olga neuwirth
“I feel like the lettuce in a burger: it’s there but you can’t taste it.”

Stefan Drees spoke with Olga Neuwirth

I feel there’s an imbalance in our society between the genders, and funding and quotas for women aren’t doing much to change the situation. How do you feel about this?

Pressured by unrealistic expectations it’s easier for many women today just to perpetuate the male system of meaning. Some women have, on the other hand, discovered that it’s time for them to focus on women’s issues. But where were these women – mostly of my generation – 25 years ago, when I was already questioning how this hegemonic system of language and power operated in our field? In the 1980s and 1990s you could already read significant women theorists on the topic, which I had been doing since the age of fifteen. Or just to take Austria as an example: it was possible to engage in the work of Valie Export and Elfriede Jelinek or many other unflinching, independent-minded, courageous women artists who were creating a wide range of diverse works. It was all there. Why didn’t these women who are interested in gender issues today speak out then? Are they doing so now only because it has in the interim become socially acceptable in our part of the world, and especially because the topic has finally made its way to our conservative field of art? Or maybe because they think that the involvement in women’s issues gives them personal gratification and power? History shows that the crucial question is at what point in time you are critical and when you first identify a problem. And you don’t just wait until everyone is already shouting it from the rooftops and you can no longer be attacked for speaking out.

I addressed the problem of equality over 25 years ago, when nobody else in our music world in stuffy old Austria was doing so. In the late 1980s, when I arrived as a female composer on this (male) scene, I was a lone voice in the wilderness. With my statements I put my neck on the line for many women, especially women composers.
As I said, we are in the world of classical music, which is still white, male and patriarchal, in other words, still rooted in a hegemonial system. And generally speaking all linguistic systems are still male, because no female “counter language” has yet been found. That is not to say that at times women are not allowed to initiate things. But for the most part, a confrontational woman who consistently rejects false images and embellished tales of life and art is not taken seriously but treated with contempt. In any case, the history of my life as a composer is also the story of the constant questioning of a woman’s ability to compose. And that’s demoralizing.

From your perspective, how has the discrepancy in the treatment of men and women changed in the contemporary music world since the early 1990s?

I think it has become nastier. A more “elegant” chauvinism prevails. No longer can you refer to problems directly, or be as obvious as it was possible during the “leaden time” of the late 1980s. When a woman calls attention to injustices today, often the following happens: her objections are dismissed as hysteria and then “the empire strikes back”. She is kicked out and declared an adversary without further explanation or discussion.

Although I’ve often been robbed of my self-esteem and the belief in my ability, I’m continually required as a freelance composer to motivate myself. Furthermore, as a freelance, peripatetic composer, I’m completely dependent on the good will of decision-makers. And I’ve often been referred to as “That impudent brat!” You’re impudent when you’ve no claim to power. But does anyone call a (young) man “impudent”? Instead he’s “That gutsy fellow” and “gutsy” in this context means he commands respect and attention. From a hierarchical point of view, a person is considered “impudent” only from the bottom up. And so if someone wants to get rid of an “impudent” woman, it’s best if she is rudely disposed of by the “gutsy fellows.”
After thirteen years it’s still unbelievable to me that my opera commission with a wonderful libretto by Elfriede Jelinek was cancelled. This was not a commission that we begged for, this commission was freely given. Although it had been publicly announced several times, nobody in the music business took our side when the commission was withdrawn for no good reason. This incident was swept under the rug as if it had never happened. And with regard to my opera Lost Highway, with Valie Export as stage designer, and Elfriede Jelinek as librettist, the dramaturge sent me an e-mail, which I have kept: “Three women are just too much.”

So the male-dominated system reacts this way because it feels threatened?

Yes, exactly. No matter what, power feels threatened by art, and apparently especially threatened by a little woman in a male domain. Twenty-five years ago, discrimination against women composers took even more forms. For instance, it sometimes came from the wives of fellow composers, who would say to my face, from woman to woman, so to speak: “Your works are only being played because you’re a woman.” All the things I’ve had to listen to over the past three decades! And from all possible sides! It’s really incredible and depressing. The gentlemen in this field were evidently shocked that a young “impudent brat” would dare to whittle away at their privileges, not to mention, think for herself, have ideas of her own and gain recognition. All this was regarded as a transgression, as presumptuous.

