Photos: Rui Camilo


Challenge, Protest and Multiple Identities

Thoughts on Olga Neuwirth's Hybrid “Art-in-Between”

by Stefan Drees, translated by Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon

In 2015 Olga Neuwirth said the greatest force behind her artistic activities was the inspiration she took from “the small and the big things the world has to offer”. If we examine the inclination this suggests, that is, how this composer derives pleasure from looking beyond the horizons of what is commonly deemed part of the contemporary music industry, we encounter a vastly diverse and complex oeuvre that resists categorization: For although Neuwirth considers herself primarily a composer, composing has always belonged for her to a broader range of activities that transcends the boundaries between disciplines and extends far into event spaces, beyond concert hall platforms or opera house stages. In addition to music, these activities include contributions to film, installation art and photography, and are reflected by the same token in appearances as a performer as well as in texts and lectures. The consequences of this branching out into other fields is a body of work in which a great variety of influences from literature, the visual arts, music, architecture, the history of thought, natural sciences and everyday life impact one another and—while at all times revolving around people’s existential sensitivities—come together in creations brimming with dark and witty humor as well as delicate poetry. Her art is one that probes realms of hybrid phenomena and, as “Art-in-Between”, as art between all genres and norms, elevates processes of transition between multiple identities to a central principle of content and aesthetics. All these qualities have contributed decisively to making Olga Neuwirth one of the most independent and exciting voices to stand out from her peers in the contemporary world of composing.

Inspirations and Impulses

A glance at Neuwirth's extensive list of works gives an idea of the extent of the impulses she has processed. Take, for example, those works grouped around inspiring literary writers such as Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs, Elfriede Jelinek, Leonora Carrington, Paul Auster or Herman Melville: They attest to an exploration that not only takes up certain aspects of the respective literature’s content, but also has a profound effect on how form and sound are handled. Characteristic here is Neuwirth's approach to applying Burroughs’ cut-up technique to tonal contexts in early compositions, such as Worddust of Minraud (1992) for four groups of four singers distributed in the space. By developing analog musical procedures, she made working with rapid cuts, abrupt breaks, and shifts in expression or timbre a central dramaturgical principle, one which she differentiated and evolved further over the years using loop structures.

Hand in hand with these developments was a continuous interest in film, which was enhanced by Neuwirth studying film and painting for a stretch in San Francisco in 1986, before ultimately focusing on composing in Vienna. References to films by René Clair, Alfred Hitchcock, Chris Marker, Jack Smith or David Lynch are part of an intensive preoccupation with cinematic art which, in addition to transferring cinematographic techniques to compositional procedures, also includes productively exploring the experimental approaches of film and video artists, such as Valie Export, or the aesthetic dimensions of animated films and slapstick. In one of Neuwirth’s earliest pieces, the composition !?dialogues suffisants!? – Hommage à Hitchcock (Portrait einer Komposition als junger Affe I) (1991/92) for cello, percussion, tape and nine video monitors, she combines such influences into a concept that accords great value to media technology: by transmitting the percussionist’s performance in a non-public space to loudspeakers and, with the aid of a camera, to monitors in the concert hall, that is, making the musician a virtual dialogue partner of the cellist on stage, she undermines familiar listening and viewing habits, and favors acoustic and visual phenomena that radically alter what is happening. Ever since, the essential role played by film in Neuwirth’s oeuvre can be seen, for example, in the music theater works Bählamms Fest (1994–99, based on a play by Leonora Carrington) and Lost Highway (2002/03, based on David Lynch’s film of the same name). The intrinsic pull of these works definitively stems from a virtuoso interlacing of music and filmic components that are indispensable to the whole. Neuwirth’s extensive preoccupation with the moving image is also evident in various scores for films of different genres and her own experimental cinematic works. Similarly, it has often found its way into the realization of her visual-acoustic installations.

