Mauricio Kagel is the most prominent European composer currently concentrating on new forms of music theater. Myths, scores, recordings, and reviews of his work have been trickling across the ocean, but there has been no way for New Yorkers to find out what Kagel’s theater works are really like until last Thursday night, when his own Cologne New Music Ensemble presented two of his works at Carnegie Recital Hall. It was an impressive evening, featuring six good performers, a zillion nifty props, much spit-and-polish precision, and quite a bit of theatrical control, as well as musical skills.
It was the precision, more than anything else, which seemed to impress the New York audience. The idea of using a trombonist, for example, as a kind of actor in a dramatic situation is not at all new here. John Cage, Lejaren Hiller, Lukas Foss, Eric Salzman, Stuart Dempster, and many other Americans have worked in this direction for some time, but all of them have taken relatively casual approaches, with the performers just being themselves most of the time. In this concert, however, the personalities of the performers were totally submerged in the roles they played. Music, timing, costumes, gestures, and even facial expressions were all calculated.
It was a fascinating evening, though it’s still not completely clear to me what Kagel’s pieces are all about. Kagel, who was born in Argentina and has lived in Germany since 1957, works in that thorny area between the literal and the abstract, between actual theater and pure music. And much of the time I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to interpret what I was seeing and hearing, or just accept the events at face value.
‘Tactil’ involves three bare-chested men. Wilhelm Bruck and Theodor Ross face the audience coolly, strumming simple chords on their guitars. Kagel is frozen at the piano, occasionally playing repeated chords of his own. After a while the chords begin to go out of sync, and everybody plays at slightly different tempos. Some elements are purely visual, as when the performers swing their arms in various ways, like silent pendulums. Occasionally Kagel reaches over to a table and flicks a metal strip, causing it to bounce up and down for a while. There are a variety of these strips, and each has its own tempo. Sometimes Kagel plays along on the piano, trying to match one of these mechanical rhythms.
Finally we discover the reason for the stepladder which has been standing at the rear of the stage. One of the guitarists climbs midway up the ladder and then resumes his strumming. But occasionally he produces a very odd bass tone. I suspected some form of off-stage trickery, but learned later that there was a long wire stretched between his guitar and one of the lowest piano strings.
The piece, which goes on for about half an hour, is all quite soft. Much of the strumming is reminiscent of folk and pop guitar styles, which adds a tongue-in-cheek level, but the piece as a whole is not at all funny. The actions are too strange. The performance style is too rigid. The music is too soft. The piece seems serious about whatever it is about.
The second half of the program, a piece called ‘Repertoire,’ is a fast-paced collage of about 100 short bits, performed by the five young men in Kagel’s group. Someone crosses the stage trying to play trombone with his foot stuck in the slide. Someone bounces a cymbal like a yo-yo, making us wonder when it will crash on the floor. Someone hits himself in the face with a beater, but we discover that he is shielded by a piece of clear plastic which, like all of Kagel’s props, happens to make an interesting sound. Someone has a metronome strapped on his back. Someone comes on wearing an lp over his face. He just stands there facing the audience for a moment, scratches on the record briefly with an index finger, and then exits. Someone pumps himself up with a noisy air pump. Everyone makes use of a variety of balls and tubes. Phallic symbols proliferate.
Despite all the horseplay, the continual surprises, and the fast pace, none of this is very funny either. It isn’t supposed to be, I don’t think. But if it isn’t comedy, what is ‘Repertoire’ about?
According to the program notes, attributed to a Hamburg critic, the piece sounds ‘an alarm for civilization’ and asserts that ‘industry can only gloss over the slow death of nature.’ If Kagel’s basic intention is to convey messages of this sort, then he is really in trouble, because ‘Repertoire’ by itself is not at all clear as a piece of social criticism. But on the other hand, we can’t really treat the work on an abstract level, at least not when some cardboard tube is having a noisy orgasm. Both pieces seem to be begging us to interpret their symbolism, but neither one gives us much to go on.Note:
Rereading this article in 1989, I am embarrassed. How could I have written with so little sympathy and so little understanding about a composer who has probably made more important discoveries in new forms of musical theater than anyone else? But Paul Panhuysen insisted that the article was symptomatic of my mistrust in European music at the time, and that we must leave it in. So here it is.