Olga Neuwirth – Photo by Marion Kalter

5 questions to Olga Neuwirth (composer)

Stylistically, your writing covers a wide range of sounds, and you often use juxtaposition a compositional device. What inspires you? What mediums and influences do you seek out when looking for ideas for a new piece?

I am inspired by what surrounds me, but most of the time it is modern literature, film, architecture, and science. From the late 80s on, I have tried to combine “contemporary music,” old-fashioned electronics like the Ondes Martenot and the Theremin-Vox, live-electronics, and video.

Often, this wide range of influences means that you assimilate many different ideas into a single piece (for instance, in the orchestral piece Remnant of song… an Amphigory). How do you wrangle so many ideas into a coherent musical whole?

Everything is possible… And I am not afraid of a complexity of layers, since this is how our brain works.

Olga Neuwirth - Photo by Marion Kalter

Olga Neuwirth – Photo by Marion Kalter

In some of your film work, you portray yourself as a composer working with pencil on paper (the film version of Miramondo Multiplo, Die Schöpfung). But you make ample use of electronics in your writing: ring modulators, CDs playing samples, and pre-recorded text. What role does technology play in your creative process, and in your finished pieces?

Yes, I still write with pencil on paper as I love the haptic side of this and won’t give it up as I think a handwriting also shows something about the human behind. Electronics is a vast, ambiguous term that can mean so much. Besides, we can use electronics in so many ways nowadays. I try to keep the “fuzzy logic” as small as possible by still trying to write down as clearly as possible what I want to hear. For me, the interesting act is HOW to bring all the different means together to create a vivid “musical universe.”

In American Lulu (which was premiered this fall at the Komische Oper Berlin), you turn Berg’s story of largesse and depravity from 1920’s Europe into a reflection of mid-century America. Did your experiences in America affect or spur the creation of American Lulu?

I was interested in a re-setting of this topic into another time and space. Because I grew up between Jazz (my father is a jazz-pianist) and “New Music” (my uncle is a composer and musicologist specialized on the second Viennese school) I’ve always wanted to look into this female said “prototype of a seducer” from a female point of view—I think Lulu is a mere male projection-screen. Since it is also about how people treat each other, I wanted to set the “story” into another context like in a Brecht Lehrstück (experimental form of modernist theater, Ed.): set around texts by June Jordan and Martin Luther King. I also referred to the USA in my other opera The Outcast—which was also premiered this year—about the old and, at this time, forgotten and smiled at writer Herman Melville who reflects upon his life. That’s why I’ve composed both operas in NY.

The trumpet figures as a lonely voice in many of your pieces. Did your early training on this instrument affect the way you hear it in an orchestral context?

Yes for sure. I love the trumpet, the instrument I lost because of a car accident (the resulting injury interrupted her studies, Ed.). But also the whole brass family.

International Contemporary Ensemble performs works by Olga Neuwirth. There will also be an onstage discussion with the composer.

Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 8 PM
Tickets $25 – $30
Miller Theatre at Columbia University, 2960 Broadway, New York, NY
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