Perfect Sound Forever

Mauricio Kagel's Compass

Photo assistance by Andras Szanto

by W. C. Bamberger
(May 2007)

ED NOTE: This essay will be reprinted along with essays about musicians, artists and writers, in W. C. Bamberger's forthcoming collected essays, And In Conclusion I'd Also Like To Mention Hydrogen. This will be published by Borgo Press/Wildside Press late this year.

In 1969, George Steiner wrote that the most important writers of the twentieth-century wrote from an "extraterritorial" sensibility. By this, he meant that they were displaced, by war or by choice, and the clashes of cultures and languages they encountered created sparks of genius. Steiner, who elsewhere has much to say about the power of music, doesn't consider extraterritorial composers, but the twentieth century was also a time of displacement and exile for many composers. The list of those who fled to America with the rise of Nazism and Stalinism in the 1930's and 1940's would fill pages.

The displacements and exiles of twentieth-century composers from the Americas were almost exclusively voluntary. Many flocked first to France, then spread out in a musical diaspora that was also a scavenger hunt for novelty. Others have lived combinations of voluntary and forced exiles from their roots and from recognized centers of musical activity. Many have used their feelings of exile and marginality as raw materials to create unique bodies of work. Mauricio Kagel is one of the finest of these.

Kagel was born in Buenos Aires, in 1931. Like many other Jews, Kagel's parents had both fled rising Russian anti-Semitism in the wake of the October Revolution. The Argentine government was sympathetic to the Nazis, and Kagel remembers going to summer camp and seeing across the lake a minimum security compound for German sailors taken into captivity when their battleship was sunk off the Argentine coast. In college in Argentina, Kagel studied composition as well as American and English literature under noted writer/novelist Jorge Luis Borges. In 1957, he moved to Cologne to be part of the European experimental music scene there.

These were the years when, as Steiner also observed (in 1959), German literature was struggling with a language which had given in to "dissimulation and deliberate forgetting," but there was also "a brilliant musical life, and nowhere [was] modern experimental music assured of a fairer hearing."1 A country rebuilding itself naturally embraced the newest possibilities in material areas, and this spilled over into its music as well. But perhaps for composers, as for Steiner, music and mathematics are "purer" languages, "less sullied with past implications; abler, possibly, to deal with the new age of automation and electronic control."2 It was to this nexus of novelty and forgetting that Kagel was drawn.

Kagel's early works were in fact electronic, or mixes of live playing and recorded tape. "Transición II" (1958-59) for example is scored for piano, percussion and two tape recorders (later interpreters add the kind of real-time electronic manipulation sampling technology allows). In the mid-1980's however, his work began to take on a more traditionally musical texture, and to be less aggressively experimental. Rather than using the conventions of musical composition as a negative template to guide his composition as he had so often done, he began to more often use his various linguistic and cultural interests as inspiration for his works. It is this later work, which takes its inspiration for impulses in contradiction to enforced purity and deliberate forgetting, that strikes me as being of most interest.

In Mauricio Kagel: Dialog, Monologue, Kagel talks about the genesis of his choral work, "Schwarzes Madrigal." One of his inspirations was linguistic disorientation common to the extraterritorial experience:

I almost constantly speak languages that are not my mother tongue, and hear even more. In every language I speak, I make mistakes, which are amusing, and which I welcome. Mistakes force me to make better word choices.
Kagel finds humor in dealing with so many languages. At a 1998 performance of his work by the Schoenberg Ensemble in Amsterdam, Kagel joked about his decision to learn enough Dutch to the address the audience in their native tongue:
I have spoken these words in Dutch with pleasure... I have also taken pleasure in your laughter at my pronunciation, and, as you laughed, in watching the staccato of your moustaches, which reminds me of our very dear Groucho Marx.

He also noted that "Music and speech are unequal partners. The troubles of one are the amusement of the other."3 Kagel's interactions with music and languages--together or apart--have provided him a number of ideas, including the

"absurd idea... of combining two linguistic levels. The first was German and made up of monosyllabic words only... At first, I worked without any direction in mind. But I could only go so far without a system. So... I took 100 monosyllabic words from a pocket dictionary... and built the piece from them. After a time, German began to sound strange to me, as if it were an African dialect. So I decided to create a second linguistic level, using actual African languages."4
Kagel spoke no African languages, and his first attempt, he felt, resulted in a kind of shallow "exotica" that he deeply disapproved of. He did however approve of the way the German monosyllables began to take on an "African color," to sound like pidgin-German. Then he decided on the further systemic limitation of using only the names of African cities, villages and settlements (the piece was originally titled "Wo?" ["Where?"]). Kagel did not attempt to use or even to learn the proper pronunciation of the place names. His use of the African names came from his desire to draw attention to unfamiliar vocal sounds without fear of blunders or clumsy accentuation. He felt that "even though these words are imperfectly reproduced, their beauty is not reduced thereby, but enhanced." In an extra extraterritorial touch, the composition is dedicated to a Cuban poet Kagel heard read in Buenos Aires in 1947.

