The last of the modernists

After Stockhausen and Boulez, Britain finally does justice to Mauricio Kagel
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The Independent Culture

Mauricio Kagel is the youngest of the post-war avant-garde composers who set a rigorous new agenda in the Fifties and early Sixties. In Britain, he has never quite achieved the fame of his colleagues. For every three people that know of Stockhausen and Boulez, perhaps only one has heard of Kagel. Alone among such big names (Berio and Ligeti are two more), he has never been honoured with a Proms performance nor given a BBC commission, though now that Oliver Knussen has taken a shine to him and conducted Kagel's music a good deal, who knows...

Mauricio Kagel is the youngest of the post-war avant-garde composers who set a rigorous new agenda in the Fifties and early Sixties. In Britain, he has never quite achieved the fame of his colleagues. For every three people that know of Stockhausen and Boulez, perhaps only one has heard of Kagel. Alone among such big names (Berio and Ligeti are two more), he has never been honoured with a Proms performance nor given a BBC commission, though now that Oliver Knussen has taken a shine to him and conducted Kagel's music a good deal, who knows...

Kagel was born in Buenos Aires on Christmas Eve, 1931. As far as his music education went, he was unorthodox from the start, studying privately while reading philosophy and literature at university. Yet he quickly rose to prominence in Buenos Aires as a conductor and head of the university's cultural department before deciding, in 1957, to come to Europe and the leading laboratory of musical experiment, Cologne. He has remained there ever since, replacing Stockhausen as the teacher to whom aspiring composers gravitate.

A crude caricature of Kagel would be as a philosopher-fool of new music, although that role fell first and foremost to John Cage. Kagel's work also has its antecedents in Dada, but the purely musical part of it is rooted in serialism. An early string sextet by him has a good deal of the typical serial anonymity of the Fifties.

The wide range of Kagel's interests, including film and theatre, gave his early composing career a somewhat restless aspect, as he explored instrumental and electronic music, and what used to be called, rather casually, "mixed media". Over the years, though, he steadily developed an increasingly personal form of what he describes as "instrumental theatre", in which players' actions are composed into the musical score. One piece is neatly called Variaktionen ("Variactions"). The "action" element, in works like Unter Strom and Tactil, composed 30 years ago, becomes a bizarre and surreal mime about producing sounds, with a touch of Heath Robinson, and in Staatstheater, Kagel burlesques the whole tradition of music theatre.

Match in the London Sinfonietta's first portrait concert next Wednesday, is one of his earliest instrumental theatre pieces, originating in a dream he had of two cellists as if they were in a sporting competition with a percussionist acting as a referee.

Later, in the 1970s, the purely musical quality of Kagel's work became more substantial, or at least more recognisably connected to traditions of various kinds, and related - however unexpectedly - to familiar notions of harmony and pulse. Whereas earlier pieces had been published in the form of a kit for performers to realise with a large margin of freedom, they were now finished compositions. The turning-point was 1898, for children's voices and small ensemble, commissioned for the 75th anniversary of Deutsche Grammophon. This established the chug-chug rhythms and doleful chromatic slitherings, amiably clownish in effect, which have remained, on and off, in Kagel's music ever since.

Kantrimiusik, also in the Sinfonietta's first concert, which followed immediately after 1898, is an affectionate burlesque of the twee, and its prevailing spirit is one of dislocated quaintness. Since writing it, Kagel has trawled musical history, and the world, retrieving elements and incorporating them in his own musical organisms.

His sources are very hard, and often impossible, to pin down. Except, that is, for some of his texts. The words of Furst Igor, Strawinsky, a sort of homage to one of music's greatest magpies, come from Prince Igor's aria in Act Two of Borodin's opera. This might be interpreted as Stravinsky's own lament for Soviet Russia, and as it happens, Stravinsky's father was an eminent operatic bass - the type of singer featured in Kagel's piece. But although echoes of The Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms are included in the weird and wonderful instrumental part (for the unusual line-up of cor anglais, horn, tuba, viola and percussion), it would take a very shrewd musical detective to actually spot them.

Between 1988 and 1994, Kagel undertook his most extended exercise in musical globetrotting in a series of eight Stucke der Windrose (The Compass Rose). The pieces are written for a small salon orchestra of clarinet, keyboards, solo strings and percussion, and named individually after eight points of the compass. They're Kagel's most approachable and easy-going music, yet again, his melange of sources is unexpected. In Osten (East), for instance, Kagel neither opts for the Far East, nor even the Middle East, but imagines himself sitting in a third-class railway carriage travelling somewhere between Trans-Carpathia and the Gulf of Finland.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert on 19 November offers a very rare chance in this country to hear Kagel's music for much larger forces. Interview avec D (1994) is a recitation (which will be spoken by Kagel himself, in French) culled from Debussy's interviews in the press. They sample his views in the setting of a lavish orchestral landscape in which the dead composer's presence is felt almost subliminally, filtered through Kagel's own idiom. There's also a sense of flow reminiscent of Debussy's music, and the sound-world, for Kagel, is unusually mellifluous. In a nice conceit, he says the orchestra asks the questions which provoke the speaker's words.

What this typically gnomic remark means is not entirely clear, for as Fellini once observed, only lies are clear. But it certainly indicates that Mauricio Kagel's music is not concerned with answers.

'The Compass Rose', London Sinfonietta, QEH, 2 Nov, 7.45pm, plus 'Repertoire' from 'Staatstheater' at 6.15pm. 'Interview avec D' and 'Etudes', BBC SO, BBC Maida Vale Studios on 19 Nov, 7.30pm; free tickets from BBC Audience Services, PO Box 3000, London W12 7RJ

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