The ensemble MERVE is Barbara Maria Neu, Andrea Edlbauer, Stefanie Kropfreiter and Judith Ferstl. In addition to combining several musical genres, the quartet integrates literary texts into their works, resulting in a colorful and profound style. After their successful release party on May 12th, Barbara Maria Neu spoke to Sophia Umfahrer about female roles in literature, the marriage of music and text, and Red Riding Hood’s real name.
Your new mini-album is called Ich war einmal… [Once upon a time, I was…] It sounds like a fairy tale, but somehow also not. Are you bringing a new perspective to this style of storytelling?
Barbara Maria Neu: That was sort of the idea when we were choosing pieces, when we were thinking about it. The five tracks that we recorded are based on conventional literary material; that’s the common thread. We’re ‘analyzing’ them, so to speak.
What’s it about, specifically?
Barbara Maria Neu: It’s partially about relationships and how we deal with one another, about friendship – with an undertone of female solidarity, female friendship – and also focusing on the (historical) role of women in fairy tales, or in literature generally.
Your treatment of “Red Riding Hood” is particularly interesting.
Barbara Maria Neu: That story interested us because it also somehow deals with asexuality. So, we began by switching the other roles around: the wolf became a she-wolf; the father, rather than the mother, sends Red Riding Hood into the forest. The grandfather instead of the grandmother, and a female instead of a male hunter. When we asked the author Valerie Prinz to rewrite the story, more or less, she kept that element. She also began it with “Once upon a time I was…” instead of “it was…” – so the story was told from Red Riding Hood’s perspective.
“You get the feeling that the female characters are intentionally denied space of their own.”
That allows the fairy tale character to take on a reflexive aspect, and also shines a critical spotlight on the literary content.
Barbara Maria Neu: This Red Riding Hood character is always referred to as “the” [German das] Red Riding Hood; the character has never had a name. In truth, we know nothing about the child’s gender. We kept that in our version of the story; it’s also about this person, this “Red Riding Hood”, asking what’s happened to their name, and then they win a name for themselves.
When you look at other female roles in stories and fairy tales, it seems like they’re always telling the story ‘about’ the princess, Snow White, or whomever. Sure, they tell about other people as well, but you get the feeling that the female characters are specifically, intentionally denied space of their own.
How did you develop that idea in the other pieces?
Barbara Maria Neu: This “once upon a time, I was…” also works well with the ‘how’ of women’s role in the past and how it is now. It goes well with Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s poem “Das alte Schloss” [the old castle] – the poem is autobiographical; she wrote about how she felt imprisoned and how she made herself strong within those old walls. Droste-Hülshoff comes from a very different time than ours. She wrote in the 19th century, when – unfortunately – women didn’t have much say in things. That’s still the case today, to some extent. And that also went well with “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. That was also interesting, because for once, the woman rescues the prince, not the other way around. Those were specific stories that inspired us.
Was it your intention to strike a feminist pose, or simply to highlight women and the woman’s role, to give them more meaning?
Barbara Maria Neu: There are a lot of different strains of feminism; you always have to be a little careful when you use the word. Sometimes I feel like it’s also a decision, which style of feminism you associate with – is it the kind that tells women they’re not allowed to wear their hair long? Or the kind that generally denies the word ‘woman’? There’s a wide spectrum there, running from ultraconservative to ultraliberal.
“You can use fairy-tales and still gently question the issues they address.”
Does Merve aim to make difficult or critical issues more approachable, the way fairy tales often do?
Barbara Maria Neu: Definitely. I think that you can absolutely use fairy-tales and – in spite of the magic – still gently question the issues they address. Some people say it’s banal to use fairy tales – that a contemporary artist shouldn’t work with them anymore, that you should do something cooler.
Your concept breaks down the barrier between music and language. What is your inspiration in that area – to express music in a linguistic manner, or the reverse, to make language more rhythmic or create a dialogue between the instruments?
Barbara Maria Neu: We think that’s the way that best connects the content of the stories to the music. The combination of different artistic disciplines, a mutual enrichment, so we can create something that belongs to us all. In concert, we read some of the texts before music that we didn’t record – like with “Alte Schloss”. That way, the text and music are connected at that moment; they’re both present, they can absolutely enhance and support one another.
I’m aware that that’s something that people like to use rhythmically in music, but that wasn’t really our idea. We really use the story – the narrative word – in a more or less ‘theatrical’ sense (though I use that word carefully) and less as a rhythmic instrument. We tried to maintain the narrative flow. This mutual storytelling, which worked particularly well on “Undine”: that the story is carried further, told in the music, and that the spoken word picks up on the story the music is telling. The images continue as well – the paintings that appear in the video for “Ich war einmal…”, from Oksana Zmiyevska, added a whole new layer to it, a visual one.
“You can continue the narrative flow and create an image together.”
The music actually paints pictures to go with the stories – or at least underscores the emotion that the language only communicates peripherally.
Barbara Maria Neu: Exactly. I think there are a lot of different forms in music history. “Peter and the Wolf” is the classical example, or “Carnival of the Animals”. But I don’t think you necessarily have to always work with motives. You can simply continue the flow of narrative and create an image together.
This may sound banal, but why did you decide to focus on fairy tales?
Barbara Maria Neu: I think it’s a little bit because we all love them, and also because there’s no reason not to use older material, even as a working artist. You can still get some good out of them. First of all, fairy tales are really beautiful; we love reading them. And to be honest, it’s also just nice to uncritically tell a story now and then. Not to constantly have to process everything, just for its own sake. We tried to do that, also in having people adapt the texts for us – that was what we asked Valerie to do, to keep that fairy-tale quality and avoid it turning into this obviously critical text; we wanted it to stay a fairy tale, a narrative. We wanted to keep the story-hour magic.
How did you decide which pieces to work with?
Barbara Maria Neu: That was a quick process. We decided on “The Little Mermaid” pretty quickly at the start, then “Red Riding Hood” and “Alte Schloss”. Then we had to search a little – the text to go with the “Alte Schloss” we found; it developed in the composition process. But it was generally a little different in every case – sometimes the music came first, sometimes the text. One hand washed the other.
The way you forge connections between your many interests and the many different colors to form a single flow – you could also say one hand washes the other there as well.
Barbara Maria Neu: Absolutely. Andrea, Stefanie, and I all studied classical music, and Judith studied classical double bass as well, before she became very active in jazz, the way she is now. And starting from classical music, we all brought our individual styles and ideas in. That, and of course Judith, with her wonder music and great compositions, all makes for a lovely basis.
If you had to describe yourselves in three words?
Barbara Maria Neu: Pink, green, and remembering.