“Olga Neuwirth has always been a pioneer” – Interview w/ Stefan Drees

Olga Neuwirth © Harald Hoffmann
Olga Neuwirth © Harald Hoffmann

For many years, German musicologist STEFAN DREES has dedicated himself to the work of OLGA NEUWIRTH as one of his central research topics. In the run-up to his visit to Vienna for a symposium on Olga Neuwirth’s film music during Wien Modern 2018, he spoke with Marie-Therese Rudolph about the characteristic features of Neuwirth’s music, its reoccurring themes and how these are reflected in the compositions.


What is so special and characteristic about composer, Olga Neuwirth?

Stefan Drees: The special thing about Olga Neuwirth‘s work is actually the blurring of boundaries between the arts. She is primarily a composer – she refers to herself a composer – but she is not afraid to look in other artistic directions and use other arts. For example, she is a musician playing the theremin, she is a performer in the tradition of the Happening and Fluxus movements, meaning she’s an experimental performer on both the concert stage and in the context of plays; she is also a filmmaker, a photographer, and an installation artist.
What also makes her stand out is the fact that she anticipated much of what is currently regarded as trendy, and did so very prominently, and without it having been appreciated. She began to work with visual media at a time when it was still completely unusual and frowned upon in the concert hall, namely at the beginning of the 1990s. Olga Neuwirth has always been a pioneer.

Which major topics can be found in the work of Olga Neuwirth?

Stefan Drees: There are some strands in her work that have continued on since her very first pieces. She is very much concerned with the process of remembering. The question of how I can reproduce this in music; how can I play with it? This has been one of her main topics since the 1990s. Then there are many pieces from the last two decades that deal not only with the role of women, but also with the role of the female artist. With the question of what art means in today’s society, what significance it even has … In addition, Olga Neuwirth has been a very political artist from the very beginning, which is somewhat stifled in the reception in Germany and Austria, but is always decisively underlined in France.

Olga Neuwirth has long had a close relationship with Elfriede Jelinek.

Stefan Drees: Elfriede Jelinek is certainly a very important reference. Olga Neuwirth collaborated with her very early on in a composition course in Deutschlandsberg. There she set two texts to music from a municipal opera for which Jelinek had written the libretto. That was the beginning of their cooperation. This was followed by two short operas on pieces by Elfriede Jelinek for the Wiener Festwochen, “Körperliche Veränderungen” and “Der Wald – ein tönendes Fastfoodgericht”. Since then their cooperation has continued until the present. In 2012 a film, titled “Das Fallen. Die Falle” showed Olga Neuwirth composing her musical theatre piece, “The Outcast”, which was based on a text by Elfriede Jelinek. Jelinek’s text illustrates the composition of a woman in a unique way.

Olga Neuwirth © Lukas Beck, Wiener Konzerthaus
Olga Neuwirth © Lukas Beck, Wiener Konzerthaus

Where does Olga Neuwirth find her inspiration or the questions that are relevant to her? 

Stefan Drees: Olga Neuwirth is a person who walks through the world with a very open mind and takes her inspirations from everywhere. And everywhere really means everywhere. That means she can be interested in hip-hop, which she has already addressed in the past. The way the band N.W.A. worked with remixes has, for example, inspired some of her own work. She is interested in animated film, especially early ones or American cartoons. She is interested in artists that one would normally be loosely assigned to the popular music sector, such as Klaus Nomi for example, whose songs she arranged and laid out into a musical theatre. She is interested in all kinds of literature, is inspired again and again, using hugely diverse text fragments in her works. She is interested in painting, installation art … it all comes together. That’s why elements of this mixture of interests flow into her work, again and again.


How does Olga Neuwirth use alienating techniques in her music? What is she trying to accomplish with that?

Stefan Drees: Such alienating techniques, especially when applied to instrumental sounds or the voice, aim for a new kind of experience that the audience should have. It’s about creating hybrid sounds, sound mixes that you don’t know that well. When you hear a symphony by Brahms or Beethoven, a horn sounds like a horn. But if, for example, you listen to a piece with electronics by Olga Neuwirth from the 1990s, the sounds are changed by the use of electronics. With electronic feeds, hybridized live electronics, they become something else. That means, they are no longer recognizable. And that’s where the new begins, where perception is challenged, where you make a new experience.

This also applies to the use of voices: Olga Neuwirth started using the countertenor very early on, because the countertenor itself has a characteristic timbre that is difficult to assign to the male or female spectrum. She then additionally changed the countertenor in “Bählamm’s Feast” by metamorphosing it with wolf howls; the voice of the countertenor transforms bit by bit into the howl of a wolf. So I see an opera character on stage, first singing and then howling. That means I am being torn back and forth by this half animal, half human figure. That, of course, challenges me as a listener.

On the one hand, the electroacoustic plays a strone role in the work of Olga Neuwirth. On the other hand, the analog-mechanical plays a key role…

Stefan Drees: Olga Neuwirth is very fascinated by this idea of the mechanized. This is reflected in her preference for mechanical toys or slapstick comedies. By that I mean that everything moves quickly, everything goes fast. Such elements can also be found in her music, especially where she works with instruments such as the computer-controlled piano, or in her percussion concerto “Trurliade – Zone Zero” from 2016. It can be found throughout all her music.

Olga Neuwirth has composed several pieces based on material by Herman Melville. What is the attraction?

