Mesmeric Metamusic

Composer Olga Neuwirth creates magnificent soundscapes from apparent chaos by Cynthia Peck

Following one modernist paradigm in the fine arts – that a painting is nothing more than some colors and shapes – can music be defined merely as some pitches and rhythm? It would be a listless and laughable means to describe the music of Olga Neuwirth, one of Austria’s most celebrated contemporary composers and a featured artist at this year’s Wien Modern, the world-renowned festival of new music. No, in her compositions I hear mighty soundscapes, both prophetic and perplexing, music that nearly defies description. For me, Olga Neuwirth’s music is an acoustic representation of the entire world, albeit seen through thick glasses of distortion. Or perhaps better, through an electron microscope one instant and the Hubble space telescope the next.

This September, the Frankfurt Opera staged a production of Neuwirth’s opera Lost Highway (2003), based on David Lynch’s eponymous film. While I couldn’t go, I was intrigued and listened to her Lost Highway Suite (2008) several times: An opening of seemingly classical orchestral fanfare suddenly shifts to the strumming of an electric guitar, this mutating in turn into a sea of electronic sounds – not noise but sounds. Mesmerized, I heard whales wailing in the deep, shimmering crackles of the aurora borealis, slow-motion visions of spacewalking.

A sound carpet where tones suddenly pop out, like a red dot in a vast green landscape. A numinous, familiar trumpet, a voice clearly humming, unclearly human. The lonely clarinet of a lonesome cowboy, a dreamy big-band moment. The acoustic merges so artfully with the electronic that the seams are imperceptible. A dog barks, a trombone yawns. Was that Disney’s Electric Parade, a door buzzer, a cartoon soundtrack, a Renaissance motet?

SHAPING SOUND
In the work of Neuwirth, something “meta” is taking place; it is metamusic, music reflecting on the very essence of music itself. This has little to do with “quoting,” although there are plenty of quotes in Neuwirth: snatches of jazz, chanson accordion, out-oftune honkytonk piano, Stravinsky. Her music has more to do with manipulating a chaos of sounds so they become something far greater than their individual elements.

Perhaps it is precisely the evocative inner life of these soundscapes that lends them so well to film. Neuwirth has written a number of works for early silent films as well as her own videos. Wien Modern is presenting a world premiere of such a piece on Nov 7: a new composition commissioned by the festival to accompany the 1924 Austrian silent film Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews). The title alone reveals its eerily prescient and incendiary subject, a satirical invective against anti-Semitism. Soon lost amid the Nazi repression, a complete copy of the film was miraculously found at a Paris flea market in 2015. Restored by the Austrian Film Archive, it was re-released this year.

On November 14, Wien Modern is also presenting Neuwirth’s The Outcast: Homage to Herman Melville, a “video-concert-installation- theater.” As Neuwirth describes her fascination with the author: “The criticism of exploitation and alienation was a central concern for Melville – this has not changed until today, which is why he is so modern.” The Outcast deals with “the ruthless exploitation of resources based on the myth of infinite progress.”

Contrary to what some may think, the Staatsoper is not a museum for 19th-century grand opera: It still commissions new pieces from living composers. In 2015, Neuwirth was given one such prestigious offer. It should be mentioned (quietly) that it was the first time this honor was ever given to a woman. I write “quietly” because the fact that Neuwirth is a woman does not affect her reception, a state of affairs that is slowly, and fortunately, being experienced by more and more women in the arts. December 2019 will see the first performance of Neuwirth’s Orlando, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf.

It will be a premiere that is historic, in more than one way.

Music for Die Stadt ohne Juden (world premiere): Nov 7, 19:30; The Outcast: Nov 14, 19:30; Hommage à Klaus Nomi, Hooloomooloo, Un posto nell’acqua (Melville Skizze I): Dec 11, 19:30, Konzerthaus. 3., Lothringerstraße 20. konzerthaus.at Wien Modern: Through Nov 30, various locations. wienmodern.at

Hozier

The Irish singer-songwriter makes his long-awaited return

Wooing listeners with his signature blend of indie rock, folk and soul, Hozier skyrocketed to international fame following the whirlwind success of his 2013 single, “Take Me to Church,” an instantly recognizable ballad that showcased his deep, sonorous voice. In the years that followed, though, he seemingly faded from the public eye, leaving fans wondering when – or if – he would return. But the long wait is finally over: on Sep 6, the singer released a four-song EP, Nina Cried Power. The new songs remain true to Hozier’s original style, although they carry an audibly darker sound influenced by the political disillusionment he felt around him. The titular track reflects that: It’s an ode to protest songs and the power of activism in art, featuring a guest verse by Mavis Staples. Kicking off a European tour this month, Hozier is looking forward to performing the new songs: “I just really want this material to be heard,” he says.

Nov 21, 20:00, Gasometer. 11. Guglgasse 6. planet.tt

Klezmore

The annual musical celebration showcases the evolution of Yiddish folk music

Moving far from its Eastern European origins, klezmer music has grown from a Yiddish niche into a fervent genre infused with jazz and world music, thanks to an ongoing revival that started in the United States in the 1970s. Showing off this versatility and the current state of the art, the Klezmore Festival returns for its 15th iteration to celebrate Jewish culture with numerous concerts, cooking and singing workshops as well lectures and film screenings across the city and even crossing over to nearby Bratislava.

Numerous ensembles from around the world are in attendance, like the Berlin-based Semer Ensemble: After reviving almost 4,000 recordings demolished by the Nazis, the group now includes musicians from all around the world, creating new Jewish music and performing a wide repertoire of cabaret and Yiddish theater. Other highlights include festival openers and veteran performers the Di Gasn Trio; a tribute to Leonard Cohen by Steve Gander & Friends featuring the Sistas Choir; the Polish combo Kroke, who have collaborated with Nigel Kennedy and Peter Gabriel and the anarchic Leeds band Tantz (pictured), whose “frenzied hyper klezmer” takes a page out of punk rock’s book. There will also be a noteworthy screening of the prophetic film Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews), a 1920s satire that toys with the image of a Jewish free Vienna, accompanied by Stefan Foidl on piano and Magdalena Zenz on violin. Be sure to indulge in some latkes and kegel at Leah Koenig’s cooking workshop just three U-Bahn stops away!

Nov 10-25, various locations. klezmore-vienna.at

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Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.