an Argentine composer, film maker, dramatist, and performer.
As his involvement with such a wide range of media suggests, he has
produced a new and entirely individual body of compositions that almost defy
classification. We can thank Kagel
for revolutionary work in the new music-theatre genre, particularly
‘Instrumental Theatre’, of which Kagel has been the most determinant and
influential exponent, proposing a music in which the action of performers
contributes as much as their sound.
Examining Kagel’s work is not an easy task, if only because of the lack
of homogeneity. The startling
contrasts between works composed for ensembles of unheard of instrumental
combinations, theatre pieces where music as conventionally defined has almost
evaporated, or films which are anything but simple documentations of musical
performances presents problems that take careful and detailed examination.
Kagel, though he writes and talks extensively about music, has frequently
made clear his anti-theoretical bias. If
one sees that as an anti-authoritarian trait, then maybe this is because of a
lasting reaction to the political conditions of his native Argentina, where he
lived from 1931 to 1957. Over
twenty years ago he wrote of the
“uninterrupted political catastrophe that has choked Argentina for almost 30
years . . . the series of miserable rŽgimes and dictatorships . . . the endless chain of miscalculations, self-pity, betrayal,
deficiencies and imperfections accomplished by those men, unworthy of humanity,
who surround themselves with jack-boots and hierarchically polished metal whom
one simply terms ‘the military’.” This
could very well be an influencing bias in his work, but even more undoubtably so
is a deepened empathy with a characteristically German mode of thought, after
living in Cologne for more than forty years. In Germany dialectical thinking has since Hegel been an
official philosophical tradition whose hallmark is the refusal to accept the
existing order as the only and permanent one.
But in an increasingly administered society the inherently
anti-systematic character of dialectical criticism grows more pronounced.
Adorno has written about the most extreme expression of this tendency:
Limitation and reservation are no way to represent the
dialectic. Rather, the dialectic
advances by way of extremes, driving thoughts with the utmost consequentiality
to the point where they turn back on themselves, instead of qualifying them.
The prudence that restrains us from venturing too far ahead in a
sentence, is usually an agent of social control, and so of stupefaction.
It is in this context that Kagel’s often startling musical formulations
are to be understood. What might be termed Kagel’s ‘systematically
unsystematic’ approach is evident in each individual work.
His works generally display indifference towards the traditional
categories of unity, stylistic purity, and absence of inner contradictions.
Kagel wrote in 1968 that “Europeans have as a time honoured custom been
in the habit of codifying musical history far too quickly.”
In numerous manifestos and articles, contemporary composers and academics
have relentlessly defined schools, assigned influences, and attached aesthetic
labels to phenomena which grow ever more distant from the comfortable,
conventional terminology. This
profusion of descriptive and critical language aims at masking a basic impulse:
the desire to construct categories into which the musical phenomena can
painlessly disappear. All of
Kagel’s output stands opposed to such classification and to a large extent
eludes it, however, Kagel’s work also essentially stands opposed to Dada and
Cageian concepts of attempting to erase memory and therefore the past; to begin
afresh. Each of Kagel’s work is inseparably bound to tradition,
primarily musical but also theatrical and cinematic.
But Kagel, when working, reworking, or integrating such a genre, he
neither blindly perpetuates nor contemptuously dismisses this tradition,
although the final product often questions the nature and conventions of the
traditions he is working with. Therefore,
the only way to truly examine Kagel’s work is to relate it to the traditions
and anti-traditions that have influenced him.
Opera, as we know it, arose out of the attempts of a group of artists and
scholars in 1600 to recreate Greek drama, which was believed at the time to have
been sung and not spoken. Recitative
or the sung narrative was a new device and was the precursor of dramatic
dialogue. The conceptual foundations of opera were laid when music
began to carry the burden of dramatic development instead of merely comprising
incidental ornamentation and ballet music. Gradually more
characters were introduced into the plots, the size of the orchestra
grew, dance was incorporated, and scenic effects became ambitious.
The disparate elements which made up such a spectacle were to become more
unified and individual as the social function became more detached from the work
of art itself. Music became more
central to the drama, while the libretto shifted from allegorical, pastoral and
magical themes to tackle more substantial topics.
