques of Stockhausen or Boulez, or of the monuments of classical music history, paradigmatically in his film, Ludwig Van, his scurrilous contribution to Beethoven's double centenary in 1970. Even a piece like Staatstheater (1971) is more than what it seems: on one hand, this is a blowing up of operatic institutions and conventions, of a kind that Boulez never attempted; but it's also a hugely ambitious piece of musical and instrumental theatre. That's the point about nearly all of Kagel's music: the way it investigates the site of musical performance, exposing the social and political dimensions that are latent in any performance context, whether it's in Eine Brise, Kagel's outdoor performance piece for 111 bicyclists, or the music-historical anachronisms of his Music for Renaissance Instruments. In later years, Kagel seemed to sublimate his explicitly absurdist concerns in pieces like the Double-Sextet or the Orchestral Etudes. But even these apparently abstract pieces interrogate similar territory, taking apart the ideals of 'pure' instrumental music from the inside. Perhaps the masterpiece of his last couple of decades is his cycle for large ensemble, The Compass Rose, eight profound and playful pieces that take the points of the compass as their inspiration: a comment on exoticism, cultural appropriation, and sonic geography – and great fun in performance. I remember percussionist David Hockings scything into a log, showering the London Sinfonietta at the end of a performance of the whole cycle at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Kagel gave the Aldeburgh Festival an invigorating dose of his energy in 2003, when he was composer in residence, even if some of his later music seemed almost wilfully dense and abstruse. Kagel's creativity is not at the centre of 20th- or 21st-century music - indeed, his output is as much a commentary on the ideals and ideologies of music history as a self-conscious contribution to the canon - but that's exactly why he should be essential listening for anybody interested in new music.
Thank you Mauricio for your great music!