Stefan Drees: Her fascination with Melville is rooted in the fact that she sees him as a soul mate. An artist who lived in the 19th century and had to struggle with the incomprehension of his contemporaries! Olga Neuwirth also sees this situation for contemporary female composers. Melville’s attitude is something that intrigues her very much. History shows that Melville was barely appreciated during his lifetime, especially towards the end of his life. After his death, he was rediscovered as the American writer.

This fascination with Melville led to a whole group of works which more or less deal with him. This includes the music theatre “The Outcast”, in which Neuwirth draws on the “Moby Dick” material, but tells it in a very unique way. She does so fragmentarily, and by bringing the writer Melville himself onto the stage as the figure of “Old Melville”, who repeatedly talks to his characters and reflects on the creative process. Here too, we are seeing a conflict between the artist and society.

The confrontation with Melville has manifested itself not only compositionally, but also on a visual level. 

Stefan Drees: At the same time as “The Outcast”, two photo series were taken by Olga Neuwirth in Manhattan. One series is titled “O Melville!”, where she had herself photographed with a Melville mask that she made, based on a famous Melville portrait. She was the same age as Melville was at the time of the original portrait, and Neuwirth also got photographed with this mask on at places where Melville himself one lived and worked.

The other photo collection comprises two series of equal importance, namely “Quiet on the desk” and “Everyday Olga”. “Quiet on the desk” is a series for which she photographed her desk every day while working on an opera, thus documenting the progress of the score. “Everyday Olga” is a series twinned with “Quiet on the desk”, in which Neuwirth photographed herself when she got into work every morning – always donning worker’s overalls. At the same time, she also documented her work with a punch card of the sort we know from earlier industrial work. Thus, she equates her compositional work with the capitalist value creation process, also showing that nothing can be said about the music itself, merely demonstrating how her own life develops while composing.

Another very important, large-scale Melville work is “Le Encantadas”, which was performed at Wien Modern in 2017.

Stefan Drees: The basis for “Le Encantadas” was a collection of essays with ten philosophical sketches entitled “The Encantadas, or enchanted isles” – a collection about the Galapagos Islands. This peculiar literary work is the model for the shaping of the composition. Melville approaches this topic, these islands, in very different ways, on the one hand by writing descriptions of nature and on the other by reporting on people who lived or worked there. He does so very inconsistently. If you take a closer look, you can see that Olga Neuwirth proceeded in a very similar way with the composition of this work. She circles an object that she constantly shows from different perspectives. This object is something very special: the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Venice. A church that is unfortunately not accessible today, left to decay, but which has a very important meaning for the composer – it was in this church that Luigi Nono’s “Prometeo” premiered, one of the most important composition in recent decades.

Nono wrote the work especially for the church’s acoustics. Olga Neuwirth was hence given the opportunity to capture the acoustics of the church with the most modern of means. This meant capturing the reverberation times and everything else by measuring the room acoustically, enabling the room to be recreated in any concert hall. That’s the foundation – to not only reconstruct the space, but also to change it; one can bring in new sound sources, simulate them and change their sound. She plays with these elements. It’s especially nice to notice at the beginning when she uses a field recording. To do so she recorded the sounds of the lagoon in Venice. One can imagine, while listening, that one is walking through Venice, along the canals, and then one steps through the portal of the church and suddenly finds oneself in the interior of the church. The experience that one has at the beginning of “Le Encantadas” is quite astonishing.


“Le Encantadas” is a kind of audio theatre. This term often appears in Olga Neuwirth’s work. 

Stefan Drees: The term audio theatre (in German: Hörtheater) is very important when you talk about Olga Neuwirth’s music. It’s often about something happening in the music that might evoke associations in the audience, but which is never explicitly stated. It provokes the imagination; a story can be created in the mind that is unique for each listener. The whole thing is like a big maze through which we must each find our own way. “Le Encantadas” is such an audio theatre, which in this case is meant as a kind of music theatre, but as a nonrepresentational theatre, in which we ourselves listen and make up a story.

Quotation is a technique, which appears again and again in Neuwirth’s work – for example, in her trumpet concerto.

Stefan Drees: The integration of quotations, of direct quotations or of As-If quotations, actually always works differently, but is a very essential stylistic device employed by Olga Neuwirth. The trumpet concerto “… miramondo multiplo …” is something very noteworthy because it is at the same time an examination of her own biography. Olga Neuwirth originally wanted to become a trumpeter, played the trumpet as a teenager and was then unable to continue this activity after a car accident that severely injured her jaw. In this respect, this piece is in fact a look back into her past. We do not only hear quotations from Handel’s music, but also from Steven Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”, the piece that Olga Neuwirth played during her first performance as a trumpeter – thus a direct allusion to her own story. But one also hears the trumpet style of Miles Davis, a trumpeter with whom she was very fascinated, and who represented a key role model for her as a trumpeter. A lot of personal things come together in this piece.

I’d also like to mention the wonderful orchestral piece “Masaot / Clocks without hands” from 2013/14, in which Olga Neuwirth repeatedly evokes folkloristic melodies from Eastern Europe, sometimes very directly, sometimes at the edge of perception. Here she is interested in showing where she herself comes from, where her cultural roots lie.

In 2019 there will be a major premiere at the Vienna State Opera.

Stefan Drees: Olga Neuwirth is currently working in Berlin on the completion of her musical theatre piece, “Orlando”, based on a libretto by the Franco-American writer Catherine Filloux, which was in turn based on the novel with the same name by Virginia Woolf. The work will be premiered in Vienna in Autumn 2019.

Thanks a lot for the interview!

Marie-Therese Rudolph – translated and abbreviated from the German article.

Olga Neuwirth
Olga Neuwirth in der music austria Database
Stefan Drees
Wien Modern