Catherine Saxon-Kerkhoff (Berlin 2015)
This remarkable creator – of orchestral pieces and chamber works as well as hybrids of film and performance art – draws on a plethora of influences, yet devises her own astonishing sound.(1)
Olga Neuwirth is internationally renowned for the versatility of her musical statement that pushes boundaries to explore the possibilities of renewal and chart the unknown. Her exciting and relevant output over the past 30 years has made her one of the most celebrated personalities in the contemporary art world. Her genre-crossing works, which cannot be associated with any one school, are free and uninhibited.
Olga Neuwirth came to fame at the Wiener Festwochen in 1991 with two short operas based on texts by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. Ever since she has had an resounding impact on artists of many fields, and been a role model for women composers. Her focus on intermediality, identity, gender, metamorphosis and social issues has allowed her to break with inner and outer conventions. Noteworthy here is that Olga Neuwirth has also always seen the necessity for art and science to interact, and so has often incorporated the natural sciences in her work and referenced what Alexander Luria called “romantic” science: for example, botany (in Lonicera caprifolium/1992-93), physics and geophysical data (in Kloing!/2008), neurology and brain studies (in Composer as mad scientist/2007) and acoustics (in Le Encantadas/2015).
Since the late 1980s, her sound world has fused live musicians, electronics and videos into uncategorizable audio-visual experiences that unfold swiftly to their own dynamics. Today her oeuvre comprises performances, installations, texts, speeches, photo series, radio- and screenplays, short films, orchestra scores, ensemble pieces, film music and music theater works. (2) She has worked not only with musicians such as Marino Formenti, Håkan Hardenberger, Nicolas Hodges, Antoine Tamestit, Robyn Schulkowsky and vocalists Georgette Dee, Jochen Kowalski, David Moss, Andrew Watts, but also writers and artists such as Paul Auster, Valie Export, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, Barry Gifford, Elfriede Jelinek, Andrew Patner, Michael Glawogger, David Lynch, and actors Anne Bennent, Josef Bierbichler, Marianne Hoppe and Hanna Schygulla. Neuwirth’s compositions have been performed in concert halls around the globe, and feature an open musical and socio-historical concept and style, laced with allusions. The Young Vic in London, Theater an der Wien, the Komische Oper Berlin, the Opéra Garnier in Paris, the Wiener Festwochen, the Berliner Festspielhaus, Miller Theater in New York, to mention only a few, have all hosted her music theater and opera projects. And Olga Neuwirth has never hesitated to speak out audaciously when a cultural and/or political issue needed a voice (e.g., see her thought-provoking speech outside the Vienna Opera House and at Carnegie Hall, both in 2000). (3) She also gave the opening speech at the “styrian autumn” festival in 2003, and spoke at the Salzburg Festival in 2006. (4)
Olga Neuwirth burst onto the music scene at the age of fifteen. It was the mid 1980s and contemporary classical music was still in the grips of purism. A spirited and inquisitive young woman who by nature had no intention of limiting herself, but was open to nearly everything. She focused on her own potential while resisting peer and societal pressures. From early childhood on, she had been exposed to a wide range of art forms and media, schools and movements due to her family’s love of the arts – be it music, literature, painting, architecture, film; artists of all kinds frequented their home. Little, if anything, was taboo. Her music, as the composer herself recently wrote, evolved from “the multi-voiced sound” of her fragmented origins and her desire for an “uninterrupted flow”. She sees herself as “an Austrian composer who feels ‘in a negative sense free’ to compose whatever she wants.” (5)
Having played the trumpet from the age of seven, Olga Neuwirth went on to study film, composition and painting in San Francisco, before attending the Academy of Music in Vienna. In these early years she was greatly influenced by Adriana Hölszky, Tristan Murail, Luigi Nono, Giacinto Scelsi and Edgar Varèse. She explored multiple perspectives and produced a multisensorial web of references by incorporating not only musical elements, but also components from daily life, and literature, science and film. Her works are voyages in time and space that sometimes cite the past (what she calls “spaces of memory”), while conjuring up the present. Snippets of different genres are woven into a fabric that draws listeners into a maelstrom of sensations, and fills the performance space with scintillating sounds, at times insightful, often surprising and bewildering, as well as amusing. Shaking people out of their complacency, her works are both biting and obliquely passionate in the tradition of a Karl Kraus, or Thomas Bernhard. Olga Neuwirth’s stance allows for the unpredictable without being arbitrary. Each instrument, voice, video, electronic device and movement in space is used with commitment; their employment, vital to their duty of conveying the music and content essential to the concept of her sound world.
Olga Neuwirth has also uniquely expanded the musical spectrum beyond classical categories to film and video, radio plays and cartoons, and so provided the music theater world with new and original impulses. Her music has been shaped by many influences from outside the world of contemporary composition and classical “high” culture: by, for example, the jazz of Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, the pop of Klaus Nomi, the rap of NWA. Listeners are immediately struck by the multiple layers, energy, and complexity of her new and authentic sound and, not least, by her humor.
Film and video have always been crucial to her work (as said, she first studied film). She has written scores for silent films by the Quay Brothers (1990) Vikking Eggling (2008) and Alfred Machin (2014); for the documentary Erik(a) by Kurt Mayer (2004); and the fictional features Das Vaterspiel by Michael Glawogger (2008) and Ich seh, Ich seh (2014) by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The cinematic approach developed by, for example, Bresson, Godard, Resnais and Marker has entered into Neuwirth’s understanding of what she calls “the dramaturgy of time in music”.