Neuwirth has always paid particular attention to the design of space. Her ongoing interest in relevant issues, fueled by her preoccupation with architecture and three-dimensional art is, on the one hand, reflected in the spatial concepts of many of her ensemble and orchestral scorings in which the individual instrumental groups are often set off against each other within a sound space by means of micro-intervallic detunings. On the other hand, this exploration of aspects of space can be felt wherever Neuwirth has “fluid architecture in mind” and thus designs performance spaces using three-dimensional audio projections and live electronic sound conversion. In works such as Drei Instrumentalinseln aus Bählamms Fest (1999/2000) for ensemble and live electronics positioned centrally within the space, the cinematic music project The Long Rain (1999/2000) for four soloists, ensemble in four groups distributed in the space and live electronics, or the composition ... ce qui arrive ... (2004) for ensemble in two groups, samples, live electronics and film, she investigates the architecture of today's concert halls and spatial conceptions for performing music, and turns them into compositional material—a development whose culmination is to date the monumental composition Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie (2014/15) for ensemble in six groups distributed around the space, samples and live electronics: In the spirit of “acoustic monument preservation”, the acoustic properties of the Venetian church of San Lorenzo were analyzed with the most modern technologies available, which in turn made it possible to precisely reconstruct the acoustics of the church at the performance space, as well as use its qualities as the point of departure for targeted spatial manipulations and sound transformations.

Besides acoustics, scientific measuring techniques and research have also left traces in her work. This is particularly visible in the composition Kloing! (2007/08) for computer-controlled piano, live pianist and live video, the musical intensification of which results from the sonification of seismic data. The composer uses the common scientific method of transferring registered measurements into acoustic manifestations to send increasingly complex waves of cascading tones to the keyboard of a computer-controlled grand piano, thus confronting the live pianist with ever greater obstacles as he plays.

Richness of Meaning

One of the most striking characteristics of Neuwirth's composing is how she shapes ideas by referring more or less distinctly to a variety of related musical factors that affect everything from the sound to the formal dramaturgy. Here, too, a sometimes overwhelming diversity is committed to the idea of the “in-between”: First of all, the broad historical and stylistic spectrum of references reflects a cultural-historical panorama that ranges from the vocal polyphony of the Renaissance to the music of the Baroque and the action art of the Fluxus movement. Second, since her earliest works she has also assimilated impulses from diverse genres of popular music culture, which at the time were not taken seriously in contemporary music. And third, the world of jazz—a genre with which Neuwirth came into contact in her childhood through her father’s career as a jazz musician—has left a clear trail as well. The composer subjects all of these references to a process of recontextualization and rupture that varies from work to work, so as to gain new perspectives and form a dense web of cross references. In doing so, she has from the outset not only incorporated all sorts of quotations and allusions into her scores, but also focused on using different sound generators that connote specific styles and approaches to making music and contexts of meaning. These include, for instance, the viola d'amore, which was used chiefly in the Baroque period; the ondes Martenot and theremin, early electronic instruments; toy instruments, used at times to expand the ensemble, such as a toy trumpet or guitar; sound generators from rock and pop music, such as a synthesizer, drum set or electric guitar; as well as the tonal qualities that enter into the music through the use of a countertenor or synthetic voices.

The trumpet concerto ... miramondo multiplo ... (2006) reveals just how imaginatively Neuwirth works with historical references and what she aims for with the related compositional procedures. This piece unfolds in a kaleidoscopic labyrinth of real and fake quotations, in which the composer deals with an important aspect of her biography as an artist: the trumpet—as a teenager she had to give up playing it after a serious car accident. If one approaches the composition with this knowledge, the many unexpected references to music and ways of playing music—related to the likes of Georg Friedrich Händel, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, Miles Davis or Stephen Sondheim—can be comprehended as reflecting personal memories and experiences. Embedded in finely honed chains of elements, such as trills, flageolets, tremolos and glissandos, which appear like briefly surfacing thoughts, a scape of ever-changing sounds shimmers in the foreground to then disappear just as quickly again, out of the focus of attention. Yet biographical information is not absolutely necessary to tap into how Neuwirth handles mosaic-like modules of sound: For they form a kind of “audio film” whose associatively charged fragments are open to interpretation and may be linked imaginatively as one listens to very different sound narratives consisting of many individual situations.

