In this interview, Olga Neuwirth talks about her new orchestra work "Keyframes for a Hippogriff" 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.
Did your approach to Keyframes for a Hippogriff – Musical Calligrams involve thinking about Berlin as a hotspot for new music?
Not really. It’s more about trying to keep being a free soul despite the despair and pain in this world. A Hippogriff is an intelligent, sentient being. A „Zwischenwesen“ which is very swift and tries to constantly cross boundaries as a form of life. Like in H.C. Andersons story of the broken teapot: we all have fears and defects, but we also have virtues and we try to tell our manyfolded stories of our little lives in a white noise of information were technology seems to already surpass our human intercation. We are tossed constantaly by somebody else’s decisions, constrained by an incomprehensible fate and therefore I’ve used several text fragments to „show“ a synthetic mind that persistently gathers up many fragments of life in an attempt to stick them together again. Therefore the form of the piece is like wandering through many different states of feelings 'cause we have to finally rethink our priorities. In these days of pain and abyss we have to try to nevertheless find some hope, yes hope, and believe in nature again. I grew up in the countryside, I adore nature, as I kind of lived in and with nature as a child and have experience the destruction in a timeframe of only 30 years while sitting now here again in this little village in the south of Austria while we are not allowed to move.
What makes Berlin a hotspot?
While so many mega-cities became empty because real-estate prices went completely lunatic and have destroyed creative and alternative life-forms, Berlin used to (though it has started to change too in the last few years) still be cheap and drew people from many different backgrounds to come and experience life, diversity, libertinage and where you could still try out things in life and art. As NYC e.g. used to be in the 60ties and 70ties before the real estate market went mad. A city were the past seemd to be over and a future doesn’t beckon one yet. A city of extremes on every level, but people are trying to live together, to exchange and even amalgamate differences. Just experience and live - as when dawn starts Berlin turns bright! And especially as a freelancer: without having to constantly think that you can’t afford living, your mind can still wander around and be free. Berlin is a strange and exiting conglomerate.
How has your relationship to Berlin evolved over the years?
I know the city well since I am 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 musty Austria, or they even had to leave Vienna... My uncle e.g. was not allowed to write the first thesis on Franz Schreker at the University of Vienna and therfore he went to Berlin to write it there. Into the city were Schreker was the head of the Music Academy till he was, as a jew, forced to step back in 1932. I used to live there several times, interrupted by living in Venice and NYC, and came back again in 2012.
Can you tell us about your friendship with Hester Diamond?
The new piece is dedicated to her. It’s private, but I only can say, that I met her in 2006 at the Salzburg Festival and I was immediately impressed by her grace, by her incredble knowledge about art and design, by her sharp mind, humour and her immense curiosity.
Did you ever spend time together in Berlin?
No. Most of the time we spent together in NYC, when I lived in the city in 2010 and 2011. And as this festival is about the 19th amendment, I wanted to refer to an incredible autonomous thinking woman whom I miss a lot as it was always such a pleasue 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?
As I was a punk in the austrian countryside, the Beastie Boys were one of my punk heros beside Patti Smith. I only got to know that Hester is Mike D. mom when I once had a conversation 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 unrestrictedly despite all obstacles. She used to called my music „a constant shift between the sublime and the banal“ and that I shall not be afraid of going this way and than she quoted Eleanor Roosevelt „well-behaved women rarely make history“. Than we laughed together, which is a wonderful thing to do. And we had a wonderful common friend, Betty Freeman.
We understand that the Nightcap event you are going to curate will represent the Berlin new-music scene.
No, the Berlin of the 1920ties as this was a time in history which inrtrigued me and has influenced me the most.
―The interview was conducted by the Playbill magazine of the New York Philharmonic in March 2020.
Photo: Harald Hoffmann