Today video opera and multimedia projects are more or less mainstream. However, when Neuwirth began investigating the intertwining of live performance and video and sound projection in the 1980s, acceptance was slight and resistance strong. She has depicted her use of video as a “suture” or “seam” that serves to underscore the “difference between the image of what is happening on stage and the absence of imagery (…) on screen – or vice-versa”. Yet, video is not just a device or decoration but an integrative element: three-dimensional spaces are produced via video screens and walls of gauze. She had imagined acoustic and visual “surround” experiences (Bählamms Fest/1993 and Construction in space/1999), before the first “dome theaters” were installed in planetariums and their creators boasted of “hemispheric surround projections”. Conceived for 24-channel surround sound and videos, she had from the start called these spatialized parts “sun domes” (e.g., in The Long Rain). Yet the capacity of computers was not yet enough to accommodate her ideas and so the visuals had often to be reduced to, for example, three synchronized videos.
In 1989 (at only 21), she carried out ground-breaking research on what she termed “media transfer” in !?dialogues suffisant?! In this virtual “duo”, a drummer who is sitting in a non-public area is transmitted visually and acoustically to loudspeakers and monitors in a public concert hall, where a cellist, seated on stage, is surrounded by nine video screens and loudspeakers. Not only is the cellist confronted with his double in the form of visual and acoustic pre-recordings of himself, but also with live transmissions of the drummer from the other room. The performance left audiences baffled, while challenging the concept of the duo in its conventional form.
Lonicera caprifolium (1992-3) draws on botany. The title refers to honeysuckle, a “rampant and choking plant”, as Neuwirth put it, that resolutely spreads through time and space. Here she diffuses eight channels of electronic sounds to surround the musicians, generating a virtual dome in which the instruments interact. The music has a deliberate roughness, leaving room for some improvisation, while integrating baroque instruments: recordings of two bass viols and theorbos contribute in quarter-tone tuning to electronic sounds.
A piece of different origin is torsion: transparent variation (2001) for bassoon and ensemble. The inspiration for this work was architecture: Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin before it opened. Neuwirth recorded the sound of its “voids” in order to be able to interrupt the flow of the music with these empty, quasi-silent spaces. As she herself remarked: “In the ‘structure’ of the museum, Libeskind refers to Arnold Schoenberg's Moses and Aron, especially to when Moses says: ‘O word, thou word that I lack.’ There have always been situations ... where speech is lost. What is left is the unspoken and the impossibility of calling to action.”
Literature also plays a prominent role. Inspiration has come from Gothic novels, Lovecraft’s works of fantasy, and surrealism; more specifically from Edward Lear, Bruno Schulz, Unica Zürn, William Burroughs, Robert Musil and Herman Melville; and, of course, from contemporary Austrian authors. An early piece titled Aufenthalt – “A Video Oratorio” (1992-93) is based on lyrics by Elfriede Jelinek. In these same two years, Neuwirth also took up the idea of life’s dizzying acceleration from Robert Altmann’s film Short Cuts and conceived her first full-length stage work: Bählamms Fest (1993/1997-1998), which did not premiere in Vienna until 1999, was an adaptation of an exceedingly surrealistic play by Leonora Carrington that she had written when German troops were invading France. Bählamms Fest revolves around the young and beautiful Theodora who, tormented by her husband and mother, tortures her stuff animals and falls in love with her werewolf brother-in-law, who enjoys ripping apart sheep. Without restraining herself to existing music idioms, Neuwirth focuses here on the utopian desire to overcome the indissoluble distance between life and death, past and present, and so creates an endlessly haunting stream of sounds – one that makes the question of whether her work is avant-garde or traditional immaterial. A pioneering feat and explosive political statement for the early 1990s!
Daringly, Neuwirth wrote the main role in Bählamms Fest for countertenor, which was not en vogue at the time. The piece uses video projection and video morphing, as well as low technology, such as the Theremin Vox (played live on stage by Lydia Kavina, Lev Theremin’s niece). It employs traditional instruments, such as a detuned and amplified viola d’amore. There is also an electric guitar, a glass harmonica, electronically modified glasses, toy instruments, synthesizers with different “trashy” sounds, as well as over-the-top samples for slapstick effects (for example, the sound of a shrimp being swallowed or the swatting of a fly). The latest live electronics are applied to three instruments and the female voice; there is the live morphing of the countertenor voice into a Polar wolf and a multi-layered spacialization of sound. This tale of horror, in which people are being killed in order to reappear, is so gory and absurd, dark and sardonic, the audience does not know whether to howl or scream. Neuwirth further confuses by blurring the distinction between natural and synthetic sounds (“one should not know what is real and what is fake”), and using camouflage, pastiche and masquerade. It is an amazing synthesis. As often, Neuwirth shows a different female perspective than is usual in operas: one that revolves around a woman who has suffered, but is not weak or hysterical. To the contrary, she does not go insane, but is determined to keep going. Both in content and its use of heterogeneous material and media, an extremely bold and visionary approach.
Another milestone was her adaptation of David Lynch’s film Lost Highway (2002-03) into a music theater piece with a libretto by Elfriede Jelinek based on Barry Gifford’s screenplay. Technically refined and sonically beguiling, this musical “distorting mirror” has been presented in Austria, Switzerland, England and the US. In an interview, Neuwirth said she had chosen this work because of how it dealt with narration as a non-progressive series of events, as well as the many inescapable time warps. The work dismantles “a voyeuristic view” and focuses on uncanny human voices as manifestation of the human soul. The role of the psychopathic Mr. Eddy, for example, even culminates in exaggerated live electronic modifications and loops that are projected via a complex Ambisonic surround system. The world that is created is illusive and baffling, insistent and troubling, nerve-racking and volatile. A unique work for the beginning of the 21st century!