Neuwirth has worked with such elements because of her interest in how remembering and forgetting operate and their significance, based on insights from cognitive science and neurology. Both phenomena are relevant for the process of composing and the question of the perceptibility of musical structures, but they also reference something deeper. Making memory phenomena a compositional theme allows us to deduct how the composer reflects on her own historical standpoint and positions herself as an artist in the present. Consequently, the integration of such allusions is an important means for Neuwirth to illuminate the mechanisms of memory on different levels, to shape them by drawing on her personal wealth of knowledge and experience, and to make them accessible and understandable to others in the form, of artworks. In doing so, she has from the start used the artistic exploration of relevant processes to clarify her conception of herself as an artist in contemporary society and decry how injustices are overlooked or forgotten.

Not always has a look at the horizons of her own experience been so clearly articulated as in the film for the sound installation ...miramondo multiplo... (2007). In it Neuwirth takes passages from her trumpet concerto and uses them to depict how music is created through the tedious task of writing down imagined sounds. Thus by aligning reality with the memory of it, she calls attention to fundamental mechanisms of the production process. In the orchestral piece Masaot/Clocks without Hands (2013/14), on the other hand, she intensively scrutinizes the origins of her compositional thinking and, by incorporating fragments of Eastern European folk music, drafts a panorama of her geographic-cultural roots. The resulting flow of melodic fragments, described in Neuwirth’s notes on the work as a “shaped stream of memories”, proceeds from herself but also touches upon that point at which the private turns into the societal and she sees her responsibility as an artist: As vestiges of a musical culture destroyed by war and persecution, the melodic fragments reveal that the composer grasps confronting the political traumas of recent history as part of her artistic identity. Hence the quoted fragments serve as acoustic reminders, as signs of the loss of human and socio-political spaces of experience, and as a call for the necessity of remembering—a necessity that Neuwirth, for instance, also integrated into the composition torsion: transparent variation (2001) for bassoon and ensemble in the form of barely perceptible traces of klezmer music, and into the music she created in 2018 for Hans Karl Breslauer's silent film Die Stadt ohne Juden (1924).

Challenge and Commitment

An encounter with Neuwirth's art is, of course, challenging because her works resist our just leaning back and enjoying them. This has to do with the committed and emancipatory attitude Neuwirth has when concentrating on social and political problems in her works, and how she uses text choice and musical concepts as tools for taking a critical stance. First and foremost, this involves her artistic reaction to the social inequalities between the sexes. This pervades especially those works created in collaboration with the writer Elfriede Jelinek, such as the oratorio Aufenthalt (1992/93), the radio play Todesraten (1997), the music theater Bählamms Fest or the electronic ballet music Der Tod und das Mädchen II (2000). Triggered by her experiences in a male-dominated world, which in the early 1990s was far more overtly determined by gender-motivated sentiments than it is today, an awareness of such issues persistently runs through Neuwirth's oeuvre, borne by a political engagement that includes examining all forms of abuse of power and discrimination. The artistic consequences of this attitude take on very different forms: they can be seen in concrete verbal statements—for instance, in her speech “Ich lasse mich nicht wegjodeln” (“I won’t be yodelled out of existence”), which she gave in 2000 at a demonstration against the Austrian right-wing FPÖ’s participation in the government—as well as in her recurrent interest in stage characters who embody the other, are defiant and evade the conventions of a society stuck in stereotypical or discriminatory patterns of thought.

