“Everyone should be quiet,” my neighbour said, waiting for the festival concert to begin. “I can already hear water dripping.” It was true. While the audience members knew that Olga Neuwirth’s Le Encantadas would revolve around water, only a few were aware of the trickling sound behind their pre-concert chatter. Many, however, knew the Austrian composer Neuwirth as a creator of intriguing sound landscapes; this festival year’s Composer-in-Residence, namely, had shared that same position in 2002 with the great Pierre Boulez.

In his opening remarks, Executive and Artistic Director Michael Haefliger paid a heartfelt tribute to Boulez, crediting him with “bringing the modern to life” here, a genre which, today, “is part of the Lucerne Festival’s DNA.” And he took particular pleasure in introducing Neuwirth, whose music in the modern genre, he said, had “decisively developed further” since 2002. Not surprisingly, she is prominently featured among the women composers, musicians and soloists who underscore the summer festival’s many-faceted “Prima Donna” theme. 

As Le Encantadas began, the musicians of the Paris-based Ensemble intercontemporain trickled out into the darkened square of the Luzerner Saal. They took their positions in groups of four, five or six on raised and brightly lit podiums, together making a loose circle around the audience of some 900 listeners. Along with three sound engineers and technicians from IRCAM – Centre Pompidou, Neuwirth herself sat behind one of four sound consoles and computer screens in the centre. It was from there that each singular player’s score and “field recordings” that augmented the live performance could be monitored and adjusted. Conductor Matthias Pintscher stood on the auditorium stage on a higher, square podium that, given the dramatic spot lighting, made him look like one of the imperial Caesars. Yet his precision in and control of the demanding score was to show itself nothing short of noble throughout.

From the very start, the sound landscape expanded and contracted into a flourish of colour and volumes. Over and beyond the usual tones of a chamber group, its dynamic included rarely heard instruments, such as contrabass clarinet and French bassoon, and the players invariably played more than one instrument: the flautist’s piccolo came as no surprise, but that she also had a part on the ukulele certainly did. The “field recordings” augmenting the live instruments, I later learned, were recorded in Venice in and around the 9th-century church of San Lorenzo. It was there that as a teenager in 1984, Neuwirth heard the première of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, a work that was to influence her own composing career markedly.

In Le Encantadas, we hear Venice in haunting and lively city sounds: the paddles of the small boat in the lagoon, the gulls aloft, a small bell at the boat dock, the massive, resonant tone of St Mark's Basilica. What’s more, there were voices of harried Venetians, the patter of steps across San Lorenzo’s stone floor. After the concert, sound engineer Sylvain Cadars explained to me that with the recordings he had made in Venice, Neuwirth’s intention was to synthesize the sounds of the interior space (church) with that of the exterior (city). At the concert in Lucerne, the IRCAM-mastered recordings were then projected via a “surround sound” (ambiotic) system from three different levels, much like as happens in cinemas. 

Neuwirth’s piece was also inspired by the largely unadultered Galapagos Islands. Apparently the vignettes Hermann Melville made of the Pacific archipelago in 1854 always held a particular fascination for her. Indeed, Melville had been a reference point for other of her compositions too. She sees the islands and Venice as motifs, “not as geographic locations, but more, as imaginary and mythological rooms”. For us listeners, though, it was easy to assign both the score’s torrential “rain” sequences over several minutes – every instrument descending in a seeming free-fall down the scales − and the soporific repetitions of large “waves” to that very remote part of the world.

In its many nuances and as amplified with the kind of intensity that approximated a control room for a pending moon landing, Neuwirth’s “fundamental work” makes a kind of real and unreal landscape of both locations, an experience with both the cosmic and the specific, and admittedly, as much theatre as it is musical experience. Remarkably, in Matthias Pintscher conductor’s score, each instrument’s marks looked like a cardiology patient’s heart monitor printout. Appropriately so, for Le Encantades came as much alive in Lucerne as good blood circulation brings to the body or art ever stirs the imagination.