olga neuwirth
by Nick Till for the magazine “WIRE”

“Good luck Arnie” reads a 50 foot high banner above the main post-office in the southern Austrian city of Graz. European City of Culture for 2003, Graz is birthplace to the new Governor of California, and is evidently proud of its best known cultural product. But I’m in Graz to hear a new theatre work by another of the city’s offspring, composer Olga Neuwirth. “I was only born in Graz because there was no hospital in the countryside where I grew up!” Neuwirth interjects, quick to disclaim the role of prodigal daughter, although she frequently visits Graz from her bases in Berlin and Venice to work with trusted colleagues at the Institut for Elektronische Musik at the city’s Arts University. And Neuwirth’s birth city has not failed to notice her stature as one of the most arresting voices on the contemporary music scene. In 1998, still only 30, she was commissioned to write an orchestral piece to accompany Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces in concerts conducted by Pierre Boulez to celebrate his 75th birthday. Neuwirth’s offering, entitled Clinamen/Nodus, demonstrates her ability to weave the hues of her crispy-queasy sound palette into knotty musical structures, twisting and turning through bad-trip labyrinths where faded memories surface through layers of drugged sleep to be ambushed by outbursts of psychotic ruckus. 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 humour or echoes of lost childhood, Neuwirth’s music is nailed firmly to the unfinished project of critical modernism, although she demurs at any suggestion that the Boulez commission signified some sort of paternal benediction, a bestowing on her of the mantle of the 2nd Viennese School. “I don’t think it’s his type of music”, she ventures. “He thinks I’m not in the tradition, which is in a way true since I don’t derive from Schoenberg, or Berg or Webern. It’s more back to Mahler, but then Varese. Something in-between.” In-betweenness is indeed the key to Neuwirth’s artistic identity. “Perhaps our generation is in the position of border-crossers” she suggested in her speech at the opening of this year’s Graz Steirischen Herbst, the avant-garde arts festival founded in 1968, the year of Neuwirth’s birth, where her new music theatre work was to be presented.

At 18 Neuwirth fled the stuffy confines of provincial Austria and bolted for America. “I had to get out of Austria, which is still a rather repressive country. Both politically and in the academic world of music, which was very old-fashioned. People were just satisfied living in their picturesque zoo. Austria has no such power as in the time of the empire” she adds, “we are little and tiny, and if you have an inferiority complex - as most Austrians do have - you try to make your life very secure.” She headed for San Francisco. “I always dreamed that this was the city where everything comes together” she explains. Studying for a year in San Francisco she was able to pursue her love of film, and the structural methods of film-makers such as Bresson, Godard or Chris Marker continue to influence her understanding of what she describes as “the dramaturgy of time” in music. Unable to complete her studies in San Francisco because of financial problems, she returned to Austria to undertake a formal musical training in Vienna, before heading off to Paris to work with spectralist Tristan Murail. “When I first heard his music there was something in his orchestration and harmony that interested me immediately- and his different way of shaping time” she explains. “There were no scores or recordings in the music school in Vienna so I thought, well, why not just go there!”

Neuwirth’s music appears on the Austrian Kairos label, where she sits in the company of composers such as Giacinto Scelsi, Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino and Gerard Grisey; musicians who share an intense engagement with the textures, penumbra and spatiality of musical sound. “These are the composers I’m really interested in”, she enthuses. “Sciarrino is amazing. His pieces are like gems made of only little gestures (skip sound please! ). Lachenmann has searched for so many years to get a different sound world out of traditional instruments. Scelsi investigated sound itself.” Neuwirth’s enthusiasm for the (please skip later because I like ALL his music!!!!) music of Nono led to her beat a path to his door in Venice, where she still lives for some of the year. “He was searching into what electronics could mean to him, and into what space is. Things I was interested in continuing - by other means, of course.” But Nono’s (skip real please!) significance for me also lays in his thinking about what it is to be an artist in his time. “He thought that as an artist you shouldn’t just live in an ivory tower but should also be involved in your world and what’s going on in it.” Neuwirth has stood by Nono’s example, unafraid to express unpopular opinions in public, most notably in a speech 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. A strain of savage parody often surfaces in Neuwirth’s music, grotesque mutations of the “thigh-slapping” oom-pa music promoted by the likes of Haider. “As artists we are smothered by the glorification of the past, so we become satirical” Neuwirth declares, joining a distinguished line of barbed polemicists against the complacency of Austrian culture, from Karl Krauss at the beginning of the 20th century to Thomas Bernhard and Elfrieda Jelinek at its end. The latter, best known for her novel The Piano Teacher, has collaborated with Neuwirth on a number of projects, including the radio Horstuck Todesraten, which includes a morbidly comic satire on the cult of St Arnie, set against toe-curling distortions of traditional Austrian music.

