Mauricio Kagel was an avant-garde composer and music theorist whose work merits an excellent documentary. Containing some of the last known footage of Kagel, including a shot before his untimely death in 2008, Süden is a masterwork of biographical music filmmaking, documenting the return to his native Buenos Aires for the last time in 2007, after 40 years abroad.
Süden focuses on the week of rehearsals before what proved to be the composer’s final major performance. The documentary takes its name from the Ensamble Süden, the group that signed on to perform Kagel’s “Eine Brise.” Comprised of young musicians who in turn take their name from one of Kagel’s compositions, The Ensamble is so enamored with the composer that, years ago, when he replied to a fan letter from the group, it screen-printed his signature onto shirts that the members all proudly wear. The piece and its various movements relate to what Kagel considered to be the pandemic disorderliness of modern society.
Some of the more interesting moments of the film treat Kagel’s various theories on the practice of making music, wherein the composer addresses the economic hardships of being a modern musician in Argentina. There is virtually no market for the work the Ensamble does, and every member has a day job. Yet the vibrant, joyous personalities of the musicians virtually spill from the screen, inviting us to revel in the mere ability of humans to make such interesting noises.
One of Süden’s greatest assets is its knack for capturing intimate moments within and between the musicians. At their first rehearsal, the harmonium is tuned to A440, and the piano is at least a quarter-step sharp. The conversation between the pianist and the company’s piano tuner becomes an illuminating slice of the life of sectional musicians, as each weighs in on which instrument is going to be more of a pain in the ass to re-tune. In another scene, Kagel’s mezzo-soprano, Klara Csordas, makes a trip to a local dentist to replace a chronically malfunctioning temporary filling. We feel her heightened sense of urgency -- beyond the nervousness that plays into any visit to the dentist -- over an appointment taking place on the eve of opening night.
Süden is a rare and significant film about modern compositional music, offering viewers a glimpse of the profound conceptual theories that Kagel proposed throughout his illustrious career. With that in mind, it seems fitting to end with the maestro’s own words concerning the importance of modern conceptual music in society:
A composer sits down at nine or ten a.m. at his work table and spends the whole day inventing music. But what people who don’t make music deeply desire is to be entertained. They are influenced by a certain trend to consume music, not to rethink music. And that form of entertainment you cannot criticize or say of it: ‘from an ethical point of view, this is an error.’ No! This is what the world is made of. [A composer] must help the public reflect on music. --Mauricio Kagel (December 24, 1931 – September 18, 2008)