As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Mauricio Kagel’s seminar in Aix-en-Provence, France, in the summer of 1981, sponsored by the organization Centre Acanthes, was a turning point in my life. Two years out of grad school and wandering through Europe for the first time, I found my way to the Kagel seminar more or less by chance. It turned out to be not only an affirmation of some of my compositional ideas and goals and my introduction to the European new music scene, but also where I met my future (now former) wife.
Shortly before that summer, while I was working at the late, lamented Soho Music Gallery on Wooster Street, John Zorn, Charles Noyes and I had spent an evening wondering what had become of Mauricio Kagel. In the late ‘60s and ’70s, Deutsche Grammophon had issued many fractious masterpieces on their Avant Garde series; these had gone out of print and since then there had been virtually nothing. The seminar was a unique opportunity to connect with the breadth of Kagel’s oeuvre and to discover what he had been up to in the interim. His use of sounds, collage, unfamiliar instruments and aural theatricality was about as unacademic as contemporary classical music had ever gotten, and was an alternative to the churches of Cage and Stockhausen. Humor has never been far from the surface in Kagel’s music. Zorn, particularly, found a lot of inspiration in his work.
This interview took place in Cologne, Germany, where Kagel has lived since 1957, on March 31, the day of my solo concert at Cologne’s Loft. I was very happy to reconnect with Kagel and to try to fit in, as much as possible, questions and thoughts about his work that have come to me through the years.
Anthony Coleman I want to ask you about the series of collection pieces that you’ve done over the years. I’m thinking especially about Atem [1969–70, for a brass player], Tactil [1970, for two guitars and piano] and Ludwig van . It’s a big subject for you: whether it’s a question of collections of gestures, or quotes, or citations, it seems as though you have a whole series of pieces that are based on the idea of references related to the history of an instrument or group of instruments, or moments from the work of a great predecessor—
Mauricio Kagel It’s not only me. Many of us are doing new things; we don’t want to repeat the same pieces that have been written in the past. You have to review the whole history of music when you are composing really new new music. Your mind is collecting, in a virtual way, all the pieces that you know and like. Memory is a constant tool for each composer: it’s like a utopic, never-ending acoustic library.
AC Yes. When I think about Ludwig van, what’s really particularly interesting to me as a composer is your way of working, because the material is presented almost in a chance way, yet at the same time one can totally feel you operating as a composer. On the surface it could almost feel like a Cage piece, like the Europeras, because there’s one citation and then another citation. But one can feel your love for those citations.
MK Yes, absolutely. Let’s put it in this way: the chance operations in Cage are in some way ideological because he was of the opinion that real chance was the best possible way to achieve a higher philosophical and aesthetic level. I refuse such an ideology—along with most ideologies—because there is no need to burden the use of chance operations with the idea that you can get a priori successful results. I have a very deep need to form my material myself with the conviction given by a conscious act, but if I dislike what the use of chance has cooked for me, I refuse the operation. The unconscious is present anyway in musical invention. Determination or indetermination is not the main question; you have to remain true to principles that are mostly of a stylistic nature.
AC Right, but Cage also—
MK I have a very large trash container in my mind, and I put a lot of things there, but I never forget.
AC That’s what this piece that you’re working on is about?
MK It’s a piece for orchestra titled Foreign Tones to Echoes. It also has to do with recollection, but with an injured one: echoes as a wounded remembrance. Recycling in art, of course, is as old as the Bible.
AC Yes, but you have a very particular approach to it. What is so great about Tactil is that you decided to use accompaniment figures from all kinds of music. Anyone who knows different musical vernaculars can recognize the anodyne elements, but they’re juxtaposed in a way that gives it this whole new sense. That happens in a lot of your pieces.
MK The key is to have a fresh sensibility toward all material. You must respect and love your sources.
AC That comes across in your music. Now, it’s pretty obvious where your love for classical music comes from, but what about the vernacular elements? Where did the love for the guitar come from? Did you spend a lot of time listening to folk music and jazz?
MK I was born in Argentina, and tangos and vernacular music are for me what American music, jazz, is for you. In America you can never forget that jazz exists. I wrote once about jazz—it remains the most fundamental cultural vendetta of the black people against the white people and the various forms of slavery that exist to this day.
AC But you also use a lot of North American elements in Tactil: banjo strokes—
MK Of course, I love it. The banjo is a perfect example of hybridization: a plucked snare drum with steel strings tuned like a violin! I could imagine it being included in Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools or his Garden of Earthly Delights.
AC Is vernacular music still a part of your listening?
