Tom Service 

A guide to Olga Neuwirth’s music

This remarkable creator – of orchestral pieces and chamber works as well as hybrids of film and performance art – draws on a plethora of influences, yet devises her own astonishing sound, writes Tom Service
  
  

After Igor Stravinsky, it's a bit of a cliche to think of contemporary composition as making the most of the etymological truism that the roots of the verb "to compose" come from the Latin "componere" meaning "to put together" – ie that you're not creating anything new as a composer, merely creating new combinations of sounds, of things, of ideas, that already exist. But Austrian, er, composer Olga Neuwirth (whose recent viola concerto Remnants of Songs ... An Amphigory will have its first British performance at the Proms on 13 August) perhaps more than any other musician of her generation (she was born in 1968) really does take that principle as her starting point.

What does that mean for how her music sounds? Listen to this: No More is a quasi-improvised piece that Neuwirth made a few years ago with the ICI Ensemble; the collage she creates on a laptop from samples of Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, Edgard Varèse, texts by Frank Zappa – and scores of others – alongside the playing of the ensemble, makes a dizzying trip through as much music history as you can cram into half an hour, a realisation of an open-ended music-making in which everything, every style and every historical period, is available for compositional plundering in a continual present tense.

But there's much more to her creative world than that. Neuwirth's output as a whole – her orchestral pieces, chamber works, music theatre pieces, as well as unclassifiable multimedia hybrids of film, theatre, and performance art – is not simply a revelling in a postmodern rubble of references. Have a listen to her trumpet concerto Miramondo Multiplo. There's a rich kaleidoscope of trumpet-based tropes going on here – you'll hear allusions to Gustav Mahler, Miles Davis, George Frideric Handel, Stravinsky, and others – but it's how Neuwirth pulls all this together into a single experience that makes the piece so satisfying. The trumpet soloist sings a song with the orchestra rather than against it, and the allusions to previously existing musics are seamlessly connected with the idiom that Neuwirth's own music creates.

That might have something to do with Neuwirth's astonishingly diverse training, which started with her dreaming of becoming a female Davis before a car accident and jaw injury put paid to her ambitions as a trumpet player; she studied fine art and film in San Francisco while still a teenager, and although she's steeped in the heightened Viennoiserie of Mahler, Alban Berg, and Arnold Schoenberg (a love and knowledge that seeps sensually from every pore of her orchestral pieces), she also studied with French spectralist Tristan Murail. Take all of that, and combine it with Neuwirth's creative omnivorousness and her love of collaboration with writers, directors, film-makers and electronic artists, and you get an idea of the diversity and range of her already pretty all-encompassing list of compositions, or puttings-together of different art forms, different genres, different approaches to the world. In even a small cross-section of Neuwirth's work you'll find, say, a thrilling, teeming, claustrophobic score for a film of Ray Bradbury's story The Long Rain; there's a meditation on Italy's fascist past for film and improvising musicians, Italia Anno Zero; a homage to high-camp and high-art cabaret artist Klaus Nomi; there's Torsion, for manically tortured bassoon soloist and ensemble; and a piece called Hooloomooloo for three-part ensemble and CD player (Neuwirth has some of the best titles in the business).

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Fine. But even with those kind of precedents, possibly her biggest musical and theatrical coup was the opera (well, sort of – "immersive music-theatre-experience" might be a better way of describing it) that she composed on David Lynch's film Lost Highway. It's not hubris when Neuwirth says her creative world already chimes with Lynch's; there are real connections between both of them in terms of the mysterious, labyrinthine ways they both like to tell a story and create narrative, the way that Neuwirth's pieces lead you down a rabbit hole of references to things you think you know, but where nothing is quite as you remember it. Even so, being given the rights by Lynch and writer Barry Gifford to do what she wanted with Lost Highway was itself a huge feat. The result was unforgettable in the theatre when the English National Opera staged it at the Young Vic in London, and it's impressive on CD, too. Fusing a brilliantly imaginative staging with film, the vertiginous, genre- and gender-bending vocals of David Moss, and some outstanding vocal performances, Lost Highway made the transition from celluloid to opera stage more convincingly than anyone can have expected. Neuwirth's multi-layered music for ensemble and electronics made Lynch's story of memory, identity and murder even richer and stranger than the original – and created a new kind of music theatre along the way. (She has done something similar with The Outcast, her vision of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which casts Ishmael as a woman, and has made her own version of Berg's Lulu, which sets the story in the context of mid-century African-American politics. It premieres in the autumn, and is scored for, among other things, Las Vegas-style band.)

And that's the point about the best of Neuwirth's work: yes, it might be putting things together that already exist, but her simultaneous openness and critical discernment creates new meanings, new identities, and, yes, new sounds in contemporary music.

Five key links

Lost Highway

The Long Rain

Miramondo Multiplo

No More

Torsion

Next week: John Cage