Olga Neuwirth: A Portrait
by Stefan Drees
“Ever since I was a child I’ve been interested in everything – from art to politics, from science to human psychology. Passionate about everything, I let myself be inspired in the same way by the small and the big things the world has to offer, by the wonderful diversity of life,” said Olga Neuwirth in early 2015 at a press conference held upon her receiving a new music theater commission for the Vienna State Opera. This statement not only reveals Neuwirth’s almost unlimited open-mindedness, but may also serve as a guideline for understanding her work which now spans nearly three decades.
A Variety of Impulses
The diversity of Olga Neuwirth’s artistic output goes back to her early and inexhaustible interest in areas outside of music, and her curiosity and readiness to push a broader notion of composing into unusual realms. At a time when it was uncommon in “contemporary classical music”, she allowed herself to be inspired by a variety of impulses from literature, art, film, comics or science, from high and low art. As a result she developed a strong interest in art genres such as installation, film, photography, and her approach, already evident in her first works from the late 1980s, to merge the spheres of popular and high culture. This stance also gave rise to her using technologies that integrated everything from low-tech instruments to live electronics.
From the start Neuwirth pursued the idea of making that which is contemporary visible, and so she has always made a conscious effort to work with present-day artists from other fields, as her long-term collaboration with Nobel Prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek shows. Neuwirth and Jelinek first joined forces to create two mini-operas (1990); later collaborations included everything from aesthetically challenging works, such as the video oratorium Aufenthalt (1994), the radio play Todesraten (1997), the poème choréographique Der Tod und das Mädchen II (2000) to the music theater projects Bählamms Fest (1993/1997-99) and Lost Highway (2002-03), as well as the short films Die Schöpfung (2009) and Das Fallen. Die Falle (2010). In addition, Neuwirth’s interest in scientific phenomena and problems has informed her work in many ways. Exemplary in this context is her use of her own brainwave data for the short film project Composer as Mad Scientist (2007). In the work Kloing! (2006-07), Neuwirth mapped seismic data onto a computer-controlled grand piano. During the performance, a live pianist battles against this scientific data and historic piano scores by Chopin, Ravel and Liszt. Through the additional use of a live camera and pre-recorded video material, this piece becomes a music theatre-like reflection on the virtuoso and the mechanical.
A Pioneer of Music and Media
Neuwirth’s catalogue of compositions reflects her enormous versatility and the many influences she has absorbed. At present it includes numerous solo pieces, chamber music, ensemble and orchestra works, and pieces conceived to incorporate different media. Besides her compositional oeuvre, she has created performances, installations, radio plays, music for theater and sound tracks, as well as texts, photographs, experimental and animated films, not to mention her music theater projects and two books. A large number of these works, however, fell outside established genres and categories, and so were often not understood – making Neuwirth, on many levels, a pioneer and trailblazer for her generation. Her works frequently anticipated developments that have since become standard. From the start she was especially committed to fostering the acceptance of combining music and media.
Despite some vehement institutional resistance, Neuwirth has often addressed the connection between music and images in her works. Take, for instance, the animation based on a short story by Leonora Carrington on which she collaborated with her sister Flora and which served as the basis for the composition Canon of Funny Phases (1992). It demonstrates her great fondness for comics and cartoons, which has played a decisive role until more recent works such as Kloing! Moreover, Neuwirth elaborated on the idea of media transfer long before it became fashionable, as can be seen in, for example, her compositions !?dialogues suffisants!? (1991-92) and Jardin désert (1993-94). She developed sophisticated concepts that relied on transfer from separate spaces to link acoustic and visual media with the aim of creating alternative forms of perception.
Transfer of Cinematic Techniques
In the early 1990s, Olga Neuwirth began transferring cinematic techniques to the composing of instrumental and vocal works, and developing them in a variety of directions, as can be seen in the music theater projects Bählamms Fest (1993/1997-99), and Lost Highway (2002-03) which was based on David Lynch’s famous movie. For this reason she used a plurality of videos and video techniques such as morphing. Neuwirth not only collaborated with filmmakers and video artists – as she did with French video artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster on the project … ce qui arrive … (2003-04) – but also wrote the sound tracks for several movies. Alongside scores for silent films, such as Viking Eggeling’s abstract Symphonie Diagonal (2006) or Alfred Machin’s anti-war film Maudite soit la guerre (2014), she wrote the music for Kurt Mayer’s documentary Erik(A) (2004), and two fiction films – Michael Glawogger’s Das Vaterspiel (Kill Daddy Good Night, 2007-08), and Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Ich seh Ich seh (Goodnight Mommy, 2014). Last but not least, Neuwirth has created a number of her own experimental essay films, including … disenchanted time … (2005) and … durch Luft und Meer … (2007). All these projects demonstrate that as an artist Olga Neuwirth has never held back or restricted herself. Moreover, she knew early on how to make use of what has become the ever more noticeably blurred line between technology and classical music.
