Thursday, August 5, 2010

8/5 Avant Garde, meet Beethoven

Around the 200th birthday of B in 1970 there were tributes from many different people, but none so confrontational as those gestures by Mauricio Kagel and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  In fact Kagel declared that there should be a ban on playing Beethoven for a few years.  What a way to send a guy off!  (His intentions were good though, he felt that B's music had so pervaded our musical conciousness that the revolutionary impact of his music was dulled.)

Stockhausen was a true 'bad boy' of even the avant garde.  He started out with serialism, moved into electronic tape, free improvisation, theater performance, opera, even helicopters.  But in his work "Beethoven Opus 1970" he did a tribute to Beethoven (who he genuinely respected).  In this work musicians performed a version of Stockhausen's "Kurzwellen", but instead of using random radio signals as musical cues, he used recordings of Beethoven's music.  The musicians would improvise against the musical excerpts according to the score instructions and Stockhausen would do live manipulation of the audio signal.  Stockhausen is controversial.  I would love to see a daily blog about Stockhausen, it's such a huge subject.

Personally, I think the idea sounds better than the actual realization, and perhaps Stockhausen in retrospect felt the same way.  When he started his own record label and released a complete edition of his works, he decided to exclude only one work, this one.  It has never been released on CD in any form.

Stockhausen's site.

Mauricio Kagel's work is harder to pin down.  He is probably best known for his "theatrical" gestures rather than any kind of compositional formula.  Some interesting works include "Acustica" (electronic tape music with homemade mechanical instruments) and "Exotica" (ethnic instruments performed without training by classically trained European musicians).  His work tends to have political overtones as well.  A few years ago I saw a performance of his which consisted of the orchestra being taken hostage in a terrorist attack.  I think it was shortly after 9/11.  In his piece "Ludwig Van", the musicians in a chamber group play excerpts from Beethoven's music which have fallen on the floor.  The pages are scattered around the room and they play whatever music their eye happens to fall upon.  The most interesting aspect of the piece to me is not the randomness of the music but rather the unusual instrument arrangements that occur - in other words when the 'wrong' instruments play a part from a symphony.  There are actually variations of this work but I just can't remember what they were, sorry.  If you are curious he gives a big talk on the piece here.
Listen to an excerpt of "Ludwig Van" from the Deutche Grammophone release below.

Kagel also made a film called "ludwig van" which was re-screened in NYC during a Kagel film festival several years ago.  It consists of a single camera POV from Beethoven himself if he visited the world of 1970.  He visits the Beethoven museum in Bonn, a record store....later there is footage of a panel of Beethoven experts, one of which is Kagel himself.  At the end there is a performance of the Pathetique piano sonata by various animal puppets.  Alternately absurd and vaguely disturbing.  Sometimes the music from the film is mistaken for the music composition, but it is not.  It's confusing to research.

Kagel Wiki
Kagel Films on UBUWEB.

So there you have it, some of the oddest Beethoven "interpretations" on record (no pun intended).  Get your samplers and ring modulators ready for the 250th anniversary in 2020...


  1. Wow! I had that 'moment' several years ago when I accompanied my boyfriend to a live performance of the Ninth "just to be nice." I was completely blown away! Now I'm a fanatic. I now have several hundred Beethoven CDs, over a hundred books on Beethoven, and attend any live performances of his music within 75 miles. Also a member of the American Beethoven Society. Just can't get enough of Ludwig!

  2. Hi Mary! Thanks for your story, going to see the 9th as your first B experience must have been fantastic! Well if you like Ludwig B. the links and posts here should keep you busy (I hope!). And new posts every day...