Since Neuwirth has written some 100 works, it would go beyond the scope of this text to mention all of them. (6) Noteworthy here: Clinamen/Nodus, (1999), a piece for strings, two micro-detuned zithers and percussion composed for Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday tour. Nicholas Till in The Wire wrote: “In Neuwirth’s hands sounds bend and slither underfoot, shapes drift in and out of focus, structures turn dropsical and flaccid, dancing shards of icy star dust melt into sludge. Fierce and disturbing, spiked with Mahlerian moments of grotesque humor or echoes of lost childhood, Neuwirth’s music is nailed firmly to the unfinished project of critical modernism (…).” (7) Remarkable is also the already-mentioned 40-minute piece The Long Rain/Construction in Space (1999-2001) for four wind soloists, four instrumental groups and live electronics with surround sound and images. And then there is her trumpet concerto ...miramondo multiplo... from 2006, written for the Vienna Philharmonics, which she transformed – for the documenta 12 in Kassel – into a sound installation on the time-consuming act of writing a composition: with motion-capture camera and film, and texts by Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. (8)
In A Song-Play in Nine Fits (2009) Neuwirth expanded her song cycle Hommage à Klaus Nomi (Salzburg Festival /1998) to include four more songs. In tribute to her childhood hero Klaus Nomi, whose “ephemeral voice” and “robotic appearance” she has always adored, the composer compiled and arranged these nine songs for countertenor and a small ensemble into a 60-minute music theater work. (9)
Kloing! (2007), another major work, opens with a documentary clip about the famous Welte Mignon Piano and its workings. A Bösendorfer CEUS computer-controlled grand piano is situated center stage. The CEUS piano plays audified seismic data from a geodynamic pendulum at the Grotta Gigante in Trieste. The flow of music is interspersed with short video sequences and cartoons of virtuously performed classical scores. The live pianist, who is accompanied by a live video of himself, struggles to overcome the “mapped” flow of scientific data on the instrument whose keys appear to swell and surge like a tsunami. This existential battle between man and machine unfolds at a furious speed right in front of the audiences’ eyes.
In the last years, Neuwirth has completed two large and ambitious music theater projects. The first was The Outcast (2009-2011) - a “musicstallation” theater with video, based on a libretto by Barry Gifford and Olga Neuwirth that incorporated monologues by Anna Mitgutsch and texts by Edward Lear. It is a complex, montaged homage to Herman Melville that draws on the tragic life of the author and his masterpiece Moby Dick. It premiered in Germany in 2012.
Conceived before Barack Obama was inaugurated, American Lulu (2006-2011) was inspired by blaxploitation movies and discrimination against African-Americans. An interest that the composer developed when she was eighteen and lived in the US for a year. But it was the singer Billie Holiday that was the actual starting point: this independent, single-minded African-American woman with her idiosyncratic style. No amount of hostility could sway her to depart from her path. American Lulu was ultimately performed at the Komische Oper in Berlin (2012), at the Bregenz Festival (2013), and the Theater an der Wien (2014). A further production ran at the Edinburgh Festival and the Young Vic in London (both 2013). Neuwirth describes the process of re-interpreting Alban Berg’s Lulu as one of forgetting and over-layering, while still honoring the original score. Set in 1950s New Orleans and 1970s New York, against the civil rights movement, the vulnerability of women, independent of race, is at the heart of this work. Other central topics are how power and authority manifest themselves, and the choice one has between collaboration and resistance. Opening with a burst of sound in which an electric guitar and the brass section are central, Neuwirth’s re-orchestration – despite half the number of strings – is seamless. Sample recordings of a Wonder Morton organ, a calliope and texts by June Jordan and Martin Luther King reinforce the atmosphere of this era in the US. A poignant work that is, as recent events have shown, still sadly topical.
Neuwirth is now working on a 70-minute piece titled Le Encantadas, for which the “preservation of acoustic heritage”, as she calls it, is the point of departure. With the assistance of scientists, she has “captured” the phenomenal acoustics of the permanently closed Church of San Lorenzo in Venice. An impulse-response system was used to map its acoustics. With this data it should be possible to reactivate the acoustics of this church at any other location.
Another major commission is for an opera based on Orlando by Virginia Woolf for the Vienna State Opera, scheduled to premiere with a libretto by Catherine Filloux in 2019. Once again, the themes are Neuwirthian in nature. As the composer stated during a recent press conference: “Ever since I was a child I have been interested in everything, from arts to politics, from the sciences to human psychology. Passionate towards everything, I let myself be inspired in the same way by the small and big things that the world has to offer, by the wonderful diversity of life, and that is something that I see reflected in Orlando. (…) Virginia Woolf questioned the roles of man and woman, the status of women in society and their approach to literature.” (10)
Olga Neuwirth is still young for her huge oeuvre. Yet in the past 100 years, few male composers and even fewer woman composers have been as prolific and versatile, as was acknowledged in 2010 when she received the Austrian Grand National Award – the youngest recipient and the first woman ever in the category of music. She has created a seminal oeuvre of unique dimensions that has expanded the conception of music itself. For she has always taken pop music, jazz and rap as seriously as classical music and operas. Her works are often daringly experimental, but by no means haphazard or casually arranged.
Thrilling and ingenious, Neuwirth’s works are musically innovative, socially and politically critical and ethically earnest. They are an expression of her convictions and her finely honed sense of justice, capturing almost every conceivable genre and mood: from light to dark, brutal to tender, tragic to comic, real to imagined, social to existential. Olga Neuwirth has at times risked being ostracized by the music world and society in general for what she believes. Yet she does not let this discourage her, but pushes herself to step outside her comfort zone and cut across categories to embrace people and affinities of every imaginable race, age and gender.
