At the outset of the composer's biography for this new CD, Gösta Neuwirth writes: 'I can with a clear conscience take up Doderer's dictum of having "no biography," but rather "just the… collected deeds of an environment which came to be more or less by accident," for which the following notes on the "subject" may be sufficient.' Which obscure statement, bucking the trend of composition as egotism, indicates to the reader, and to the listener, that the import here lies elsewhere than, or in addition to, the bare facts of the light of day that might be summed up neatly in a biographical note.
From said facts we garner that Neuwirth, Austrian by birth, studied in Vienna under Karl Schiske, published a book on the Jewish composer Franz Schreker, had a dissertation on that composer rejected (being told 'you can't write a dissertation on a Jew'), moved to Berlin in 1963 where the dissertation was later accepted, and has since taught in Berlin, Graz and – currently – in Freiburg. Numerology, Proust and Jewish mysticism are of some relevance in relation to the composer, who additionally sees musical composition as something essentially more in line with what it was in the medieval quadrivium than what it is in our present-day conception of composition as a more or less frivolous 'aesthetic' pursuit.
Formally speaking, Neuwirth's compositions, as they feature here, are characterised by structural proportion, abrupt textural contrast and – as is most overtly apparent in the title piece – a rigorous care taken towards non-repetition. 'With probably more consistency than the devil avoids holy water,' writes Lothar Knessl in his excellent sleevenotes, 'Gösta avoids repetition.' There is something admirable and unfashionable about this musical avoidance of repetition. In this musical avoidance of repetition can be found a sympathetic chiming to a concept of history implied between the lines of Neuwirth's biographical and other writings, as something that is never certain.
This relation of breaking-apart with regards the past is announced in the Sting Quartet, from 1976, played here by Klangforum Vienna. The inevitability of forgetting leaves on our doorstep forms for which we're not sure we know the use. Thus the string quartet, carrier of so much baggage and yet something like a wandering amnesiac in character if we consider the relation in musical character that holds between a work such as this one by Neuwirth and one in the same form by Haydn (little if any). Music itself in essence has undergone a change somewhere along the line of this historical interval (or giant act of forgetting) – it is not the same thing it once was, as is apparent to anyone who cares to denature their ears. While Lachenmann may feel the need to push the instrumental language to the margins of musical discourse, in order to uncover music as it was 'at the first', the pure difference between the old and the new is written simply in the act of listening itself. Neuwirth's music seems to enact this drama: just when you are sure it's pulling apart you realise it's actually coming together, and just when you think it's coming together it's pulling apart.
Music is 'one of the most fleeting, intangible things of all in human history' says Neuwirth, in a note addressing a friend on the occasion of the first performance of his 'Sieben Stücke für Streichquartett', the next work on the disc. A much calmer, more meditative work, it nonetheless inhabits the same area of mood as the earlier quartet – elusive, somewhat tormented, allusive rather than stated. The discourse is that of a quartet without aim, surprised to find itself alive, exploring its grey inevitability. Beckett's early character Belacqua, borrowed by Beckett from Dante's Inferno, looks on here. And from early experience in theatre Neuwirth brings to his music a keen and deadpan sense of drama.
A slow-moving shifting mass of colour characterises the first movement of the title work, L'oubli bouilli. Shrill woodwinds prod upwards like spears in clusters above the low rumblings of brass and wandering double basses. This opens out onto sections where individual lines are more prominent, though evanescent. Pitch specificity is used for a 'sfumato' effect whereby individual pitches are difficult to pick out from the churning acoustic whole. This way of effacing interval recognition is perhaps a pushing away of the past in the listener's auditory memory.
The Varčse-reminiscent polyphonic ensemble muddle is given over suddenly to the female voice in the second movement (the three movements run into each other). Intoning initially a melody along to a constant sine tone, this is followed by a passage where the electronic part throws up acoustic snippets and samples of a differing character. Donnatienne Michel-Donsac is at her usual brilliant best. The ensemble, which is also excellent, rejoins for the last movement, wherein the soprano voice is embedded in a thinned-out instrumental ambience, remaining somewhat autonomous from it, like an object seen under the ice of a frozen lake.
As Knessl tells us, L'oubli bouilli betrays Neuwirth's method of working, whereby he doesn’t make any preliminary drafts of a piece but rather works out a rough sketch of it completely in his head: 'Karl Kraus's method of correcting everything ten times in unfortunately inaccessible to me,' says the composer. As elusive as Neuwirth himself appears to be, this music, continually in the process of dragging itself away from the listener, captures along the way a tough beauty.
By Liam Cagney