Mauricio Kagel has died at the age of 76. (Via.) I had the great and entertaining fortune of studying with Kagel as a Tanglewood fellow in 1998. He was endlessly good-natured, and as intellectually mischievous as you might expect from his music, but I also remember his uncompromising sense that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about putting music together; his attention to detail was an indication of how seriously he took even the most playful music. (He reprimanded me for using neologistic Italian-language performance directions but not conjugating the verbs correctly.) For that summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music, I performed Kagel’s General Bass (for “unspecified bass instrument”—I used an accordion), a little piece of typical, mysterious wit consisting of sparse, disconnected phrases that hint at some absent, traditionally tonal grandeur. Kagel a) was mildly disappointed at the fact that my piano accordion was not a bandoneon, but took it in stride, and b) was very particular about staging—seated, not standing; very still, as if one player within a giant ensemble; and making sure to underemphasize any espressivo possibility in the fragments. It was a bit of master-class in how to play off of performance expectations, and in how magically you can up the stakes of humor the less you give away the joke.
Kagel could be intellectually unforgiving, but even his criticism was cloaked in the graceful good manners of an old-school radical; if he thought I was young and stupid (which he probably did) he never let on, instead giving the generous illusion that the time he spent with me was time well spent. If I’m any less stupid now, at least some small portion of that is due to my briefly crossing his path.