Spirit of Adventure and Nonconformity

Olga Neuwirth’s
“Keyframes for a Hippogriff” celebrates world premiere

Olga Neuwirth
(Photo: Harald Hoffmann)

Olga Neuwirth's work Keyframes for a Hippogriff is a tribute to Hester Diamond (1928-2020), the eminent American art collector and interior designer, and was commissioned in 2019/20 as part of a concert series by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the 19th Amendment, that granted women the right to vote in 1920. But it was not until 11 September 2021 – delayed due to the Corona epidemic – that the work was premiered under the baton of conductor Jakub Hrůša.

If one looks for the notorious central thread in the 53-year-old composer’s almost incalculably diverse oeuvre, it cannot be found in stylistic or formal categories, but in a fundamental approach to the art form of music: a spirit of adventure and nonconformity have made Olga Neuwirth one of the most exceptional exponents of contemporary music, who has significantly expanded the concept of composition. Her sources of inspiration are universal: phenomena from art, architecture, literature and music, intellectual history, psychology, science and everyday reality are transformed into a poetry of the weird and unfathomable which invariably revolves around individuals, their states of mind and contradictions.

Her most recent opera Orlando (world premiere in 2019), based on the epochal novel by Virginia Woolf, was the first large-scale opera by a woman presented at the Vienna Staatsoper. The Austrian cosmopolite is regarded as a pioneer of intermedia composition, also beyond the opera stage. This calls for an active listener, which Olga Neuwirth explicitly demands: “For me as a composer, the purpose of music cannot be to lull people into a false sense of security with promises of a solidarity that transcends all boundaries . . . I want to have consciously thinking people, independent thinkers, as listeners, who see in music and art in general the reflection of the searching individual, who is determined to understand the familiar, to overcome the prevailing spirit and to push forward into the unknown.”

World premiere: “Between rage, fragility and loneliness”

Keyframes for a Hippogriff was composed in 2019/20, commissioned for a series of concerts by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the 19th amendment to the American constitution, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. The work will not be premiered until 11 September 2021, however, due to the Corona epidemic.

The large-scale vocal work for countertenor, children’s choir and orchestra is based on a text collage of different epochs and stylistic forms: fragments by Ariosto, William Blake, Edward Lear, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Zinaida Gippius, Gertrude Stein and Olga Neuwirth as well as various examples of street graffiti are interwoven in a dialogue between the countertenor and children’s chorus, juxtaposing the bustling activity of an exhausted world and the principle of hope.

Olga Neuwirth describes the idea behind the work as follows: “We try to tell the diverse stories of our brief life against the white noise of information, in which technology already seems to have overtaken human interaction.”

The plurality of the textual and musical content originates in Neuwirth’s desire to express a range of existential experiences – freedom and diversity as the utopia of a more human society. The music fluctuates “between rage, fragility and loneliness”, in order to express the anger and helplessness of the individual as well as the potential for social change, the composer says.

She adds that the children’s choir, which sings graffiti “like a chorus of slam poets”, serves as a symbol of hope and the “voice of resistance against a ruinous public order, which is damaged by the self-serving interests of government and industry. Let Keyframes be a contribution to ‘humanistic composition’ – at a time of political and social instability and the destruction of our planet”.

Keyframes for a Hippogriff – Musical Calligrams in memoriam Hester Diamond

Olga Neuwirth’s work is an homage to Hester Diamond (1928–2020), the prominent American art collector and interior designer who combined the old masters and modern design in a unique way and whom Olga Neuwirth met in 2006.

Keyframe is a term from animation technique and refers to an image that serves as the start and end point for the images in between. (Neuwirth had initially studied film in San Francisco, and there are comics and animated cartoons in her catalogue of works).

A hippogriff is a mythical creature with the front half of an eagle and the body of a horse. A calligram is a text format in which the layout of the lines creates a visual image related to the meaning of the words themselves – a combination of text and image. Keyframes for a Hippogriff thus leaves traces of a “fluid identity”.



Dirk Wieschollek