(Catherine Saxon-Kerkhoff, Berlin 2015)
(1) Tom Service, “A guide to Olga Neuwirth’s music”, in: The Guardian, Aug. 7, 2012: http://www.theguardian.com/
(2) See: Olga Neuwirth: Zwischen den Stühlen – A Twilight-Song auf der Suche nach dem fernen Klang, 2008. Stefan Drees and Olga Neuwirth (eds.) - occasioned by the artist’s 40th birthday. The publication covers 20 years of Neuwirth’s music and ideas in photos, texts and CD; also see: http://www.olganeuwirth.com
(3) “I Won’t be Yodelled Out of Existence”: http://www.olganeuwirth.com
(4) See: Olga Neuwirth: Zwischen den Stühlen, 2008, pp. 195-201 and pp. 292-297 respectively
(5) See: “Vom Schaukeln der Dinge im Strom der Zeit”: http://www.ricordi.de/
(6) For a comprehensive list, see: http://www.olganeuwirth.com/
(7) Nicholas Till, The Wire, Nov. 27, 2003
(8) For more details, see: http://www.olganeuwirth.com/ and Olga Neuwirth: Zwischen den Stühlen, 2008
(9) Ibid., pp. 171-72
(10) See: http://www.wiener-staatsoper.at/
Harald Schlierhofer (January 2014)
An Essay on Olga Neuwirth and Her Oeuvre Since the Late 1980s
Olga Neuwirth is an audacious composer of great creative powers, but most importantly she never hesitates to take on contemporary issues (see f.e. the speech she held in front of the Vienna State Opera entitled “I won’t be yodelled out of existence”, a heartfelt attack on the social and cultural policies of Jorg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party when it came to power in 2000.). Her works defy categorization yet do not evolve in isolation. They draw on a rich range of textures, genres, and instrumentations. Through her operas, compositions for large ensembles with and without electronics and video, and a wide array of collaborations with cutting-edge artists since the 1990s, such as Elfriede Jelinek, Paul Auster, Michael Glawogger, Valie Export, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, David Lynch, Barry Gifford, and actors such as Josef Bierbichler, Marianne Hoppe and Anne Bennent, she has had a strong and extraordinary impact on the musical and intellectual life of her generation.
Olga Neuwirth’s relation to the animal, unknown, lost childhood, memory, as well as her fondness for numbers has always been central to her art. The topics she has dealt with are often both political and existential. For her composing is about what lies behind the notes.
As a composer she has frequently transcended national boundaries. In her eyes “musical resiliency” is only possible if she has a large repertoire of differentiated knowledge, a variety of skills, and effective behaviors at her disposal. Thus from the start she decided not to rely on homogeneity in her compositions but on diversity and heterogeneity – a quality for which she was criticized in the 1990s.
By the late 1980s, Olga Neuwirth was integrating electroacoustic and visual media into her compositions so as to create a music and, more specifically, a type of music theater that was in no way a “codified genre, with its specific modes of operation”.
From the outset she was unreservedly engaged in “the Other”. She opened herself up and “expended” herself and her music on literature, architecture, comics, science fiction and film. Live performers were positioned, for instance, within films and video projections in order to redefine the boundaries of theater. In !?dialogues suffisant?! from 1989, audio and visual pre-recordings comment on each other in live performances and filmed sequences. Pre-produced material elusively interplays with live visuals and live music in a three-dimensional Vexierspiel.
In the 1990s, Olga Neuwirth was ahead of the times with such ideas. She literally sensed the possibilities of and need for (contemporary classical) music today.
Neuwirth first studied film and painting in San Francisco in 1986/87. Her extensive knowledge of cinema gave her music a fresh and personal touch. She imagined sounds in pictures and so created a music that was essentially dramatic in structure and length. As she said in 1993, while composing Bählamms Fest (Baa Lamb’s Feast): “My music theater pieces shouldn’t exceed the standard 90 minutes of a film.” With surreal texts, video and electronically-filtered singers, who are integrated into the ensemble, she could forgo what classically takes place on stage.
It should be noted that when it comes to literature, playful linguistic components – from largely contemporary literature – have often prompted Neuwirth’s compositions. In the early years, she was inspired by Gothic novels in general and Lovecraft’s works of fantasy in particular (she titled her first piece for orchestra Cthulhu-Ludium), or by the “mythologization of reality” of that assiduous seeker, Bruno Schulz, whom she discovered through the Brothers Quay in 1987. Moreover, she has been influenced by surrealistic plays, as reflected in her exploration of Leonora Carrington’s work. She has drawn on the grotesque, Dadaism and nonsense literature, such as found in Edward Lear texts. Austrian contemporary literature, often marked by radical puns and malapropisms, has also always played a major role in her works – as evident in her long-standing collaboration with Austrian Nobel Prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek.
In 1989, she dedicated a solo piece for cello to the writer Unica Zürn, who obsessively looked behind words (ultimately Neuwirth retracted the piece). She was greatly fascinated by Georges Perec, which in 1993 led to a composition for two countertenors and a small ensemble using excerpts from La Vie mode d'emploi, and in 1996 to a radio play based on W ou le souvenir d'enfance. She was also captivated by Daniil Charms, whose texts she used in the late 1980s as bases for “scenic” or “semi-scenic” pieces.
