Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Q&A with UNO’s Yotam Haber, the Composer Behind “New Water Music”


Earlier this month, New Orleanians collected on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain to experience “New Water Music,” an orchestral performance and artistic collaboration designed to pay tribute to Louisiana’s coast and culture.

Composer Yotam Haber, assistant professor of music at the University of New Orleans, wrote the piece with inspiration from Handel’s “Water Music,” which was performed on the River Thames for King George I in 1717. Haber intended the hour-long “New Water Music” to be played outdoors on land and water by as many musicians as possible. And, indeed, the April 8 event – a collaboration between Haber, New Orleans Airlift—the artistic force behind Music Box Village— the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra resulted in a sensory rich experience resplendent with colorful costumes, nautical flags, dancing fishing boats, dangling buoys, ripped netting, wigged mermen and more.

Artist Delaney Martin, the project’s artistic director and Airlift co-founder, helped marry spectacle to Haber’s music, which he said was designed to help illuminate Louisiana’s coastal crisis. One hundred members of the LPO, which commissioned the piece, performed on barge, boats and land, while local musicians wove through crowds of onlookers at the Seabrook Boat Launch, beating drums, shaking tambourines and chanting.

Haber himself wore a cape—for a short time, anyway—and ascended a metal platform, where he led the performance with help of two people waving flags.

We talked with Haber about the project, his inspiration and New Orleans.

Haber, who joined UNO in 2013, is recipient of a 2013 Fromm Music Foundation commission, a 2013 New York Foundation for the Arts award, the 2007 Rome Prize and a 2005 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. He has received numerous grants and fellowships, including from the MAP Fund, New Music USA, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, the Bellagio Rockefeller Foundation, Yaddo, Bogliasco, MacDowell Colony, the Hermitage, ASCAP, and the Copland House. In addition to teaching at UNO, he is director emeritus of MATA, the non-profit organization founded by Phillip Glass that is dedicated to commissioning and presenting new works by young composers.

Q: When and why did you first start conceptualizing “New Water Music”? Was it before or after you came to Louisiana?

YH: It was two years ago, after I came. I have a history of making site-specific work and I felt that if I am going to live here in New Orleans, I wanted to make a work that really had something to do with this place and not just simply write an orchestra piece.

Q: And, for you, the water was a real draw.

YH: It’s sort of inextricably linked to being in New Orleans.

Q: This is not the first time you have drawn on history and place as a subject. In 2013, you were commissioned to pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. In that performance, you incorporated the words and images and sounds from Birmingham and its people. Similarly, in New Water Music performance, we saw you include snippets from the spiritual “Deep River,” the slave song “The Old Ship of Zion,” as well as the Mardi Gras Indian chant, “Shallow water, oh Mama.” Why are you drawn to these projects that take you into the archives of history, culture and text?

YH: I find non-musical elements the most inspiring things for my own creative juices. Usually the things that give me the first impulse to create are historical or visual art or place itself, geography. Those are the kinds of things that get my synapses firing and help me to start to think about musical ideas. I often start with very non-musical ideas at the very beginning of the process.

Q: Why is that?

YH: Every composer has their own method for writing and also every composer is influenced by different elements. Some composers write music where the non-musical influence is hard to find. For other composers, it’s much more evident. I would be willing to bet that there are no composers who just simply live in a vacuum. I think that one’s day-to-day life has a huge impact on one's work as a composer. When I lived in New York, my music sounded different than it does when I live in New Orleans. When I lived in Europe, my music sounded different than it did in the other places I’ve ever been. Place has a huge impact on me. I think that’s only natural and believe it would be a problem if place weren't such an influence. I write music everywhere I go and everywhere I am.

Q: How do these kinds of projects align with how you see your role as a composer, artist and teacher?

