How can one define “Northeast”? “One could call this direction typically vague,” Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) wrote, rather unhelpfully, in the program note for his composition of that name. This is all the more perplexing a judgment coming from a composer who emigrated from Argentina to West Germany—a journey northeast that was surely a central moment in his life and career. But what seems to have intrigued Kagel was the very vagueness of the term, to Europeans at least, and the way this contrasted with the situation in his continent of origin. “In southern Argentina,” he informed us, “it can only refer to the legendary ‘Nordeste’ of Brazil.”
Kagel’s “Northeast”, his note concludes, is “a musical reflection on South America” in memory of the Swiss-Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier. It was the third compass point Kagel set to music in his magnum opus Die Stücke der Windrose (“The Pieces of the Compass Rose”), which haphazardly worked its way around all eight points between 1989 and 1994. While their significance is well acknowledged, these pieces for “salon orchestra”—string quintet, clarinet, piano, harmonium, (much) percussion, and pan pipes—had never been recorded and released as a complete set before Ensemble Aleph’s meticulously performed double CD, released on Evidence Classics in 2016. At a time when the world order, as well as political compasses everywhere, are veering wildly off course, Kagel’s idiosyncratic sense of direction feels especially vital.
“Northeast” and “Northwest”, both composed in 1991, purport to engage with the music of South America: the latter, Kagel claimed, was his first direct engagement “with the indigenous music of the South American Andes.” It’s true that both these pieces have an elegant, subtle rhythmic pull that seems to evoke the traditional music of the region, though perhaps only as “vaguely” as the directions themselves. Both have haunting, elusive openings, “Northeast” with a svelte, tango-like motif in the minor mode that forms the basis, in various distorted guises, of the whole piece. Kagel wrote that in the opening of “Northwest”, “an imaginary procession of Andean Indians slowly approaches the audience,” and this is one of few occasions when his notes can usefully be taken at face value. To a soft, plodding accompaniment of double bass and untuned percussion, an eerie, chant-like melody drifts in above, with two kazoos leading the way. The second half of this particular direction, on the other hand, is an abrupt departure signaled by a shrill whistle—presumably, we encounter a carnival. “Paying homage to a tonal system that is certainly alien to us, I wrote in an unblemished multipentatonic style,” Kagel claimed of this section: the riotous music explodes the aura of mystery surrounding the opening. His note concludes by dismissing, albeit rather elliptically, the notion that this is a sincere attempt to evoke a foreign culture, by pleading to the (Andean) gods for forgiveness “for this strange music.”
It was evidently part of Kagel’s plan, in choosing to write a series of pieces named after points of the compass, to disorientate, or re-orientate, or un-orientate. The pieces look in their directions from different vantage points: the first two he wrote, “East” and “South” (both 1989), look from his adoptive homeland of Western Europe, the former towards a panoply of Eastern destinations, and the latter south of the Alps, perhaps as far as Naples, evoked by what he calls “an unambiguous tarantella.” Some pieces, on the other hand, are directed from South America or nearby: “Southeast” (1991) travels from Cuba across the Caribbean into the Amazon, and “Southwest” (1992), audaciously, is a “journey” from Mexico to New Zealand, a journey he never made and (he suggested) could barely imagine. He turned to percussion, here as elsewhere, to convey the sense of unknowability that excited him about this trip. But are we meant to hear particular sections as representing the different places he mentioned along the way—“the Fiji archipelago, Western Samoa, New Caledonia, and the territory of Tuvalu”? How can one even evoke these places to an audience—a “Western” audience, I suppose—that will know little to nothing about their cultures’ music? “Southwest” begins in a shuffly, almost jazzy style that does not even sound Mexican to me, and it proceeds through various radically different sections before a beautiful passage of soft near-minimalism that may hint at the gentle motion of the boat in which this long journey presumably takes place. A long crescendo on the tam-tam seems to draw the piece to a close, but this dramatic gesture is bathetically undercut by what sounds like the crunch of broken twigs: the first step taken at the destination, much less interesting than the journey there, is a minor act of destruction.