MK Sometimes I’m really hungry to hear it. For a composer, hearing music is a rather complex activity: one analyzes and recomposes at once, agreeing, rejecting, in fact learning by “interactive understanding.”
AC Living in New York, I am surrounded by music. It’s interesting to see you in this kind of, shall we say, very cosseted, very private neighborhood in Cologne, because where I live, on East 7th Street in Manhattan, it’s everywhere: Latin music, Puerto Rican music, all kinds of black music, rap—there’s no way to escape it.
MK Well, I try to defend myself from an acoustic chaos that is produced without my help. I articulate my own personal version of this chaos every day.
AC When you were younger, you must have listened a lot.
MK Yes, but I also played New Orleans jazz in school.
AC I want to ask you about Blue’s blue [1978–79, a musico-ethnological reconstruction for four players, including “Glass Trumpet,” in which a trumpet sound is produced by singing into a drinking glass] in relation to that. It’s such a funny piece. Have you ever thought about doing it again with people who have more of a jazz background? You as vocalist seemed to inhabit the language of the early jazz references, but the instrumentalists seemed to be at too much of a remove from it. I would like to play it with you sometime.
MK I would be delighted to do that, especially now that I know your own jazz CDs. We performed Blue’s blue last February in Hamburg in a strange festival called The Young John Cage and the Mature Kagel. It is always very exciting to play this piece, because in most of the performances the other participants are also musicians dedicated to serious classical music. We have to keep reinventing, because none of us has had the sacrosanct experience of real jazz improvisations. Perhaps this is our chance.
AC When I was listening to the new recording of Exotica [1972, for non-Western instruments; six players] I was struck by the realization that now people know world music much better than when you first wrote the piece. In the new recording you use two Japanese musicians. Well, I don’t know if it’s actually the Japanese musicians who imitate Japanese music on the recording—
MK No, I asked the Japanese players not to make Japanese music.
AC Because the people who do make the Japanese music do it like they’ve listened to a lot of Japanese music; it’s too good, in a way. And when I go back to the earlier recording, it’s more like an idea, a dim idea of music from other cultures. But nowadays when it’s performed, people have a harder time getting a dim idea, because there are so many records available and so much dissemination.
MK You’re right. But also now young musicians have no preconception to say, Well, this is not serious classical music.
AC Much less than the generations before them.
MK They are much more nonchalant. And of course they are much more experienced with non-European music. For me, when I came to Europe, it was really absurd to see that music was classified as “European music” and “non-European music.”
AC So you don’t classify it like that anymore.
MK No, no. Absolutely not.
AC You have a very postmodern approach.
AC (laughter) No, I’m joking, but it’s great because, again, if I compare your music to Stockhausen’s or Cage’s, Cage will use everything, but I don’t feel his love for those things the way I feel yours. He doesn’t seem to really involve himself the same way you do. And I think it’s one of the things about your music that—are you aware of the kinds of composers you’ve influenced?
AC There’s a group of composers—I guess you know in the U.S. when you say academic music it means a very particular kind of music, and there’s a whole group of composers outside the academy for whom you’ve been a huge influence, with pieces like Acoustica and Exotica. But you’re not aware of that?
MK No, absolutely not. I have no serious relationship with the musical life of the United States.
AC Your music is very rarely performed there.
MK Very rarely. Peters and Universal do nothing to promote my music in the U.S. And to promote you have to invest such energy and such creativity that I decided to let time do the work. If the pieces are good, they will have a chance. If not, tant pis!
AC But does it interest you that there’s a group of composers who—
MK Well, I’m sincerely touched. I’m curious to know who they are.
AC Well, John Zorn, for instance. Do you know his music at all?
MK Oh yes. First from his recordings but also from a concert of his works, years ago, in Cologne. He seems to be a composer who brings together musical curiosity and ethnic inquiries. I am very sympathetic with his artistic approach.
AC On one of his very first records, School, there was a company called the Kagel Hat Company in New York, and he put the photo of the Kagel Hat Company on the sleeve of his record.
MK I never saw that record. It’s interesting, I was just in Toronto at a very nice festival, the New Music Concerts, with lots of old friends—Bob Aitken invited me. And I’m attached to the Canadian scene of composers in Montreal because they speak a marvelous pidgin-like French. I was also in Banff, and in Vancouver. I like traveling very much, partly because being away from my desk I find myself even more attached to the work in progress. But I really have no contact with the United States.
AC Well, it’s a shame.
MK It’s a pity. The energy to organize these things can be exhausting. I need my energy to work and compose. And I find that in America, the important, official music institutions seem rather negative toward new music.