Kagel's sound world has always been one of extraterritoriality--Russian-Jewish parents in a Spanish language country, his own emigration to Germany (an older sister moved to Paris to work with Swiss philosopher/pscyhologist Jean Piaget). And, in what we unavoidably must see as being at least in part in response to this whirl, there was also a desire to raise language to the level of pure sound, and a critical (musical) text entirely of quotations, here on a simple level, where as in his "Sankt-Bach-Passion," the text is taken entirely from original sources--Bach's letters and librettos, obituaries, et al. All the result of Kagel's desire not to be limited by his native languages or those he commonly hears around him in Europe and North America, but to deliberately engage linguistic resistance.

The major result of this change in compositional orientation from the electronic/theatrical to the linguistic/cultural was "Die Stücke der Windrose" ("Pieces of the Windrose," or compass rose), written between 1988 and 1994. Kagel composed these eight pieces, one for each of the major points of the compass, for a nine piece "salon orchestra." In setting out to write this series, he was mindful of his unusual position in regard to the Western (musical) world. He writes that his approach to geographical points is influenced by:

"having been born in the southern hemisphere. When one has spent the first, most impressionable part of one's life there, the four cardinal points evoke particular experiences, desires and schematic views of things which are exactly contrary to the corresponding emotional world of Europeans.

For me... South is still synonymous not with heat, but cold: with Patagonia, the Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. The North, on the other hand, is anything but cold: merciless sun and sharply etched shadows, sweltering humidity, desert landscape and barrenness."5

The first of the series Kagel composed was Osten ("East") (1988–89)6. It begins with syncopated piano chords shadowed by the harmonium and percussion, with the strings and clarinet coiling over one another above them. The piece changes rhythm frequently, but there is figure on piano and harmonium with a persistent feel of accents on 1 and 3 that recurs, with the feel of a comic giant's walk--or, as we learn from Kagel's notes, of the rocking of a train with the melodies being like scenes glimpsed through the windows. Kagel offers us a scenario of sitting in a 3rd class coach in a train running between Trans-Carpathia and the Gulf of Finland. Other travelers include a group of musicians who play for him: "the melodic fragments and typical rhythms change even quicker than the village that jerkily flashes by."

Süden (1989), at 11:28, is the longest of the group of first five points. It begins pizzicato, and an up-tempo tarantella emerges. Kagel thinks of the melodies here as "musical anecdotes" which are played over a rhythm that is constantly speeding up and slowing down, but preserves its basic tarantella feel through all the transformations. It "loses its dancing verve simply by being slowed down, but reveals many hidden facets in the process." The south Kagel means to evoke is subalpine Europe, down to the Mediterranean.

"Nordosten" (1990) is, in my opinion, the best of the eight points. A compelling, tucked-under-itself rhythmic figure is passed around between the piano, harmonium, clarinet and the strings. The music proceeds, again, by stops and starts and with an unpredictable, clacking rhythm part. Near the end of the piece, the music lingers in a still spot, with whispering melody instruments and a single, emphatically repeated note low on the piano, like a heartbeat or a drum. Kagel notes that to say "the North-East" in Europe only produces the vaguest of associations. But in southern Argentina, it always refers to the "legendary ‘Nordeste' of Brazil." He found the music there to be possessed of a "perpetual mixture of melancholy and vivacity, of flightiness and sorrow." And Kagel here succeeds in evoking that same combination. Writing of "Südosten" (1991), Kagel says he means to evoke a view from Caribbean, a region extending from Cuba through Columbia, Venezuela. Surinam and the Guyanas to the Amazon. But the music isn't meant to engage with the dense Creole of folk musics that run together in a mutual influence society through this region. Instead, a simple interlocking figure on clarinet and marimba quickly emerges, gathers in all the other instruments until, as Kagel puts it, the piece "has drifted across the Atlantic to its ethnic origins in Africa." Some of the cycle's simplest sounding music is here, inspired by African balafon (marimba) and sansa (or kalimba) music. Without a hint of what we usually think of as "Afro-Cuban" music, Kagel creates a beautifully wistful portrait of that lineage.

