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Olga Neuwirth: composer interview

(August 2002)

Olga Neuwirth, who recently signed with Boosey & Hawkes, is composer in residence at this summer's Lucerne Festival. Here she discusses her musical world and creative interests.



Your works and their titles display a love of linguistic games and multiple meanings. How do you view 'language' in musical terms?

I don't like to apply the word 'language' directly to music. But I can accept this word if it refers to the multiple possibilities for self-expression, especially the range of available Babel-tongues. I enjoy playing with different layers of material and with the material itself in a labyrinthine way, outfoxing myself and the listener alike in every new piece.

Recent works such as ecstaloop and torsion: transparent variation feature 'voids' for tape which interrupt the instrumental flow. What exactly are these 'voids'?

The 'voids' can have different meanings in different pieces, but in general I have taken the name from the the empty, quasi-silent spaces in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, referred to as 'voids' by the building's architect Daniel Libeskind. I like to be influenced by other arts to find solutions for my own composing. In the 'structure' of the museum Libeskind refers to Arnold Schoenberg's Moses and Aron, especially to the sentence of Moses "Oh Word, you Word that fails me". There are and have been situations where humans are no longer able to express themselves, where speech is lost – in my context, where musical expression is lost – what is left is the unspoken and the impossibility of calling for action. So in my works the 'void' functions as a metaphor and brings a sudden concentration on a different kind of listening, as the sounds shockingly differ from what we have just heard: the energetic musical flow ends up as a void of flow, and has to try to start again with effort...

You are fascinated by the sounds of everyday life, yet you employ highly sophisticated compositional techniques and instrumental virtuosity to interpret these sounds. How do you reconcile these 'low art' and 'high art' extremes?

I can't see any real distinction between 'low art' and 'high art' and I grew up with jazz and pop. Are these arts 'low' art? To sum up in a superficial way, my interest lies in a tense, darkish nervous, powerful music, being influenced by Varèse, Nono and Lachenmann. The means of realisation is of no concern to me. So it's not about reconcilation but about the use of every material I can grasp, if I feel I need it. That's why I've always liked Stravinsky – he wasn't afraid to use different materials and put them together in his own special way, which doesn't mean at all that the result is a patchwork.

You frequently create mixed media works, drawing upon paintings, books and films. Are you seeking a modern total artwork to replace opera?

I don't like the word 'total' and mistrust artists who think they have found the ultimate explanation for art and life. But yes, I like to work on mixed media projects as it is challenging to engage with other artists. On one hand it helps me to escape from the loneliness of my workdesk, and on another it provides a route to leave behind the often rigid world of contemporary music and that of classical music in general – although I love this world, I also consider it to be the most conservative and petrified art-form.

Humour can play a subversive role in your music. How did this come about?

Well, I think I have an illusionless-ironic view of the world, as Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch have portrayed it in their films. The only problem is what does irony or humour mean in music? Of course it doesn't mean that people are slapping their thighs and rolling about. Maybe it's more about a subtle, dark humour...

This year's Lucerne Festival offers a retrospective of your works. How do you react to hearing your earlier pieces?

I actually don't like to listen to older works as my first reaction is: "My God, who has written this music?" I'm more intrigued by each new piece I work on, and like to be challenged with finding solutions to the latest problems. In the case of the Lucerne Festival the first concert is OK as it has the topic of live-electronics and combines a fairly recent piece from 2000 with the premiere of a new work for flute, piano and electronics. However, the final portrait concert is a real confrontation between some older pieces and my latest compositions. The end of this event will attempt to bring everything into the present when my works are remixed by DJ Spooky.

What are your future plans?

There is a huge project co-commissioned by the Salzburg Festival and the Bastille Opera planned for 2006, but at present I'm working on a new music-theatre piece for November 2003. While looking for possible libretti – I always need a strong impulse to start working – I thought about one of my favourite filmmakers, David Lynch, whose 'world' is very close to mine. His films feel under constant pressure, he creates conditions of opression and anxiety, and there is always a vortex from which nobody can escape. It's like a world between Kafka, The Wizard of Oz and Francis Bacon – that's great! I dared asking Lynch and later his co-author Barry Gifford to give me the rights for their amazing, thrilling, frightening and bewildering film Lost Highway. I still can't believe it, but they agreed, and now I'm trying to find a scenic/music equivalent for this cinematic masterpiece by using a small ensemble, soloists, tapes, live-electronics, only a few singers and one actor to bring the whole space to life. It will be a 90-minute-long piece and, psychologically, the listener should find no way to escape...

Interviewed by David Allenby


Lucerne Festival 16 August – 10 September 2002

Publishers: BH=Boosey & Hawkes; Ric = Ricordi

16 August Luzerner Saal, 9.00 pm
Photophorus [Ric] (Swiss premiere)
Maurizio Grandinetti/Christy Doran/Basel Sinfonietta/Peter Rundel

31 August Luzerner Saal, 11.00 am
Verfremdung/Entfremdung [BH] (world premiere)
Construction in Space [Ric] (Swiss premiere)
Eva Furrer/Marino Formenti/Peter Böhm/Klangforum Wien/
Peter Rundel

4 September Lukaskirche, 7.30 pm
settori [Ric]
Akroate Hadal [Ric]
Arditti Quartet

6/10 September Luzerntheater, 8.00 pm
Bählamms Fest [Ric] (Swiss premiere)
Kazuko Watanabe, dir/Luzerner Sinfonieorchester/Christian Arming

7 September Luzerner Saal, 9.00 pm
incidendo/fluido [Ric]
Spleen I and II [Ric]
Hooloomooloo [Ric]
locus...doublure...solus [BH] (Swiss premiere)
torsion: transparent variation [BH] (Swiss premiere)
Hommage à Klaus Nomi [Ric]
DJ Spooky remixes Olga Neuwirth
Thomas Larcher/Pascal Gallois/DJ Spooky/Collegium Novum Zürich/
Pierre-André Valade



Photo: © Priska Ketterer

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