Kagel’s “Dressur” & the Instrumental Theater Idiom

December 1, 2010 10:56 am in Concert by mark wessels

I recently finished filming, editing and posting the 2010 Yale Percussion Group’s performance of Kagel’s “Dressur” and thought it would be a great opportunity to open up a discussion of the piece – and the instrumental theater idiom in general.

View the Yale Percussion Group’s Performance:

(For the best visual experience, I recommend downloading the High Definition recording of the piece and watching it full screen)!

For those of you who may be uninitiated with Dressur, here is a bit from Jacob Cooper’s performance notes on the piece:

Mauricio Kagel’s percussion trio Dressur (1977) is rooted in Kagel’s concern for how audio recordings have altered the tradition of audience experience. “In the 19th century people still enjoyed music with their eyes as well, with all their senses,” Kagel has expressed. “Only with the increasing dominance of the mechanical reproduction of music, through broadcast and records, was this reduced to the purely acoustical dimension. What I want is to bring the audience back to an enjoyment of music with all senses. That’s why my music is a direct, exaggerated protest against the mechanical reproduction of music.”

Like many of the other works in Kagel’s “instrumental theater” idiom, Dressur therefore combines the visual element with the auditory, the theatrical with the musical. Using over 50 instruments and non-instruments, Kagel creates sound out of theater (such as when a percussionist slams a chair on the ground several times), and theater out of sound (such as when castanets mimic the sound of a typewriter). The percussionist is a particularly fitting conduit for the visual-aural convergence: even in the most traditional works, his or her striking a variety of instruments, often while clearly visible behind several seated performers, seems to possess an inherent theatricality.

Your first experience with Instrumental Theater?

Instrumental theater, to me at least, similar to my experience to modern art and dance. Being brought up in a very limited musical/cultural existence (rural west Texas), I was never exposed to anything resembling contemporary until a very early college PASIC trip where I ventured in to an evening performance of Michael Udow and his wife. I can’t say that I remember the piece – or much about it since my friends and I giggled our way through most of it.  I guess I just wasn’t ready for the experience.

Much later, on my first visit to Yale, Bob Van Sice invited Neil Larrivee and I to watch James Dietz’ senior recital and I was completely blown away by the audio/visual experience. Of the pieces he performed, Le Corps a Corps was particularly striking – and I immediately thought, “I really need to film this!” (Check out Jame’s artist page for that video).

Of course, I’m still a neophyte to this idiom – and can’t say that I always understand just what the hell I’m watching. But, after several years of exposure, I would say that I’m fascinated with (great) performances…  usually AFTER I’ve done a little study and have watched a piece many times.

What are your thoughts?

I’m interested to hear your experiences with the idiom and this piece. When was your first introduction to performance art (instrumental or otherwise)?  What was your initial impression?

Have you performed in this idiom?  Any stories you’d like to share on the reception you received (good or bad)?

Do you feel that this idiom is under or over valued in the standard repertoire?  Where would you think it fits into “the grand scheme of things” as it relates to high school or college music education?  What has been your experience to exposing your students to this idiom (or any contemporary literature for that matter)?

I, of course, would like to see more light shed upon it – which is why I choose to devote time and energy into filming and posting these performances on vicfirth.com (god knows it’s not for the marketing power behind it!). What are your thoughts?