The past is with us – breathing, taking space, reminding. History, by nature, is a product of refinement – written and sculpted to present what others want us to see and hear. It is an idea and concept, rather than absolute fact or truth. For reasons beyond my understanding or control, as a child I was obsessed with attempting to conceptualize a world that had predated my birth – forcing my mother to buy me countless books on any number of periods and subjects, devouring them one after the next, and putting a drain on her meager salary (she was a teacher, leaving her with as much will to restrict her son’s desire to learn, as money). Perhaps more than any other, this early impulse has persisted and come to define my life. Though founded in a deep love of sound, my exploration of recorded music is equally a means for discovering and exploring the past. Like all the arts, it holds a less mediated key to who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve done.
Since arriving in Mexico City nearly a year ago, I’ve spent time researching the music of the Latin American avant-garde. Though I was aware of a small number of examples – a handful from each country, I had no idea of how vast it is (and has always been). A remarkable and long history unfolded before my eyes – one largely lost from internal and external view. This music (and history) is not only obscure to ears beyond these borders, it remains largely unknown within them as well. There are reasons for this. They will be offered the attention they deserve in a later and more developed form. For now, I’ll simply state that the orthodox authorship of the history of 20th Century global avant-garde is far less complete or inclusive than we presume.
One of the crucial factors in accessing and understanding the history of Latin America avant-garde music, is its interplay with the outside world. Between the 1920’s and 1945, most South and Central American countries saw a substantial influx of European intellectuals – first fleeing Russian pogroms, and then Nazi persecution. Upon arrival, they found thriving and unique worlds of Modernist thought. Into it, they planted the ideas of the European vanguard, which rapidly spread, mutated, and took new forms. Some immigrants stayed, some returned to Europe following the close of the Second World War. Though avant-garde and experimental music from Latin America from the first half of the Twentieth Century is remarkable and singular, its most significant period runs between 1945 and the early 70’s. During this era there was an open dialog of collaboration between its communities and those in Europe and North American – founded (in some form) on relationships begun during the previous twenty five years. Artists crisscrossed the world. The histories of their remarkable results have been eerily lost.
Though it’s important to give distinct accomplishment recognition, it is also worth acknowledging that audiences tend to enter legacies and traditions most easily through what is familiar. Over my time in Latin America, I’ve been determined to find ways to draw the history of its avant-garde music into the light – to bring it the attention that its remarkable accomplishments deserve – but where to begin? I decided on an unlikely and unexpected place – with a body of work which enters notably late in the game, and an artist who many presume to have been German – Mauricio Kagel.
Mauricio Kagel- 1973, Photo by Zoltan Nagy
Kagel spent nearly the entirety of his career in Germany – arriving in 1957 at the age of 26, and remaining more or less for the rest of his life. He was born and raised in Argentina – the son of two Russian Jews who had fled persecution in the pogroms in 1920. Though nearly his entire body of work was made in Europe, it is filled with a spirit distinct to Latin America – one which embraces risk, metaphor, absurdity, and humor far more than its international counterparts. With his peers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti, Kagel occupies a significant place within the cannon of 20th Century avant-garde Classical Music. The convenient overlooking of the fact that he was not European, assertively housing him within that tradition – over Latin America’s, indicates a larger condition favoring a single narrative, while neglecting others. It is in effect, a strange twist on cultural appropriation. The composer was part of a sprawling discourse between Latin America and the rest of the world which followed the Second World War – one which has been swept under the rug. He is a bridge, and thus through familiarity, a wonderful place to enter non-European traditions of this music.
Mauricio Kagel’s work enters many streams of thought – one of which has equally occupied me recently. The standing presumption is that the arts are progressive, and that time and history lend proof to this – that we learn from those who proceed us, and move forward from their gains. What history often shows, particularly when scanning the last one hundred years, is that this is increasingly not the case – that there is a great possibility that we are backsliding and regressing – becoming less ambitious and more conservative. The past may well have been more radical and progressive than the present. A strong indication of this is found within Kagel’s film works.
