|Mauricio Kagel and
In 1976 Argentine-German composer Mauricio Kagel wrote and recorded
Die Umkehrung Amerikas (Inverted America), an “epic radio play” for
broadcast on WDR, a West German radio network. The following translation
comprises excerpts from an interview with Kagel and a critical look at the
work, both by Werner Klüppelholz, Professor of Music Pedagogy at the
University of Siegen, and long-time friend of Kagel.
Mauricio Kagel: I first read Antonin Artaud’s essay “The Theatre of
Cruelty” in 1948, in his essay collection with the lovely title, Le Théâtre et
son double. What amazed me and filled me with enthusiasm was his total
sympathy for and solidarity with the South American Indians. He
announced as the theme of the first production of his “Theatre of Cruelty”
the murderous conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortes and the Spanish
army. While Artaud only sketched out the basics of his intentions, it
seemed to me then to be the perfect match of artistic principles with an act
of true barbarity. I have often thought that artists make the best historians.
Given that absolute objectivity is not possible, I very much prefer the resolute
lack of objectivity of literary or theatrical interpretations. Facts of
every provenance are in the end always so seriously (or unseriously) manipulated
that one feels justified in doubting the very concept of facts.
Still, it pleased me at the time that a non-South American intellectual
was seriously interested in the Indians’ culture. He naturally combined his
thirst for knowledge with his search for extreme states of all kinds. He
wrote in detail about the rituals and false paradises of the Tarahumaras,
today a nearly extinct Mexican Indian tribe. Chauvanism, religious drug
use and the poetry of heathen beliefs occupied him in a measure equal to
that to which the colonization of the world occupied the European powers.
It is revolting, and not just from a modern perspective, that every great nastiness
of history has not only been blessed by, but in fact done in the name
of, pastoral requirements or decrees. A horror without end, a mania that
still lives and is incessantly repeated. Not for nothing have I sought to portray
the frightening repertoire of methods of intimidation and torture used
by the Spanish—or for that matter, the Germans, or the French, or the
Americans, etc.—in my 1976 composition for radio, Inverted America.
The present rebellion of the Chiapas points out how deep remains the
misery and humiliation of these tribes within Mexican society. It is the
same across all of South America. The attempt to capture in words the suffering of the Indians under the whites’ schemes to destroy them is probably
hopeless—even if I did give my work the subtitle An Epic Radio
Here is an excerpt:
Spanish Soldier III:
Possessed by fiendish pride
Men murder the same.
In holy fire no one reserves
Rights or can make demands.
Callous, merciless barbarians:
Your disgraceful deeds and devastations
Will be punished.
Spanish Soldier II:
Let us hold public slaughterings
Where human flesh is offered for sale.
For the Indians a human amusement,
For us an administrative convenience.
Hands, feet, earlobes and bellies,
Bloated and roasted.
Let us sow mortal agony,
Drag away women and girls,
Call up obscenities, adultery and hungers,
Make a heap of souls miserable.
Werner Klüppelholz: Did you ever meet Artaud?
MK: No. In the 1960s I met his sister in Paris, when she attended a
Domaine Musical concert.2 Artaud was a huge figure, one possessed of
vision and with great dramatic abilities. There is an impressive film—I’ve
forgotten the title—where Artaud hypnotizes the audience with his piercing
eyes, and acts with the aura of a constantly excited consumptive. I
would say he was a good-natured Klaus Kinsky, but the comparison would
be somewhat misleading. Artaud was an Expressionist by nature. What he
wanted from the theatre was exactly the opposite of what was en vogue in
Paris: pleasing music, literary boulevard-theatre, the theatre of good
taste—and by this I don’t necessarily mean anything pejorative. I wish to
say nothing of his afflictions. Our society makes a peculiar distinction
between sickness and health; one often doesn’t know who belongs where.
With artists this is true to a great degree. But Artaud had the courage to
make his spiritual malaise, his sense of being foreign to this world and his
particular set of values the basis of what he did on stage. Aesthetically, this
was a heroic act, one that rendered a good part of the mainstream theatre of his time completely absurd and unnecessary. This at the price that his
pieces are rarely performed today.
WK: Artaud not only fought against conventional theatre, he was also in
large part a critic of our civilization.
MK: Of course. When, in the 70s, I first read Michel Foucault’s wonderful
Historie de la folie I immediately thought of Artaud. A good many of his
later drawings from the 1940s are still high points of the Heidelberg
Prinzhorn collection. There are few question marks in Artaud’s imagination.
There are no utopias there, only the precise instructions for use of a
1. From Mauricio Kagel/Werner Klüppelholz, Dialoge, Monologe (Köln: DuMont Buchverlag, 2001), 212-219. The interviews in this book were conducted between September 1998 and December 2000.
2. The Domaine Musical was a concert society established in Paris by Pierre Boulez. From
1954 to 1973 the society presented concerts of music by Kagel, Boulez, Kagel, Stockhausen
and others. [trans]
MAURICIO KAGEL (1931–2008) was an Argentine-born composer and filmmaker
who migrated to Europe at the suggestion of Pierre Boulez, and, based in
Cologne, became a key figure in postwar New Music. In his youth he studied literature
with Jorge Luis Borges, and incorporated text manipulations into many of
his works. He also incorporated dramatic, comic and theatrical elements into his
compositions. His many available recordings include Quirinus’ Liebeskuss and
Schwarze’s Madrigal, both on Winter & Winter.
WALTER KLÜPPELHOLZ is Professor of Music Pedagogy at the University
of Siegen. He is the author of a number of books on New Music, several of
them centered on the work of Mauricio Kagel, including Mauricio Kagel
1970–1980 and Lese-Welten: Mauricio Kagel und die Literatur. He has also published
interviews with Gyorgy Ligeti, Christoph Richter and others in the
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