Kagel was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, into a Jewish family which fled from Russia in the 1920s (Anon. n.d.). He studied music, history of literature, and philosophy in Buenos Aires (Grimshaw 2009). In 1957 he came as a scholar to Cologne, Germany, where he lived until his death.
He taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1964 to 1965 as Slee Professor of music theory and at the Berlin Film and Television Academy as a visiting lecturer. He served as director of courses for new music in Gothenburg and Cologne (Attinello 2001). He was professor for new music theatre at the Cologne Conservatory from 1974 to 1997.
Among his students were Maria de Alvear, Carola Bauckholt, Branimir Krstić, David Sawer, Rickard Scheffer, Juan Maria Solare, Gerald Barry, and Chao-Ming Tung. See: List of music students by teacher: K to M#Mauricio Kagel.
He died in Cologne on September 18, 2008 after a long illness, at the age of 76 (Nonnenmann 2008).
Many of his later pieces give specific theatrical instructions to the performers (Kennedy and Bourne 2006), such as to adopt certain facial expressions while playing, to make their stage entrances in a particular way, to physically interact with other performers and so on. His work is comparable to the Theatre of the Absurd.
Staatstheater (1971) is probably the piece that most clearly shows his absurdist tendency. This work is described as a "ballet for non-dancers",[this quote needs a citation] though in many ways is more like an opera, and the devices it uses as musical instruments include chamber pots and even enema equipment. As the work progresses, the piece itself, and opera and ballet in general, becomes its own subject matter. Similar is the radio play Ein Aufnahmezustand (1969) which is about the incidents surrounding the recording of a radio play.
Kagel also made films, with one of the best known being Ludwig van (1970), a critical interrogation of the uses of Beethoven's music made during the bicentenary of that composer's birth (Griffiths 1978, 188). In it, a reproduction of Beethoven's studio is seen, as part of a fictive visit of the Beethoven House in Bonn. Everything in it is papered with sheet music of Beethoven's pieces. The soundtrack of the film is a piano playing the music as it appears in each shot. Because the music has been wrapped around curves and edges, it is somewhat distorted, but Beethovenian motifs can still be heard. In other parts, the film contains parodies of radio or TV broadcasts connected with the "Beethoven Year 1770". Kagel later turned the film into a piece of sheet music itself which could be performed in a concert without the film—the score consists of close-ups of various areas of the studio, which are to be interpreted by the performing pianist.
Other pieces include Con Voce (With Voice), where a masked trio silently mimes playing instruments and Match (1964), a tennis game for cellists with a percussionist as umpire (Griffiths 1978, 188) (for Siegfried Palm), also the subject of one of Kagel's films and perhaps the best-known of his works of instrumental theatre (Griffiths 1981, 812).
Kagel also wrote a large number of more conventional, "pure" pieces, including orchestral music, chamber music, and film scores. Many of these also make references to music of the past by, amongst others, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and Liszt (Warnaby 1981, 38; Decarsin 1985, 260.
He has been regarded by music historians as deploying a critical intelligence interrogating the position of music in society (Griffiths 1978, 188).
- Staatstheater (1967/70)
- Mare nostrum, Scenic Play for countertenor, baritone, flute, oboe, guitar, harp, cello and percussion (1975)
- Kantrimiusik, pastorale for voices and instruments (1975)
- Fürst Igor – Strawinsky, a requiem for Igor Strawinsky for bass and instruments (1982)
- Sankt-Bach-Passion for soloists, choirs and orchestra (premiered in 1985)
- Mitternachtsstük for voices and instruments on four fragments from the diary of Robert Schumann (1980–81/86)
- Schwarzes Madrigal (Black madrigal), for choir, trumpet, tuba and 2 percussionists (1998/99)
- In der Matratzengruft for tenor and ensemble (2008)
- Dos piezas for orchestra (1952)
- Heterophonie for orchestra (1959–61)
- Zehn Märsche, um den Sieg zu verfehlen (Ten marches in order to miss victory), for brass orchestra (1979)
- Les idées fixes, rondo for orchestra (1988/89)
- Opus 1.991 for orchestra (1990)
- Konzertstück (Concert piece), for timpani and orchestra (1990–92)
- Études for orchestra (I 1992, II 1995/96, III 1996)
- Fremde Töne & Widerhall (Strange sounds and echo), for orchestra (2005)
- String Sextet (1953–57)
- Transición II for piano, percussion, and two tapes (1958–59)
- Sonant for guitar, harp, contrabass, and skin instruments (1960)
- Match for three players (1964)
- Musik für Renaissance-Instrumente, for two up to twenty-two instruments (1965–66)
- String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (1965–67)
- Morceau de concours for 1 or 2 trumpets (1968–72)
- Pan a tutti i Papagheni, for piccolo and string quartet (1985)
- Piano Trio No. 1 (1985)
- String Quartet No. 3 (1986)
- Phantasiestück for flute and piano (1989)
- String Quartet No. 4 (1993)
- Schattenklänge, three pieces for bass clarinet (1995)
- Art bruit for a percussionist and an assistant (1994/95)
- Piano Trio No. 2 (2001)
- Acustica for experimental sound-producers and loud-speakers (1968–70)
- Dressur, trio for wood percussion (1977)
- Rrrrrrr..., six duos for two percussionists (1982)
- Ludwig Van (1969)
- Anon. n.d. "Mauricio Kagel, 1931–2008". Mauricio Kagel website. (Accessed 21 September 2010).
