By Anna White-Nockleby
When Mauricio Kagel returned to his native Buenos Aires in 2006, 111 cyclists greeted the avant-garde composer by performing his theatrical composition, “Eine Brise.” The festival in his honor, organized by the historic Teatro Colón, celebrated his decades as a pioneer in experimental music that often borrows from theatre, cinema and site-specific art. It had been years since Kagel—a longtime resident of Germany—had visited Argentina, and the festival was thus an opportunity to reclaim the composer for Argentina’s legacy and for a younger generation of musicians.
Kagel’s biography mirrors the multilingual and cosmopolitan nature of his compositions, shaped early on by his studies with another Argentine who understood the vexed nature of tradition: Jorge Luis Borges. Born to Jewish immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in Russia in the 1920s, Kagel developed as a composer in the experimental music circles of Buenos Aires, staging his first compositions, such as a multimedia installation called “Música para la torre,“ in the 1950s. Shortly afterward, he moved to Germany where he resided until his death in 2008.
Particularly striking is the theatricality of many of his compositions, such as “Sur Scene” (1959-60). The work begins as a lecture on the crisis of modern music and progressively devolves into nonsense and ellipses as its words turn to rhythm and are taken over by the accompaniment of musicians and a mime, parodying not only the intellectual establishment but also the inadequacy of language itself. Despite his exile, South America comes up in both his investigations of language and his focus on the influence of musical tradition, in such works as “Tango Alemán” (1978). He would later explain it in an interview with Anthony Coleman, “I was born in Argentina, and tangos and vernacular music are for me what American music, jazz, is for you. In America you can never forget that jazz exists.”
And yet in much of his work, national identity seems to take a back seat to the Cage-influenced explorations of the outer limits of musical performance. His national origins seem perhaps most in line with his interest in the aesthetics of chance, as when he tells Max Nyffeler, “I was born in Buenos Aires, but it could just as well have been Chicago, Shanghai or Milan. Emigrants often travel, not to where they want to go, but where they can get a visa to go. The geography of chance is tolerable but unfathomable. I am Argentinian by birth, but in no way a typical citizen of that country. Or perhaps I am?”
An investigation into Kagel’s trajectory also helps to explore the limits of the national when it comes to contemporary music. What does it mean to look for the new, to cast off or parody tradition, to examine the limits between sound, language and sense? Does electroacoustic music have a nationality, or is there a rejection of the national that comes with these sonic explorations? Is Kagel’s move to Germany an example of “brain drain” (or rather, “creative drain”), influenced by his early inability to develop an electroacoustic music studio in Peronist-controlled Buenos Aires? Or are Kagel’s contributions to contemporary music a product of his formative years at the intersection of economic, linguistic and musical traditions unique to the reality of urban, postwar Latin America?
Anna White–Nockleby is a Harvard Ph.D. student in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department and a Teaching Fellow in Spanish. A longer version of this article can be found online