At least there were forums in the 1990s, such as the festival “Frau Musica Nova!” organized by Gisela Gronemeyer in Cologne, or the series “Komponistinnen und ihr Werk” organized by Christel Nies in Kassel …

I was in Kassel once, when I was about twenty and in search of role models. But it is disillusioning if over so many years neither the structures, nor the mechanisms of how decisions are made have changed. For example some proudly broadcast: “Now we’re presenting an all-women festival,” or “Now we’re focusing exclusively on women conductors,” and yet if their inner attitude is, “Now we’ve done our part and may continue on as before,” nothing changes. Ultimately, what this means is – and this applies to all minorities who have ever stood up for their rights – that different people should come together with more openness, understanding and kindness, and not with arrogance, and that opposites and different ways of living and expressing may interact without anyone continually having to point this out. Nothing has changed when it comes to the supremacy or dominance of institutions or power. But I would rather like to experience something new, something that triggers new emotions and thoughts in me.

Then again, to a certain extent, there are consolations, for instance, grants and composition awards specially conceived for women composers …

Which is necessary. At the beginning of a composer’s development grants are important. But something must change structurally – and I hope one day this will actually happen – because if it doesn’t then all these years I’ve just been talking until I’m blue in the face to no effect. It will have all been for naught if the other side isn’t willing to react in any way, as then such grants and awards are only token gestures. I don’t think they change the system. The important thing would be to create an awareness of the fact that things actually need to change. I mean, where in the world are all the women composers who are being performed internationally on a large scale?

I have the impression that in the generation after you, a higher proportion of women composers is active and known to the public.

Yes, and that’s a good thing. But you shouldn’t forget that we were pioneers – in all sorts of ways. That women of my generation had to break through substantial gender barriers and so there’s one thing that makes me sad: I yelled out “into the dark forest,” also with regard to the need for an acceptance of contemporary composing per se, and tried to raise awareness in society for the conditions of so-called “contemporary composers” and to give them a voice. But to speak out politically as a female composer in the early 1990s was strongly disapproved of and dismissed by my male colleagues as distracting from the “real” concerns of composing. They were (and many still are) aloof, condescending, and distrustful. Apparently, back then my topics and music were too “popular” and as a person I was too unconventional to be taken seriously.

Today, in contrast, many members of the younger generation often speak out politically but they seem to exhibit a high degree of superficiality, because they only have a limited interest in historical contexts.

I can see this as a counter reaction, but in general I believe that we should be aware of the fact that there is something at our disposal which has already been established. This is something that can also be traced back to social political contexts. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a number of laws were changed, because until then, at least in Austria, the law had stated, among other things: “It is the wife’s duty to obey her husband.” Under Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the first Minister for Women’s Affairs Johanna Dohnal worked towards altering this and many other laws for the benefit of the following generations. That is to say, there were people who had made it possible for us women to deal more freely with our lives and work. If someone was blessed with the good fortune of being born later, when suddenly more was possible – that’s great for them! But I feel it’s cynical to want to blank out those who fought for these things in the first place.

But to get back to our field of music: as a woman composer, you’re still discriminated against, though it’s true, now it’s done more cunningly. You can get a bad reputation really quickly, that is, if you don’t do as demanded by the different parties and behave as expected. But who wants to live with a bad reputation? It’s no fun. There are consequences, as I’ve experienced several times. I believe many just aren’t willing to go through this. That is, unless “being critical” becomes “in” – then people are pleased to have such a label attached to them.

People usually cultivate a bad boy image only if it doesn’t actually harm them, which brings us back to language: “bad boy”, that’s that “gutsy fellow” again who commands respect. But does a bad girl image even exist?

If it ever existed then it was in the punk scene. And that’s where I come from. When I was fifteen it was what interested and influenced me. But such an image was permitted only on the fringes, as a subculture, so to speak. But the higher you get in so-called elite and exclusive circles, the more patriarchal and segregative the structures become.

