Mauricio Kagel's Dressur (1977) has established a "viral" presence in the percussion community. "Viral", in this context, in no way connotes a pejorative relationship between the piece and the community. As an ultra-buzz word, "viral" is a work of media which has, for one reason or another, gained a significant footing on the internet. Evidence of Dressur's virality (not a word) abound online. YouTube posts of stellar performances by Yale (2 different performances!), Oberlin, Trio le Cercle (the dedicatees of the piece), and McGill have caused the piece to gain considerable notoriety since my first encounter with it in 2001 as part of a Percussion Group Cincinatti concert at Oberlin. Short of traveling to Europe in 1981 to see a performance of Jean Pierre Drouet and his colleagues on original instruments, seeing Allen Otte, Russell Burge, and Jim Culley (my teacher at the time) interpret Dressur was the best experience I could have had with the piece as an audience member. Their instruments are phenomenal, their deadpan stage presence is engrossing, and their execution of the deceptively difficult passages is remarkable; all from memory. Needless to say, the piece had a lasting impression on my future as a musician. I've performed the piece with two groups. First in 2005 with Fabio Oliveira and Justin DeHart as a part of a Fall Red Fish Blue Fish event. Then, in February of this year, Steve Schick took Fabio's part and performed it with Justin and me on the Monday Evening Concerts at Zipper Hall in Los Angeles.
Why has the piece become the potent, viral entity that it is? The piece offers interpretive problems that are provocative, fun, and quite formative for a musician. What is it about Kagel and this piece that enables such a perfect scenario for sublime interpretive decision making? Perhaps Kagel's most basic motivations as a composer will lend some clues:
“Music has also been a scenic event for a long time. In the 19th century people still enjoyed music also with their eyes, with all their senses. Only with the increasing dominance of the mechanical reproduction of music, through broadcasting 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. My goal: a re-humanization of music-making (Heile 38).”
A few words stand out as particularly relevant to Dressur: "reduced to the purely acoustical dimension", "scenic event", "direct, exaggerated protest", and "re-humanization".
Kagel asserts that music has evolved in the 20th century towards a purely auditory experience (something unique to a post-Wagnerian western aesthetic) which deprives the audience of the visual experience that is inherent to music making. Dressur presents an exaggerated protest to that deprivation in two compelling ways:
1) He constructs a scenario in which music training is presented through the lens of horse training, reducing the performers to animal executants, expertly trained to do exactly what the trainer (the score) insists.
2) He allows absurdities and peculiarities to serve as his method of protest. He sets up a self-destructive environment in which dramatic relationships have no where to go but spectacle. The trained performers, obediently executing the prescribed tasks, descend into scenarios that highlight the dangers of blind obedience for the sake of auditory prudence.
In other words, the piece is a trap. A trap for the performers and a trap for the audience. Those who choose to interpret the piece sacrifice themselves in order to prove Kagel's point: western musicians interpret so dutifully that, when presented instructions that navigate the visual or theatrical realm, they can't help but demonstrate a lack of ability. Why would a percussionist ever want to perform such a piece? Because Kagel cleverly designs the score so that, in addition to its anti modernist polemic, it is a fabulous piece of chamber music that leaves the audience enthralled.
Kagel navigates the visual and theatrical realm with a very specific technique not unique to Dressur. Aware of the lack of theatrical training that percussionists (and musicians, generally) have, Kagel rarely gives explicit stage directions regarding dramatic relationships between performers or performers and their objects. Instead, Kagel exploits the skills that percussionists already have: the skill to dutifully read, understand, and interpret a set of instructions with high fidelity and attention to detail. In this way, with a few exceptions, Kagel allows drama and theatre to be the result of an accurate interpretation as opposed to an intention or motivation. Whereas in theatre, dramatic relationships between the actor and something else (another actor, a prop, or a thought) are the motivation for making specific interpretive decisions, Dressur allows them to be the result of a musical interpretation of tasks.
