Winner of the 2016 Composition Award: Eva Reiter

Toiling Away at the Here and Now

On Eva Reiter’s Music

Some four hundred years lie between the musical periods in which the composer and instrumentalist Eva Reiter moves. During her music education she focused on the genre of Early Music: she studied recorder and viola da gamba in Vienna and Amsterdam and devoted herself to the music of the 16th and 17th centuries, which she still plays with several ensembles up to the present day. At the same time, she has always had an affinity for contemporary music, which she explores as a performer and composer. In this field, she finds it particularly appealing to remove “her” instruments from their traditional contexts and to bring them closer to contemporary music.

In the case of Eva Reiter’s work, however, writing new music for old instruments doesn’t mean that she confines herself to using certain instrumental characteristics in order to enrich the spectrum of options when it comes to timbre. Neither is she interested in any kind of “bridge building” between the periods; when she uses the viola da gamba or recorder in her pieces, embedding these instruments in the Renaissance and the Baroque initially plays no role. Instead, through meticulous material research Reiter tries to explore which hitherto unused potentials in sound can be revealed.

Even beyond the viola da gamba and recorder, it is Reiter’s close connection to the instrument that essentially characterises her way of composing. Given this approach, a kind of “archaeological” exploration of the respective instruments precedes each piece: an unconditional process of discovering and examining. In this sense, Eva Reiter doesn’t regard instruments as simply existing, “finished” objects, defined by their historicity and their codified use. On the contrary: she uses them as objects of scrutiny; objects, whose suitability for a specific “application” is always yet to be determined.

In view of such “applications”, a multi-layered, interconnected development is discernible in Eva Reiter’s oeuvre. Her fascination with scientific contexts, such as the phenomena of molecular biology and chaos theory, marked the beginning of her compositional activities. These themes accompanied the pre-compositional search and served, as Reiter puts it, as “matrices hidden behind the pieces”. What turned out to be a compulsory musical path for her back then, however, was a sounding out of the demarcation line between acoustic and electronic music. She created a series of pieces for instrument(s) and tape in which this crossing of boundaries becomes clearly tangible. Here, instrumental sounds are primarily accompanied by synthetic sounds of daily, urban life, especially repetitive noises of motors and machines.

The rhythms of machines demand interpretative discipline – for the minute interplay of instrumental and tape parts requires absolutely precise timing; even the slightest deviation would make it all fall apart. These pieces thus provoke extreme situations and confront the performer with systems of order that are impossible to escape from. In this respect, the aspect of physical and mental work, necessary for the creation of sound, is just as important as the tonal result itself. This means nothing less than that Reiter aims to push performers to their limits; the playing of her pieces is allowed to be strenuous, even burdensome. At the same time, a correlation is ascertainable here that ultimately holds true for all her compositions. The effort demanded also always carries in it the potential for fulfilment: endurance is rewarded with success. “It is”, the composer says, “an ambivalent play between exhaustion and the pleasure of functioning.”

In some of Eva Reiter’s more recent compositions, a rough, often brutal language of sound sets the tone, oscillating between distant coolness and highly emotional externalisation. She is completely at ease using material that doesn’t comply with the conventional jargon of New Music. Reiter draws no lines between the tonal “ideals” of art music and the aesthetics from the sphere of so-called popular music. Such moments, however, don’t stand out demonstratively; they are neither foreign bodies nor fashionable accessories on an otherwise genre-typical surface. Eva Reiter composes music that takes into account contemporary acoustic realities rather than resorting to art-musical escapism. The fact that these kinds of approaches don’t speculate on well-arranged “beautiful sound” is ultimately their conditio sine qua non.

The “exertions” that Eva Reiter inscribes in her music find their counterpart in the self-imposed conditions of her compositional process. Nothing should be easy or effortlessly retrievable. Any trust in ready-to-use material is abandoned. “Every piece”, she says, “means toiling away at the here and now.” From her point of view, then, composing has nothing to do with creating workman-like variations of that which already exists. Rather, it’s literally about “all or nothing”.

Eva Reiter clearly considers composing as working on one’s own identity and its place in collective contexts. It’s about overcoming obstacles, about liberating oneself from “inner inertia” because therein lies the danger of following a comfortable, established artistic path. Her work confirms that “music as an existential experience” is as topical as ever, a principle of Helmut Lachenmann, whom she names as one of her influences. “Music makes sense only insofar as it goes beyond its own structure to other structures and relations – that is, to realities and possibilities – around us and in us”, Lachenmann once wrote. Something that Reiter also claims for her own work. By no means does she regard the fact that certain musical material, rituals and codes are seemingly legitimate enough and “function” – at least in the framework of their own autonomy – as an invitation for constant affirmation. Much rather, she sees it as a challenge to question alleged accordance again and again.

“To me”, Eva Reiter says, “a composition is relevant and positive if I gain experience, on the one hand, and on the other, if I succeed in awakening a new fascination within me that understands what is already manifested as a basis for development and innovation.”

Text: Michael Rebhahn