Thus opera in the later 18th century outgrew the Renaissance classical
themes, and began to comment on real life and its problems, for instance Joseph
II banned Le Nozze di Figaro for
being too liberally peppered with revolutionary issues.
Despite historical changes of style and idea, the cohesion of drama and
music continued well into the Romantic period.
Wagner believed that music and drama had not achieved a real unity either
in the Renaissance or through later reforms.
The culmination of this strong drive toward unity and cohesion in music
and drama was Wagner’s ideal for the art of the future, the Gesamtkuntswerk..
His work was highly influential to the development of the operatic form,
although his glorified visions have been brought under much criticism because of
its preservation of the traditional and elaborate conventions of opera rather
than a true fusion of the arts.
Wassily Kandinsky, an artist who made a great impression on German
expressionist theatre, was the first the first to openly criticise theGesamtkuntswerk
of Wagner, to the extent that it only served to unify by external means -
never really aiming at true fusion: At
times making the music prominent, at times the text,
and never considering colour and pictorial form.
In 1912, Franz Marc (a 40 year old painter) and Kandinsky edited the
publicationThe Blaue Reiter Almanac , in which two of his own documents
were published. The first was called On Stage Composition
and was designed to accompany a transcript of his revolutionary stage
work Der gelbe Klang (the yellow sound). Kandinsky’s work onThe Blaue
Reiter Almanac in 1912,
set forth an aesthetic philosophy involving a merging of the arts through their
common disposition to abstraction and pursuit of inner nature.
This became a rallying point for modern artists of the avant-garde.
In On Stage Composition his
criticisms of Wagner were made manifest. He
describes the external development of stage works into three classes: Drama,
Opera, and Ballet. He saw this as a
consequence of materialism which resulted inevitably in restriction of artistic
expression. He continued to describe how his own work broke down these
restricting barriers, and created another three distinctions that were used for
their inner value rather than for external means:
1. Musical sound and its movement.
2. Bodily spiritual sound and its movement, expressed by
3. Colour-tones and their movements (a special resource of
Thus ultimately drama consists here of the complex nature of inner
experiences of the spectator. From
opera has been taken the principle element music as the source of inner sounds,
which need in no way be subordinated to the external progress of the action. From ballet has been taken dance, which is used as movement
that produces an abstract effect with an inner sound. Colour-tones take on an independent significance and are
treated as a means of equal importance.
Music, sound, voices, forms and coloured lights would move, assemble and
decompose. They would work their
effects sometimes simultaneously, sometimes separately.
Forms would appear, develop and vanish, while colours changed through
shifting lights. The colour and
light would not serve to illustrate the music more than the music served to
comment on the drama - all would rest precisely on the action common among all
elements. The method allowed for
numerous combinations of effect: collaboration, contrast, or the three
‘movements’ running in entirely separate, externally independent directions.
Der gelbe Klang goes
beyond the anti-naturalistic experiments of Jarry, Apia, Strinberg, Craig and
Panizza in its almost complete elimination of dialogue, plot and sequential
action, and its reliance on light, movement, and the abstract
dances of figures to fill the space of the stage and the duration of the
performance. The play has been
objected to, misunderstood and dismissed.
Kandinsky’s reaction against Wagner’sGesamtkuntswerk , as well
as his move towards abstraction, is echoed directly in Kagel’s work.
His output includes films and plays for radio and the stage in addition
to his music, a many-sided activity whose aim has not been as such to create a Gesamtkunstwerk,
but rather explore the means by which ideas and forms might be
transferred from one medium to another. Expressionism is an important influence
to Kagel’s work, and it is also interesting to note a comparison between
Kandinsky’s influential work for the German expressionist theatre and
Kagel’s continuing work for the new music-theatre, in the divisions in the
fusing of the stage-arts. In 1979,
Kagel wrote of contemporary composition:
With regard to current developments, even allowing for
caution about premature codifying, one fundamental feature can be observed:- the
breaking up of traditional boundaries of genres and typologies, the clearest
case being that of the new music-theatre. The various branches of traditional theatre - stage-play,
opera, melodrama and ballet, - have increasingly dissolved out of their rigid
divisions into a continuous scale of scenic representation.
At the end of the 19th century a form of salon entertainment became all
the rage in Europe. It was the
‘melodrama’, which - contrary to popular usage - was a precise artistic
form: the recitation or declamation
of a poem or dramatic story by an actor accompanied by an ensemble or a piano
illustrating the text. Berlioz,
Schubert, Schumann and Liszt composed melodramas, and the form was well suited
to both concert hall and salon.
