Obituaries

Mauricio Kagel, 76; Avant-Garde Composer

Mauricio Kagel's compositions included a string quartet for gloved musicians using knitting needles and an orchestral piece featuring a hostage- taking.
Mauricio Kagel's compositions included a string quartet for gloved musicians using knitting needles and an orchestral piece featuring a hostage- taking. (Chamber Opera Of Memphis/)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mauricio Kagel, 76, an Argentine-born composer of audacious musical tastes who became a key member of the postwar European avant-garde, died Sept. 18 in Cologne, Germany, where he had lived for more than 50 years.

No cause of death was reported, but he had strokes several years ago.

"Avant-garde" and "uncompromising" are adjectives that apply to Mr. Kagel's work. So are "theatrical" and "humorous." He explored a wide range of sounds and experiences in compositions that walked a fine balance along the demarcation points among serialism, improvisation and theater of the absurd.

His pieces include a string quartet to be played by gloved musicians using knitting needles ("String Quartet II"); a lecture on avant-garde music that is interrupted by music and mime ("Sur scène"); and an orchestral piece in which the conductor tries to get through a performance while negotiating with hostage-takers ("Kidnapping in the Concert Hall").

Profoundly aware of styles of the past, he incorporated a range of quotations into his work, from classical to vernacular, Bach to tango, as well as recorded sounds. In one work, he included the flushing of a toilet.

"I was never afraid of using my irony, my humor," he said in an interview in 2000. "But in the musical world, if you do that, people think the composition is not serious, which is very primitive. What most interests me is the laugh that stops in your throat, because you realize that laughter is the wrong reaction."

Mauricio Raúl Kagel was born Dec. 24, 1931, in Buenos Aires and grew up in a thriving Jewish community, in which klezmer music and Yiddish theater were part of the melting pot.

At the University of Buenos Aires, he studied philosophy and literature; one of his teachers was Jorge Luis Borges. He also took lessons in cello, piano, organ, theory, singing and conducting, although he averred that he was self-taught as a composer.

He was not accepted at the local music conservatory because he failed the test required to get in, but he nonetheless worked as a coach at the prestigious Teatro Colón after leaving the university.

He also founded a short-lived contemporary music group and the Cinematheque Argentine and worked as the film and photography editor of the magazine Nuevo Visión.

In 1954, he met composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who was touring Argentina and advised him to get to Europe. He applied for and received a student grant that brought him to Cologne in 1957.

Having started his first compositional experiments about 1950, Mr. Kagel quickly attained authority. "Anagrama," written soon after he got to Cologne, was an intricate work for soloists, chorus and chamber ensemble that uses text as a quasi-serialist principle.


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