Olga Neuwirth & ICI Ensemble

Who am I? No More
Neos NEOS 40807

Animated with sonic jump-cut and unexpected timbral juxtapositions these compositions – described as two audio films – by Austrian Olga Neuwirth, demonstrate that she is young enough to be influenced by John Zorn-styled musical pastiches as well as conventional music. That the results are congenial, is also a tribute to the versatility of the 12-piece, Munich-based ICI Ensemble, which collaborates with other cerebral improvisers like George Lewis.

While the first track contains fragments of Franz Kafka’s letters and the second includes song lyrics from Frank Zappa, neither honoree’s oeuvre is unaltered. A skein of melancholy clings to the Kafka excerpts, read at length in German, extended with short verbal expressions of self-denunciation in English. But emotions are undercut and intercut with interludes of burbling Dixieland-styled brass riffs, harmonized Romantic piano cadenzas, piping piccolo shrills, plus a theme appropriate for an espionage thriller. The final variant fades rock guitar licks and electric bass sluices beneath spinning drones created by the composer on her musical bicycle-machine.

Lyrics are sampled, extended and altered with laptop programming on “No More”, with musicians at times serving as a vocal chorus. Declarations such as “Having Problems with Flying Pigs?” are left as is. Commentary is provided by the instrumental arrangement, which variously resemble cartoon soundtracks, symphonic overtures, pressured balloon rubbing and one combination where a mournful cello line foreshadows a Twist Era recap of the Batman theme.

Eventually the stuttering, inconclusive timbres coalesce, so that the Zappa permutations take on a crucial musicality beyond their jokiness. In the process this demonstrates the transformative skill of Neuwirth and the ICI Ensemble.

— Ken Waxman

— For MusicWorks Issue #106