These melodramas were engendered by a yearning for certain kinds of
expression, by a love for the beauty of the speaking and declaiming voice, by a
desire for the heightened intelligibility of the text, as well as by the wish to
create a more subtle interpretation than was thought possible through
traditional operatic delivery : Melodrama was a form
that also stood against the traditions of opera. Arnold Schoenberg, and important composer of the early
twentieth century composed his revolutionary workPierrot Lunaire
in 1912. It was subtitled “a melodrama for speaking voice,” and
was undoubtably influenced by this form. Its primary contribution to the
avant-garde was that is was the first work to introduce his Sprechstimme,
a form of vocal notation that combined speech with song.
Kagel has also worked with the melodrama form, and has similarly used it
as a reaction against traditional operatic forms of representation.
is a work containing four melodramas for two performers and other sources of
sound, and it is designed to represent a 19th century singer at the time of his
vocal decline. Based on
authentic reviews and reports from the past, this composition extends the
‘melodrama’ by using alternative types of representation, totally
abandoning the texts in the traditional form.
The two performers represent four roles, the first performer playing
three of the characters (represented through rapid alternation presented by
dramatic implications in the text), and
the second performer plays the fourth role -
the deaf/dumb mute who is forced to represent his character through
abstract movement and actions.
For an audience, it becomes the seemingly accidental events of human
existence that constitute the subject matter.
Below is an excerpt from the score:
The fairly abstract representation of material by Kagel in Phonophonie
brings us to a fairly important influence on Kagel’s work: The Dada
movement that began in 1916 in Zurich. Dada
found expression primarily through experimentation with performance, the group
set up a performance space called the ‘Cabaret Voltaire’, where most of the
early experiments took place. Performance
at the Cabaret Voltaire included dances and skits - many employing masked
performers, work with rhythm, music
and ‘natural sound’ (those sounds which the human voice and body is capable
of making without the aid of extensions of any kind), bruitism (noise music) and
the reading of typically Dada poetry. Dada
was meant to be principally a focus for an abstract art, and it had an absurd
expression. Tristan Tzara, an important founder of the movement, wrote:
“Dada is our intensity: it sets up inconsequential bayonets the sumatran head
of the German baby; ... It is for and against unity and definitely against the
Both in their theatrical exploration of simultaneity and the use of noise, and
in their early attempts to agitate the audience, the Cabaret Voltaire was not
treading on entirely new ground. Noise
had already been christened as an art form by the Futurists.
In 1913 Luigi Russolo had written a manifesto entitledThe Art of
Noise, which posited that
Western culture to date had accepted only a narrow segment of those infinite
possibilities of sound that make music; all sound should be acceptable material
Hugo Ball, an important Dada poet, invented poems without words or sound
poems,in which he composed with the sonic qualities of vowels and consonants as
the composer does with tones and instrumental timbres.
Ball was particularly influenced by the work of Kandinsky and his
publication The Blaue Reiter Almanac.
Here new thoughts were forcefully presented and Ball encountered the
theories of Robert Delauney’s ‘simultaneism’ which was to affect his
concept of simultaneous poetry and therefore the entire nature of Dada
performance. The importance of
simultaneism was in its new grasp of structure - a structure which is the
‘opposite of narration,’ which represented “an effort to retain a moment
of experience without sacrificing its logically unrelated variety.”
Simultaneism wanted to present a plurality of actions at the same time.
Abridged syntax and unpunctuated abruptness tended to merge disparate
moments into an instance. Passages
were set one next to another to encourage a feeling of conflict between them
rather than the link. From here it
is a short jump to obscurity, illogicality and abruptness, therefore surprise,
shock, and ‘chance’. The
elements of “chance” and the “spontaneous act” took on a new
significance for the performing artist. Chance
was the basis of Tzara’s paper-bag poetry, and much of Arp’s as well.
I tore apart sentences, words, syllables.
I tried to break down the language into atoms, in order to approach the
creative . . .Chance opened up perceptions to me, immediate spiritual insights.