- Attinello, Paul. 2001. "Kagel, Mauricio." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
- Decarsin, François. 1985. "Liszt's Nuages gris and Kagel's Unguis incarnatus est: A Model and Its Issue", translated by Jonathan Dunsby. Music Analysis 4, no. 3:259–63.
- Griffiths, Paul. 1978. A Concise History of Modern Music: From Debussy to Boulez. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-18167-5. (Originally published as A Concise History of Avant-garde Music: from Debussy to Boulez. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. ISBN 0-19-520044-6 (cloth), ISBN 0-19-520045-4 (pbk.). Reissued as Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985. ISBN 0-500-20164-1. Revised edition, as Modern Music: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. ISBN 0-500-20278-8.)
- Griffiths, Paul. 1981. "Unnecessary Music: Kagel at 50". Musical Times 122:811–12.
- Grimshaw, Jeremy. 2009 "Mauricio Kagel". Allmusic website (accessed 24 January 2010).
- Heile, Björn. 2006. The Music of Mauricio Kagel. Aldershot, Hants; Burlington, VT: Ashgate. ISBN 0-7546-3523-6.
- Kennedy, Michael, and Joyce Bourne Kennedy (eds.). 2006. "Kagel, Mauricio". The Oxford Dictionary of Music, second edition, revised. Oxford, Toronto, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-861459-4.
- Klüppelholz, Werner. 1981. Mauricio Kagel 1970–1980. Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag. ISBN 3-7701-1246-6.
- Nonnenmann, Rainer. 2008. "Komponist Mauricio Kagel gestorben". Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (18 September). (Accessed September 18, 2008).
- Reich, Wieland. 1995. Mauricio Kagel: Sankt-Bach-Passion: Kompositionstechnik und didaktische Perspektiven. Saarbrücken: Pfau-Verlag. ISBN 3-930735-21-0.
- Schnebel, Dieter. 1970. Mauricio Kagel: Musik, Thater, Film. Cologne: M. DuMont Schauberg.
- Tadday, Ulrich. 2004. Mauricio Kagel. Munich: Edition Text + Kritik. ISBN 3-88377-761-7.
- Warnaby, John. 1986. "Bach according to Kagel: St Bach Passion". Tempo, no.156:38–39.
- Zarius, Karl-Heinz. 1977. Staatstheater von Mauricio Kagel: Grenze und Ubergang. Vienna: Universal Edition. ISBN 3-7024-0125-3.
- Kunkel, Michael, and Martina Papiro (eds.). 2009. Der Schall: Mauricio Kagels Instrumentarium. Saarbrücken: Pfau-Verlag.
- Steenhuisen, Paul. 2009. "Interview with Mauricio Kagel". In Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. ISBN 978-0-88864-474-9.
- Young, Logan K. 2011. Mauricio Kagel: A Semic Life. Washington, D.C.: T(W)E(L)V(E)! BOOKS. ISBN 1-257-37563-6.
- Mauricio Kagel website, biography
- Mauricio Kagel biography and works on the UE website (publisher)
- Mauricio Kagel site by Björn Heile
- Kagel Biography by BBC Radio 3 programme Cut and Splice.
- Mauricio Kagel at UbuWeb Film presents various Kagel films, including the full version of Ludwig Van, available for free download.
- Kagel's Acustica at the Avant Garde Project has FLAC files made from a high-quality LP transcription available for free download.
- Edition Peters: Mauricio Kagel October 1998.
- Interview: There Will Always Be Questions Enough Mauricio Kagel in conversation with Max Nyffeler.
- UbuWeb: Mauricio Kagel featuring Der Schall (1968) and ACUSTICA for experimental sound-producers and loud-speakers.
- Washington Post obit by Anne Midgette.
- Guardian obit by Adrian Jack.
- New York Times obituary by William Grimes.
- Excerpts from sound archives of Kagel's works.
- A biography on IRCAM's website (French)
- Interview with Mauricio Kagel by Bruce Duffie, November 2, 1992