olga neuwirth
About Olga Neuwirth
by Peter Laki/Cleveland January 2004

On February 19, 2000, a 32-year-old Austrian composer named Olga Neuwirth stood in front of the Vienna State Opera and addressed the participants of a mass demonstration against Jörg Haider's far-right organization, the FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party). A crowd of more than a 100,000 (perhaps as many as 250,000) were protesting the party's inclusion in the new coalition government. "I Won't Be Yodelled Out of Existence," Neuwirth told the crowd in response to the recent abolition of both the Ministry of Women and the Ministry of the Arts. "Doubly affronted," she affirmed the responsibility of artists to "point to things that have become petrified, and make visible the desolate state of society and politics." (Two and a half years after this demonstration, at the elections held in November 2002, the Freedom Party lost two-thirds of its seats in the Austrian parliament.)

Since the earliest days of her meteoric career, Neuwirth has been an "angry young woman" of new music, for whom, as she herself said in her address, "the meaning of music can't be a matter of soothing people." Rather, "I would like my listeners to be people who consciously think things over, who think for themselves, who regard music and art as a whole as a mirror of human searching, of people who want to grasp how things are, to cast off impositions, and to leap into the unknown – and thus become more open and tolerant towards their surroundings."

Such ambitious goals are not reached by complying with conventional expectations. At a time when many of her contemporaries return to tonality or cultivate tangible links with a classical past, Neuwirth presses relentlessly forward. Her music "seethes," says one critic; it is "frenetic to the edge of absurdity" according to another. She goes to the extremes, because she has a strong and uncompromising message to deliver. Her musical technique can only be described as "cutting edge"; she studied electronic music with Tristan Murail in Paris, and that experience is crucial even in her works for acoustic instruments. Having learned in the electronic studio how to raise or lower frequencies by the smallest increments, Neuwirth applies the same principle in locus doublure solus where she directs the conventional instruments of the orchestra to be tuned in a novel way: the six violas have to make their strings 60 cents higher than normal, while the electric piano and celesta have to be tuned 60 cents lower. (The "cent" system divides each half-step into 100 cents, allowing for the minutest modifications of the pitch. 60 cents is, then, equivalent to a little more than a quarter-tone.) The combination of normal and altered pitches results in an unusual "floating" sensation during much of the work. Our conventional sense of pitch is constantly undermined; and even though non-musicians will not always consciously perceive such micro-modifications, the destabilization of the tonal system will certainly be felt at least subconsciously.

Among the other unusual features of the score, we might mention the so-called "e-bows," devices imported from the rock-guitar world that produce an unusual, overtone-free sound when placed on the strings of the piano in the fourth movement.

The work is in seven interconnected movements. In the first, heavy woodwind chords are combined with dense piano clusters. The second movement is like a whistling, rattling and pulsating machine that, however, doesn't keep time mechanically as one might expect a machine to do; sudden metric and textural changes and other irregularities keep musicians – and listeners – on the edge of their seats. Movement 3, by contrast, projects an image of fluidity; the glissandos on the harmonicas and the rapid scales of the woodwind provide a luminous background for the solo piano's virtuosic figurations.
The fourth movement is like a frozen landscape. The woodwinds and strings (using harmonics) play long-held chords, always staggering the moments when they move from one note to the next. The bowed cymbals and vibraphone further contribute to the eerie, otherworldly sound. The piano's role is largely restricted to interjecting short chords at irregular intervals. This central movement – the longest of the seven – is framed by a single measure of equal eighth-notes at the beginning and at the end. Next we hear a grotesquely distorted march with a steady beat over which, however, surprising things may happen. By the end of the movement, even that steady beat disintegrates, and the last sound we hear is a lonely, plaintive high "a" scored for trumpet and the shrill E-flat clarinet. The sixth movement begins like the first, with the same heavy, stamping chords. But the piano part is more playful, with greater freedom and more variety in the juxtaposition of the different instrumental sounds. The freedom becomes total with a passage where coordination among the instruments is temporarily suspended. All the simultaneous glissandos, crescendos and decrescendos of the individual players coalesce into a moment of stasis, interrupted by a piano cadenza with occasional interjections from the celesta. A short postlude with a repetitive, rhythmical motive closes this movement.

Finally, there is a brief epilog, recapitulating some of the earlier materials and ending the work with a massive harmonic buildup over a long pedal-tone in the basses.

A word about the work's unusual title. The first and last words form the title of a novel, Locus solus, by the French writer Raymond Roussel (1877-1933); La doublure is another novel, in the form of a long poem, by the same eccentric and enigmatic author. The first of these novels is essentially a meticulous description of curious historical objects collected by M. Canterel, a rich bachelor who lives in a mysterious old villa – a locus solus, or a "singular place." Each object is connected to a fantastic old story or legend – and the book becomes, in the words of one commentator, a veritable "verbal labyrinth," corresponding to the spatial labyrinth through which the visitors of the villa have to pass. La Doublure ("The Doubling") describes, with equal fastidiousness, a carnival which serves as a backdrop for the miserable life of the main character. There are no direct connections between these literary works and Neuwirth's music. Yet the seven movements could, in a way, be seen as seven objects from Canterel's cabinet of curiosities; and the title words, which suggest both "single" and "double," are paralleled by the musical events in the piece, which can be unique and isolated, or sometimes developed and "doubled."

Yet locus doublure solus is certainly an abstract piece of music, where the source of inspiration remains largely hidden. Elsewhere, the subject matters are made much more explicit. Olga Neuwirth has written a great deal of dramatic music to date. She achieved a major breakthrough with Bählamms Fest (after a play by the surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington) at the Vienna Festival (Wiener Festwochen) in 1999. Her most recent theatrical work, Lost Highway, based on the film by David Lynch, received its premiere at the Styrian Autumn Festival in Graz on October 31, 2003. Neuwirth's works have been performed all over the world at the most prestigious venues. Firmly established as one of the leaders of her generation, she is definitely one of those composers whose new works are be awaited with the greatest anticipation by the music world.