Skip to page content

In 2010 the Vienna Philharmonic asked Olga Neuwirth to write an orchestral work for the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death. Since she had to finish two operas by the end of 2011, she had to decline. When the commission was postponed until 2015, she decided that she did not want to drop the idea she had had while reflecting on Mahler in 2010.

Neuwirth made the multiethnic origins of her refugee grandfather the inspirational source of this orchestral work. It’s a musical river journey. And the Danube, the massive waterway on which her grandfather grew up, is the quiet protagonist. It connects Neuwirth’s diverse and abruptly changing acoustic landscapes with the tableaux of citations into one musical tale. Along this waterway, the plot develops, so to speak, through her grandfather’s different cultures like a series of musical postcards. Masaot/Clocks combines fragments of melodies from very different places and experiences from her grandfather’s life.

It opens with a tutti chord in triple forte that thrusts the iridescent initial sounds of the strings upon us. Soon the first snippets from her grandfather’s Eastern-European Jewish song heritage can be heard — a poetic reflection on the search for identity and fading memories. They are the strands of tradition on a journey (in Hebrew masa’ot also means history and story, figuratively as well) through a broad, not merely musical, multiple homeland (Mehrheimat).

The composition evolves within a kind of grid in which song fragments resound and are recombined. Simultaneously, there is a “musical object,” based on metronome beats, that makes time not only audible but palpable. Just like with a revolving carousel, these metronome beats appear and disappear. Through this ticking of the metronome, through time’s externally regulated pulsation, time itself becomes a subjective, timeless realm of the subconscious. Ultimately, time appears to dissolve into: clocks without hands.

Neuwirth’s grandfather was born in a seaside town with a turbulent history, but grew up in the Danube River Basin, on the border between Croatia and Hungary. The many different (musical) stories are carried to sea by a river: in her case, the Danube. Neuwirth wanted to look back at the world of Kakania from the perspective of her present life. In the search for identity and origin — because for her Heimat (homeland, native country) is something nebulous. In Masaot/Clocks without Hands, she responds to the idea of someone having several homelands, namely, by composing music that is both native and foreign—with familiar and unfamiliar sounds beyond any form of nostalgia.