It was the Dada who took simultaneism to its most complete extension in
the area of performance. On March
30th 1916 the first simultaneous poem was performed at the Cabaret Voltaire:
A contrapuntal recitative in which three or more voices
speak, sing, whistle etc., simultaneously in such a way that the resulting
combinations account for the total effect of the work, elegiac, funny or
Experiments in simultaneity led to multiple voices reading poems and
manifestos, and the simultaneous reading of unrelated texts (often in different
languages). The phonetic poem had
become “an act of respiratory and auditive combinations, firmly tied to a unit
of duration.” The performers wheezed, gasped, wailed and sputtered out the
letters and sounds. In
Kandinsky’s experiments with poems devoid of semantic meaning, called KlŠnge
(sounds), the sound of the human voice was applied in pure fashion,
“without being darkened by the word, by the meaning of the word.”
Poems from this collection were recited for the first time at the Cabaret
Voltaire. The common linguistic
denominator of the group was absolute sound, and when he was ready to transcend
sound, the Dada-poet performer moved onto noise.
Noises are existentially more powerful than the human
voice . . .the noises represent the inarticulate, inexorable and ultimately
decisive forces which constitute the background. The poem carries the message
that mankind is swallowed up in a mechanistic process.
In a generalized and compressed form it represents the battle of the
human voice against a world whose rhythms and whose din are inescapable.
Ball composed a noise-concert for shawms and little bells, baby rattles,
and chants for a human chorus. He
was perfectly aware of the primitive and ‘magical’ import of his metrical
We have charged the word with forces and energies which
made it possible for us to rediscover the evangelical concept of the
‘word’(logos) as a magical complex of images.
Through the elements of chance, simultaneous performance, bruitist music,
and phonetic poetry, including the use of instruments that go far beyond any
traditional concepts, we can see a direct translation and interpretation in
Kagel’s work. Aspects of simultaneous performance and experimentation
with word fragmentation can be seen even his earlier works.
Anagrama-1 (1957-58) was composed for four solo voices, speaking chorus
and ensemble. The ‘text’ of the
work consists of the vowels and consonants of a palindrome ‘in girum imus
nocte et consumimur igni’ (we are circling in the night and are devoured by
fire), from the Divine Comedy, translated into four languages.
Kagel points out that “here language and music are combined in a
vocabulary that displays their correlations and reciprocal aspects.”
The power of this work is most certainly derived from the power of the
vocal sounds rather than the meaning of the words themselves.
Similarities can also be noted through Kagel’s use of multiple
languages, unusual instrumental accompaniment, and all manner of vocal
recitations (whispering, speaking, singing, gasping, guttural sounds and so on).
An excerpt from the score is shown below:
The entrance of John Cage into Europe in 1958 had a profound effect on
Kagel’s work, providing him with new freedom in working with his medium.
The theatrical inclinations of his work Antithese
(1962) reflect one of Kagel’s interest in Cageian/Dada concepts, namely
that the production of music in the concert hall consists not only of sounds
that are heard, but also of actions which are seen. This is a direct result of involvement with Cage’s
performances in Europe. In
Kagel’s work. there is no longer any question of the player’s visible
actions being a subsidiary factor: Sound
and action are treated as two autonomous fields, sometimes working in harness
together, sometimes contradicting or subverting one another.
Antithese is a piece
for one performer with electronic and public sounds. To the accompaniment of a prerecorded soundtrack, the
performer carries out a series of apparently random and inconsequential
actions on stage. Like Theatre Piece, the
performer is given a certain number of options as to when and in which manner
the actions take place, and Kagel wrote in the score that “it is the
audience’s business to find connections between actions and sounds.”
Below is a diagram of the options available to the performer:
Kagel’s work, however, goes beyond this freedom in performance, or
rather, he has extended some of the random elements of Dada/Cageian performance
and incleded them in his own compositions, which acheive more than a single
random event or ‘happening’. His
music thrives on contradictions between what is seen and what is heard.
In Transicion II, for
a pianist and a percussionist who plays the piano’s interior, certain episodes
are recorded during the performance and then re-played during a subsequent
structure. The results are
intentionally confusing: The
composition starts off with a situation in which the assortment of beaters used
by the percussionist, and his frantic movements in order to carry out all the
prescribed actions in the given length of
time, direct one’s attention to the clear relation between gesture and sound -
but suddenly, because of the tape, there are too many sounds to be accounted for
by the actions one sees. At another
point the percussionist’s actions produce no sound of their own: they merely
interfere with the sounds produced by the pianist.
