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Musical traps of concealment and disclosure

Mauricio Kagel. Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty Images/file 2006/AFP/Getty Images

On Oct. 17, the Ludovico Ensemble presents a concert of music by Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008). In Stephen King’s short story “Dolan’s Cadillac,” the main character exacts an elaborate revenge by means of a precise, car-size hole dug amidst his target’s habitual stretch of highway. Kagel’s specialty was laying similar traps in Western music history’s supposed path of progress.

Self-taught as a composer, Kagel emigrated in the late ’50s from his native Argentina to Germany, then the heart of the European postwar avant-garde. But his fascination was with music’s unnoticed edges. Kagel’s first compositional critiques were elaborate theater pieces, the logistics of classical music amplified into performance art.


“Match,” an early piece for two cellists and a percussionist-referee, makes explicit the competitive nature of virtuosity. His 1970 “Staatstheater” dismantled opera into a series of exercises subverting the genre’s entire production apparatus: found-object instruments, choruses of nonsense syllables, choreography for non-dancers. For the 1972 Olympic Games, Kagel produced “Exotica,” six instrumentalists playing a thicket of unfamiliar, non-European instruments in (poor) imitation of indigenous musics — the distinction between “civilized” and “savage” upended and erased.

Thursday’s concert features Kagel’s later music, which shifted the critical focus to musical grammar and style. 1985’s “Pan,” for piccolo and string quartet, takes Papageno’s rising-scale flute call from “The Magic Flute” and, in appropriately puckish fashion, walks it through an expressionist hall of mirrors, Mozart’s birdcatcher set loose in a forest of modernist twittering. In his Third String Quartet, finished in 1987, Kagel met and circumvented the challenge of facing down the string quartet’s accumulated history with elaborate stylistic sleight-of-hand, seeming to assemble the customary components of the classical canon — the solidity of tonality, the comfort of standardized forms, a collection of familiar dramatic gestures — but then destabilizing them in anti-syntactical fashion.

One of Kagel’s most incisive critics, musicologist Björn Heile, aptly described the Third Quartet as “camouflage.” In Kagel’s music, concealment and disclosure are perpetual dance partners. His favorite aspects of music were those that, by habit or preconception, had turned invisible; his skill was revealing, with a flourish, what had been hiding in plain sight all along.


The Ludovico Ensemble performs music of Mauricio Kagel, Oct. 17 at 8 p.m. in Seully Hall at Boston Conservatory. Tickets are $15; www.bostonconservatory.edu.