Perfect Sound Forever


Dialogue and Monologue
By W. C. Bamberger
(June 2015)

Volumes of interviews dedicated to individual writers--poets, novelists, even essayists--seem to have grown in number in recent years. This in an age of endlessly unspooling blogs, Facebook postings, and YouTube videos of virtually every public appearance by a well-known author. Such volumes dedicated to composers, however, are now uncommon. A few years ago a classical music enthusiast could find a few--even if only on the shelves of the remainders store. This is rarely the case now. In an apparent effort to try to reach as many constituencies as possible, descendant volumes now gather in a number of interviews with a number of subjects. Not that this is inherently bad--a just-published collection from Oxford University Press that includes conversations with more than two dozen composers includes some names who have gotten less notice than they should: Michael Torke and Bright Sheng, for example. But this kind of full-spectrum approach has its drawbacks, as well: I truly don't care to read yet another conversation with Michael Daugherty. And, as is true of any subject, aesthetic breadth of this kind can at times limit depth. Here, I want to point to exemplar of what a dedicated volume can be: Kagel: Dialoge, Monologe, a volume of conversational interviews with Argentine-German composer Mauricio Kagel conducted by Werner Klueppelholz.

Kagel, who died in 2008, was a man of many interests. These monologues--the designation given the composer's CD notes, lectures, etc. included here-- and dialogues are wide-ranging indeed. In addition to studying and composing music, Kagel read voluminously (he briefly studied literature with Jorge Luis Borges), made films, created stage productions, and thought, wrote and spoke--with an easy recall of details and a tumbling, comic wit--about it all. There have been several collections of interviews with and composer statements by Kagel published in Germany, none of which have yet been translated. (Bjorn Heile's 2006 The Music of Mauricio Kagel, the only monograph in English on Kagel's work, mines some of these materials, and should be looked into by anyone interested in Kagel). This, then, will be a review of--and my translations of passages from--a book that (unless, of course, you read German) you cannot yet read.

Dialoge, Monologe appeared in 2001. The publisher perhaps scrimped on the glue, as every time I thumb through my copy more pages slither free. But every page, bound or loose, is dense with knowledge and thought. The wide-ranging conversations are gathered into loosely thematic groups, each headed by one of Kagel's writings, most of them composer's statements on one of his works. Klueppelholz's introduction gives the reader an idea of what is to follow:

In this book are conversations about music and theater, film and literature; also about metronomes and chicken soup, the Bible and football, Indian drugs and riding clouds. Mauricio Kagel recounts what he has experienced in his now nearly seventy years of life: his youth in the Buenos Aires of European emigrants, a melting pot of peoples and languages, his instruction in various instruments, his first steps in the art of musical composition, and of the lessons he took from film and photography for use in his music.1

This last point is dealt with at length here, and is in fact of more value to Kagel's fans now than when the book was first published. In the years since Kagel's death, a great deal of visual musical and material has appeared online--performances, films-- and it is interesting to watch a video of a performance of the emotionally wrenching Mare Nostrum while scanning an excerpt from its language-salad libretto2, or to watch an excerpt from the comic and astonishingly kinetic Zwei-Mann-Orchester--where a labyrinthine musical set worthy of Rube Goldberg at his most gleefully sadistic allows a pair of musicians to manipulate a stage crammed with acoustic instruments--and read Kagel's comments. With the visual element in Zwei-Mann-Orchester being so delightfully distracting, we might not at first pay attention to the uniqueness of the sounds the Mobius tangle of altered instruments produce. This work was, in fact, an apex of sorts in the trajectory of Kagel's compositions, a fact that made Kagel respond pensively to a question about having moved away from exotic instrumentation in his works of the 1980’s:

