On December 10, The International Contemporary Ensemble gave a concert of all Mauricio Kagel pieces at the Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art gallery in New York City. Not having been exposed to Kagel’s music before, I did some research to be at least a little prepared. My roommate, Joshua Rubin, is part of ICE (the ensemble) and he told me about how Kagel is a favorite composer of the ensemble because his interest in theatrical possibilities in music concur with those of ICE.
Kagel’s music is full of gags and jokes, and what is usually referred to as “wit”. I am not usually a fan of that kind of comedy since practical humor in art of “higher society”, to which contemporary music often claims to belong, usually appeals to the chuckle side of humor rather than the obscene or outrageous, which (the latter) is to me what humor is all about.
On my way to the gallery I kept recalling my amazement when, as a kid, I went to see Voltaire plays at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, and I found the supposedly quite high-brow audience screaming in laughter when the characters on stage farted and pinched each other in inappropriate places. I mean... farting humor - it doesn’t get less sophisticated than that. And Voltaire is not alone in these farcical tendencies. Let’s face it: scholarly humor is usually silly and very safe and extends at best to in-jokes about conventions to which the “learned” people adhere.
This is especially true in art music, where the idea of orchestra members walking about during performance or dressing in an unusual way is seen as daring or potentially offensive.
On the other hand, is it possible that all avant-garde-isms are inherently funny? Isn’t comedy another term for non-conformity and disobeying conventions? And doesn’t that, in turn, mean that humor about (breaking) conventions will age rather disgracefully, since conventions themselves do. I was interested to see how art music humor from the sixties would measure up in this new century, in a city where The Outrageous is its own art form. The concert was part of a series called “Sound/Image Events” which is curated by ICE percussionist David Schotzko and the owners of the gallery. Music that somehow touches upon the same ideas or currents as the art that is being displayed is picked by Schotzko, and is then performed in the gallery space by the ensemble. Hardly a novel concept, but done so well throughout this series that ASCAP decided to award the ensemble with the ASCAP Programming Award for 2004.
The artist this time was the painter Phillis Ideal, whose artistic process seems to be similar to that of Kagel in that she constructs fragments of pieces before she knows how or why she will assemble them. She is famous for pouring paint into molds so as to get three-dimensional blocks of paint which she then carries around in a suitcase (as one would) until she understands how they should go together. Likewise, Kagel’s pieces are usually collages of different ideas - often contradictory ones - stuck together in a way that one would construct, say, a novel (as Josh pointed out). His music is a discourse rather than a concept.
After having been ushered in for free by a friend, I sat down toward the back of the gallery, remembering the last concert when a percussion piece had battered my ears in my front row seat to the extent that I had to put my fingers in my ears (hardly good concert etiquette). The lights faded slightly, and it was time for the first piece, which was a percussion piece called “Rrrrrrr... for Percussion Duo”, written in 1982. The first movement is called “Rim Shots & Co”, and I’m not sure whether this is a play on the percussionist’s name, but it certainly is a funny coincidence, meaning that the humor is already up and running even before the piece has started. Great.
The percussionists (one of them Schotzko) walked on “stage”, each carrying a stool. After bowing, they marched out into the audience, and toward me (so much for my pre-emptive measures) and then out to either side of the gallery, where two snare drums were waiting. It turns out that this piece was about establishing a stereo effect or space, and that I was sitting right in the line of fire.
My sitting there did, however, show me what Kagel’s theatrical ideas really seemed to be about. He seems to constantly want to establish a space for the abstract sounds that make up music.
Classical music is almost never about the physical presence of the performer once the performance starts. The general idea is that the performer must not get in the way of the piece, and that, for instance, a video recording is almost always deemed unnecessary. It is the music that we want to hear, and in most cases it can be transported away from it context with no problem at all, because it has virtually nothing tying it down contextually. By establishing a theatrical space for his pieces, Kagel does manage to make the location and the performer matter. A recording of the piece would fall short of representing the spatial aspects of Rim Shots & Co. It would be like a piano reduction of an orchestral piece - instructional at best, but clearly lacking several layers of timbral subtleties and colors. Here, in “Rrrrrrr...” We’re in the center of the music, splitting what could easily have been a solo snare drum piece into a duet that features the instrument in a stereo space.
The humor part of this piece is, naturally, the fact that the performers march around with their stools on stage, and then sits down where they’re not supposed to (in the audience space). Not too funny, but kind of amusing. I choke a chuckle. Rrrrrrr is a series of rolls and marching band snippets. The drummers interrupt and answer each other, and it is all done in a very charming, easy-to-digest way. It starts out loudly and with assertive military motifs, and then descends into a soft murmur with the rolls turning into gentle whispers of... yes... rrrrrrr. Like the purring of two cats in stereo. We’re drawn in by the associations that the instruments and marches carry with them. We see the band, and we feel the gravel under our boots. The second piece on the program is Kagel’s String Quartet II (1965-7). Here, the theatrical element is more present. The players walk on stage and greet and seat each other in a very mannered, Merchant-Ivory kind of way, as if were they Victorian players about to give a very important court recital.