Neuwirth’s new work is an adaptation of David Lynch’s neo-noir mystery thriller Lost Highway, for which she once again worked with Jelinek as co-adapter for the stage. Lynch’s film may be interpreted as a metaphysical thriller of parallel universes and eerie doppelganger, or as a psychological study of the condition of amnesiac fugue. Either way its spatio-temporal loops and conundrums and its brooding psychological intensity invites the filmic cutting, spooky atmospherics and richly associative suggestions of Neuwirth’s music. “There are so many riddles in life” says Neuwirth. “You never know what’s going to happen in the next second. It’s so labyrinthine, the whole existence of a human being.” Working with music theatre allows Neuwirth to challenge the institutional dogmas of postwar modernism. “I’m from another generation”, she asserts. “I grew up with pop music; my father’s a jazz musician. I’m in between. I still want to build my music with very precise structures and textures, but we live in another time and I don’t want to work within closed systems. I don’t want the material I use to be considered ‘untouchable’. With music theatre you don’t have to be afraid; you can show more of what’s around you.” For Lost Highway Neuwirth creates a densely layered score that mirrors the slippages between different realities in Lynch’s film, eliding live and pre-recorded orchestral material mixed with everyday soundtrack samples, bewildering the acoustic imagination with lurching spatial dislocations. Neuwirth’s use of electronics is particularly distinctive, often evoking the kitschy sound of 50s sci-fi or horror. “In my electronics there has to be a kind of rough and trashy quality” she insists, “ because otherwise it becomes too polished, and then it’s dead”. And she works with singing voices as if they were weird distortions of the normal human voice, like the micro-tuned scordatura and waa-waa vibrato or glissandi of her instrumental scoring. David Moss, for whom the part of the psychpathic mobster-pornographer Mr Eddy was conceived, encapsulates the whole range of Neuwirth’s vocal techniques in a virtuoso display of grunts, whistles, stutterings and falsetto hoots.

Weird, eerie, uncanny are the terms that recur when listening to Neuwirth’s music. She affirms the influence of surrealism, which often evokes a sinister world where things are never quite what they seem. “I always have the feeling with music that you can’t touch it” she ponders, “it always escapes you. There’s this uncanny thing because its coming close to you but you can never have it. It’s the unspoken, the keeping silence that makes you sick as is a mean of power”. As in much surrealist art, Neuwirth’s music achieves its uncanny effect through metamorphosis: the unsettling blurring of categories and identities. She delights in instruments that fuzz the purity of conventional musical sound - hawaian guitar, bavarian zither, ondes martinot or theremin (on which she is something of a virtuoso-skip that please!!!!) - producing the musical equivalent of what surrealist critic Georges Bataille celebrated as the “formless” in art. Acoustic instruments employing smudgy multi-phonics mimic the frequencies of electronic sound, a technologising of the human that transgresses more familiar nature-culture distinctions. But her sound world is also creaturely: the skittering of rats beneath the floor, helpless bleats and whimpers, or the underwater rumble of cetacean sonar; intimations of animal urges and desires beneath the human surface.

Like many women artists, Neuwirth challenges the binary modes of western masculine thinking, inveighing against “the soap-opera of good and evil…our manichean world view”. The state of “in-betweenness”, the blurring of identities, is, Neuwirth suggests, a particular characteristic of female experience. “Women analyse their bodies and identities much more than men. You have to deal with roles that get put on you by society when you’re fourteen or fifteen. So you have the feeling that you have several personalities, and that you are both part of nature and yet not.” It is this aspect of female experience, lightness of identity inescapably grounded by the female body’s ties to nature - its flows and cycles, the insistent ticking of the biological clock - that characterises Neuwirth’s music, with its restless, flickering transmutations of energy that constantly exhaust themselves against the entropic drag of time and gravity.

And perhaps it is this sensibility that allows Neuwirth’s music to capture so intensely the experience of modernity we all share, where the illusions of speed and lightness offered by information technologies, the constant barrage of images, or the cornucopia of easy-wear identities offered by modern consumerism, only make us more aware of the clumsiness, thickness and heaviness of material reality and of our own obdurate bodies. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks of the “the inertia of the real” in modernity, where the “real” must be understood as those aspects of existence that resist symbolisation : the dead weight of matter; the sticky stuff on the soles of your shoe; the accumulating detritus of capitalist overproduction; the insistent tug of forbidden desires; nameless feelings of guilt and loss. Olga Neuwirth’s music knows that beneath the unbearable lightness of being lies the inertia of the real.

Nick Till