[It is true] that I no longer write for experimental sound producers. "Zwei-Mann-Orchester" [Two Man Orchestra] from 1973 was not infinitely continued, because that would have resulted in repetitions or variations on old ideas. This piece represents the high point of my works that dealt with unusual (quasi-) instruments. After that I consciously avoided turning my imagination to creating an industrial product. I feel that this is not a regression, but rather progress, considering that brand name products always need a lot of advertising and a lot of persuasion to justify their expensive price. (77)
But Zwei-Mann-Orchester wasn't about just the sounds of the music. Most obviously, it was also about the visual excitement of watching two players enmeshed in music-producing machinery. A viewer's first reaction is likely to be laughter, at the sight of the musicians doing such things as playing a tambourine mounted on their forehead. Kagel was among the earliest and most persistent of "New Music" composers to include integrated visuals. In recent years, music increasingly is not just permitted to have, but almost required to have some visual dimension (though too often such elements come across as uninspired addenda). Because of the hybrid nature of many of his works, Kagel had years to think through some of the challenges of combining the two. In response to one of Klueppelholz's questions on the subject, the composer reveals that, surprisingly enough, he was not the best audience for the kind of musical/visual pieces he created:
WK: Let's talk about a fundamental point of your music, namely the relationship between hearing and seeing. In the stage works or films, the eye is constantly busy, but at the same time there is so much to hear...

MK: With my pieces, I have time and again noticed that powerful visuals diminish the listening experience. However, I am often told by people who hear my music only via radio or CD, that it brings many images to mind. This interests me because I do not compose images; I only put sounds together, with no wish to create illustrations. Absolute Music can claim to be invisible, but it still can create images. Is this a phenomenon specific to my music or true for all music in general? [ . . . ] When I listen to my music or that of others I see no images at all, and any light, almost everything I see that does not belong to the actual listening experience, disturbs me. As soon as I close my eyes all such images disappear, and no others come to mind. I am, finally, all ears. [71]

The more theatrical elements of his works were also reined in over the years, although not eliminated entirely. In a performance I attended of his work in Toronto a decade ago, Kagel the conductor directed a percussionist in the use of a red hatchet. But exotica did not disappear: as the odd instruments and visually theatrical elements receded, Kagel foregrounded another of his long-time interests, language--specifically, deconstructed language. For one of his works that employ this, Schwarzes Madrigal ["Black Madrigal], Kagel took a number of place names in Africa and manipulated them.3 At times, he left them whole, other times he took them apart, but he made no effort to have the vocalists pronounce the names accurately, so that they became as much abstract sound source as place name. He talks about this at length with Klueppelholz:
Is there still a relationship between African place names and the music?

Black Africa was meant to be at the center of the text. But of course I also wanted to track the forced migration to Cuba and Brazil, where African traditions are still very strong among the descendants of slaves. When the work was well advanced, I found myself unexpectedly in the age-old conflict the composer has had to deal with since the emergence of vocal music: Should I opt for favoring the setting of the text intelligibility, or favor the independent development of the purely musical ideas? One would automatically say both should be taken into account. But a "fair" distribution of words and music is, practically speaking, unachievable.

Even in conversation or on the phone we are too impatient to wait for late arriving syllables so as to understand the meaning of a sentence. [ . . . ] Only for people who suffer from stuttering or chronic hiccups, do we force ourselves to be patient, because anything else would be incorrect. In singing however, the presented text is always "stuttered," figuratively speaking. (65-66)

This thought segues into Kagel describing how as a composer, he always strives to find the most extreme solution to any musical problem:
[In] the Harvard Historical Anthology of Music by Davison and Apel I found [a work by] the great composer "Anonymous," written between 1100 and 1300. It is likely a melismatic monody, church music. Of course the vocal line is not written in measures, but to give you a visual idea of this length, I would describe it as being sixty bars long. For the first 59 the voices sing only "A"; at the last moment, as the crowning finale, it is followed by the missing "-lleluia." These fifty-nine bars are the highest, the longest homage to the meaning of this word the composer was capable of. [ . . . ] Only radical, extremely trenchant solutions are noteworthy; that's a lesson I've repeatedly learned from high points in music history. I try to use my resources and my mind to find the compositional approach which tends toward the extreme. Every time I have aimed a little shorter, I have regretted it and it has cost me a lot of extra time and expense. Writing parts of the manuscript over two or three time has been the result.

The example of the Alleluia touches the language compositions of the 60s, which are also often limited to individual sounds.

The discovery of language composition in the early period of serialism was the most important consequence of the fact that for a composer words-- in contrast to tones--because of their meanings are pre-loaded material. Thus, the foundation was laid for a highly artificial, hermetic, non-communicative use of language. The sound of the words in the abstract, and not as illustrations of semantic values. To take this path of absoluteness of language itself was extremely important for some composers of my generation as well as for me...

If the semantic dimension is omitted, what remains of language is its music.