With "Nordwesten" (1991), Kagel writes, he for the first time engages "directly with the indigenous music of the South-American Andes." The piece opens with an imaginary procession of Andean Indians approaching us: first, a lone drum, which is then joined by a sound like knuckles rapping on the piano, then by an odd, snore-raspy melody--it sounds as if it is being played on an elegant comb and tissue paper. The result is a ceremonial stateliness, ominous and powerful. Near the end, there is a dance in what Kagel terms "an unblemished multipentatonic style." The piece ends inconclusively, with some solo whistling, the sound of oblivious self-sufficiency, the Indians moving away. That Kagel is writing an orchestral invocation of music so far from that tradition strikes him as "entirely appropriate at a time when fusion and reciprocal influence have become key concepts in looking at musical languages and cultures" (this point is dedicated to the memory of Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier).

After completing "Nordwesten," Kagel happened to read a musicological treatise on the kind of shaman's drum used by the Machis in Andean Chile. This was significant to Kagel that he reproduces a schematic of this drumhead in the CD booklet, and describes the drums "symbolic microcosm," and its representation of

"both the universe of this indigenous people, and their transcendental functions." The colors and drawings on the skin's outer surface "symbolize the four levels of their vertical (sic!) image of the world, and the four cardinal points of the horizontal gradations between good and evil." The result is an ethical flat-surface version of the earth...7
What Kagel is telling us, I believe, is that his compass portraits, with their alternate associations, are his attempt at suggesting through music a more ethical view of the world.

The last three points of the rose are significantly longer than the first five. West and North are each just seconds off the 20 minute mark, one below, one just above; both are almost four times the length of "Osten." Kagel uses this length to open up the sounds of the salon orchestra. The pieces here are more about color combinations than the earlier points, and utilize a greater array of percussion colors. "Südwesten" (1992–93) uses slit drums, a conch shell trumpet, gongs and anklungs (tuned bamboo shakers) to create a free style evocation of a region Kagel is interested in because he knows so little about it. This area reaches from the West coast of Mexico, through Fiji, Western Samoa, New Caledonia and more before reaching New Zeeland. A quick four (sometimes five) note figure like a mini-fanfare circles around again and again through music dense with rising tides of percussion and chiming piano clinging to its rhythmic function more than its melodic role. The give and take of the western instruments that comment on and surround the percussion creates a deeper-seeming open space for the percussionist to work in than in any of the other points (one distracting coincidence late in the piece is the appearance of another short fanfare that sounds too much like the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly).

"Norden" (1993–94) had a specific textual inspiration. In the 1950's, Kagel participated in a seminar on the history of religion, which including a reading of a study of Siberian myths about the origin of shamans and their magic drums. As time went by, Kagel remembered the idea of the linking of music and magic, but forgot the title of the text and the author's name. "Norden" is an attempt at reconstructing the sounds and rhythms that Kagel had imagined as he read this study. He composed "as if... writing an acoustic review of a book that had long since been lost" (we can't help but be reminded that Kagel once studied under Borges, who wrote many a review of an imaginary book). Kagel ran across a copy of this forgotten book just as he was finishing this piece: Mircea Eliade, "Le chamanisme et les techniques archaiques de l'extase" (Paris, 1951). He "welcomed the book as a friendly gesture from an aiding spirit whose resurrection had come a little late."8

This reconstructed extraterritorial music is the most disjoint-seeming of the points, but has many good sections. In several places, the piano seems to carry on a conversation with itself in the bass register, and other times it drops chiming mid-range chords into spaces sparsely occupied by the harmonium and clarinet. In one particularly beautiful passage, the two violins, viola and cello all seem to rise up through one another into a kind of bright, open brilliance. There is a bit of aimless-seeming staggering, but then the piano returns again to the lowest range, with the pianist reaching inside for some plucked passages before the music comes to a close, low and strong. In contradiction of his own comments (quoted above) that for him "North" didn't mean cold but relentless sun, Kagel writes that this point describes an imaginary journey beginning in Mongolian Siberia and ending at a Inuit ceremony at Hudson's Bay, a journey of white infinity, incessant wind and the absence of human life.

"Norden" was the last of the series to be written, but is not placed last on the CD. This place of honor is given to "Westen" (1993–94). This compass point is not pinned down by its title. In his notes for "Westen," he compares it "a guide which points to opposite destinations like the face of Janus." According to Kagel, this piece concerns the back and forth dynamic between the cultures of the United States and Africa. Specifically, he here looks at how African and American music have interacted.

