Winner of the 2008 Composition Award: Gösta Neuwirth

L’oubli bouilli – Vanish

“Cooked oblivion” and “vanishing”: the associations the title L’oubli bouilli – Vanish evokes could well stand for one of Gösta Neuwirth’s central concerns. For the ensemble work composed for the Erste Bank Composition Award is not only about an autobiographical background (more about that below). It also testifies to a general historical consciousness of the composer, who was born in 1937 in Vienna, grew up in Ried im Innkreis in Upper Austria, and after graduating in Graz returned to study in Vienna. What happened during his childhood years in Austria and Germany and long continued to show its effects after the end of the Nazi regime must not be forgotten. As seriously as Neuwirth takes this concern, it also generally led him towards attempting to tend a culture of remembering that might save us from the repetition of history – in life as well as in art.

It is therefore not pointless to again relate the story of how Gösta Neuwirth had to leave Vienna because he was robbed of the opportunity to conclude his musicology studies – firstly, according to his own ideas and then, at all. For Erich Schenk, professor at the time, first rejected Neuwirth’s dissertation on Anton Webern, proposing instead one on Franz Schreker. But when it became clear that Neuwirth would investigate this composer under progressive premises – including unorthodox methods borrowed from Freudian dream technique – Schenk uttered the often quoted sentence, “With me, you cannot do a doctorate about a Jew”. That was in 1962. Neuwirth, who studied composition with Karl Schiske at the conservatory and was just about to gain foothold as a composer, was forced to move to Berlin where he eventually earned his doctorate with a study on “Harmony in the opera Der ferne Klang by Franz Schreker”.

Attempts to return to Austria were limited by time. After Neuwirth’s work at the conservatory in Graz from 1973 – among other things as head of the institute for electronics – had largely remained unappreciated, he returned to Berlin in 1982, where he was professor for the history of music theory until he received emeritus status in 2000. Since 2009/10 he has been honorary professor at the musicological seminar of the University of Freiburg.

For Neuwirth it had been clear from the outset that he wanted to combine theoretical and practical music. His formative musical impressions began with Richard Wagner in his father’s library of scores and with radio broadcasts from Bayreuth, “which lastingly tinted my musical perception”; intensive studies of Anton Bruckner, Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky were added to this, just like his experiences as a violinist, with, for example, the music of George Frideric Handel.

Neuwirth had prominent mentors and patrons. Besides his composition teacher Karl Schiske (“the most important person among the musicians”) and Theodor W. Adorno, who became an important reference in Darmstadt, another decisive impulse came from Heimito von Doderer, who called Neuwirth a “poet” and encouraged him to continue his scientific-literary work. As a musicologist, Gösta Neuwirth prefers to investigate areas outside the traditional canon: in addition to modernity, 15th-century music. His interest in Josquin, as resistant to common musicological methods of analysis as modernity, is documented by his essay Erzählung von Zahlen (“Recounting by Numbers”).

The magic of numbers also plays a role in Neuwirth’s own composing – perhaps the decisive one. Complex construction principles based on numerical series that cannot be decoded through listening alone may explain the impression of compelling consequence in his music; even more so since the composer avoids the creation of traditional contexts but practices a kind of “athematical” composition. For “scepticism regarding all traditional forms of rules associated with music” is a basic position that has accompanied the composer throughout his life. This rejection and the alternative order-models connected therewith took root early on. “I was never interested in tonality, but after a few years I noticed that one cannot simply write straight away – one has an idea and then just attaches something to it, another idea. In the attempt to arrive at constructive foundations outside tonality, as a boy, I came across number permutations, and later this interest channelled into the investigation of serial technique. At first, though, serial technique restricted the handling of numerical material. And only when I was about 17 and began to study in Vienna with Karl Schiske, did I begin to determine the time structures of pieces numerically, because this was something that wasn’t covered by serial technique.”

L’oubli bouilli – Vanish, too, goes back to very early experiences. In his introductory note under the heading “Childhood Happiness” the composer remembers how he wrote music in a booklet when he was eight or nine years old. “Every single note took some time because the space between the lines was so big. Carefully I painted my black spheres onto the paper. Nothing could be heard except the uninterrupted high note that was floating in the air.” Another memory sequence connected with the same composition combines individual experience with collective memory. “Strange night-dream, my version of T. [Tadeusz] Kantor’s dead class. Jewish mourning congregation; at first I want to stay outside, an attendant advises me: just watching is unfair, either go away or sit down; so I sit down on the left on the narrow bench (at secondary school, 5th grade, physics lesson in a similarly ascending auditorium), next to some elderly men. Suddenly something on the ‘stage side’, which looks like a house front, is taken away. I see several women to my right, intensive heads … after that, now unclear.”

The piece also has a long history concerning its musical material: one of its germ cells dates back to the years 1974/75, when a female singer asked for a piece for voice and tape. Even then – and such persistent artistic ideas are typical for him – Neuwirth conceived a three-part extension. However, it was only executed three decades later when it was “written with regard to the individualities of the Klangforum musicians”, as Neuwirth imparted to Lothar Knessl, curator of the Erste Bank Composition Award. The composer focused on “the challenge of trying out various conditions of the simultaneous and the non-simultaneous, as well as the virtuosity of individuals and the collective.”

That L’oubli bouilli – Vanish was written for 22 players has a deep meaning: there are as many musicians as the Hebrew alphabet has letters – a symbol for perfection there, which, however, is immediately subverted again on another level, at least with regard to common concepts of perfection. For here, there is a stream of dense events in constant flow, which accelerate and amass a little, decelerate and thin out again. The instruments are slightly out of tune with each other and, in addition, use quartertones to create obfuscating heterodyne beats, thus lending subtle colour effects to the piece.

Part one of L’oubli bouilli – Vanish has also brought about another piece: Sieben Stücke für Streichquartett (“Seven Pieces for String Quartet”, 2008), for [the Tibetologist] Ernst Steinkellner, which belong to part one and utilize a layer from the ensemble piece. Although they are just a small part of the original score, they still show challenging complexity, which the composer commented on with equal humour and seriousness by giving mottos to the individual pieces. “Talking about that which is missing”, for example, or “Of the Merovingian meals”. Wordplays like these are symptomatic for Neuwirth. They bring associations to the foreground, while the music doesn’t want to divulge how it works. “Why a movement, a bar is written like that and not differently should remain secret”, says the composer.

Text: Daniel Ender