In his work Sonant (1960),
the reverse happens: there are too many actions and too few sounds.
In the section Piece touchŽe, Piece jouŽe
an elaborate and precisely notated score is mimed by all but one of
the players. Overleaf is an excerpt from the Sonant
score, from the movement Fin II,
where he is using Cageian ‘aleatoric’ notation:
The most formative influence on Kagel’s work came not from Futurism or
Dada, but the Surrealist performance movement which let to the Theatre of the
Absurd in the fifties. In 1924 AndrŽ Breton, one of the members of the first
Surrealist groups, published his first manifesto on Surrealism, beginning with a
definition of the term:
automism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express - verbally, by
means of the written work, or in any other manner - the actual functioning of
thought. Dictated by thought, in
the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the
belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected
associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested plan of thought.
It tends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to
substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.
Below is an excerpt from one of the first Surrealist texts, S’il
(if you please), from The Magnetic Fields
(1919), written by Breton and Philippe Souppalt.
Are your eyes really that
Elbow on the table like naughty children.
The fruit of a
Christian primary education, if books didn’t lie, everything
In the huts of fishermen one finds those artificial bouquets
made up of periwinkles and even a bunch of grapes.
Maxine: The globe must be lifted
up if it is not transparent enough.
Here are the multiple ‘short-circuits’ which Breton discusses in his
Second Manifesto of Surrealism, here is the sabotaging of the usual
‘insanities’ which form the realistic current of life.
Similarly, silent movies of
the twenties and thirties made an indelible impression on modern sensibility,
and their own blend of Surrealism brought a new freedom and audacity in the face
of theatrical convention. Breton described
them as “pure American Dada humour.”
Kagel’s attraction to Surrealism is most apparent in his film works.
Representation of the dream consciousness is particularly apparent in his
film Match, if not only
because of the fact that he dreamt the composition on three consecutive nights
before the work was composed. The
Surrealist quality of the film is undeniable, with echoes of Cocteau, RenŽ
Clair and possibly Bu–uel. Bearing
in mind the dream origin of Match, what the French poet Supervielle wrote in
1925 seems very apt: “Until now we have never known anything that could so
easily assimilate the unlikely. Film
does away with transitions and explanations, it confuses and makes us confuse
reality with unreality. It can
disintegrate and reintegrate anything.” The
startling results of Match are that the distinction between the dream and
concert version are liquidated. As
Kagel wrote: “the reality of the performance may appear to be normal or
completely distorted: the difference remains entirely imperceptible.”
The Surrealistic background to another of his films, Ludwig Van,
is quite perceptible. One of
the strongest images in the film is an imaginary ‘Beethoven house’, where
fragments of Beethoven’s music is pasted over all the walls and furniture in a
A part of the film that showed the room being scanned very slowly was
edited without sound and screened for a group of sixteen musicians whose task it
was to interpret the kinetic notation. This
created a musical collage, that was based on a film collage, that again was
based on a collage of Beethoven’s music. The realization of
Kagel’s ‘score’ that was used in his film, and remains one of the
landmarks in the area of collage pieces. His
work on a score for Bu–uel’s Surrealist masterpiece of 1928, Un Chien
Andalou, is an example of
Kagel’s art at its finest. In his
score for strings and tape, played live by an anonymous ensemble, he has created
the sort of counterpart for this remarkable film that few other living composers
probably could. He contrasts a
fairly traditional, melodic sound in the strings with solitary dog sounds heard
over loudspeakers. Overleaf is a
still from his film Ludwig Van:
The plays of a number of dramatists, especially in France during the
1950s, offered a vision of humanity struggling vainly and therefore absurdly to
control its fate in a world that seemed in any case bent on destruction.
Certain recurring themes of futility and hopelessness caused them to be
labelled the ‘absurd’ school. The
Theatre of the Absurd has been traced directly from the work of Alfred Jarry,
and the Surrealist sketches that occurred in Paris as a result of Jarry’s
work. Many of the playwrights seek
to convey the total inadequacy of words as a means of communication, or the pure
difficulty of communication whether
it be through language or otherwise.