"Perhaps, [Kagel writes in his CD notes], it is an irony of the God of Revenge that from a musical point of view, the African slaves made the Americans into a primitive people. Measured in degrees of long-terms influence at least, the blacks colonized the whites. This has always interested me, perhaps because the emphasis of purity in connection with the concept of culture has seemed to me to be often somewhat insipid and tasteless, even suspect.

Kagel is primarily referring to the way in which African music has so profoundly affected American popular music. But he also recognizes that it has become a reciprocal relationship, with jazz and other American pop styles flooding in to alter African music in return.

"Westen" begins with pizzicato strings plucking out a spindly mast above a rolling harmony of harmonium and bass clarinet. The piano plays low clusters. The instruments begin to scatter in all directions, join together into a herd of rhythm, then scatter again. From this welter, a low melody on piano and clarinet appears against the rippling of a marimba. The percussionist begins playing a sansa with resonators (or a perfect imitation of one), and the rest of the orchestra comes together in support. Different combinations of instruments come together briefly, dance a few bars together, then separate again. In concert, this piece is very visual: the percussionist repeatedly strikes a log with a red hatchet; the string players face different directions at Kagel's signal; the composer/conductor's tall figure rises and falls with his long-armed conducting gestures.

While there is little here that overtly suggests the narrative Kagel details in his notes and interviews, there is a constant give and take, combination and recombination of instruments--a passage of harmonica with second-line clarinet and whirling strings almost evokes ragtime, and at one-point the piano and percussionist are almost playing swing--that suggests mutual influence without being pedantic about it. Such unexpected combinations of musics (as well as the languages and world views and ethical ones that underlie them) from all the points of the compass are, finally, what the Windrose series is meant to tell us.

Lastly, we should note that this final point, Norden, is descended from a television production Kagel had proposed in 1970, a proposal which was not accepted. This bore the title Weiss auf Schwarz ("White on Black"). It was to have been a fable of culture interchange, of extraterritoriality and cultural clash. In the proposal, a music-cum-anthropological expedition from Bavaria arrives in Africa to record the music and dance traditions of an isolated African people who have had no contact with the West. They pay with the usual trinkets: pocketknives, mirrors, marbles, transistor radios.

After the field recording has gone on for a few weeks, the tribe realizes that there have been an unusually large number of deaths, all of them people who had performed all of the songs they knew for the musicologists. As the recording sessions continue, the members of the tribe exhaust their repertories, and out of fear for their lives, they begin adding new Western melodies adapted from the records the expedition has brought with them and play in the evening. "Gradually," as Kagel phrases it, "an unnoticeable and unstoppable transition to complete imitation takes place." The musicologists, both single-mined and oblivious, record the new hybrid songs as traditional.

When the musicologists return to Europe, they leave behind their cooking utensils, as well as the record player and records. "Years later," Kagel's fable of extraterritoriality concludes, "a music-cum-anthropological expedition from Africa arrives in Bavaria..."


  1. "The Hollow Miracle," in Language and Silence (N.Y.: Atheneum, 1970), 109.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Kagel, Mauricio. Dialoge, Monologe Herausgegeben von Werner Klüppelholz (Köln: DuMont Bookverlag, 2001), 88–89 (my translations).

  4. Kagel (2001), 57-58. I have combined my translation of details on these pages with other details from Kagel’s notes to the CD Schwarzes Madrigal, Winter & Winter 910 090-2 (2002).

  5. From the notes to 5 Stücke Der Windrose, Montaigne CD MO 782140 (2001). Both CD’s of Windrose pieces include the same introductory text, but the translation here (by Richard Toop) is more fluent than the later version (which, oddly enough, is also credited to Toop).

  6. I have chosen not to translate the titles of the other pieces in the series, for two reasons: first, because the words are such close cognates to the English that no one should have trouble translating them; secondly, to remind readers that music in the series is meant to preserve a sense of the foreign feel of the points evoked in them.

  7. From the notes to 5 Stücke Der Windrose. The article Kagel quotes is Maria Ester Grebe, “El kultrún Mapuche: un microcosmo simbólico,” Revista Musical Chilena, No. 123/124 (Santiago, 1973).

  8. From the notes to Die Stücke der Windrose, Winter & Winter CD 910 109-2 (2004).

    Also see our 2015 article on Kagel: Dialogs and Monologues

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