AC The composers I’m talking about don’t deal with those institutions at all. We have our own separate life. It’s very different from Europe, in the sense that the radicals in Europe somehow manage to find a way to get involved with things like the Donaueschigen festival. There is more of a circuit for them.
MK Well, the European culture is based on continuity, not on rupture. And the cultural institutions in Europe absolutely need the support of the artists. The avant-garde is not placed in a corner. It nourishes the never-ending cycle of reproduced music.
AC It’s very strange for us in a way. We’ve always had to operate on the margin of the margin. I’m 48 years old, and I still have no position. I have never had a position. I’ve never been played by a real contemporary music group. We still organize our concerts ourselves, like we’re 20 years old. It’s only when we come to Europe that it’s a little bit different.
MK Of course. But I think it’s unjust to speak about the European system generally. You do often have the chance to hear the first performance of a new piece, which is important for writing your next work. Every last piece you hear influences your further development, in a positive way or by opposition. You need the aural experience, not only the satisfaction on paper.
AC Totally. So we make it happen. But what it means is that we can very rarely write for large ensembles. We’re still writing L’Histoire du Soldat over and over again, you know what I mean? Because that’s what we can do. It’s unfortunate.
MK Like a kind of welfare chamber music.
AC When I was listening recently to Music for Renaissance Instruments [1965–66], and also to Der Schall , something really struck me. I was thinking a lot about how the motifs are not motifs. Even with Stockhausen you still get the sense of motifs like little phrases, you know, if you look at Kurzwellen or something. But what’s so interesting to me in your music is that the motifs are really the sounds: each sound is its own motif. And the way when you listen with the score to the whole Music for Renaissance Instruments, there are no motifs that you can go back to. It’s almost a Klangfarben music [music made up of tone color changes], but it’s very different because the energy is not just the energy of the Klangfarben, but each instrument seems to have its own life. And then when I saw that you had composed each part so that they could be played separately, it really made sense to me. Do you still work that way?
MK Not exactly, but the meaning of counterpoint is to learn how dependent independence can be. The vertical dimension is composed by autonomous individuals, not by pitches without their own melodic identity. This made, of course, a great difference to a musical thinking based mostly on harmonic devices. Before I wrote Music for Renaissance Instruments I went to three of the most important instrument museums in Europe—Brussels, which is the oldest, Stockholm and Munich—and I really tried to understand the true function of some of these instruments. I read all that I could about the bizarre fingering techniques, because the instruments themselves are so primitively made that they are always damaged. This for me was the link to new music, because I was trying to work with the natural state of the sounds, and each of these instruments was like a generator of denaturate sounds. So I wrote for each instrument separately to make a unity of musical discourse and functional technique.
AC Was Der Schall composed the same way?
MK No, it was not.
AC Because it has the feeling of an improvised group.
MK Much of my work is based on composed improvisation. I am not an improviser, but I need to have the feeling that people are free.
AC Do you know Elliot Carter’s music at all?
MK Yes, of course.
AC In the Carter Second Quartet he also talks about composing improvisation, but the result is very different because you can hear in his music the desire to do that. But the wildness in Der Schall sounds improvised.
MK I am a soft anarchist. Without the need to organize your anarchy you never get any kind of deep discourse. The root of the word improvisation is the Italian improvviso, which means the unforeseen, the unexpected. I think that we have put artificial limits on the conception and aural experience of improvisation today. And I never forget that for a large number of listeners improvisation, composed improvisation and meticulous music writing sound very similar.
AC This leads me to my next question: How much was that connected to that group like the trumpet player Edward Tarr and the cellist Siegfried Palm and those people that you were working with at the time?
MK It was connected because all of them were my friends. The first premise to do anything reasonable together is to work with people who are not in opposition to your ideas.
AC Do you still work with performers like this?
MK No, because I am composing different pieces.
AC I noticed a change around the later part of the ’70s.
MK My change didn’t have to do with the change in the musical scene but was an organic way to develop my ideas.
AC Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that the music becomes less abstract; the narrative is more evident. Siegfriedp’ [for solo cello, from Program, a series of short pieces from 1971–72] was a very influential piece for me because of the way you created a kind of musical theater that was based not on traditional theater but on the theater of performance—the natural things that happen to an instrumentalist. He plays the same melody over and over but as he plays it, in ways that become more and more impossible, you notice his stress and his strain and it’s natural. He doesn’t have to act because trying to get those harmonics is hard enough. You create something very similar to Beckett for me in that way: trying to act while you’re buried in the ground. Was Beckett an influence for you at all?
MK No, but of course I love Beckett. His writings are like very condensed music.
