Mauricio Kagel was one of the great characters of 20th century music, and the strange world of Improvisation ajoutée throws us straight into a demonic world in which the organist and his two assistants seem overtaken by madness, such are their cries and interjections as the organ moves along its fascinating and often dramatic musical trail. The organ and ecclesiastical worlds are pretty conservative, and we read in the booklet that “the planned premiere in Bremen’s Cathedral was cancelled at the last minute owing to church authority’s reservations.”
The power to shock is still deeply potent in this work, and with the assistants working to a score that demands fast and extreme changes of registration the organ sounds as you will probably never have heard it before. Chilling clusters and slides, split-second contrasts and unusual noises give the piece a feel of uncontrolled and impish devilry. The impression of “an autonomously functioning machine that can only operate with a division of labour, without the workers being able to influence or control the results of the process” – a kind of sinister musical de-humanisation – would, as the booklet points out, have hit more raw nerves in 1962. Despite regular encounters with similarly outspoken music Improvisation ajoutée is, and certainly in this remarkable performance, an object that can strike discomfort and terror into the mind of the listener.
Rrrrrr… was Kagel’s final return to the organ, taking eight pieces from a larger cycle of works for varying instrumentation. These are a genuine workout for the organ, with a Ligeti-like sense of spontaneity in many of the pieces, and heavy wit emerging from something like the Ragtime-Waltz. Sound colour and unusual effects are an important part of this set of pieces, and both instrument and performer are in perfect synergy to raise a wry smile in the bass ‘farts’ in Rosalie, extended to the subterranean opening of the final, surrealist Rossignols erhumés or ‘nightingales with a cold.”
General Bass wasn’t written specifically for the organ, but anything capable of producing “continuous instrumental sounds” or sustained pitches in low registers. The title might be said to refer to something akin to ‘basso continuo’, though with no real upper voices the notes are by no means an accompaniment. Remaining in a soft dynamic, the rumbles and changes of overtone pitch create their own strange atmosphere: “the groans of all creation” as quoted earlier in the booklet.
Organist Dominik Sustek’s own piece K-A-G-E-L is subtitled ‘improvisation for organ’, working with the letters of Kagel’s name and exploring his idiom. The vocalisations and elements of violence in the opening Krachen have a clear relationship with Improvisation ajoutée, but this skilled performer has plenty of his own to say with this remarkable instrument. Aura is a suggestive world of mystery, with great soft waves of low frequency air creating a bed of sound for fragmentary ‘sounds of nature’ from somewhere deep inside the organ. Other pieces engage with a kind of frantic chase of creativity from encroaching destruction, and the final Lang combines sustained but restless and quietly surging clusters with whistles and siren-like calls.
With Phantasie the sound of the organ is combined with tapes “that acoustically depict the organist’s working day, somewhat like an ‘audio film’.” Sounds of daily life and the banalities of weather and public transport appear alongside ‘the king on instruments’, the concept in line with the vocal cries of Improvisation ajoutée but a good deal less scary. “The joke is that the organist should make the recordings, since they should document his or her daily life. At the same time, however, the recordings are requirements, or ‘obbligati’… the sound of a toaster must be used, regardless of whether the particular performer usually has toast for breakfast.”
Organ and tape is quite an unusual combination, but the relationship between abstract music and concrete sounds is not as uneasy as you might expect. Like one of those arty radio creations it works effectively on the imagination, but insinuates rather than delivering strident impact, its content much less extreme or complex when compared to Improvisation ajoutée.
Very well recorded and a rich source of superb performances and remarkable music, this is the kind of release that can take pride of place next to other exceptional programmes with organ music by Tilo Medek (review) and Hans-Ola Ericcson (review). Kagel’s well-known musical wit is represented and highly enjoyable here, but Improvisation ajoutée also reveals a side in which unexpected and unforgettable nightmares can reign.