I had the good fortune earlier this evening (as I write this at some ungodly hour of the morning fuelled by cottage cheese and cheap vodka) to catch Lawrence Power and the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducting the UK Premier of Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory. And daaaamn was it a good bit of music.
I’d also been fortunate enough to see her interviewed by Andrew McGregor earlier that evening, which gave some insight into her soundworld and methods of writing, featuring performances of her earlier works by students at the Royal College. I don’t recall having heard of her before (though it’s likely she’s cropped up somewhere inside an episode of Late Junction) but god do I feel like I’ve missed out. Put simply, Neuwirth’s music is the type you just want to have written yourself, y’know? Sort of like, somewhere between Lachenmann, Shostakovitch and Derbyshire.
In the talk, Neuwerth cut a dramatic figure. Wearing a jacket covered in various handwritten scrawls, and her hair pushed back in a manner akin to old Ludwig Van’s she immediately took on the role of the composer of genius-touched “other”, the font from which music springs. Normally I’d find the affectation irritating, but her self-effacing manner and obvious propensity to introspection won over my cynicism of the cult of composer-genius. And anyway, she honestly came across as a little charmingly unhinged. As she said herself: “I think you have to be [slightly mentally unstable] to want to write music in the 21st Century”.
But the music itself. The concerto (for it was thus in all but name) was split into five uninterrupted movements of increasingly opaque titling, listed below. I just love the near-complete destruction of any semantic content of the 4th and 5th movements, so alike in their simplicity, but so shockingly dissimilar. It’s almost like a cryptic crossword.1 Wanderer (Präldium) – 2 Sadko – 3 … im Meer versank [… sank to the bottom of the sea …] 4 – 5
An Amphigory is a piece of nonsense verse – think Edward Lear etc – but Neuwirth’s sense of the absurd is matched with a searing honesty to her writing that causes all notions of silliness to be blown away. The nonsense in this case doesn’t refer to the subject matter, but the way in which it’s treated, creating a giddy ride through style and form that creates the mental image (as she said herself) of ripped up posters layered on top of each other.
Power weaved a virtuosic viola line amid swells and snatches of quoted melodies from the orchestra. Dotting between pastiche and ambient soundscape, and flitting between unabashed diatonicism, chromatic harmony and rootless (with a few extended techniques and odd instruments), the opening two movements were a bonkers whirl of postmodern delight.
By the third movement, the music had taken a turn for the darker, with a viola melody scurrying around arpeggiated figures over a menacing low hum from the orchestra, punctuated by sprinkles of percussion. Descending chromatic lines begin to take over, chopped up with frenetic string work from the viola lying somewhere between a satanic barn dance and a particularly acid-fuelled episode of Tom and Jerry.
The final two movements, despite the minimalism hinted at by the title, are as gratifyingly complex as the first three, but tinged wit elements of regret and loss. The harmony has echoes of central European folk music, but never stays in the same place long enough to form any kind of schmaltzy pastoralism. The fifth and final movement, now almost fully displaced from the optimistic pan-tonalism of the earlier sections, starts out as a stark duet between viola and snare drum before ending on a brief and tragic viola solo in the upper end of the range, ending on a harmonic from the opening note.
The earlier comparison to Beethoven is applicable in matters outside of the capillary. Neuwirth’s work is grand, bold and almost sickenly Romantic in its constant shifts in harmonic approach. Almost as if a radio were being scanned through, Imaginary Landscapes–style, and re-orchestrated with a masterful subtlety and sense of colour.
Anyway. Neuwirth doesn’t need my adulation, I’m sure. But yeah. Check her out. I did copy the performance to my hard drive so I may put up an excerpt here after the iPlayer link runs out. But in the mean time, enjoy this.