Right. I spoke earlier about Schwarzes Madrigal, about the age-old conflict in the setting of texts. Here, however, there is also the rhythmization and adaptation of place names in a mesh which I myself created. I suddenly realized that there is something in Africa which was phonetically act as rich as well as the evocative sound-designed list of towns and settlements: the names of the tribes. [. . . ] The only argument that I found against the use of these tribal names, was the fatal possibility of misunderstanding, of some thinking that I was making fun of them. Such an unimaginative interpretation had to be avoided. [In the end] the names of the tribes don't sound in our ears; we hear only chords of sound color. In the instrumental ensemble I attempted, in spite of my self-imposed restrictions against such, to create a corresponding sound palette. (66-68)

The intensity that Kagel strove to employ in his work was something he admired in others, and this force of commitment mattered to him more than did the form it assumed, be that musical, religious or political. When Klueppelholz brings up the subject of religious music, Kagel refuses to allow such a simple category to stand, rather points to the intensity within it, and from there moves outward to other subjects that exhibit great intensity.
In comparison with other composers of your generation you have written an unusually large amount of sacred music.

I have never spoken of sacred music, rather of "acoustic theology."

Here we should recall that theology isn't about simple belief, but about systematic philosophical, even logical, analyses of belief. Kagel's music, for all its acoustic beauty, often involves a skeptical, self-referential approach to music itself. And when the compositions also include language or references to some non-musical subject, as it often does, Kagel never lets listeners remain comfortable with their preconceived notions of those subjects. His skepticism, he felt, was in part because he was Jewish.
[ . . . ] I compose no Jewish religious music out of conviction, no music for the active worship of any other religious communities. Jews cultivate doubt rather than belief because their religion has more to do with ethics than with piety, commitment and trust in God. I inherited this attitude in a very natural way. A network of ethical intentions and moral principles has stamped all our occupations, intellectuals, academics, industrialists, dealers. I have just read that more than half of all children's doctors in Germany before Hitler were Jews. And almost 70% of these physicians were socially committed, working in children's homes, with charity groups, etc. 17 of 21 children's doctors in Hamburg! There is, by the way, also an elevated passion for causes among politicians. Between Rathenau and Rosa Luxembourg I see no big difference in the intensity of the commitment. Some of what I say now, are quasi quotes from the materials of my unfinished dissertation on Spinoza and Kierkegaard. At that both kept me worried and busy with matters of the existential necessity and ethical imagination. (29-30)
The above is only a small selection of the wide-ranging conversations in Dialoge, Monologe, a selection shaped by my own interests and by length (and all of it taken from the first third of the book). Other subjects covered include (to let the index speak, stutteringly so you will courteously read through it all) Theodor Adorno, Bach, Charles Baudelaire, Brahms, John Cage, Debussy, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Witold Gombrowicz, Ramon Llull, Lorca, Schoenberg, Bruno Schulz and Varese. Until this book is translated, it may be well worth your while to find a copy, and skim it with a German-English dictionary at hand, working out your own crib--with one of Kagel's compositions playing in the background, of course.

And everything in Dialoge, Monologe isn't dauntingly technical nor deeply philosophical as some of the passages I've quoted above, not even when Kagel talks about other aspects of these same subjects. Again on the subject of language breaking free of "correct" pronunciation, here is Kagel speaking to an audience in Amsterdam in 1998:

I would have like to have spoken these words in Dutch. I would have liked to have spoken Dutch so as to hear your laughter at my pronunciation and to observe the staccato of your moustaches that still remind me of our very revered Groucho Marx.


1. Kagel: Dialoge, Monologe (ed. Werner Klueppelholz) (Koln: DuMont Verlag, 2001), 7. Page numbers of following quotes will appear in the text.

2. I have written at length about Mare Nostrum, a parable in which Amazonian explorers at the time of Columbus "discover" and subjugate parts of Europe. See "Language and Alternate History in Mauricio Kagel's Mare Nostrum," in Languages of Exile (ed. Englund and Olsson) (Peter Lang, 2013). You might want to hit the library-- the book is quite expensive. Also, my piece on Kagel's "Compass Rose" works can be found on Perfect Sound Forever (May 2007)..

3. This can be heard on the Winter&Winter CD 910 090-2, which includes Trio in drei Satzen and Schwarzes Madrigal. Inside the gatefold, Kagel included a number of the names he mined to create the sound text.

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