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Olga Neuwirth

Born in Graz in 1968, Olga Neuwirth grew up with the example of a noted composer, music historian, and composition teacher in the family: her uncle Gösta Neuwirth. She started trumpet lessons when she was seven, and studied composition, film, and painting in San Francisco for a year before she enrolled, in 1986, at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, where her mentor was Erich Urbanner. There were also decisive encounters with two other established composers: Adriana Hölszky and Luigi Nono. After graduating, in 1993, she spent a year in Paris studying with Tristan Murail and at IRCAM.

She wrote her conservatory dissertation on the music (by Hans Werner Henze) in Alain Resnais’s L’Amour à mort, and film has remained a vital part of her life. Not only has she worked with filmmakers, including the Quay Brothers, composed scores for silent films (notably Vikking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony), and remade David Lynch’s Lost Highway as an opera, her music generally has something of the glaze of film, the sense that, though the expressive gestures may be violent or disturbing, they are unfolding somewhere apart and unreachable. Immediacy and distance seem to be simultaneously present, as are innovation and memory: the startling new idea or process and the reference to the musical past, sometimes in the form of quote or imitation. Multiplicity — of focus, of expression, of time — often comes from dense layerings, though passages of stillness and openness are also characteristic.

Literature has been almost as important to Neuwirth as film. One of her earliest works was a cantata with words by Elfriede Jelinek, Aufenthalt (1992–93), and she worked with Jelinek on her first two operas, Bählaams Fest (1997–98), and Lost Highway (2002–03). Her third — The Outcast, which received its world première in Mannheim earlier this year — had a libretto by Barry Gifford and Anna Mitgutsch after Moby Dick.

Other landmarks include two portrait concerts at the 1998 Salzburg Festival; a piece for orchestral strings and percussion commissioned for Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday tour (Clinamen/Nodus, 1999); the forty-minute Construction in Space for four wind soloists, four instrumental groups; and electronics (2000–01); torsion for bassoon and ensemble (2001); the trumpet concerto …miramondo multiplo…, with which she returned to the Salzburg Festival in 2006; and a first string quartet, in the realms of the unreal (2009). Her website provides further information about an output that is already large and diverse.

…ce qui arrive…” (2003–04)
for two instrumental groups, samples, and live electronics

  What happens, is. In 2002, Paul Virilio had the opportunity to expand his work as a cultural theorist into the forum of an exhibition, on the theme of accidents, under the title “ce qui arrive” (what happens). Neuwirth took the same phrase to label what developed as one of her longest and most powerful concert works, in which accidents and collisions are subsumed in music that generally moves slowly, oozing forward, and that takes place as if in a large resonant container, partly thanks to the electronic presence, on which Neuwirth worked at the Institute for Electronic Music and Acoustics in Graz, partly thanks to the harmonic spectra on D — spectra often including quarter-tones — that bulge and stay and move throughout the composition. Perhaps this echoing music is the sound of memory, revolving on events — life experiences as recorded by Paul Auster, reading from his Hand to Mouth and The Red Notebook, as well as musical events and references (folk song, popular song, chorale). Or perhaps we could imagine the work’s components — instrumental and electronic music, spoken monologue, intermittent songs — as remnants of a shipwreck, reverberating underwater.

It is not just accident, however, not just coincidence that brings these things together. The D on which the music focuses, the steady light at its center, is the predominant pitch of Auster’s speaking voice, which is generally heard more or less straight, though occasionally it is electronically altered, sometimes to blend in with the strings. So although the voice seems to be telling its stories outside the music, it is at the same time central to that music, to the extent that the ‘resonant container’ could even be thought of as Auster’s vocal cavity, whose frequencies the instruments pick out. The mouth, therefore, is both an object on the horizon of this piece and the space within which it unfolds.

There is multiplicity and ambiguity, too, in the roles of the instruments, which form at once two groups answering one another from opposing sides of the stage and a single formation, itself poised between new-music ensemble and club band. Some of the instruments are at times absorbed into the electronic sound; all of them stand out on occasion as soloists. Passages where everyone is following the same rhythm are intercut with others, longer, where the instrumental parts are not coordinated, so that time seems to flow smoothly, or not at all. The more popular-style music comes to a head three times for songs interpreted by the German transgendered performer Georgette Dee, songs in which Neuwirth, herself crossing boundaries, adopts a style associated with the Brecht settings of Weill and Eisler.

Playing for almost an hour, the piece holds us in its grip as it conveys us, perhaps unsuspectingly, to a moment of epiphany — a moment that, though stunning and resolving when it comes, seems to have been there all along, the condition for everything else.

locus… doublure…solus for piano and ensemble (2001)

Neuwirth’s piano concerto also has literary connections, but now indirectly, words not trespassing into the music beyond its title, which intercalates those of two works by Raymond Roussel: his novel Locus Solus and his long descriptive poem La Doublure. These nested titles insert a principle of doubleness (one meaning of doublure is “understudy”) into an idea of the single, even singular, Locus Solus being translatable as “A Place Alone.” All piano concertos, of course, are about two things coexisting, and this one adds further bifurcations that have to be made coherent, in that the viola is tuned just over a quarter-tone sharp and the electric keyboard just over a quarter-tone flat. Unsettling tunings become part of the work’s craziness.

That craziness may contain a further reference to Roussel’s wonderfully convoluted writings. John Ashbery’s synopsis of Locus Solus begins: “A prominent scientist and inventor, Martial Canterel, has invited a group of colleagues to visit the park of his country estate, Locus Solus. As the group tours the estate, Canterel shows them inventions of ever-increasing complexity and strangeness.” In this case, Neuwirth and her performers take the place of the mad scientist, and the inventions are the seven movements of the piece, made with repeating, rotating, and alternating blocks that easily suggest machines made of sound, though one might be reminded, too, of Messiaen’s electric hymns fabricated from birdsong.

Most of the movements include somewhere the marking “schreitend/dolce,” the only verbal marking in the score, suggesting purposeful progress (“striding”) is not incompatible with expressiveness. Certainly these sonic cogwheels, pulleys, weights, and levers are exuberantly busy and colorful — alive, one might say.

The first movement and the last are fixed in place; the other five may be presented in any order. Only one is slow, and has two notes — the C sharp and D sharp above middle C — caused to sound throughout by electronic bows applied to the strings of the solo piano. Another movement dashes by in a flurry, with glissandos right up the treble half of the keyboard. Still another is a march, touched in at times with the Weill-Eisler arrow in Neuwirth’s packed quiver. Types change; only the light in which they are shown stays bright.