For example, the latter is evident in the opera American Lulu (2006–2012), in which Neuwirth explores the desire for artistic self-empowerment and emancipation of an African American artist. It is set against the backdrop of racism and violence, based on a reworking of Alban Berg’s Lulu, and includes recordings of texts by Martin Luther King, June Jordan and Djuna Barnes. Neuwirth’s concern with these matters is demonstrated even more impressively in her most recent opera Orlando (2017­–19) which, based on Virginia Woolf’s book of the same name, was the first large commission to a female composer in the 150-year history of the Vienna State Opera. In this work, advocating for minorities and diversity, as well as affirming non-binary, multiple identities is reflected not only on the level of the literary theme, which Neuwirth has continued up into the present day; it also infuses the entire substance of what she has composed. The carefully coordinated interplay of different, sometimes semantically charged material and video projections focuses in each scene anew on analyzing social mechanisms of oppression across the centuries. The composer's obvious willingness to address extremely painful, unresolved issues and unreservedly take a political stand—in order to question those societal norms and social behaviors that are in many places accepted as a matter of course—has decisively contributed to the high status Neuwirth’s art has achieved as critical and committed commentary in the contemporary cultural world.

Nevertheless, an encounter with the composer's oeuvre can also be unsettling as it confronts the listener with a provocative musical complexity that sometimes goes so far as to overwhelm: The tracks Neuwirth lays out in her works—for example, by allowing divergent stylistic levels to clash, by incorporating quotations with varying degrees of recognizability, or by relating different perceptual modalities to one another by combining acoustic and visual media—at all times serve the attempt to break habits and make room for uncertainty. Characteristic for this is the merging of different instrumental, vocal and electronic sound sources into a hybrid product, for which Neuwirth coined the term “androgynous sound”. Already in the early 1990s, she had demanded that her music be perceived as “Art-in-Between”. The irritation caused by such sounds explicitly underscores this: For despite confronting us as an entity, they pull the rug out from under us every time the origin and nature of the interconnected components conflict with our previous listening experiences and defy categorization.

The resultant obscuring of the familiar in favor of the uncanny articulates itself above all in those instances where Neuwirth works with multiple identities and concentrates on the transition between what is irreconcilable. This occurs early on in Bählamms Fest when, in a practically unprecedented manner, the countertenor’s singing is transformed into the howling of a wolf via live electronic morphing—a technical novelty at the time—in order to accentuate how human and animal existence oscillate between each other. Such a transition is also found in the final section of Der Tod und das Mädchen II, when Neuwirth fades a women’s voice in over a computer-generated voice and so gradually transforms the speaker’s identity. Two decades ago, the composer formulated what she strives for with such complex concepts in an idea central to her art, that is, listeners who “think for themselves”. This implies that perception is a process in which meaning is continually constructed and—as Neuwirth said in her opening speech at the steirischer herbst festival in 2003—the music “first must come together in the listener’s mind”. This is nothing less than an invitation to the audience to engage in the artistic event with all the openness at its command and to use it as a means of gaining individual knowledge.

A look at Neuwirth's works also makes it unmistakably clear that in many respects she has taken on a pioneering role as a composer over the past decades. Herein lies the indisputable historical significance of her artistic achievements: As a far-sighted innovator of a creative process that transcends media and genres, she has since the start of her career consistently explored numerous artistic means of technology and media—many of which are today readily available and at times used in an almost inflationary manner—and made them indispensable components of her work. She has frequently been able to assert herself even when faced with the institutional resistance and reluctance of event organizers. Yet often enough she has also suffered blows from the conservative music industry and—as the ever-growing list of her unfinished projects indicates—sometimes experienced spectacular opposition. Despite these setbacks, she has applied the manifold possibilities of the latest technologies with indefatigable perseverance for more than three decades, thus providing her creative imagination the freedom of scope it requires. Over time she has fundamentally expanded the idea of composing so as to be able to deal with the burning questions of our time from ever new perspectives and beyond the boundaries of traditional genres. The fact that from the outset Neuwirth has made herself a spokesperson for multiple identities and pursued questions which have only recently become part of public discourse constitutes the extraordinary radical nature of her artistic thinking and characterizes her “Art-in-Between” as an art of perpetual protest.