Colonialism is a numinous presence hanging over Die Stücke der Windrose. It is as if conquistadors have seized all the natives’ compasses and twisted them out of shape. That the cycle began with “East” is no coincidence: it is perhaps the most straightforwardly ironic number. This catalog of orientalisms takes in jaunty Turkish bells, sinuous augmented seconds, klezmer-style clarinet solos and a vampy Hungarian dance, and while these disparate elements are arranged with skill, “East” is a composition cut through with a deliberate sense of randomness that exposes the Western vision of the East for the tacky knock-off that it is. “East” is also the shortest of the pieces, whereas “West” (1994) is the longest, but thematically they are connected. “If there were a cardinal point called something like Eost or Noud, I would have chosen that as the title,” Kagel wrote of “West”—it is not a destination for him so much as “a signpost, which, like a head of Janus, indicates opposite directions.” Its disjointedness hence comes as little surprise, even if it is impressive how rapidly it makes its way through suggestive hints—a gaudy, muzak-style vibraphone comes and goes; a diatonic harmonica fails to break out of its tedious harmonic cycle; a jazz band seems to get stuck. And, of course, the percussionist goes at a tree trunk with an ax—a gesture of maximal theatricality and minimal musical interest (diminished even further on CD, without the visual impact). This piece is, for sure, a critique of the West, perhaps of its exploitation of natural resources and foreign cultures in particular. Its program note muddily suggests that the story is a lot more complex than that, telling a confusing tale of intercultural exchange between Africa and America.
“North” (1994) begins surprisingly, with some of the most obvious tone-painting of any of the pieces—the bitter cold of the far North is heard in biting dissonances, tremolandi, and icy metal sheets shaken by the percussionist. Perhaps we have left civilization behind altogether, or perhaps we are pushing human endurance to its limits. Kagel’s note claims that the piece is a mental reconstruction of what he imagined forty years previously when reading a paper about Siberian shamanic rituals. The percussionist is something of a shaman throughout the whole cycle, but here more than anywhere else, armed with a tree branch, pebbles, an electric fan which blows little strips of paper, as well as an actual shamanic drum. This piece, the last written, may shed a few layers of irony, but as a sincere homage to a region that is all but unknowable, it is a fitting end to a cycle which is often preoccupied with the absence of real cultural understanding.
As the ax in “West” makes clear, Kagel does not shy away from illustrating the violence that cultures can do to one another, or, as in “East”, of pillorying the clichés with which other cultures are often depicted. But the South American-inspired pieces, as well as “North”, have an additional earnestness: they seem to celebrate the unknowability of the places they describe. “Southeast” in particular relishes its dance rhythms and, in its quieter moments, conveys a sort of awed respect. Kagel cultivates an ambivalence, then, that hints that we can still celebrate the beautiful otherness of foreign cultures, despite what the West has done to so many of them. And it is, of course, the skewedness of his own compass that imbues these compositions with such vivacity. Die Stücke der Windrose is nothing if not a celebration of multiculturalism, of the way in which cultural identifiers persist and even seem to gain in importance, even as they slowly lose their power to restrict people’s lives. By the same token, Kagel’s work is a celebration of the different perspectives from which we all see the world, and, indeed, the different ways in which each of us will hear these eight diverse and disjointed pieces of music. Rather than aiming for some sort of universality, like the hero Kagel so curiously probed in his film Ludwig Van, this journey around the compass delights in its particularity.
Kagel did not prescribe an order in which the pieces should be performed, although Björn Heile, author of a book on Kagel and a PhD thesis on the Compass Rose pieces, notes that he always put them in the same order when conducting (“East”, “South”, “Southwest”, “North”, “Northwest”, “Southeast”, “Northeast”, “West”—this was also the order adopted by the London Sinfonietta for a performance I attended in 2013). Heile further notes that Kagel had two particular considerations regarding the ordering: first, as stipulated in the performance notes, that no more than four pieces should be performed in succession without an interval. Second, a “pragmatic consideration”: that the two longest pieces, “West” and “North”, be placed either side of the interval. In classic contemporary-music-ensemble style, Ensemble Aleph opt for the greatest possible unobtrusiveness in their ordering on this release, placing the pieces in order of composition. This provides an interesting insight into how Kagel’s thinking progressed over the five years he took to write them all, especially as the pieces are given such clean and elegant performances. But, perplexingly, this ordering violates both of the above considerations: because of the works’ lengths, the first CD contains six of them without a break, and “West” and “North” sit right next to each other on the second. Whether the ordering of tracks on a CD is directly analogous to the ordering of a concert program is a separate question, but this still feels like a strange decision, and the double album certainly gives a lopsided impression: as well as the two longest pieces being placed last, as the liner notes remark, there is a general progression over time from short to long.
Still, it is surely a healthy thing to perpetuate a sense of uncertainty about the pieces’ ordering: this final layer of subjectivity means that the aesthetic impression the cycle creates is ultimately out of its creator’s hands, which feels appropriate for a work so rooted in the relativity of every experience, the changeability of every vantage point. Never mind, then: put it on shuffle, and make your own mind up.
Paul Kilbey is a freelance writer and editor mainly working on classical music and ballet. His website can be found here.