AC Where did you get that idea to deal with the specific mechanics of the cello the way you did in Siegfriedp’?
MK Well, first of all, I played violoncello myself. And I have a kind of secret journal where I put all my thoughts for new pieces. I wrote a piece in the ’80s called Ein Brief, a letter, and there is no theater—only a soprano onstage with a couple of sheets of paper, reading “Mein lieber,” my love … and then an awful, eerie aah ! The orchestra starts, and you understand that she has been abandoned. And you know about her suffering without her needing to say anything till the end of the piece.
AC You could feel it.
MK She has only a chair, and sometimes she can’t stand anymore and she sits. I discovered more and more how much you can minimize the number of props in the theater. For example, only a chair, but such a strong situation. If the drama is credible, you get to what is absolutely necessary without risking emptiness.
AC Not that you ever used so many props.
MK No, even less.
AC But if I listen for the difference from your older collections to the newer ones, the new collections become more concretized. If I listen to Variété , for example, the links between what you’ve written and the language of the musics you refer to are very clear.
MK The links are obvious because you can say, This is a tango, or This is jazz in the late ‘40s, and so on. But what is interesting in Variété, and I’ve never read anything about this, is how melancholy a common denominator for very different musical languages can be. I am not sentimental at all, but we have a tendency to idealize the past. It’s perhaps an irrational projection.
AC Did this have anything to do with turning 50? Did this have anything to do with where you were in your life at this time?
MK Well, the ’50s or ’20s or ’30s … for Americans or for Europeans the ’20s are a mythical era.
AC But I meant your own age, I’m sorry—
MK Yes, but I’m playing with melancholy of a past which we’ve never known. You understand?
AC It sounds very Borgesian, a lot of what you’re saying.
MK He was one of my teachers. I studied English literature with him.
AC That must have been amazing, even though he once said something like the thing about American literature is that it’s only because America is such a big, powerful country that we care about so much of its literature.
MK I know; he could be unjust. But this and other subjects could be the base of a second entire interview.
AC Yes, I’m sorry. Let’s move on. You have lived in Germany for almost 50 years. Have you ever wanted to deal with your Jewishness in your music? I remember that there was a musicologist who was at the seminar in Aix-en-Provence who spoke a lot about you as a kind of atheistic theologist. He loved this term. He was talking about the Bach pieces in Programand about atheistic theology coming out of the loss of belief and so on. But the symbolism that you use has to do with your love for Bach, which is an important theme in your music. But have you ever thought about dealing with Jewishness in this way: using particular “Jewish” musical tropes as references?
MK You don’t know any of my last pieces.
AC I guess I don’t.
MK I wrote a piece called The Tower of Babel , using words from Genesis: “Now Yahweh said, ‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language on the spot, so that they can no longer understand one another.’” I find the meaning of this sentence really incredible. The Lord has to be very proud of his work. I wrote a piece for solo voices without accompaniment in 18 different languages and with 18 different melodies. Perhaps this is my way of reflecting on Judaism.
AC I want to hear that. It’s not recorded?
MK No, not yet. It was written for the International Performers’ Prize of the ARD, the German Broadcasting System.
AC Do you think about being Jewish?
MK Fortunately Jewishness has no pope and no bishops, and most Jews don’t go to synagogue. This is one of the most striking aspects of being Jewish: it is not mandatory to be present at religious services. What does it mean, Jewishness? It means a very crucial collection of thoughts about ethics and morality. In this field I am very Jewish. The principles of our religion are of transcendental liberalism, giving the people the possibility to reflect on identity and behavior. And the Old Testament is a persistent address to the grand jury to make explicit the deep meaning of the Ten Commandments. The Lord punishes but never kills: vive la différence!
I am afraid of the role played today by the Jewish orthodoxy in Israel. Fundamentalism in any religion tends toward totalitarianism and intolerance. There is no chance of dialogue with Yahweh, only a monologue with one’s own imagination. The presumptuousness of the Jewish orthodoxy now is based on political power. The end of such a movement could be the birth of a Jewish Inquisition, which would go against the most important values of Jewishness: self-irony and never-ending reflection and commentary, tolerance and paradox, humor, mysticism and mystery. The voice of God does not need any human playback.
AC Both your parents were Jewish, right? Where were they from originally?
MK They are from Russia. From my mother there are two branches, St. Petersburg and Odessa.
AC Have you ever visited?
MK St. Petersburg twice, Odessa unfortunately not. But there is an important festival in Odessa, and they’ve invited me, but always too late. And the family of my father came from Germany. It’s a very classical mixture.
AC So when did they leave?
