I Won't Be Yodelled Out of Existence
Text of Olga Neuwirth's speech at the mass demonstration in Vienna on Feb. 19, 2000 against the FPOe government coalition
I'm standing up here as an artist representing a younger generation, and one who has doubly affronted: there is no longer a Ministry for Women, or a Ministry of Arts. Both of these ministries which were fought for tenaciously in the 70s have been abolished overnight. That probably shows how little these two domains mean to the political ruling classes.
As a composer, can I really protest on my own ground, with music? Be that as it may, where such things happen, I won't be silent. In an era that rejects art and artists, that regards them as useless, as a curiosity, artists do what they must: that's how they talk about what is really useless. This is the only kind of reaction that is left to them at moments of crisis, chaos, the abuse of human rights, intolerance, and in uncertain times. Showing that they can thrill, excite, consciously apply principles of expression and construction, create awareness of the creative act: that's the only reactive option that artists have. Though we composers lack words - as Moses in Schoenberg's opera puts it, "O Word, thou word that I lack" - perhaps we call also make a protest with purely musical means. That's why, for me, the concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus on Feb.4, the day the government was sworn in, with Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra and Mahler's Sixth Symphony on the program, was such a notable concert.* It was a reminder that sixty years ago the music of the Austrian composers Berg and Mahler was regarded as 'degenerate art'. The problem in Austria is not guilt, but the belief that one can dodge the admission of guilt and having been guilty. The belief that there's an escape hatch that was always there, and that now it can come to the fore again.
For me as a composer, the meaning of music can't be a matter of soothing people and making them compliant by promising a communal spirit that crosses all frontiers. I can't make reality any better than it is. I would like my listeners to be people who consciously think things over, who think for themselves, who regard music and art as a whole as a mirror of human searching, of people who want to grasp how things are, to cast off impositions, and to leap into the unknown - and thus become more open and tolerant towards their surroundings.
I'm not out to preach to anyone, but I want my music to convey ideas about the pain and tenderness that is pervades the world, the obvious ambivalence and sense of human futility that surrounds us. I know that art can't change anything, but art can point to things that have become petrified, and make visible the desolate state of society and politics.
I WILL NOT let myself be yodelled out of existence, just because "the caterwaul of world music" is not welcome in Gerlitzen!**
What I learned from 'degenerate art' is to remain alert, time and time again. That's why I should like to end with a phrase from a song by Hanns Eisler, who was also a 'degenerate artist': "Forwards, and don't forget: Solidarity".
19.2.2000, in front of the Vienna Staatsoper
English translation by Richard Toop