In this interview, Olga Neuwirth talks about her new work "Keyframes for a Hippogriff — Musical Calligrams" for Countertenor, Children's Choir, and Orchestra and her special relationship to Berlin. The piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to be premiered at their citycentric "hotspots" festival in May 2020. The performance has since been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, the world premiere will be performed by co-commissioner Berliner Philharmoniker under Daniel Harding in the framework of Musikfest Berlin on 12 September 2020.
Keyframes for a Hippogriff (2019)
Musical Calligrams for countertenor, children’s choir and orchestra
in memoriam Hester Diamond
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Co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Did your approach to Keyframes for a Hippogriff – Musical Calligrams involve thinking about Berlin as a hot spot for new music?
Not really. It’s more about trying to remain a free soul despite the despair and pain in this world. A hippogriff is an intelligent, sentient being. A “Zwischenwesen” (an “in-between being” that is very swift and, as a way of life, tries to constantly cross boundaries. Like in H. C. Andersen’s story of the broken teapot: we all have fears and flaws but also virtues. We try to tell the manifold stories of our little lives against the white noise of information, in which technology seems to have already surpassed human interaction. We are continually tossed about by other people’s decisions, bound by an incomprehensible fate. Thus I’ve used several text fragments to present a synthetic mind that persistently gathers many fragments of life in an attempt to reassemble them. Hence the form of this composition is like wandering through many different emotional states because, ultimately, we have to rethink our priorities. In these dark and painful times, we still need to find hope, yes hope, and our belief in nature again. I grew up in the countryside, I adore nature, as I lived in and with it as a child and have experienced its destruction within a span of only 30 years. And now I sit here again, in this little village in the south of Austria and we are not allowed to move.
What makes Berlin a hot spot?
While many megacities were emptying because real estate prices had gone completely crazy, and destroyed creative and alternative ways of life, Berlin was (though it has started to change too in the last few years) still cheap and drew people from many different backgrounds. They came to experience life, diversity, libertinage. It was where you could still try things out in life and art. Like NYC had been in the 1960s and 1970s before the real estate market went mad. A city where the past seemed to be over and the future wasn’t beckoning yet. A city of extremes on every level, but in which people make an effort try to live together, to exchange and reconcile differences. Just live and experience—when dusk falls, Berlin goes bright! And especially for freelancers: without having to constantly worry about whether you can afford to live there, your mind can continue to roam and be free. Berlin is a strange and exciting conglomerate.
How has your relationship to Berlin evolved over the years?
I have known the city well since I was 15 and the Wall was still there, because my uncle lived in West Berlin. Many Austrians and friends of our family went into “exile” from fusty Austria, some of them even had to leave Vienna... My uncle, e.g., was not allowed at the University of Vienna to write what would have been the first-ever thesis on Franz Schrecker. So he went to Berlin to write it there. In the city where Schrecker was the head of the Music Academy until he was forced as a Jew to step down in 1932. I have lived in Berlin several times over the years, interrupted only by longer stays in Venice and NYC. I returned in 2012 and have lived there ever since.
Can you tell us about your friendship with Hester Diamond?
This new piece is dedicated to her. The reasons are private—I can only say that I met her in 2006 at the Salzburg Festival and I was immediately impressed by her grace, her incredible knowledge of art and design, her sharp mind, humor and her immense curiosity.
Did you ever spend time together in Berlin?
No. Most of the time we spent together was in NYC, when I lived there in 2010 and 2011. And because this festival is about the 19th amendment, I wanted to refer to a woman who was incredibly autonomous in her thinking, a woman whom I miss a lot as it was always such a pleasure talking to her.
I’ve read that one of your influences is the Beastie Boys, a member of whom is Hester’s son. Did your appreciation of their music emerge from your friendship with Hester, or vice versa?
When I was a young punk in the Austrian countryside, the Beastie Boys were one of my punk heroes, alongside Patti Smith. I only found out that Hester is Mike D.’s mom during a conversation I had with Hester about my influences.
Do you think your friendship with Hester influenced your music? If so, how?
Only in the sense that she always told me to be who I am, to keep speaking up and to follow my path as an artist unrestrainedly despite all the obstacles. She called my music “a constant shift between the sublime and the banal” and said I should not be afraid to take this route (OR: path). She also quoted Eleanor Roosevelt who said: “well-behaved women rarely make history”. And we used to laugh together, which is a wonderful thing to do. And we had a marvelous common friend, Betty Freeman.
We understand that the Nightcap event you are going to curate will represent the Berlin new music scene.
No. Berlin of the 1920s, as this is a time in history that has intrigued me and influenced me most.
―The interview was conducted by the Playbill magazine of the New York Philharmonic in March 2020.
Photo: Harald Hoffmann