Fragende Ode

Mauricio Kagel has died at the age of 76. (Via.) I had the great and entertaining fortune of studying with Kagel as a Tanglewood fellow in 1998. He was endlessly good-natured, and as intellectually mischievous as you might expect from his music, but I also remember his uncompromising sense that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about putting music together; his attention to detail was an indication of how seriously he took even the most playful music. (He reprimanded me for using neologistic Italian-language performance directions but not conjugating the verbs correctly.) For that summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music, I performed Kagel’s General Bass (for “unspecified bass instrument”—I used an accordion), a little piece of typical, mysterious wit consisting of sparse, disconnected phrases that hint at some absent, traditionally tonal grandeur. Kagel a) was mildly disappointed at the fact that my piano accordion was not a bandoneon, but took it in stride, and b) was very particular about staging—seated, not standing; very still, as if one player within a giant ensemble; and making sure to underemphasize any espressivo possibility in the fragments. It was a bit of master-class in how to play off of performance expectations, and in how magically you can up the stakes of humor the less you give away the joke.

Kagel could be intellectually unforgiving, but even his criticism was cloaked in the graceful good manners of an old-school radical; if he thought I was young and stupid (which he probably did) he never let on, instead giving the generous illusion that the time he spent with me was time well spent. If I’m any less stupid now, at least some small portion of that is due to my briefly crossing his path.


  1. 1) I wish I’d had a composition teacher like that. (I taught myself, but that sounds like the kind of guy to have.) 2) On one of the Yahoo Lists, someone had mentioned Suppe’s bizarre term “Spronato” and queried it. Apparently it means “to spur on” and is used particularly in the overtures. To me it sounds vaguely like a bouncing soprano.3) I’m curious as to what ‘General Bass’ sounds like — is it a pun on the phrase ‘General Tenor’? (There’s a title for you. Probably been used already.)

  2. I think every composer has their pet Italian term, like Suppe’s <>spronato<>. Carter uses <>scorrevole<> probably more than the rest of the world combined. My own favorite is <>calando<>, which I picked up from Webern.<>General Bass<> is actually a sort of pun on another name for Thorough-Bass or figured bass, and that’s kind of what it sounds like: bits and pieces of a baroque-ish bass line isolated and alienated. But <>General Tenor<> is a pretty good pun in itself—although it does conjure the vision of an operatic military type from an absrudist children’s show.

  3. Any recommendations on where to start with Mr. Kagel’s music? I prefer pieces with a large/large-ish orchestra and/or voices, but any recommendation(s) would be appreciated.

  4. Henry: No orchestral stuff, but the chamber piece <>Der Schall<> and the electro-acoustic <>Acustica<> are both on < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Ubuweb<>, not to mention a bunch of his < HREF="" REL="nofollow">films<> (which always have a musical element as well). I think his chamber music is the best way to understand what he’s up to, but < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this CD<> has some orchestral/vocal classics: <>Anagrama<>, <>Rrrrrrr…<>, and <>Mitternachtsstuk<>.

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