Electronics as Integral Component
Crucial for Neuwirth is the use of technology in her compositions, including low-tech instruments such as the Ondes Martenot (Sans Soleil, 1994) or the Theremin (Bählamms Fest), as well as the exploration of the possibilities of live electronics. In her early mini-operas, Der Wald – ein tönendes Fastfoodgericht (1989-90) and Körperliche Veränderungen (1990-91), live electronics were already an indispensable component of her artistic concept, one that eventually branched out in many directions. The Long Rain (1999) – a work originally conceived as a “spatial sound sculpture” with a 24-channel surround sound system and a corresponding video surround concept – exemplifies this development, as does Neuwirth’s most recent spatial sound project Le Encantadas (2014-15). In it she began with the idea of preserving the acoustics of the permanently closed Venetian San Lorenzo Church so as to be able to reconstruct them in a concert hall. Yet she does not regard such influences as the Other – brought to music from the outside. Rather they are integral components of her artistic concept which she uses to evolve individual musical discourses and narrations.
A Challenging Artistic Concept
In the highly differentiated sound world of Neuwirth’s music, she has elevated fractures and cuts, adjacent and superimposed layers of heterogeneous acoustic events, as well as quotations and allusions to principles of her composing. Often these are mixed with a subtle but sharp black humor that manifests itself in unusual combinations of instrumental and electronic sounds. They are the mark of an art concept that consistently challenges society and, by frequently referencing political contents, questions the supposedly certain. Remarkable in this context is, for instance, her use of children’s instruments in the ensemble piece Vampyrotheone (1994-95), or the integration of a detuned viola d’amore in the composition La vie … ulcérant(e) (1995). Further examples include the use of electronic recordings of two bass viols and theorbos, detuned in quarter-tones to each other, in Lonicera Caprifolium (1993); or the live electronically-modified sound of glasses in Bählamms Fest.
The composer has also devised similar strategies for her scenic works. At times this leads to the dissolution of the narrative line, and so makes way for a more multifaceted stage disposition. Works such as the music theater piece Lost Highway, based on the screenplay from David Lynch’s film, not only break the electronic musical mold and exhaust what was technologically possible at the time of their origin, but also interrupt the flow of the story in favor of a non-progressive arrangement of the scenes. Another example is The Outcast – A musicstallation theater with video (2009-11), based on Melville’s Moby Dick. This opera is a reflection on the work of the artist, as well as on writing and the meaning of memory. It is a plea for tolerance and draws attention to issues related to the conditions of artistic existence in an efficiency-oriented, capitalistic society.
Identity as Central Topic
For Neuwirth, it is central to articulate her thoughts on artistic identity, especially when it comes to music theater. This topic is not only evident in works in which she concentrates on exploring the creative process itself, such as … miramondo multiplo … (2007), a sound installation that was created for the documenta 12, or the composition with video…ce qui arrive …“ (2003–04). But also in those in which the composer presents the artist’s existence in interaction with society, and identity is embedded in reflections on political interdependencies. Hence, Olga Neuwirth’s artistic endeavors often focus on complex characters, artists, or outsiders whom she portrays by mirroring social behaviors to expose how discrimination is enmeshed in complex structures. This can be seen in American Lulu (2006/2011), her re-interpretation of Alban Berg’s Lulu that investigates racial problems and structural discrimination; and in Eleanor (2014) that also revolves around these issues. A similar statement may be made about her almost life-long, varied but quite tangible interest in pop and jazz. Noteworthy here is her fascination with pop countertenor Klaus Nomi, which came to fruition in the song cycle Hommage à Klaus Nomi (1998). Later she expanded this work into a music theater piece, A Song-Play in Nine Fits (2009)
Mechanisms of Memory
Another of Neuwirth’s concerns is also closely related to these issues: her exploration of the mechanisms of memory. A key topic since the early 1990s, it found its way into, e.g., Five Daily Miniatures (1994) and Pallas/Construction (1996). In fact the topic of memory runs through her entire oeuvre and has taken diverse forms. Significant is the orchestra piece Clinamen/Nodus (1999) – composed for strings and two micro-detuned zithers and percussion for Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday tour. Three compositions deal with different forms of fragmented memories: the trumpet concerto … miramundo multiplo … (2006), the viola concerto Remnants of songs … an amphigory (2009) and the orchestra piece Masaot/Clocks without Hands (2013). In the latter, first performed by the Vienna Philharmonics in 2015, the composer analyzes the mechanisms of political remembering and forgetting, while relating them to the investigation of the roots of her own (artistic) identity.
In her work, Neuwirth has shown that as a woman in a field still dominated by men today, she has always been an astute observer of political circumstances. And so she continues to fight for the emancipation of art from all inner and outer constraints, and against its misappropriation and functionalization. As mentioned at the start, her thirst for knowledge and curiosity led early on to that understanding of life of which her passion “about everything” – that inspiration found in “the small and big things in the world” – is as much a part as are her constant wanderings between politics and art.
In addition to many other prizes and distinctions, Olga Neuwirth received the Austrian Grand National Award in 2010 – the first woman to do so in the category of music. Since 2006, she has been a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin; and since 2013, of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.