From the outset, integrating “unusual” instruments into a classical ensemble or even into an orchestra was a crucial component in her compositions. (In 1994, an Austrian orchestra refused to continue rehearsing, and got up and left the room, because Neuwirth used – alongside two Ondes Martenots – computer-generated sounds as “acoustic doppelgängers” of the orchestra, which were to make it impossible for listeners and even the musicians themselves to figure out “who is who”.) She employed this approach to find her own “ferner Klang” (“distant sound”). For instance, there were two amplified zithers tuned a quarter tone apart and a Hawaiian guitar in Clinamen/Nodus (1999), a piece for orchestra composed for Boulez’s birthday tour with the London Symphony Orchestra. Or a “mistuned” viola d’amore and viola da gamba, Theremin Vox, electric guitar as well as toy instruments, and amplified and electronically-transformed glasses in Bählamms Fest (1992-1998). And the use of an electric bow on a piano in Quasare/Pulsare (1994) and on a cello in a composition for string quartet (1994). Not to mention the diverse microtonally detuned baroque instruments she used on the eight-track tape in Lonicera Caprifolium (1993).
Olga Neuwirth has been inspired by Anglo-American sub and high culture. In her works, she has drawn on Melville, Hawthorne, Brautigan, Burroughs, Lynch, but also on, for example, the TV series Columbo with Peter Falk. Since childhood, she has been a fan of pop and jazz music, which is why, along with the trumpet, the electric guitar has been her favorite instrument since the 1990s.
She has often cited material from different periods of music history and made it her own. An approach for which she was harshly criticized in the 1990s for being “too playful and eclectic” (an inconceivable accusation today). Take, for instance, her tribute to pop bard Klaus Nomi in her Hommage à Klaus Nomi, composed for the Salzburg Festival in 1998. She was only able to realize these songs with the fearless support of Betty Freeman, because at the time they were not to the taste of the festival’s musical director. He also disliked her Aktionen für Umbauten (Actions for Set Changes), conceived for the rather long breaks when the stage was being set up again for the next piece. Text inserts were written especially for the occasion by Elfriede Jelinek. They were enlarged on a screen and designed to prompt reactions from the audience while they were forced to wait. Neuwirth decided to fill these breaks using mechanical-childlike sounds. On the first evening, wind-up toys were “let loose” on an amplified metal plate. Their different rhythms and sounds were projected into space and filmed lived. In the second concert, the preparations of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes were amplified, and the hammers and preparation filmed live as Markus Hinterhäuser performed them.
In 2007, it was also Betty Freeman who made it possible for Olga Neuwirth to realize Kloing! (conceived in 2006) in which a computer-controlled Bösendorfer grand piano, a live pianist and live video interact. There is a bizarre mix of cartoons (a tribute to the Hanna-Barbera animated films that Neuwirth loved in her childhood), Welte-Mignon piano rolls, a computer-controlled grand piano that had been fed with scientific earthquake data, and pre-recorded etudes in the style of the in/famous piano etudes of the Viennese music educator Czerny.
Comics and animated works are among Neuwirth’s favorites: in 1989, she made a one-minute animated film with her sister Flora Neuwirth (a visual artist and sculptress) that was based on a short story by Leonora Carrington. Its production – in those days with half-baked computer programs – was very time-consuming. In this short animated film (with music by Olga Neuwirth) the parts enter in stretto for 16 minutes on 16 video screens in the style of a rigid musical canon – until the audience is simply overwhelmed by both the music and film (and the live musicians who are distributed around the hall and the gallery). For this performance, Olga Neuwirth dressed herself as Daniil Charms, albeit with a pink suit and a hand-printed tie, and socks with motifs from their cartoonish film. From the start she envisioned Bählamms Fest (first conceived in 1992, but cancelled several times) as An Animation Opera with live singers who move in a space defined by projections and screens. Neuwirth had no fear of the rapidly disintegrating line between technology and the classical music world, in fact, she deliberately wanted to bring them together. For the early 1990s, this approach was perhaps somewhat too visionary or hardly technically imaginable.
Neuwirth’s exploration of the Brother Quay’s animated films (which began in 1986, during her studies in San Francisco) was also central. They met and a lively correspondence ensued. In 1993, the brothers asked her to write music for a Coca Cola commercial. However, when those responsible at Coca Cola heard her music, they were appalled and claimed that her music was “harmful to the youth of America”. Coca Cola used Vivaldi’s Four Seasons instead. The Brothers Quay eventually used her rejected composition (for toy guitar, guitar and harpsichord) for their short film The Calligrapher.
In the new millennium, Olga Neuwirth began shifting her focus more towards sound installations. In 2005, in a large-scale installation at Place Igor Stravinsky and the Tinguely Fountain, she referenced this lively square, as well as its architectonic structure, between the Church of Saint Merri, street cafes and IRCAM. She linked the square, as a place of constant comings and goings, partings and reunitings, to the general bustle of life in Paris.
And yet for Neuwirth the installation was about approximating Eisler’s aesthetics of “displaced form”. Via a motion capture camera, installed on the roof of IRCAM, more and more noises were transmitted into the space as people flocked into the square. Eventually these noises drowned out the sophisticated electronic sounds and “field recordings” of the installation. A variety of acoustic material was used to enact, for instance, life’s journey, the experience of separation, surveillance and expulsion. A technique that Neuwirth also applied in her sound installation at the documenta in Kassel in 2007, in which she used texts by Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. Again everything revolved around these same themes. Albeit this time not in an urban space but an exhibition hall: the more people entered the room, the more the “sensitivity and individuality of Arendt and Benjamin were trodden, so to speak, by ‘noisy sounds’”.
Olga Neuwirth has always taken space and architecture into account as a key component of sound production. They have even prompted a number of projects. The acoustic conditions of sounds moving in space or of artificially produced spatial sounds became a personal field of study and research. In 1999 the entire concert hall at the Sophiensäle in Vienna was made, for instance, to resonate while the audience was entering, before the music theater Bählamms Fest began. Then a single actor appeared on stage and opened the piece in a kind of slapstick skit to exaggerated noises, such as the chewing and loud gulping of a prawn or the swatting of a fly.
