Mauricio Kagel: Avant-garde Jewish-Argentinian composer whose absurdist works turned convention on its head

"With humour it becomes possible to express a wide spectrum of ideas" – an unusual thought for a contemporary composer. But then Mauricio Kagel was an unusual composer, his standing as perpetual outsider giving him a unique vantage-point. Kagel was deadly serious about not taking life seriously and took a subversive delight in turning convention on its head. Kagel's mind saw behind things, using not only music but also theatre, dance, film and any other medium which came to hand, in a deconstructionist sleight-of-hand that revelled in paradox and irony. "I am interested in ambiguity," he said. "Though not because I am a fan of ambiguity, but because it is an essential feature of the external world".

Kagel was born in Buenos Aires, the son of Jewish immigrants whose origins were in Prussia, St Petersburg and Odessa, and who moved to Argentina in the 1920s to escape anti-Semitic pressure. As he later recalled, postwar Buenos Aires had the biggest Jewish community after New York. The intellectual climate there in the Forties and Fifties was unbelievably dense, just as complex as it was contradictory – a fantastic city, bubbling over with culture.

Kagel was given a wide music education, with lessons in piano, clarinet, cello, organ, singing, conducting and the theory of music; at the University of Buenos Aires he studied music, the history of literature (with the writer Jorge Luis Borges) and philosophy. He was an activist from the start: although he failed the music conservatory entrance exams, he was active in the Agrupació*Nueva Música from 1949 and – an early indication of his interest in film – joined the Cinemateca Argentina in 1950. That was the year in which he began to compose, self-taught, in a deliberately radical reaction against the neo-Classical orderliness favoured in Perón's Argentina.

He covered many bases: although his efforts to found an electronic studio came to nothing, he directed the chorus at the Teatro Colon and acted as repetiteur, was music advisor at the university and student conductor of the Chamber Opera, and edited the cinema and photography sections of the journal nueva vision.

Kagel got to know Pierre Boulez in 1954, on one of his visits to Buenos Aires as part of Jean-Louis Barrault's theatre company; Boulez urged him to come to Europe. Kagel hoped for a student grant to allow him to move to France, but it was not forthcoming. One came, instead, from the German Academic Exchange Service, and so, in 1957, with Boulez extolling the virtues of the electronic studios of Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, that is where Kagel went.

He moved in avant-garde circles: from 1958 he attended the summer courses at Darmstadt and was later to lecture there. But he soon found the lack of historical awareness in modernist circles a sorry contrast with the colourful music-life he had known at home. Having grown up in Peronist Argentina, he was deeply suspicious of absolutist value-systems, in music as elsewhere: "To believe that one can write something new by denying what has already been created is not only wrong, but also leads to superfluous pieces with no self-sufficiency or historical relevance."

His career evolved in multiple directions. He conducted the new-music concerts of the Rhenish Chamber Orchestra from 1957-61. He visited the US on lecture and concert tours in 1961 and 1963 and was Slee Professor of Composition at SUNY, Buffalo, in 1964–65, lecturing also at the Berlin Film and Television Academy in 1967 and directing the new-music courses in Gothenburg a year later. At the Musikhochschule in Cologne he was director of the Institute for New Music from 1969 and until 1975 was director of the Cologne new music courses (succeeding Stockhausen); in 1974 he was appointed to a chair in new music theatre at the Hochschule.

Kagel's output is sui generis. He was familiar with the precepts of serial composition, but undermined its determinism by introducing uncontrollable chance effects, as in Transicion II (1958–59), for example, by random ordering of the pages. Whereas serialism was exclusive, Kagel was inclusive: as early as Musica para la torre in 1952, he had notated lighting into the score, and extra-musical elements became constants. Instrument-alists would be required to mime, act, comment on the score or otherwise vocalise. His singers had also to be actors, although Kagel's vocal writing was sympathetic: as a youth he had strengthened his lungs against incipient tuberculosis by singing vocalises, taught by a local horn-player, and he knew what the voice could do. He used music to create drama and drama to make music, choreographing "extraneous" noises into patterns that became part of the musical argument.

One of the first to embrace multi-media, Kagel made a number of films that are also pieces of music, among them Ludwig van, to mark the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970, recasting Beethoven's music as furniture, and Hallelujah, composed on pieces of card in 1967–68 and "performed" in variable order. He also wrote radio plays which he produced himself.

Sacred cows were ripe for slaughter. The aim of his first opera, Staatstheater, was, he said, "not just the negation of opera, but of the whole tradition of music theatre". In scenes of deliberate chaos, the characters sing snippets from repertoire operas, with overlapping solos emanating from the chorus, into which the soloists disappear; non-dancing roles are required to dance; large sections were deliberately "anti-musical" – if it was a convention, it could be turned on its head.

But Kagel defended himself against charges of anarchism: "chaos interested me long before chaos theory became fashionable. But I am neither an anarchist nor a 'chaoticist', and I am strict and disciplined in my thinking". He explained, "An essential aspect of my work is composition with elements which are not themselves pure." The Hungarian mezzo soprano Klara Csordas, who worked with him for 20 years, saw a dichotomy in his personality: "He had a very German, structured way of working but a very Latin vein of fantasy".

She added: "When you worked with him, it was like working with a metteur-en-scène, a conductor and a choreographer all at once – that all-round ability was part of his incredible force."

She found him "incredibly perfectionist" as a conductor, the paradoxes of his personality emerging there, too: "You had to know the piece absolutely perfectly. He gave you freedom if you did what was written. He wanted your imagination, so he furthered your personality if you respected the music. He was very precise; he had an amazingly structured mind – but a very naughty sense of humour."

Kagel was celebrated in Britain twice in recent years: in 2001, when students at the Royal Academy of Music spent a week working with him; and in 2003, when his presence as featured composer at the Aldeburgh Festival sent 111 cyclists along the beach front, whistling and honking, in a performance of his Eine Brise [A Breeze].

Kagel knew he was terminally ill and "used every moment 100 per cent", as Csordas reported. One of his crowning glories was a triumphant return to Buenos Aires for a festival of his music in the Teatro Colon in 2006. He had been reluctant to go, remembering the conditions he had left 49 years earlier, but was surprised and pleased at the response: every concert was sold out.

Martin Anderson

Mauricio Raul Kagel, composer, teacher, film-maker, playwright: born Buenos Aires 24 December 1931; married 1956 Ursula Burghardt (two daughters); died Cologne 18 September 2008.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there