Olga Neuwirth wins both Grawemeyer Award and Ernst von Siemenspreis 2022

The Austrian politician Jörg Haider once labelled her work as Weltkatzenmusik (‘cat’s wailing music’). When his extreme right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs joined the government in 2000, this led to mass protests. At one such meeting, Olga Neuwirth (Graz, 1968), denounced his anti-intellectual and anti-cultural agenda under the slogan ‘Ich lass mich nicht wegjodeln’ (I won’t be yodelled away).

The rest is history: Haider crashed with his sports car in 2008, Neuwirth ranks as one of the most important composers of our time. This year she receives both the Grawemeyer Award and the Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis 2022.

Neuwirth grew up in an artistic and progressive environment, with a well-known jazz pianist and piano teacher as father, a literary inspired woman as mother and an avant-garde composer as uncle. The home of her ‘hippie-like’ family was a coming and going of artists and musicians, including many Afro-American jazz greats. When she was twelve, she wrote a play about this, which was even performed in the school theatre.

Play with identities

All this sounds more idyllic than it was, because the downside of her parents’ freedom-loving mentality was that as a child she was ‘dragged everywhere and randomly put to sleep somewhere’, as she said in an interview in 2015. Moreover, her parents and their friends were constantly moving ‘on the brink of self-destruction’, so that as an adolescent she had the paradoxical feeling of having to save them from destruction. ‘You get to know a lot of human abysses in the process,’ she said in the same article.

From an early age, Olga Neuwirth has fearlessly pursued her own way. She dares to take a stand and to row against the tide, and teams up a lot with the controversial Austrian star author Elfride Jelinek; like this Nobel Prize winner, she fervently defends the women’s cause. That Neuwirth is socially committed, likes to take a closer look at our darkest motives and is fascinated by changing identities, seems almost self-evident.

Breakthrough opera Bählamms Fest

At the age of 22, she already overwhelmed the new-music audience with the mini-operas Der Wald and Körperliche Veränderungen, inspired by texts by Jelinek. The first is an indictment of environmental pollution, in which she introduces a forest as an acting character. In the black-comic Körperliche Veränderungen, the pomposity of men is ridiculed. Traditional authority relationships remain intact even after Tarzan and Jane have changed voices and roles.

In 1999, Neuwirth made her international breakthrough with her ‘animated opera’ Bählamms Fest, also based on a libretto by Jelinek, in which a family assault each other in a gruesome manner. The main character Theodora starts an affair with her brother-in-law, half-wolf, half-human. Her lover makes several bloody victims before abandoning her. That Theodora does not subsequently go mad, or throw herself off the cliff in despair, can be seen as Neuwirth’s middle finger to the usual opera practice.

Electronics and video

Like many of her peers, Neuwirth often works with electronics and video. One of her first projects was Canon of Funny Phases, which she made with her sister Flora in 1989. A one-minute animated film is shown on sixteen different video screens in immediate succession, like a strict musical canon. For the renowned Quay Brothers, she composed music for a Coca Cola commercial in 1993. After the company rejected it as ‘harmful to the youth’, the Brothers used it for their animated film The Calligrapher.

In 2003, Neuwirth attracted attention with her video opera Lost Highway, for which Jelinek again provided the text, based on the film of the same name by David Lynch. Five years later she composed Kloing! for pianist and interactive video, in which she intersperses existing (cartoon) film images with live shots from the stage. In this tragicomic piece, a pianist battles a computer that controls the keys of his instrument and eventually makes it impossible for him to play at all.

In Torsion for bassoon and pre-recorded material (also 2003), the performer is made to accompany field recordings. The piece was composed for the French bassoonist Patrick Gallois, and is inspired by the building Daniel Libeskind designed for the Jewish Museum in Berlin that opened in 2001. Five vertical concrete shafts symbolise the void created by the Nazis’ Endlösungspolitik. Neuwirth made sound recordings in these deserted spaces, which cut through the bassoonist’s dazzlingly virtuoso discourse five times.