As mentioned, there are exceptions in the score to theatre as a result. Three such exceptions present dramatic instructions that are the motivation for an action. The first is right away when player one is asked to "lift the chair above player two's head with a strong impulse - as if to attack." The word "attack" cannot be dissociated from a specific type of dramatic relationship between player one and player two. Furthermore, "attack" leaves room for interpretation from player one. Not musical interpretation; theatrical interpretation. In this moment the performer is presented with numerous problems not familiar to their skill set. What is player one's motivation? Why is he or she attacking? Is there anger towards player two? Is this a prank? So many of these questions cannot be resolved musically and are difficult to dismiss as an absurd theatrical result.
The second example comes from player two when he or she is circling the center podium. "Player II: as if a smuggler: walk with somewhat larger steps roguishly looking from left to right." This is an explicit theatrical stage direction with two charged words which require the performer to interpret in an extra-musical discipline: "smuggler" and "roguishly." To pretend to be a smuggler requires the performer to temporarily adopt a smuggler's persona. To do so roguishly requires the smuggler character to affect an attitude. Again, these words ask questions which cannot simply be answered with musical interpretation.
Player three's theatrical motivation is more congruent with Kagel's technique for the rest of the dramatic results. "The entries to bar 537 will hardly be heard in the hall. They serve mainly to clarify the behavior of player III ('infantile instinct')." If we rephrase this to achieve the same meaning, Kagel may have said, "the result of player II's inaudible actions until bar 537 achieve an infantile character." As these two phrases instruct in essentially the same way, they are consistent with Kagel's technique of allowing drama to result from musical instructions and tasks. However, by stating the desired effect of the result, he implicitly encourages the performer to work harder to achieve an infantile quality. This requires interpretation, again, outside the realm of chamber music.
These three examples puncture holes in a score which can otherwise be interpreted as a set of musical instructions or actions like any other chamber piece. To be clear, the other tasks, actions, and instructions in the piece have a theatrical result - the result of executing a set of tasks; something with which western musicians are extremely familiar. The performers need only draw on untrained skills when an instruction's syntax prioritizes drama as a motivation. (Such as in the above three examples)
As a performer, how is one to treat these moments? The answer to that question is paramount to local and global decisions in Dressur. If these moments are rules rather than exceptions, then the performers must employ dramatic intervention and motivation for every action and gesture; sonic and non-sonic. This requires adopting the norms and protocols of theatre, most importantly, hiring a director. If these three moments are exceptions, then the piece can be interpreted as twenty five minutes of chamber music tasks which sometimes result in dramatic relationships and other times do not. The performer can (and perhaps should) remain incognizant to these results. That is to say, by focusing so carefully on interpreting the tasks and instructions on the level of chamber music, the resulting drama and further resulting reaction from the audience can maintain an indeterminacy. Theatre, in Dressur, exists as a sum greater than its parts: rehearsed peculiarities which overlap and collide onstage in absurd, hilarious, and even tragic manifestations.
In light of this, Kagel's own instructions become much more meaningful:
"Such musical events as occur within the context of a scenic 'plot' require rigor and concentration. One must renounce to every kind of facial expressions and gestures which might be understood as a means of putting across a particular 'content'. Only a high degree of intensity in the performance can awaken in the listener the desired degree of humor and seriousness; therefore the acoustic-visual situations don't call for any kind of exaggerations." (taken from the score to Dressur. Peters Edition. 1977)
'Plot' and 'content', placed in emphasis quotes by Kagel, are not to be exaggerated by the performer. Humor and seriousness (effects of dramatic interplay) are to be 'awakened' via 'intense performance'. No clearer words could be used to indicate the passive relationship between the performers and drama which results from an intensely active relationship between the performers and the musical score.
As many of the participants of Roots and Rhizomes have performed and video documented Dressur, I am eager to see what discussion my opinions and interpretations may prompt.