MFive Mas

Severance Hall
September 26 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

September 28 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Masaot/Clocks Without Hands

Olga Neuwirth  (b. 1968)
composed 2013-14

At a Glance

Neuwirth wrote this orchestral work, Masaot/Clocks Without Hands, at the request of the Vienna Philharmonic, taking up a commission from the orchestra that she had been unable to do for the 100th anniversary in 2011 of Gustav Mahler’s death.  She completed the piece in 2013-14.  It was first performed on June 5, 2015, in Cologne, Germany, by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Harding. 

This work runs about 20 minutes in performance.  Neuwirth scored it for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, celesta, percussion (3 metronomes, almglocken, woodblock, rachet, snare drum, guiro, tom-tom, cymbals, zimbel von kolberg, triangle, chimes, 2 gongs, sleigh bells, temple bells, tam-tam, glockenspiel, vibraphone), and strings. 

The Cleveland Orchestra is presenting this work for the first time with this week’s concerts.

About the Music

The composer has written the following comments about how this piece came into being, and the meanings and ideas that she worked with while composing it . . .

“Where between the Moldau, Danube,
And my childhood river,
Everything sees me whole.”

—Ingeborg Bachmann, Prague, January 1964

The Vienna Philharmonic asked me to write an orchestral work for the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death, which was to take place in 2011.  Because I had to finish two operas by the end of that year, I was forced to decline.  

When the commission was postponed to 2015, I decided I didn’t want to drop the idea of reflecting on Mahler.  In the interim, I had also had a dream that triggered the “musical turbulences” for this orchestral work.

My grandfather, who I never met and who I only knew through photographs and from my grandmother’s stories, appeared to me in the dream:  In the sunlit meadow of the Danube, with its rippling water, the wind moved myriads of green blades of grass in a strip of tangled reeds.  My grandfather was standing in the midst of the grass, and playing for me one song after another on an old crackling tape recorder. 

He said to me:  “From the start, I was strikingly different.  I was an outsider and never entirely fit into my Austrian surroundings.  All my life, I had the feeling of being excluded.  Listen to these songs: this is my story.”  He had fallen out of time and was sharing this with me.

The dream moved me so much that I wanted to process it by writing a composition, because for me writing has always been connected with memory.  My idea was to create music that could seem as if you were listening to something being dreamt, as if you yourself were dreaming while listening.

In Hebrew, masa’ot is the plural form for the word journey.  It also means history and story brought together.  My musical composition, Masaot/Clocks Without Hands, can be seen as a poetic reflection on how soundworlds can come together and how memories fade.  The piece combines recurrent fragments of melodies, taken from very different places and experiences from my grandfather’s life.  It is a “shaped stream of memories.”  

The composition develops a “grid” in which song fragments resound and are recombined.  Concurrently, there is a “musical object,” based on metronome beats, that makes time audible and perceptible.  Just like on a spinning carousel, these metronome beats appear and disappear.  Yet unlike on a carousel, they do not remain the same; they change each time they occur through a slight shift in context and the superposition of various tempos.  Through this “ticking of the metronome,” through this time’s externally regulated pulsation, time itself becomes a subjectively timeless realm of the subconscious.  Ultimately, time appears to dissolve, creating clocks without hands.

My grandfather was born by the sea in a city with a turbulent history.  At times the city was under Venetian rule, while at others it was under Croatian-Hungarian rule.  He later grew up in the Danube River Basin, on the border between Croatia and Hungary.  So perhaps my grandfather felt the same way as novelist Elias Canetti, who wrote about his childhood on the Danube: “As a child I had no real grasp of the variety, but I never stopped feeling its effects. . . . I consist of many people whom I am not at all aware of.”  Thus, this new music piece was, for me, about the many different (musical) stories heard and carried to sea by a river.  In my case, about the Danube.

Back to Mahler.  After its world premiere, his First Symphony was called Katzenmusik, meaning “caterwauling” or cacophony, and criticized for eclecticism.  That, however, was precisely what interested me!  I wanted to explore this musical phenomenon, along with the “ancient fragrance from fabled times” — specifically, the childhood and adolescence of my grandfather on the Danube.  I wanted to look back at the world of Kakanian heritage (a term referring, in part fancifully, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s mixed heritages and dual monarchy) from the perspective of my present life — in the search for identity and origin.  

Perhaps this piece is the ironic and melancholic “swan song” of an Austrian composer who feels “in a negative sense” free to compose whatever she wants and so feels close to someone “without qualities,” a concept put forth by the German philosopher-writer Robert Musil (1880-1942) in his unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities.

Masaot/Clocks without Hands evolved out of the multi-voiced sound of my fragmented origins and my desire for an uninterrupted flow, determined throughout the piece by constantly interchanging cells.

To me, Heimat (the German word meaning “homeland” or “native country”) is something nebulous.  In Masaot/Clocks Without Hands, I try to respond to the idea of someone having “several homelands” — specifically, by composing music that is both native and foreign.  By creating familiar and unfamiliar sounds, beyond any form of Kakanian nostalgia, in an impossible attempt to stop time by composing.

—Olga Neuwirth, 2015