Mauricio Kagel was born in Buenos Aires in 1931. A self-taught composer he began writing in 1950, seeking musical ideas that opposed the neoclassical style dictated by the Péron government. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish an electronic studio, in 1955 he became chorus director and rehearsal accompanist at the Teatro Colón and editor on cinema and photography for the journal Nueva Vision . In 1957 Kagel travelled to Germany on a DAAD student grant, settled in Cologne, and became involved in the local contemporary music scene as a member of the so-called 'second generation' of Darmstadt composers.
Kagel lectured on the Darmstadt summer courses (1960-66, 1972-76) and conducted the Rheinland Chamber Orchestra in contemporary music concerts (1957-61). In 1969 he was named director of the Institute of New Music at the Rheinische Musickschule in Cologne and, as Stockhausen's successor, of the Cologne course in new music (until 1975). Kagel was one of the founders of the Ensemble for New Music in Cologne and has worked at the electronic studios in Cologne, Berlin and Utrecht. He continues to conduct many of his works and directs and produced his own films and radio plays.
Most of Kagel's works have their structural basis in subversive rhetorical gestures such as paradox, disjunction and irony. Sound materials often involve unusual or exotic instruments or regular instruments used in unusual ways, as in Musick für Renaissance-Instrumente or Exotica . Sometimes a piece, as in the stage piece Tremens , suggests that Kagel is reflecting on his clinically supervised experience of LSD or mescaline. Although it is possible to trace broad influences from European and American avant-garde ideas current in the 1950s, few works are developed from any clear source other than his own imagination. He usually works on more than one piece at a time and works on various fragments of ideas over several years.
Kagel's first famous works, the Sexteto de cuerdas , Anagrama and Transición 2 , exhibit a structured quasi-serial technique that is subverted by uncontrollable elements and exaggerated demands for precision, implying a subtle critique of formal control. The sophisticated counterpoint of techniques in the Sexteto attracted a great deal of attention at its première; so did the wide range of timbres and vocalisations of Anagrama , which influenced Stockhausen's Momente and later works by Berio. The first work that clearly shows Kagel's bent for radical theatre and the deconstruction of aesthetic systems was Sur scène , in which a lecture on the goals of contemporary music is sonically and logically distorted by disconnected fragments of instrumental sound, vocalisation and mime.
Sonant (1960/...) established the concept of 'instrumental theatre' central to many of Kagel's later works. Instrumental theatre explicitly acknowledges the physical presence of the performers and requires them to present a rerepresentational dramatic meaning rather than 'absolute music'. Thus players make verbal comments and mime their own playing and that of others, or create sounds in dramatic contexts, highlighting various aspects of difficulty, mockery or confusion. Later works continue to create theatre out of sound (the contest between two celli, refereed by a percussionist, in Match ) or sometimes sound out of theatre (the clacking sounds that result from the choreography in Pas de cinq ).
Another large category of works is essentially visual, such as Die Himmelsmechanik , a piece that consists of stage sets representing weather scenes. These works, with or without sound, lead towards Kagel's numerous films, which are considerably more than the documentaries of stage works they are sometimes taken for. The first of these films, Solo and Duo , are based on pieces by Dieter Schnebel, but the films of Kagel's own works Hallelujah and Ludwig Van take their original scores as only one of a number of symbolic elements competing with visual and textural elements for primacy. Many of these works are scored in a purely visual manner that owes almost nothing to traditional music notation.
Hallelujah also exemplifies an approach followed in numerous works, that of the catalogue as work. Hallelujah is a collection of possible actions notated on separate cards. In these works the cards can be put together in a formal or informal manner to create the piece. The most important example of this technique is Staatstheater , Kagel's first opera and one of his most sharply anti-institutional works, which he called "not just a negation of opera, but of the whole tradition of music theatre."
One of the most important of contemporary composers, Kagel's elaborate imagination, bizarre humour and ability to play with almost any idea or system has brought powerful and unexpected drama to the stage and concert hall. (Paul Attinelo)