Because I wanted as a composer to make a statement about the present, I collaborated for a great many years with Elfriede Jelinek, that superb, headstrong writer. For me the way some opera-house directors have behaved is an absolute sign of how a standardized male system prevails in my field. Especially in our case, when as two women (I mean, how many collaborations were there in the 1990s between a woman composer and a woman writer?) – one of whom was quite well known and the other very famous – we were summoned and patronizingly told: “You may now create an opera together.” So the writer, in her enthusiasm, writes an amazing, biting text. But then with the arrogance of the music industry, and here’s where their presumptuousness comes in, they state: “She’s not capable of writing a text.” I have this in writing! And three months later, this very same writer is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature!
In contrast, who would have disinvited an already invited male composer and male Nobel Prize laureate? Instead, when it comes to one of my male colleagues, to make the work even more important people are continually stressing that his male librettist is a Nobel Prize contender. But I collaborated with a real Nobel Prize laureate and we were axed. This says it all, there’s no need to add anything more about how women are treated in the classical music world. And this story didn’t happen 25 years ago, but began in 2001 and ended in 2005.

Besides the topics you have addressed here, doesn’t outward appearance or rather the enactment of femininity also play a certain role in the acceptance of women?

Recently, when people saw the cover of the program brochure for the performance of my work Le Encantadas in Paris, many of them said to me: “Oh, you’re pretty, too!” Of course, why not? I can be pretty too. But do I constantly have to be “identical with myself?” I find this absurd, and it has never been something I’ve wanted – that as a woman you should achieve your goal or success by making “detours” with sex or being cute. Why not just focus on the work? Of course, as I realize, this was and still is naïve of me. I could have always made it easier for myself.

I have the feeling that this topic has also played a role in your work. For instance, the short film Die Schöpfung, which you created together with Elfriede Jelinek in 2010, would probably not have been made if you hadn’t had all these negative experiences.

Yes, but that’s a different topic. For me it has always also been about an ironic refraction, as in Thomas Bernhard’s statement about Zwangswitze (“forced jokes”), which you need in order to cope with a hopeless situation. A paradox full of absurdity and melancholy, despair and defiance. In effect what I’ve always tried to do in my pieces is to elude categorization, because I don’t want to be pigeonholed. Which in turn has, for me at least, meant that I could not in fact be categorized, and so now people say: “With her you never know what you’re going to get.” As if multifacetedness lacked quality. However, with my male colleagues it’s exactly this that gets hyped as great and masterful.

In fact, there’s no fixed concept of gender, rather you can always transform yourself performatively, and this has for me had an impact on the very language of my music – it’s what I play with, I’m always playing with different facets of this.

Of course, this differentiation has also affected your male characters, e.g., Jeremy in Bählamms Fest, as well as displayed itself in your years of exploring Klaus Nomi, who in his very person ideally embodies performativity. Luckily, it also protects works, such as Bählamms Fest, from being interpreted exclusively from a feminist perspective, since the main characters – both outsiders in society – are too complex and contradictory.

That’s true, it just wouldn’t work and would be too one dimensional. You have to – and here’s where it all starts – grant the other side the same right of existence as your own side. If I demand something, then there has to be the possibility for the other side to demand something too. Thus complex issues have to be made recognizable and understandable for many observers, that’s really important. But then I need, at least in a music theater work, to let things collide like in a lab experiment. As is the case with David Lynch: “The stage as catastrophe.” But from the critics there has never been the attempt to examine this aspect of my work in any depth. And so the female composer disappears behind her male colleagues with regard to the reception of her works, especially her big works.

Perhaps something positive in conclusion?

It’s important that things become fairer for males and females and all others. I’m really interested in other people, which means that for me every situation that I observe, learn and deal with contributes to “the adventure of composing”.

(Abridged version of an interview conducted on November 30, 2015)

(Translated into English by Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon in collaboration with Katherine Michaelsen and Olga Neuwirth)