By Rebecca Schmid
SALZBURG – Toward the end of Olga Neuwirth’s Eleanor Suite, the title character, based loosely on Billie Holiday, ushers in the recorded excerpt of a Martin Luther King, Jr., speech. “But you can’t kill my free spirit!” she declares, underscored by saxophone, electric guitar, synthesizer, and drum kit. The chamber work, which premiered at the Kollegienkirche here on Aug. 7, is otherwise written for an ensemble of strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion, performed on this occasion by the Klangforum Wien under Sylvain Cambreling. When Eleanor (the blues singer Della Miles) rejoins the ensemble (“I’ve had it since I was young, even wrote my own songs…”), a fragment of the protest song “We shall Overcome” is heard fleetingly in the trumpets.
In program notes, Neuwirth calls the composition a tribute to “those who have dared and still dare to voice criticism despite social and political opposition,” noting in particular female African-American jazz musicians who were subjugated because of their race and gender. The character of Eleanor first emerged in her 2012 stage work, American Lulu, an adaptation of the Berg opera which recasts the story in the context of white politics in mid-20th-century America. In addition to rescoring Berg’s unfinished third act, Neuwirth replaces the Countess Geschwitz with a blues singer, Eleanor, also sung by Miles at the Komische Oper Berlin premiere. A joint commission of the latter and Opera Group, London, the work has since traveled to the British capital as well as Edinburgh, Vienna, and Bregenz, Austria.
The 47-year-old Neuwirth, arguably the most distinguished Austrian composer of her generation, is known for her labyrinthine montages. Extended techniques interweave with snippets of jazz or filmic electronica, reflecting an education ranging from trumpet performance to composition studies with the French spectralist Tristan Murail as well as an interest in cinema. Both American Lulu and Eleanor Suite, however, take montage to the next level. While the endeavour is brave – who would dare to bring the European avant-garde into dialogue with the blues? – the results are not always convincing. Much as the third act to her Lulu emerged as an unsure blend of disparate elements ranging from quasi-minimalist textures to jazz-band brass, Neuwirth’s new suite often resembles a collage in which the pieces haven’t quite been glued together.
The sound world does grow on the ear over time, a testament to the composer’s virtuosic command of texture and dramatic line. By the time drum kit player Tyshawn Sorey breaks out into a rocking solo and singer Miles bebops peacefully over a whir of sound, a certain victory has been won. Earlier in the piece, however, Miles’ lines descend out of nowhere, halting the tangle of elements which range from serialist melodies to extended techniques on the low strings and siren-like brass.
While Eleanor is identified with a trumpet in Lulu, she is followed closely in the Suite by an electric guitar in juxtaposition with the rest of the ensemble. The players react to her protests now with anger, underscoring Martin Luther King’s lines with glassy textures. But the recordings, set to ambient electronica evoking the dream of a world without racism, cannot escape a halo of clichés particularly as the Speaker does not come close to approximating the power of King’s original sermons.
By contrast, the earlier piece Lonicera Caprifolium (the scientific name for honeysuckle), for acoustic ensemble and tape, reveals Neuwirth at the height of her powers. Whirring brass, roughly hewn string textures, and eerie electronica create an unstable, at times ultra-expressionist universe – recalling the aura of a David Lynch movie or a dream that you are conscious of entering.
The music builds an enormous tension between opposite planes, reaffirming a 1993 speech at Darmstadt in which Neuwirth spoke of “progress and stasis, life and death, consciousness and forgetting.” After hollow sounds blow through both the entire ensemble and speakers, in a kind of ricochet effect, the music threatens to crack apart, only to come back on its feet ripping and squawking before a post-Apocalyptic denouement in which the brass seem to emerge from the bowels of the earth. The Klangforum Wien, which premiered the work in 1993, shaded every moment with expert sensitivity.
The organic interface between instrumental forces and electronica in Lonicera unmistakably evokes the legacy of Pierre Boulez, whose 90th birthday is being celebrated here with performances of several major works including the monumental Répons for ensemble and live electronics.
His now-classic song cycle Le marteau sans maître, scored for alto flute, xylorimba, vibraphone, percussion guitar, and viola, opened the Aug. 7 program in a gentle but propulsive performance joined by contralto Hilary Summers. A rebellious rage brews beneath the surface of this music’s obsessively controlled contours and economic gestures, atmospheric beauty stirring within violent confines. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the avant-garde found itself bursting at the seams with works such as Neuwirth’s Eleanor Suite.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.