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.

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