The similarity between Kagel’s work and some of the Absurd playwrights
is quite interesting, and it could be said that he played an important part in
the movement itself. Eugene
Ionesco’s one act ‘anti-play’ called La Cantatrice Chauve
(published in England as The Bald Primadonna,
and first produced in 1950 ) inspired a a major revolution in dramatic
techniques, which in fact inaugurated the Absurd movement.
His play used all the clichŽs of text used in a typical foreign language
course, creating a seemingly humorous vocal exterior that hid the dark and
menacing themes of the theatre he came to represent.
In Kagel’s important early theatre work Sur Scene
(1959/60), text is used in a similar way. A lecturer comes on stage and ostensibly begins a lecture on
post-war New Music. All the
familiar academic turns of phrase are present in profusion, but these phrases
serve only as embellishments for a kernel of meaning which never actually
arrives. An example from the
beginning of the lecture: ‘Today,
insofar as I should like to call to your attention, it is clear then that once
again in the present instance a sense of judgment must dam up and set in order
that which is proclaimed a motivating concept, that flood of particularised
expressive values, if we are not wholly to be swallowed up by it.’
This use of an particular diversified language form is similar to La
Cantatrice Chauve, but soon
gains an added dimension as the text is musically ‘decomposed’:
phrases are omitted, vowels permutated, sentences reversed, but the
speaker presses on remorselessly, oblivious to the havoc wrought on his script.
The ‘lecture on New Music’ is exposed as a framework without content,
an institution without a function.
The seemingly humorous exterior reveals Kagel's true negativity about new
music criticism. Below is an extract from the score:
Bertolt Brecht was another outstanding innovator in
experimental theatre, who practised and formulated his own theory of the
separation of the elements. “Words,
music and setting must become more independent of one another.
So long as the expression Gesamtkuntswerk
means that the integration is a muddle, so long as the arts are supposed
to be fused together, the various elements will all be equally degraded, and
each will act as a mere “feed” to the rest,” he wrote in 1930.
His belief was that fusion of artistic mediums results in equal
degradation rather than elevation. Brecht
already had experience of Die Dreigroschenoper
behind him, notable for its separation of music from all the other
elements. The orchestra was placed
on stage, and for the singing of songs a special change of lighting was
arranged: the orchestra was lit up; the titles of the various numbers were
projected on the screens at the back, and the actors changed position before the
number began.” He was not
isolated in his approach, but was part of a far larger movement.
There was a definite tendency for the arts and sciences towards analysis
and the exhaustive examination of small units.
This was the period leading up to the great discoveries of micro-physics
and nuclear science, thus the urge to break up entities into their basic
elements and reconstitute them in new relationships was mirrored in the arts.
Brecht was altering the relationships between these separated elements to
create new meanings and associations in the resultant structure with a new
emphasis on music. Kagel’s
interest in exploring the relationships between (incomparison to the fusion
between) different mediums is an expression of this, and he was later to make
this analysis itself an object of his art.
In Match the composer
does not seek the fusion of film and music in the conventional sense, nor does
it aim at their peaceful co-existence which doesn’t reflect Kagel’s
dialectical interest in his mediums. Rather,
film and music achieve through rigorous composition a unity whose dialectical
nature can only be preserved in their dissociation, which in turn results in a
continual tension between them. Kagel’s
interest in the theatricality of objects is also
a demonstration of the detachment he wishes to keep between an object and
its function, presenting situations with diverse interpretative possibilities,
keeping the audience frustrated as to the purpose of the actions and the objects
connected with them. Repertoire,
a movement taken from his major theatre work Staatstheater,
presents a hundred brief scenes without text or plot, that involve
interactions between objects and people. One
of the scenes is simply entitled ‘Scratching’ (the scenes were given titles
merely so as to make rehearsing them easier): an actor comes on stage with a
gramaphone record held in front of his face - a sort of mask.
He turns to face the audience, suddenly producing a nail, and viciously
scratches the surface of the record.
This could affect the audience by its implication of self-mutilation, or
by presumption that he is wilfully destroying a consumer product, or any other
The last topic to discuss is the nature of Kagel’s essential ambiguity:
His connection with musical tradition and his dialectical reaction against it.
