olga neuwirth
Olga Neuwirth: Thoughts on Eleanor

For me this composition is a tribute to all those who have dared and still dare to voice criticism despite social and political opposition. In our oh-so-worldly times, when even faint dissent is seen as a threat, fingers are scandalously quick to pull triggers.
The Eleanor-Suite would, however, especially like to pay tribute to courageous women – which explains the woman’s name in the title. Here the spotlight is on the many forgotten female African-American jazz musicians from the era “when men ruled the beat”.
The name Eleanor is a reference to Billie Holiday. Beginning in childhood, her life was marked by abuse, which left deep wounds. Wounds that made it difficult to live. Her great talent, and the enormity of her soul and spirit were thus constantly fighting a sense of emptiness. Nothing was able to dull her profound nihilism. 
Which is why I have replaced the cultivated aura of classical song with the directness of the blues. Eleanor insists on the irrevocability of pain and her own subjectivity. She struggles for freedom, treading a difficult path, yet one she has chosen. Despite the abuse, she self-confidently seeks her own form of expression, her own identity. Music and text have been conceived to unleash an unrelenting maelstrom. The musical form should exude a spontaneity that is not, as so often in “contemporary classical” music, obstructed by structural limitations. The Eleanor-Suite begins like a review of old blues records in the tradition of Williams, Lambert and Hendricks: with quasi instrumental jazz vocals – transformed by means of percussion, electric piano and electric guitar into an illusory now. 
As in American Lulu, my music theater work from 2006-2012, the composition is punctuated with fragments from speeches by Martin Luther King as well as poems by June Jordan, one of the most important contemporary African-America poets.
Among the police force, hatred of blacks has grown stronger. So once more we must demand greater protection for African-Americans and other minorities against unjustified police brutality. This is especially sad when we consider that Martin Luther King spoke the following words in his last speech: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. [...] And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. [...] Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” 
Another fifty years later and we again or rather still have such “shameful conditions” – also in our democratic nations.
And yes, it’s true: with American Lulu I wanted to stage a kind of musical protest against the racism and sexism I had repeatedly seen flare up during my many stays in the US since the late 1980s. All the same, I had never thought American Lulu, which I began working on in 2006 (before Barack Obama was elected President), would become so tragically topical. It has even been estimated that in the United States more African-Americans are currently behind bars than were enslaved in 1850.
The Eleanor-Suite was a spontaneous expression of my helplessness and outrage at the racist violence and bloodshed committed in the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo. I could not and did not want to remain silent. After the initial shock, the time had come to find the courage to reflect. The piece was already almost finished, but I did not want to let the heat of that moment dissipate, because doing so would not, as we have so often been told, lead automatically to a more balanced truth. I wanted to react right away and not later, when everything had “settled” down.

The Eleanor-Suite is my way of showing solidarity and protesting artistically against the daily pressures to conform, and against external and internal repression.

Olga Neuwirth, January 2015
(translated by Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon)