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The National Zoo ‘discovers’ Mauricio Kagel’s ‘animal spirits’

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Mauricio Kagel was one of the more outrageous contributors to the avant-garde movement that emerged following the Second World War. He was born on December 24, 1931 to a Jewish family that fled Russia in the 1920s and settled in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many of his compositions were distinguished for the theatricality required of the performers, even if the music was not explicitly composed as a stage work. He also had great interest in some of the more adventurous approaches to jazz and felt that such improvisatory practices were just as important to the experiments at Darmstadt (where he taught over the course of many summers) as they were to gigs at the Village Vanguard.

My own first contact with Kagel came through a recording in the Music of Our Time series on the old Odyssey vinyl label entitled A Second Wind for Organ. The recording featured David Tudor playing on a full pipe organ (Kagel), a chamber organ (Christian Wolff), and a bandoneón (Gordon Mumma). (Sadly, it does not appear to have been reissued as a CD.) The Kagel composition was entitled “Improvisation ajoutée” (added improvisation). I never knew how specific the score was; but the title referred to the fact that Tudor’s improvising was supplemented by two “added” performers, whose own improvisations involved changing the stop configurations. In addition all three performers could improvise through “singing, speaking, whistling, and shouting, as well as clapping” (quoted from the description of the Wergo recording of this piece).

I was reminded of this piece because of the viral circulation of a video posted by the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington. The video shows what happened when some imaginative curator decided to place a Casio electric keyboard up against a cage of Asian small-clawed otters. The video is only about 30 seconds in duration. However, over that brief time four of the otters figured out what happened when keys are depressed and seemed to get off on it. This was not quite the letter of what Kagel had in mind, since the otters could only reach the keyboard, rather than any of the additional controls. Nevertheless, were he still alive, I suspect that Kagel would have been thoroughly delighted by this new approach to performing his “Improvisation ajoutée!”

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