Architecture and space not only play a significant role in Bählamms Fest (An Animation Opera) but also and to a varying extent in Aufenthalt, (A Video Oratorio) from 1992 and Pallas/Construction from 1996. They feature in Construction in Space/Long Rain (a four-channel surround video opera written in 1998/99), in which Neuwirth brilliantly and creatively plays with space. Space is also central to ...ce qui arrive..., where it becomes a site of memories; and again in 2005, in a unrealized project with Greg Lynn that would have referenced his concept of “animated form”. In one of her most recent pieces, titled Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie, the acoustics and construction of the space of a Venetian church (Neuwirth lived for several years in Venice in the 1990s) are the point of departure for the composition.
Architecture and space are also essential to the diversified dramaturgy of Lonicera Caprifolium from 1993. This work involves a rampant, explosive space within the ensemble, one that lies in sharp contrast to the space outside of it, in which two theorbos and two violas da gambas, tuned a quarter tone apart, as well as electronic sounds are heard on an eight-track tape. They are transmitted via eight loudspeakers that have been set up to form a dome above the ensemble. As a result the musicians sitting beneath them are swathed in a very specific acoustic space.
As of the late 1980s, Neuwirth was one of the first of her generation to innovatively incorporate comics, slapstick, cartoons, theater radio plays, and song into the genre of music theater. She did so in two works, both of which she called “Handtelleropern”. They were, so to speak, “operas that were small enough to fit into the palm of your hand”, an approach also applied to Leonora Carrington’s surreal and grotesque, political story “Baa-Lamb's Holiday”, which also focused on the consequences of the Shoah. The visionary idea of trying to “attain musical resilience” (Neuwirth) through the diversity and heterogeneity of the musical material, through greatly contrasting singers and an “odd” combination of instruments, including toy instruments, was hardly appreciated at the time. It took another fifteen or twenty years before exactly this mix of elements, which also incorporated electronics and video, became mainstream in the compositions of what is now known as “contemporary music”.
Neuwirth conceived Bählamms Fest in 1992 and it was to premiere at the Munich Biennial in 1994. However after reading Elfriede Jelinek’s libretto and hearing Neuwirth’s ideas for the music and staging, the festival director rejected it. Bählamms Fest explores the aspect of coldness (snow, ice, winter) that is connected with being pulled into the abyss of one’s inner being, as well as the horrors of war and persecution in the outer world. A family, isolated in a house under masses of snow, caught in the passivity of a long sleep. In the end the family members violently destroy each other.
This “black comedy” asks whether it is madness, delusion, human or animal instinct that gets us through extremely precarious moments. It examines where we should draw the line between what is evil, human and/or animal.
It took until 1999 for this unusual music theater piece to have its premiere at the Wiener Festwochen.
Had its being rejected by the Munich Biennial been an omen for the rejection of other topics? Topics that Neuwirth planned to take up in collaboration with Jelinek? Had the two artists been too early in proposing their critical ideas, musical concepts and scenic approach? Whatever the reason, they encountered antagonism and a lack of understanding almost everywhere.
The two aforementioned satirical “Handteller” operas, the one based on a radio play and the other on a mini-drama by Elfriede Jelinek, were initially canceled (in 1990). They finally premiered at the Wiener Festwochen the following year. Alongside the unusual constellations of characters, electronics (e.g., the live, electronically modified sound of a Coca Cola can being scrunched) and toy instruments were used in these bizarrely whimsical operas.
For artists Neuwirth and Jelinek, the rare team of a female composer and a female librettist, it was once again acutely sobering when the Salzburg Festival cancelled their commission for Jelinek’s libretto Der Fall Hans W (2002) after it had been completed.
In this piece, written especially for the Salzburg Festival, Jelinek paraphrases Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Der Fall Hans W was then to be performed at the Vienna State Opera. But in the end it was rejected there, too – as also at other European opera houses. Presumably the topic of violence in the family, and in particular the highly taboo political and social issue of child abuse, caused displeasure. The actual reason for rejecting the piece was, however, never given.
It is a great pity that Neuwirth’s ground-breaking works were admired on some levels but not taken seriously on many others. Pushing limits to the extreme, their extraordinary, radical and innovative nature was disqualified or, at best, relativized. In the period between 1990 and 2003, Neuwirth had apparently overstepped the “boundaries of what was considered acceptable” in the “classical music world”. And this was the case even though all she was trying to do was to introduce new topics and ideas into the hermetic new music world. Today Neuwirth smiles a bit and cites Valeska Gert: “I burst into all that mellifluence like a bomb.”
As already mentioned, Olga Neuwirth began interweaving different medias and visual layers into her compositions in the 1990s. In this approach, for which she was belittled at the time, singers and musicians entered in all sorts of ways into dialogue with live and pre-recorded material. In 1992, this blurring of the distinction between natural and synthetic sounds, and the resulting confusion in their perception culminated in the Bählamms Fest music theater project.
From the outset the project led straight to one of Neuwirth’s main themes, namely the never-ending topic of identity – one’s own identity and one’s counterpart’s. It also addressed the difficulties of communication between the self and the outside world that confront the individual in bizarre and surprising forms. This is the case in Bählamms Fest, but also in Lost Highway based on David Lynch’s film of the same name, and The Outcast - Homage to Herman Melville. The latter is a scenic work that Olga Neuwirth calls “A musicstallation theater with video” – as it is simultaneously a multimedia opera and conceptual art installation.
Through the figure of Old Melville, who suffered his entire life from a sense of “existential homelessness”, she examines, as if under a microscope, how a compact and apparently rational reality can collapse and reveal madness.