Though many figures of Modernist music embraced a more theatrical and cross-disciplinary realization for their work within theater and film, particularity following the premier of Parade in 1917 – a ballet which was the result of collaboration between Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, and Léonide Massine, few did so to the degree that Kagel did in the years that followed the Second World War. Beginning not long after his arrival in Germany, and extending across the entirety of his career, the medium represents a substantial amount of his output.
Modernist thought has largely come to be cast as a territory of radical intellectual paradigm shifts, and the employment of new materialities. Though undeniably these things, what often goes unrecognized is the fact that much of its progress drew from utilitarian desires. Its core hope was to bring greater access to the arts, rather than limit it, and to do so, it capitalized on the articles of everyday life. Few recognized this better than Mauricio Kagel. His films, almost exclusively produced for public television, set out to use the great medium of his day as a means to bring the wonders of art into as many lives as he could. When combined with image, he offers us a window into his true conceits, undermines abstraction and dislocation, and reminds us that art, with all its serious ideas, is both fun and funny. These films are not simple gestures. They are towering achievements – locked in conversation with the most complex ideas of their composer’s century.
Kagel produced roughly a film a year for his entire career. That he managed to produce anything else, particularity in the face of their ambition, is an astounding testament to how ambitious and prolific he was. A friend recently reminded me of a different era in the life of these films. He had first obtained them as a dub from Helen Mirra, who had dubbed them from Jim O’Rourke. There was a moment when they were quite obscure, and passed from hand to hand. It’s wonderful that we now live in a world – the result of things like Youtube, which has returned them to the life which the composer would have preferred – available to all.
Before leaving you with the films themselves, I conclude with a couple of thoughts. Though filled with remarkable ideas, sounds, and images – all which should be explored in their own right, each of these films – as they travel through time, have slowly become interventions with our conceptions of history. They are indications of broad cultural association and source, which defy our accepted notions. They are not anomalies – the result of a single figure who left an unsympathetic home. They are in fact vessels for, and indicators of, a larger tradition of music which has been obscured from view. When viewed in his proper context, Kagel should be seen as a Latin American composer who worked in Europe, joined, like many of his peers, in a global conversation which defined that era. He is a first step toward restoring this context to view. These films are also a useful tool for unwinding our own place and relationship to the larger body of history. They are so radical, challenging, and rich, that they easy dispel the standing presumptions about the progressive character of the arts. He was pushing a boundary that very little contemporary practice approaches – and doing so on public TV. Keep that in your mind as you watch, and see if you can imagine them being realized in such a way today.
Though only a small part of his body of film works, I leave you with nine of the most important – Antithese (1962) Match (1966) Solo (1967) Duo (1967-68) Ludwig Van (1969) Hallelujah (1969) Staatstheater (1970) Dressur (1981) MM51 / Nosferatu (1983). Each is a piece of Instrumental Theatre – a practice which Kagel conceived based on his idea that “You need musicians who are also actors, not only musicians.” For any viewer, approaching these films as a totality, is an ambitious undertaking, but one of endless rewards. I hope that this article stands as a resource and archive – to be returned to again and again. Few will make it through them all in a single go. With that I hope you enjoy, and that their presence in your lives does all that I hope it might.
Mauricio Kagel – Antithese (1962)
Mauricio Kagel– Match (1966)
Mauricio Kagel – Solo (1967)
Mauricio Kagel- Duo (1967-68)
Mauricio Kagel – Ludwig Van (1969)
Mauricio Kagel – Hallelujah (1969)
Mauricio Kagel – Staatstheater (1970)
Mauricio Kagel – MM51 / Nosferatu (1983)
Mauricio Kagel – Dressur Part 1 (1981)
Mauricio Kagel – Dressur Part 2 (1981)