They sit down and wait. And wait. We, the audience, get uneasy, and start to giggle, while the players pretend to be waiting for a signal from someone. When the piece finally starts, it does so in a slightly Ligetian way, with col legno effects struggling against very forced and harshly played melodic lines and pizzes. The second violinist plays with different kinds of “bows” and the aural result is not sweet nor always very pleasant, but all the way through interesting. The quartet is a study in noise, and idiosyncratic uses of the instruments that probably shocked the audience somewhat during the sixties, although Cowell and composers like him had employed similar techniques for quite some time at that point. György Ligeti wrote his second string quartet in 1968, just a year after this one, and it features many more extreme textures and techniques, but doesn’t seem to feel the need to present it as “extreme” or shocking at all. His is an attitude that tells us that he is taking his noise very seriously, whereas Kagel still presents it as a spectacle of the unexpected.
At the time of composition, the string quartet may still have been seen as the pinnacle of Serious Classical Music, and one that should be untouched by humorous, clammy hands. Today, that role has been completely altered by the popification of the ensemble, led perhaps by the inventive performances by the Kronos Quartet. There are no rules anymore, and to be truly shocking today in that medium, one would have to use it in a very traditional way, since the conventional way is to be “unconventional”. Therefore, when the first violinist, in a gesture that mocks him as the leader of the group, stands up and teases the second violinist with a piece of fabric, in a bull-fight manner, only to drop it onto the strings of her instrument so that she can’t play on it, the audience is confused rather than appalled or humored, although there are some very proper giggles coming from the audience.
The gestures are funny, but in the “strange” sense of the word, and not at all shocking. Eventually, the cellist turns her instrument upside-down, and plays it that way, and then starts to blow into it. The other players hit their instruments with mallets, while phrases get shorter and shorter until we arrive at a sound collage texture that reminds me of Berio’s “Sinfonia” or some of Stockhausen’s pieces.
Applying the idea of musical space to this piece, the writing seems to be divided so that the lower register, represented mainly by the cello, of course, represents that which is very close to the listener. This has merits in aural physics even, where it is usually understood that low frequencies are harder to place spatially than sounds of higher frequencies. Lower frequencies always sound like they’re close to you. The higher strings have not been given much melodic material at all, and seem to supply a sonoric mist at best. They represent objects at a distance, popping in and out of our field of vision/hearing.
Once more, we’re made very aware of the process of music-making, since our focus is not only aural, but also visual. If, for instance, we didn’t see the cello being held upside-down, the effect of that would be, well, none. This can be said to be true, to a certain extent, about Ligeti’s music too. It is always fun to see those string quartets being performed, since it gives you a better idea of the amount of labor and precision that they require. It is, however, not necessary.
Here, the same level of precision is called for, and the performance is perfect, but the gags demand the greater attention, and sit in the way of the aural presentation of the piece.
After the string quartet, the percussion piece resumed! This time with the second movement.
The one that opened the program is listed as movement 4. This one is called “2. Ranz des Vaches” (Swiss Cowherd’s song) and featured the percussionists again, this time on stage, pouring what seemed to be some kind of grain or rice onto metal while the rest of the ensemble were making cow noises and calling out names of cattle in German, Italian and French. A minute into the piece, the percussionists went on to play on cow bells. This movement was actually pretty funny, mostly because of Peter Tantsits’ (tenor) high-pitched calls for “Francesca”, the assumed cow. However, I find it hard to recall what the piece sounded like.
Last on the first half of the concert was movement 3 - “Rigaudon”, which had the percussionists once again carrying their stools out on stage. This time, though, they stayed in front of the audience.
Rigaudon is a tribal-sounding movement (perhaps mostly so because of the bongo drums’ typical association with that kind of music). It was perhaps the least theatrical piece of those featured on the program, but served as a nice contrast to the other more typically contemporary and experimental pieces. After a brief intermission came the most impressive piece of the concert - “Zwek atke (Two Nudes) for harp and saxophone” (1988-9). According to the program notes, Kagel chose the instruments for this piece for their masculine (saxophone) versus feminine (harp) qualities. He wanted the instrumental extremes in terms of gender connotations, and found that these two instruments were just that.
The piece is really supposed to be performed with two people doing a reversed strip tease, starting out nude, and then slowly getting dressed. ICE had apparently asked Kagel if it would be enough to have two dancers that were only semi-nude, but Kagel had explained that, no, they would need to be fully nude, or not there at all. Time constraints and a general difficulty to find appropriate dancers made the ensemble opt to not have dancers at all. The players were situated to the extreme right and left on the stage; this time probably mostly to make it easier to hear the stylistically very dissimilar material played by the two performers.