In speaking of the two “Handteller” operas from 1989/90, Neuwirth says that instead of a psychological illumination of a rather tragic constellation of characters, the audience is pulled into a maelstrom of untimely events. Adapted from two of Elfriede Jelinek texts, Körperliche Veränderungen and Der Wald, and explicitly conceived by Neuwirth as a kind of acoustic comics, she depicts the characters in these operas as “cut-outs, who in a Kafkaesque way become entangled in an ever more bizarre and nightmarish sequence of unexpected twists and turns”. She describes her vision in the essay “Überlegungsfragmente zu einem Musiktheater” (“Fragmentary Thoughts on a Music Theater” / 1994). This text and the interview “Surrealismus und aufgebrochenes Musiktheater” (“Surrealism and Fractured Music Theater”) can be found in the book: Olga Neuwirth – Zwischen den Stühlen (ed. Stefan Drees, 2008).
In Bählamms Fest, the leading character Theodora’s love for and attachment to an animal, a white wolf, did not for Neuwirth have anything to do with the fact that we humans still have something wild and savage, but rather that we should not hold our thoughts above our feelings, for the latter are the basis of everything. The realization that humans do not always act humanely, that a “cold exterior causes otherness to collapse, plunges the protagonist into a state of inner catastrophe, and yet it does not make her give up”. Neuwirth has always also been about showing that she has a different, female perspective on opera characters. As she herself states: “Theodora has been deserted, but she may still be able to learn from the pain that she has experienced. She does not go mad, for madness is the non-place conceded to women and is, for the most part, the only place left open for them, a place of illusory hopes.” A viewpoint recently put forward by New York Times critic Allan Kozinn: “Have you ever wondered whether female characters in opera would be less likely to go mad, struggle with horrible diseases (consumption, usually) or be murdered by their former lovers if the works were composed by women?”
Yes, indeed. And this is why Neuwirth’s protagonist Theodora does not go mad (not even in 1992), as is usually the case in an operatic work, but finds her own path.
American Lulu (2006-2012), Olga Neuwirth’s bold reinterpretation of Alban Berg’s Lulu, with the indomitable blues singer Eleanor, was also dismissed without much ado. The idea of relocating the piece to New Orleans and New York City, of putting it in a new social context, namely in the USA of the 1950s and 1970s, and setting it against the backdrop of the civil rights and counterculture movements, is a courageous one for music theater, as is a political statement from an artist on current political issues. Yet little effort was made to understand what Neuwirth was attempting to do musically or in content.
At the heart of this work was a topic that Neuwirth has explored in all of her music theater pieces: how authority and power manifest themselves, and the choice we all have between collaboration and resistance.
A more sensitive and minimalistic visualization of the “narrative thread” underlying the music would have enhanced American Lulu. The piece would have benefited from powerful but sparingly furnished settings that leave the story room to unfold.
Neuwirth’s statement in the American Lulu program brochure could also be applied to herself: “I would like to think people have the option of self-determination, even if this path is more strenuous ... Eleanor struggles for freedom and treads a difficult but self-determined path. She confidently searches for her own form of expression, her own identity.”
Olga Neuwirth initiated Parallelaktion, which drew on Robert Musil’s novel Man Without Qualities, for Der Don Giovanni Komplex (a play commissioned from Austrian writer Erwin Riess for the “Mozart Year 2006” and not, as often claimed, an opera commissioned from Olga Neuwirth). But since she was asked to “quickly write an opera for this text by Reiss”, she decided to show just how long the process of putting a score to paper takes, i.e., the actual time required to jot down all the notes when composing for an orchestra. Parallelaktion was an ardent and astute statement on the grueling process involved in producing a composition. In fact, Olga Neuwirth went so far as to assert in a newspaper article, during the rather frenzied year of celebrations, that Mozart had, as she saw it, died from exhaustion.
So with Parallelaktion, she wanted to focus on the fact that Mozart had been commissioned to compose such huge amounts that he had been exploited just by having to put it all to paper. The act of writing (that is, the discrepancy between the time it takes to jot down every little detail and what is actually heard later) is a topic that she later addresses even more intensively in her film for the documenta 2007 in Kassel.
In Parallelaktion, Olga Neuwirth stood on stage wearing both a costume and wig for the duration of the play and wrote down Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni on a table top amplified with pickups. Hence the scratching of the pencil could be heard exaggeratedly loud. She wanted to show how far a person could get if he or she stood on stage for the same amount of time each day and copied a score (7 days in all) – as a mere copyist, without even trying to create anything original. By making the inner mechanics outwardly apparent in this “action” or, at the very least, suggesting them, she becomes the caretaker and archivist of the act of writing.
Composers who write by hand are often meticulous artisans who structure everything with great precision. They are the “last of their kind” and in the electronic age are doomed to disappear forever, because in a “society obsessed with self-optimization” there is no way for them to keep up with the pace of things. Moreover, what was essential to the life of these artists is rapidly vanishing. Remote signs are all that remain of a profession once taken seriously. In an age when the wheel of exploitation turns ever faster, composers or, rather, artists in general are damned to circumstances that are prohibitive to creativity. At best such individuals live out their lives as copyists; and at worst, as copies. Without being maudlin, Neuwirth draws on the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville, an author for whom she has the highest regard. She quotes Bartleby’s famous refusal “I would prefer not to”, and his claim “I know where I am”: what matters is to assert one’s position without explaining or justifying anything.
At all times Olga Neuwirth strives to touch things in their essence. Her efforts may suddenly reach such depths, that the audience forgets for a moment to clap when the curtain falls – as was the case at the premiere of Lost Highway in 2003. People were left breathless by the magmatic energy of the (acoustic) tale they had just heard. Neuwirth takes people to the depths of their souls – that is, if they are willing to let themselves be drawn into a work’s many complex, interacting layers.