Olga Neuwirth does not compose music ‘to lull the masses to sleep’. Instead of lyrical melodies and ear-pleasing harmonies, she concocts angular and abrasive sound spectra. 

Abrasive sound spectra

Neuwirth does not compose music ‘to lull the masses to sleep’. Instead of lyrical melodies and ear-pleasing harmonies, she concocts angular and abrasive sound spectra. She spices her music with distorted fragments from classical masterpieces, pop music and jazz. Besides (live) electronics, she employs electric guitars, toy instruments and ‘forgotten’ instruments such as harpsichord or theremin. Woodwind players produce ‘tooth tones’, glissandi and multiphonics; brass players don a huge range of mutes; string players use their fingernails. She often creates an alienating effect with microtonal sound fabrics.

Her research on the effect of sound on space lead to her ground-breaking Le Encantadas. Neuwirth completed this full-length work for six spatially arranged ensemble groups, samples and live electronics in 2015. It is named after Herman Melville’s novella of the same name, which comprises ten philosophical ‘sketches’ of the Galapagos archipelago, describing both their immense beauty and their desolate inhospitality.

Acoustic preservation

In search of the unfathomably deep sea, Neuwirth went to Venice, where at the age of 16 she had heard the premiere of the opera Prometeo by Luigi Nono in the Chiesia di San Lorenzo. This ‘tragedy of listening’ made an indelible impression. When she accidentally entered the church in 1997, she was so struck by its special acoustics that she decided to preserve it. She  recorded its acoustic relationships into a computer programme, thus enabling their exact reproduction in other spaces.

In Le Encantadas we make an imaginary journey along various islands. The acoustics are manipulated in such a way that sometimes we seem to find ourselves to be in the immense space of San Lorenzo, at other times in a narrow back room. Neuwirth intersperses the music with recordings of splashing water, ringing church bells, talking people and even an aria by the Japanese cyber diva Hatsune Miku. Its premiere in the Donaueschinger Musiktagen in 2016 was greeted with rave reviews.


In 2019 Neuwirth and librettist Catherine Filloux based the opera Orlando on Virginia Woolf’s classic novel of the same name, published in 1928. In this ‘fictional musical biography’ the nobleman Orlando from Elizabethan times wakes up as a woman after a long slumber, living on into the 20th century. In spite of this sex change he/she remains unchanged in character, without ageing significantly. Neuwirth’s Orlando continues the story into 2019.

The writer Orlando falls in love with a woman during the hippie era and becomes acquainted with current phenomena such as the new right-wing movements. At the centre of the composition is the paraphrase: renaissance madrigals are washed over by swirling glissandi, out-of-tune harpsichords are crossed with sounds from such unlikely sources as car brakes and thunder plates. Thus Neuwirth creates new music from historical or historically inspired material.

Grawemeyer Award and Ernst von Siemenspreis

Orlando was the first opera ever to be staged in the 150-year history of the Vienna Opera House. It received great critical acclaim and won her the 2022 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, comprising $100,000. Neuwirth was also awarded this year’s Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis, which even amounts to € 250,000.

In a statement the Von Siemens Foundation calls her ‘one of the most influential composers of her time, who propagates feminist themes, breaks new ground, is not afraid to address grievances and gives contemporary music a new face’. Neuwirth described the main character Orlando as a person ‘who refuses to be patronized and treated in a condescending manner’ – an apt description of herself. She added that this is the everyday experience of women ‘with no end in sight’.

Neuwirth being awarded two such prestigious prizes in one and the same year may seem to indicate that the times they are a-changing…

Liked my article? A donation, however small, is welcome through PayPal (friends option avoids charges), or by transferring money to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. Many thanks!


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
This entry was posted in background, news, women composers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Olga Neuwirth wins both Grawemeyer Award and Ernst von Siemenspreis 2022

  1. Pingback: Composer of the Year 2022 Missy Mazzoli: ‘Being a woman in a male-dominated world is one of my big themes’ | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s