Kagel’s love for music has resulted in quite a few works composed in
homage of other composers. These,
however, are not obsequious homages, they are challenging works that present the
composers interest in the music and new ways of reinterpreting it in the
contemporary world. Ludwig Van, Kagel’s
surreal film, is of course a homage to Beethoven, although it uses quite
revolutionary musical collage techniques. This
homage theme is also present in his piano piece Ungis incarnatus est
where Kagel projects a fragment of Liszt’s Nuages gris into the
20th Century, while in the Variations without fugue on Brahms’ variation
and fugue on a theme of Handel Brahms’
familiar piano variations are paraphrased with a difference: in the middle of
the work ‘Brahms’ emerges from the recesses of the orchestra and reminisces
on his life and times in Hamburg.
There are also his works FŸrst Igor, Strawinsky
(1982), a homage to Stravinsky, and Mitternachtsstuck (1980/81,85/86) a
long theatre piece based on the written recollections of Schumann rather than
His reactions against musical tradition and convention are equally
strong, and are particularly apparent in his ‘instrumental theatre’ works.
In one the movement from Staatstheater
called Ensemble, the
whole tradition of opera is negated. This
section calls for a 16 voice ensemble representative of every vocal category
from coloratura soprano to basso profundo. Each singer is clad in typical opera costume, yet without any
attempt to adapt to the costumes of other performers. there is no scenery, simply a set of plain screens -
representing the alienation of each costume from its ‘natural surroundings’
(which anyway is totally unnatural). Furthermore,
the singers are also denied the possibility of dramatic movement, since they are
confined to their chairs. Repertoire, with its absurd representation of
apparently inconsequential actions, questions the whole tradition of
Overleaf is an example of one of the hundred scenes:
Also, in the movement from Sonant
called Piece touchŽe, piece jouŽe
where the performers must practice very difficult music without actually
making a sound, shows a reaction against virtuoso performance.
Kagel’s works are almost without exception extremely difficult to play,
yet on the surface, at least, it gives the player little opportunity to
‘shine’ in the conventional sense. Since
the concept of the ‘virtuoso performer’ is another institutional relic of
the 19th century conception of music-making, the decrepitude inherent in
‘virtuosity’ is transferred into the music itself.
the same tendency reaches an extreme in Con Voce for three mute players, who are permitted to bring
their normal instruments onstage, but are not allowed to play them.
Kagel dedicated his piece Zwei-Mann-Orchester
(two-man orchestra) “to the memory of an institution that is in the
process of extinction - the orchestra.”
Composed from 1971 until 1973, the work presents instruments assembled
out of junk, parts of instruments, old discarded objects of different sorts
which combine to create two enormous and complex sound making machines which
occupy a large gallery. Two performers sit in controlling positions at either end and
proceed to activate different parts of the instruments with their hands, elbows,
knees, in fact every part of the body is harnessed into the activity of making
sounds. The performers virtually trapped in their seats, were faced with a
complex of instruments which they activated from a distance with a series of
ropes and pulleys. These objects
possess compelling presences which command the attention of the audience as much
as the music. One of the players
attaches a large metal grater to his chest and proceeds to rub a roller studded
with large metal pins against it while blowing through a plastic snout to obtain
a whistling sound. The uneasiness
increases as the instruments more and more resemble instruments of torture with
which the performers struggle to produce sounds from.
The analogy of the performer enslaved to an instrument which makes
excessive demands on the body can easily go beyond its musical repercussions.
Mauricio Kagel has presented, and continues to present compositions that
seem to come for an inexhaustible spring of ideas, suggesting a phenomenal
imaginative power. This multi-disciplinary
perspective is probably the primary reason he has created such a wide
variety of works, including films, plays, and puppet shows,
and any number of multi-media compositions.
It is also true that Kagel has brought into use new means of producing
and structuring sounds. Indeed, his
work suggests an enlarged understanding of the concept ‘music’, an
understanding which not only covers all sounds, but also phenomena of, motion or
The dynamic nature of his compositions and the way he reflects the work
of other artists in his own suggests a man with a deep interest
in all arts, and a commitment to a true exploration of his mediums, and
although much of his work has a humourous exterior, it is as often as not
underlined by a dialectically dark detachment.
From this survey of his work, two broad streams can be distinguished: the
hybrid theatrical event; an assemblage or collage of drama, text, movement,
plastic, and visual elements to which music belongs not as an added element but
as a necessary one. The attitude to
text and language can be redefined in a musical context, involving fragmentation
of the words, or texts can be avoided altogether.