Since her first music theater projects, she has asked herself: “What is real and what is unreal?” In so doing, she initiates a fascinating game of perception: the door behind the door behind the door. Reminiscent of Kafka, yet instead of locking herself in as he did, Neuwirth lets us in, or so it seems. For her the point is to create a maelstrom of events by questioning identity. And this is done by means of animation and film, live singers and musicians, pre-recorded music and vocals, samples and live electronics, baroque instruments and electric guitars, and even the Theremin Vox.
Neuwirth speaks (musically) of matters that we feel to the core, but of which we are incapable or afraid of articulating. It is as if she were able to probe into the most hidden corners of our minds. In her work Bählamms Fest, for instance, the soul which is exposed belongs to just one woman, Theodora, but in it we can discover the entire range of human experience.
Today video operas or multimedia works are held in high esteem. Olga Neuwirth explored these media early on, in both installations and music theater pieces. One such example is !?dialogues suffisant?! - A media transfer from 1989. In this “duo”, a percussionist – who is sitting in a second (private) room is transmitted visually and acoustically via “media transfer” to loudspeakers and video monitors in the performance space (a public concert hall – a non-private space) of the cellist, who is surrounded by nine video monitors on stage. The cellist is not only confronted with visual and acoustic pre-recordings of himself as his own doppelgänger, but also with live transmissions of the drummer from the other room. Only via this “media transfer” does this “artificial duo” come into being, although due to the pre-recorded sounds of the percussion instruments and the cello that come from the loudspeakers, the entire performance has a certain acoustic ambiguity. Hence this work questions this genre of duo, so rich in tradition. A similar constellation is crucial to the Canon of Funny Phases for sixteen video monitors and four live musicians distributed around the space, as well as to Jardin désert – Portrait einer Komposition als junger Affe II.
If you trust Olga Neuwirth’s world (musically and in content), wonderful acoustic tales and images unfold in front of you. As a child, in the rough Austrian countryside, she had attempted to use similar means to comfort her peers and motivate them not to give up.
One of her mottos appears to involve the constant search for the space behind sounds. Her vitality derives from her writing like someone who is so uncompromisingly close to the wild beatings of her heart that she never fails to address what is specifically hers.
What today is “state of the art” and can be heard (and seen) just about everywhere, Olga Neuwirth had deliberately contemplated and realized twenty years ago. And yet she has rarely been recognized as a pioneer. Perhaps this is because her projects navigated “unchartered waters” in the late 1980s and 1990s, when using digital media as she did was not self-evident in the “classical music world”. Or perhaps it was because it was not for a woman to bring innovation to this rather chauvinistic classical (new) music industry?
In any case, Olga Neuwirth has consistently continued developing, while uncompromisingly seeking out topics that interested her. As she has often emphasized, this also results from her striving not to repeat herself. Like the mythical salamander, she would like to believe that there is the need through “the format of art” to arrive at “things” that apparently do not exist yet, and at events never before experienced. Nonetheless: an attempt must be made to articulate them.
All the same, she does not rework heterogeneous material into slap-bang musical compositions. Rather her projects have been accompanied, for more than twenty years now, by moments of hesitation, introspection and even defiance. Yet this attitude is oddly paired with a remarkable determination. Even if not always apparent at first glance – an absoluteness pervades her works.
No matter how strange it may sound, her music conveys a multi-voicedness that is literally teeming with voices, and an almost inaudible but peculiarly present “basso continuo”.
And although Neuwirth’s music flows through space, in many ways it forms a very plastic acoustic sculpture. The sounds she produces are always marked by light and darkness, as well as a great richness of colors.
Her music is polyphonic in the sense that it occurs simultaneously on many acoustic levels, all of which need to be balanced with one another. Only occasionally, in a few rare passages, does Neuwirth generate – abruptly and repetitively, though fleetingly – an enchantingly “beautiful” sound graced with clear and free-floating harmonies. Her early compositions (like Bählamms Fest and Lost Highway) investigated the violence of interior and exterior battles, as well as her own personal inner struggles. In the last seven years she has come to embrace more stillness, celebrating sound in and of itself. Her works today often celebrate a mellow flow of timbre and color in space. Since 2008, her compositions have repeatedly investigated a listening experience that unfolds more gradually. She wrote pieces, such as un posto nell’ acqua – Melville-Skizze (2009), in which a sense of gravity and weight seem to be suspended in an imaginary water-filled concert room. Here the ear has the time and space to become lost in an unpredictable soundscape.
Neuwirth has often used camouflage, pastiche and masquerade in her works to question identity, to analyze societal structures and human strategies for living and surviving, as well as to examine power relations, systems of dependency and the interplay of perpetrator and victim.
In general Neuwirth’s works display an extremely high concentration of symbolic ideas revolving around human existence. Yet in a time when positioning oneself strategically has become almost the most important criterion, she cleverly removes herself from constantly having to seek the “right” position. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that in the early 1990s, she was one of the few who combated and dispelled the fatigue of “contemporary classical music”. As a vibrant and perceptive spirit she was always a step ahead of the logics behind the utilization of her works that could and would only gradually adjust themselves to her.
For someone who is as relentlessly self-critical of herself as Olga Neuwirth, the point has never been to create a body of works governed by one central perspective but by multiple perspectives. Her oeuvre includes radio plays, performances, texts, photo series, screenplays, short films, installations, performances, orchestra and music theater works, film scores and ensemble pieces – and often they include electronics and video. Her own position has been both a stumbling block and an opportunity. Neuwirth’s (apparent or real) decisiveness has a dreamlike, uncanny, ambivalent quality that leaves room for the coincidental and unknown. And exactly this is what defines her and her music.