Olga Neuwirth © www.lukasbeck.com
Her compositions are as much characterized by sensitivity and critical thinking, as by her sense for the finest nuances of sound and her joy in crossing all kinds of boundaries: there is a good reason why Olga Neuwirth is regarded as one the most distinctive composers of our generation. In celebration of her 50th birthday, the Wiener Konzerthaus is presenting a featured portrait series of its honoary member.
«I would prefer not to»: These are the words spoken one day by the previously hardworking eponymous hero of Herman Melville’s «Bartleby the scrivener». Bartleby’s softly but firmly spoken expression of resistance begins in the office, but then spreads, extending from a refusal to work to a sort of rejection of life altogether. Olga Neuwirth is fascinated by this character, as well as by the work of Melville, creator of «Moby Dick», which has served as the inspiration for a number of her pieces.
Of course there is a resistant streak to Olga Neuwirth’s multi-faceted art that goes beyond mere composition. This stretches to the political and can effectively be heard as an echo of Bartleby. Olga Neuwirth would prefer not to write music whose aim is mere relaxation and mawkish embellishment. She would prefer not to be told by representatives of whatever power what to do or say on particular issues. And a lot more besides. Nevertheless, her art does not feed solely on a position of denial. It is not an art of forgettiing, but one of remembering. This can be seen in Neuwirth’s extensive interest in history and in her own musical past. Repeatedly in her choice of subject, she has shown sympathy for outsiders, who even if they have become stars, retain their vulnerability and are perhaps even destroyed by it.
This is the leitmotiv that winds itself through the four star-studded evenings in the Wiener Konzerthaus that make up the portrait series. In «The Outcast. Hommage to Herman Melville», described in her own work catalogue as «a musicstallation- theater with video», the central figures from «Moby Dick», including a female narrator Ishmaela, meet Old Melville and Bartleby. The eerily beautiful sounds from the suite to her first piece of music theatre, «Bählamms Fest», recall the werewolf Jeremy and his bloodlust. And in «Hommage à Klaus Nomi», performed by Klangforum Wien, Neuwirth pays sensitive and moving tribute to the musical hero of her youth. Representing her cinematic work is the new soundtrack to H. K. Breslauer’s 1924 silent film «Die Stadt ohne Juden», with the Ensemble PHACE giving the world premiere. Meant as a call for tolerance, the film’s depiction of the explusion of the Jews seems today to foreshadow the Holocaust – especially as the author of the novel on which it is based, Hugo Bettauer, was shot by a Nazi supporter in the year that the film was premiered. Following the sensational discovery at a Paris fleamarket of missing scenes from the film, it has been carefully restored by the Filmarchiv Austria. And its testimony against anti-Semitism is now even more political than the fragmentary version known previously.
A last evening in the Berio Hall – again with the Ensemble PHACE – shows Olga Neuwirth among younger music-makers: free-riding fantasy in «Adventures in Wonderland».