Kagel has discussed the importance of the radio-play to the new
music-theatre, broadening the scope of using language in music and avoiding
conventions of the visual media.
Works of the second stream specifically dramatise and comment upon
aspects of musical life, be they concerned with creation, composition, the
instrument, performance, gesture and convention, rehearsal and fantasy or any
related aspect of the musical performance.
Opera came into its own as a powerful form through the total fusion of
its constituent components: now out of their fragmentation and isolation emerge
the different organisms of the new music theatre.
Mauricio Kagel,Phonophonie, vier Melodramen fŸr zwei Stimmen und
andere Schallquellen (score).
Mauricio Kagel, Anagrama-1 (score).
1965 Universal Edition.
Mauricio Kagel, Antithese, piece for one performer with electronic and
1962 Henry Litoff’s Verlag/C.F. Peters
Richard Toop, “social critic in music,” Music and Musicians, (May
5 Mauricio Kagel, Sur
of score taken from Reginald Smith Brindle’s
The New Music, second edition 1987, Oxford University
4 Mauricio Kagel, Pas de
Samuel Beckett, Quad (play)
Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett, Faber and Faber
Mauricio Kagel, Repertoire
1971 Universal Edition.
 Stanley Sadie ed., ÒMauricio Kagel,Ó The New Grove Dictionary of Music, Macmilan Publishers 1980.
 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, (trans. E.F.F. Jephcott), New Left Books 1974.
 Mauricio Kagel, ÒTam-Tam: Dialoge und Monologe zur Musik,Ó Piper and Co. Verlag, 1975.
 Nouritza Matossian, Òthe new music theatre,Ó Music and Musicians, (Sept. Ô76)
 Kandinsky and Schoenberg, Letter, Pictures and Documents, Faber and Faber Ltd, translation published 1984.
 Istvan Anhalt, Alternative Voices, University of Toronto Press 1984.
 Mauricio Kagel, Phonophonie, vier Melodramen fŸr zwei Stimmen und andere Schallquellen (score), Universal Edition 13519.
 Annabelle Melzer, Latest Rage the Big Drum, UMI Research Press 1980.
 Istvan Anhalt, Alternative Voices, University of Toronto Press 1984.
 Michael Blake, ÒKagel at the AlmeidaÓ, Contact - a journal of contemporary music, No 33.
 Peter Yates, ÒPerformance-Art Music,Ó Twentieth Century Music, George Allen and Unwin Ltd 1968.
 Reginald Smith Brindle, ÒTheatreÓ, The New Music, Second ed. Oxford University Press 1987.
 Mauricio Kagel, Antithese (score), Henry litolffÕs verlag 1962.
 Annabelle Melzer, Latest Rage the Big Drum, UMI Research Press 1980.
 Maurio Kagel, programme note on Match for the ÒInternationale Musikfestwochen Luzern,Ó Luzern, 1970.
 Richard Toop, Òsocial critic in music,Ó Music and Musicians, (May Ô74).
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, ÒEugene Ionesco,Ó 15th ed. William Benton Punblishers 1979.
 Richard Toop, Òsocial critic in music,Ó Music and Musicians, (May 1974).
 Nouritza Matossian, Òthe new music theatre,Ó Music and Musicians, (Sept Ô76).
 Richard Toop, Òsocial critic in music,Ó Music and Musicians, (May 1974).
 Michael Blake, ÒKagel at the Almeida,Ó Contact, (No. 33).
 Richard Toop, Òsocial critic in music,Ó Music and Musicians, (May 1974).
 Mauricio Kagel, Zwei-Mann-Orchester (score), Universal Edition 1975.
 Nouritza Matossian, Òthe new music theatre,Ó Music and Musicians, (May 1974).
 Bestiarium (1974) is a composition for two puppeteers who are deploying partially deflated inflatable toys!
 Stanley Sadie ed., ÒMauricio Kagel,Ó The New Grove Dictionary of Music, Macmillan Publishers 1980.
 Mauricio Kagel, Òon the artistÕs self understanding and tasks,Ó New Music Articles 1, (1982).
 Nouritza Matossian, Òthe new music theatre,Ó Music and Musicians, (Sept. Ô76).
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