16. December 2020

Mauricio Kagel – Ludwig van.

A modernity of the context

We enjoyed many wonderful performances with Kagel over the years. Ludwig van was – let’s be honest – not one of them.

The material Kagel distributed for our performance in Bergen in 2006 was more or less the same as he usually used for live performances: some pages from the famous (notorious) UE “score” (pictures of furniture covered in assorted Beethoven works, as seen in the film of the same name), and some pages of echt-Beethoven, some to be played independently, some together under Kagel’s direction. But it didn’t gel – perhaps the version was too controlled, perhaps it wasn’t controlled enough. (Perhaps a bit of both.) Never mind. The rest of the programme made up for it: as always, his Tango Alemán was spectacular, and Westen of course brought the house down.

The concert finished after midnight; the 5am pickup from the hotel followed shortly afterwards and brought a priceless Kagel quotation. “Ich habe einen neuen Namen fürs Ensemble.” “Ja, Herr Kagel?” “Leichenfabrik.” Ah, memories.

A few years after Kagel’s death, I found his 1970 LP version of Ludwig van in a record shop (the much-missed Amoroso, in Toronto). This was near the beginning of my LP phase, so I acquired it, more than a little curious how it would compare with our version in Bergen. But there was no comparison. This version was spellbinding for every one of its 50-plus minutes, carefully planned and through-composed, with wonderful synchronicities (mashups avant la lettre) and extraordinary dream-like sequences turning some of Beethoven’s greatest masterpieces into something entirely different but in their own way hardly less wonderful: not long after Berio’s Sinfonia, a “metacollage” (Kagel’s term) on an entirely different level, making a complete new work with its own clear identity entirely out of recognisable fragments of pre-existing material. I was hardly surprised to find out that Kagel aficionados regarded the LP as one of his finest things; I was, alas, also hardly surprised to find out that it had never made it to CD – and still hasn’t, although it is nowadays at least available as a high-res download.

The more I listened to it, the more a few salient facts struck me: there were only very rarely more things happening than could be covered by the modest forces listed on the back cover (two voices, two pianos, string quartet); and there was very little processing or transposition (something to which Kagel drew explicit attention in the interview reproduced on the cover). In other words, the idea of making a concert version of this LP version did not seem entirely out of the question. It would ‘simply’ require a little over 50 minutes of Beethoven snippets, and the exact manner of their combination, to be identified and transcribed. Not too tricky in principle… but in practice much too time-consuming to undertake without a specific project in mind.

Eventually, two convenient things happened. One was that Sarah Saviet (to whom many thanks) visited an exhibition of the Paul Sacher Foundation in which Kagel’s final mixdown for the Ludwig van LP, with specific timing and sometimes identifying specific works, was on display: she knew about my obsession for the LP and passed this information on, allowing me to investigate Kagel’s sketches on a visit to the Foundation a few months later. The other was that the festival BTHVN 2020 put out a second call for proposals, for which Ensemble Musikfabrik had nothing planned (a theatre work by Helmut Oehring, now scheduled for a delayed premiere in mid-2021, was our first-round proposal). This came up in a meeting not too long after my Sacher Foundation visit, enabling me to pipe up timidly: “actually, there’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while”…

Of course, being Kagel, it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The timings in the mixdown plan didn’t quite match the final version; the pieces weren’t always identified correctly or at all; and there were certainly more than a few moments where a string quartet and a piano trio were flung against each other (to say nothing of multiple Frederic Rzewskis), requiring some tricky prioritisation. Travel to Basel to dig properly into the sketch material and to listen to Kagel’s source tapes (vital for teasing out some of the trickier textures) was impossible for much of 2020, either because of Covid-related travel restrictions, or simply because our Concertini series and Lockdown Tapes meant that our summer, instead of being the usual breathing space, was packed full of concerts and recordings. And on top of that, by the time December came around 2020’s concert window had closed again, so this concert version had to be a recording after all.

The transcription was indeed quite a bit of work, even aided by the impeccable ear of Bethan Morgan-Williams (to whom more thanks, for teasing pitches out of the mix that I couldn’t have hoped to identify). I had in any case resolved to spend some of 2020 getting to know some Beethoven works I had neglected: I didn’t expect to be doing so by leafing through the cello, violin and piano sonatas, the piano trios and the string quartets in search of tiny snippets from an LP, but all in all it seems entirely appropriate. (I found out in the process that my digital piano is a whole tone flat. I do not recommend trying to identify tiny snippets of random Beethoven chamber works in the wrong key.)

Of course it all worked out in time for our (virtual) concert, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Aficionados of the LP will probably notice where I have omitted unplayable layers of the original (particularly a few held string chords which don’t fit the available instruments); I’m sure I will be tweaking this aspect for the concert once it comes along (June, pestilence permitting), although to my ear some of these moments work just as they are: on the LP, the held chords partly fulfil the function of compensating for the missing presence of the live performers. I have no idea what Kagel would have thought of all this; in any case I find it hard to imagine attempting this version while he was still alive. (Speaking of departed friends, I wish Richard Toop were still around to hear this: he was responsible for introducing me to Kagel’s music in the first place, and on my last visits to him was always eager for more stories of Kagel’s inimitable gallows humour.) If I’m very lucky, perhaps this might be a new Kagel piece for the concert repertoire: one with a much more ambiguous form than most of his concert pieces proper, although I hope no less Kagelian for that. Even if not, I can’t think of a better way to have spent this Beethoven year than having the chance to realise this strange musical dream which has accompanied me for the best part of a decade: so my deepest thanks go to BTHVN 2020, the Paul-Sacher-Stiftung, Richard, Sarah, Bethan, my patient colleagues, and above all Kagel himself.

Carl Rosman