MK After the Russian revolution. The absurdity is that most of the Jewish people were leftist and the Russian revolution theoretically was left. But really it was right: Lenin and Stalin systematically killed the left.
AC There are so many different kinds of left. I even think of Stalinist as left somehow.
MK I am very suspicious about left and right as absolute symbols. Between black and white we find many nuances of color. I think the most extraordinary thing about music is that it doesn’t exist as left or right. Melodious music is not right because non-melodious music is left, for example.
AC I tried to do a project about this that I wanted to tell you about. I took some of the Spanish Civil War German songs—I grew up with those because my parents were very left and because my father was very influenced by his Jewishness as a sort of guilt. A lot of American Jews have this feeling of guilt because they didn’t have any active participation in the war; they survived, they were eating. And I grew up with the Spanish Civil War songs sung by Ernst Busch. But I also grew up hearing the Nazi songs, so I tried to put together the Freiheitsong (“Die Heimat ist weit…”) with the Horst Wessel Lied to see what they did together, and it didn’t really work, but it was an interesting idea.
MK It will never work. No, the Horst Wessel song, no. In Germany you could never do this.
AC You’re right. I tried to see if there was something intrinsic in the pieces that—
MK Use lullabies instead.
AC But what I was trying to do was use the polarization. You put music that is associated with the left together with music that is associated with fascism, and see if there’s some kind of musical link between them. Especially for an audience that tends to hear the German texts in a particular way …
MK Well, my parents were also left, and for my mother Rosa Luxembourg was the most important female figure in history.
AC So she was very left.
MK Yes, and my father rather. It is very interesting. You have a couple and both are left, but the woman is more left than the man because the man had to work and earn money. Normal life is more right and the woman has an idealistic, utopian conception of left. You will see all the time when a couple are both left, the woman is much more radical.
AC Have you been in Eastern Europe much since 1991?
MK No. Eastern Europe has become very different. I also grew up with the Spanish Civil War and its music because of my parents. The house was full of Republicans, Spanish refugees. It was very political.
AC Were they more on the anarchist side?
MK Yes. Anarchism is difficult to understand if you don’t know about the deep idealism of radicality. It is a way of humanizing society.
AC Some people don’t understand the differences between anarchy and chaos. They think that they mean the same thing.
MK They think immediately of planting bombs, but this is also unjust. Ninety-nine percent are not planting bombs. My mother taught me as a child the history of Sacco and Vanzetti.
AC It would be interesting to look at how your political views connect to your music.
MK Three years ago I was rather ill. Two weeks in bed. I read the U.S. trilogy of John Dos Passos. It was very interesting, what happened in those times. The work is also a key to understanding the policy of the U.S. today. In the ’60s Dos Passos went to visit Fidel Castro, refusing to accept that the Cuban leader was a criminal, renewing fascism.
AC People wanted to believe in Castro, and they still want to believe in Castro.
MK The history of the political left is a total tragedy.
AC Well, here’s a question for you: Have you ever known a socialist leader of a country that wasn’t a criminal?
MK I don’t know.
AC I was listening to 1898 [1972–73, written to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Deutsche Grammophon] the other day and I really love it. I have to say the CD of 1898 with Renaissance instruments is really fantastic. I’m happy they’re reissued and I’m so sad that the rest of your Deutsche Grammophon series is not reissued.
MK When I’m gone, they will do it immediately.
AC I hope they do it before then.
MK My last production with the Grammophon was with Peter Ustinov. It’s absolutely gorgeous. He’s speaking the Brahms in the Variations Without Fugue [1971–72]. There will be two versions, one in German and one in English.
AC When I was listening to 1898, the part where the children were coming in and laughing, there was something I connected to as with many of the other pieces of yours I’ve mentioned, such as Atem, where there was the sound of the vacuum cleaner. Do you ever feel a connection to installation or performance art? Because to me as a composer, you’ve come very close to installation art, even though what I was saying earlier about Siegfriedp’ is that the performance comes out of the natural relationships that people have with their instruments. But still, it’s audible, you can feel it. Do you ever pay attention to those things?
MK Well, I have done installations, in ’68.
AC I know, with your films.
MK Or Ornithologica multiplicata , with both exotic birds and European birds. I put them in two different cages so that they heard each other’s vernacular. I made this project in a large new garage. It was a need for me. Today you have hundreds of thousands of environments for installations, and I don’t need to do this.
You have to go now. Tonight you are performing your piano music in Cologne and unfortunately I cannot come! Till midnight I will be working on the radio on a piece called Premature Final Sale, The Unfinished Memoirs of a Sound Engineer. Goodbye and bonne chance for your concert!
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.