Again, the image of a novel is appropriate. This piece is not unified by motives, rows, harmonic plans or anything otherwise easily grasped for that matter. It is a series of different and opposing tableaux that show a non-linear development of some kind of narrative.
The harp opens with an ostinato figure and is soon joined by swelling figures in the saxophone. The ostinato figure serves as the anchor in the piece, and is eventually transferred to the sax. It takes a while for Kagel to introduce any extended techniques in this piece, but soon enough the sax player starts blowing without pitch through the instrument, while clicking the keys. The harpist has to tap and knock the wood of the frame of the harp. The sax then starts a series of very short, sharp and loud puffs and overblown tones, working up a great crescendo in synch with the harp, and they then subside together using harmonics in both instrument.
Halfway through, the tenor sax is switched for a soprano ditto. As the harp moves into more sensuous figures, the sax player actually laughs through his instrument. The harp then turns to a minor triad figure, and the sax starts a tribal rhythm that is alternated with rustling wind sounds produced through key clicks and more blowing through the instrument, and some cackling voice sounds. Later, the harp arrives at some more tonal arpeggio progressions that require some very intricate pedaling, while the sax player keeps screaming and speaking nonsense words into the instrument.
Suddenly a very clear V7 chord jumps out of the texture, but it is left unresolved (of course). A Gypsy-like section is followed by harp writing so violent that the piece sounds more like a sax and tape piece for a while. The instruments finally “find” each other again, and they end in some confused state of agreement.
The piece has epic proportions and is so fragmented that it is almost impossible to keep track of its different sections and how they relate to each other, and therein lies its beauty. The transition into each new section seems perfectly logical, since it is either seamless or very abrupt (on purpose), but the overall layout is hard to condense more than Kagel has done in the piece itself. It is a work that doesn’t lend itself to description, since it is hard to summarize or reduce or even understand as a complete unit.
The potentially humorous elements in “Zwek atke...” have, by now, been so widely incorporated into the contemporary musical language that they were perceived as not being intended to be funny, and I am not even sure that they were meant to be funny to begin with. The reversed strip tease element intended for the piece hints at that kind of humor, but the late date of composition does not.
The last piece, “10 Märsche, um den Sieg zu verfehlen (10 Marches to Miss the Victory)” (1978-9) is a collage of political texts, speeches and gibberish for which Kagel apparently prepared by speaking for up to seven hours a day about any topic under the sun. “I lied, flattered and repeated myself, shouted, laughed and showed that I had a thick skin when it came to personal attacks, I issued warnings, was crude and uncontrolled, accepted a fate - which my people didn’t have to share with me -, made demands, admonished and didn’t forget to get sentimental occasionally and use a slow quivering voice.” (Kagel quote from program notes) The piece is a musical collage of marches in different styles with a speaker who reads the outrageously (yes) funny and sad texts that Kagel prepared. Peter Tantsits hollered in this performance, screamed, squealed and sang to us. He demanded that the musicians cheer him on, praise him, and they cheered and praised - until he demanded that they stop.
The piece recalls the hysterical burlesque of Dr. Strangelove, and the message of the latter, too. Tantsits’ führer was not a pretty sight, but a funny one. See, the kind of humor that Kagel seems to use for the most part translates rather well into satire, and as far as comedy goes, this piece is by far the most successful one on the program. Tantsits was simply hysterical in his performance, showing no limitations or boundaries, and in this case, the piece has to be considered mostly theatrical with incidental march music rather than theatrical music.
ICE chose to perform only marches 1, 3, 7 and 10, which still stretched the piece to some twenty minutes. The original is over an hour long, and was intended for radio transmission. It was, suitingly, performed at the University of Bielefeld, Germany, on November 9, 1989, the day that the Berlin Wall began to fall. (program notes) So this last piece probably crosses the boundary for spatial music, and makes the music a piece of aural furniture in the space. It is no longer a question of making the music concrete. Here it is used to make the spatial message musical.
All in all Kagel’s humor seems to stay on the safe side of the politically correct, while his satire is rather pointed, but still safe - who has not made fun of the Nazis at this point?
Discussing with ensemble members the problem of dated humor, they pointed out that perhaps in Europe Classical music is still taken very seriously, and that maybe that is the reason that Kagel is so big there, but not as well-known over here. I also asked the players how they deal with the kind of silly gags that the music demands, and they said that the solution for them is to deal with them as if they’re not funny. To be completely serious about it, because only then is it still funny.
If even then, I added. No reaction.
Still, when the other side of theatrical music still is trapped in George Crumb’s idea of the mystical or other composer’s inclusion of ritual elements, this music must be said to justify its theatrical aspects rather well. Like I’ve mentioned, it lies in the tradition of Berio and Stockhausen, but perhaps with a liberating and healthy touch of self-deprecation. Maybe it is that self-mocking aspect that saves it from turning on itself, since that is its intention from the beginning.