YH: We are constantly influenced whether we like it or not by our environment. I find inspiration from extramusical elements such as visual art, history, politics, my family, my students, the world around me. There is a self-involvement associated with being an artist of any kind: We are most often looking deeply inside ourselves for answers. To offset this kind of inherent egoistic nature, I try to think about my community—other composers, musicians and listeners—and about contributing or giving back in some way. 

Q: You were born in Holland and grew up in Israel, Nigeria, and Milwaukee. But it seems like you’ve really embraced the American South in your work. How long have you been in the South and how has it compared with what you envisioned before coming here?

YH: I came to New Orleans in the summer of 2013 so I have been here about four years. My wife and daughter and I really like it here. It’s definitely a slower pace than it was in New York. What’s exciting for us is that we feel that New Orleans is just filled with creative people, young creative people willing to take chances – and take chances in a way that you don’t see so often in New York anymore. You can fail here. You can fail spectacularly in New Orleans and it will be ok; the risks are not as great. It’s also a livable city. It’s an affordable city. It’s a city where we can live and thrive as artists. The community is strong. It amazes me every single time I have had a performance of my music in New Orleans how many people come. It’s really, I think, a city that is truly interested in music, and not just jazz. It is a city that is interested in all kinds of music. It’s very exciting to be a part of it.

Q: How do you feel New Orleans and the Deep South inspired or changed you as a musician?

YH: It might be too early to tell. I can tell you that I really enjoy teaching. This is the first full-time teaching position that I have ever had. In New York, I was living as a composer. I’ve really been enjoying teaching at UNO and experiencing how the conversations that I hold with my students impact my work. Teaching becomes something that feeds me creatively. ... My students often introduce me to things I didn’t know. It’s been great. I think that teaching only helps your own creative work.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the research you undertook for New Water Music?

YH: I was interested in the idea of thinking about all the music that has been written about water in the past. I spent a lot of time thinking about music of all genres, styles and traditions that were written about water. In fact, I had an assistant who was finding every piece that he could get his hands on. We formed this large catalog of hundreds of pieces about water. I wanted to think about commonalities in those works. What have composers and songwriters thought about when they write about water? What makes a piece watery? I have to say that is sort of my working method often. I spend a lot of time thinking and sketching and building up toward that act of actually writing the piece. It takes a long time for me to feel like I’m ready to begin the piece. I need to spend months discovering what my vocabulary is going to be.

Q: And what did you learn about how water is represented in music?

YH: I think that what I discovered is that there are so many approaches to trying to evoke water. That is the power, I think, of water:  It evokes so many different things to so many different people. That is why it has been a subject for so many composers and artists. Because there is something so elusive and ephemeral about it, you can approach it in so many different ways. I ultimately tried to write a piece that doesn’t try to guide you as a listener in one specific way. I am not trying to be didactic. I am not trying to be dogmatic. I think that I wrote a piece that allows the listener to find their own path and their own story inside of it. That’s my ideal as a composer, really. I think that if everyone in my audience hears exactly the same message, then I have succeeded in writing propaganda; I haven’t succeeded in making a work of art.

Q: How did the actual performance of New Water Music compare with what you had envisioned?

YH: There is never a one-to-one—at least in my experience, there has never been a one-to-one ratio of= little dots on a page to the actual experience of hearing the music. It’s never quite as you imagined it. There are always surprises. Sometimes the surprises are bad and sometimes they are good. There are so many elements in “New Water Music” that are up to the freedom of the performer—each individual performer—that I only had kind of a mind’s eye or mind’s ear sense of what might happen. I was very happy with what I experienced, especially in the outdoor performance. On Thursday night, April 6, it was performed it indoors, just by the LPO, and on April 8, it was performed by the LPO with community musicians. When we played it outdoors, there was not only the element of hundreds of musicians playing, each with really what we call in the composition business “controlled aleatory,” where you have some freedom, but it’s controlled. There are restrictions with what you can do as a musician with my piece, but there is some freedom involved. I couldn’t know before exactly what things would sound like. The outdoor performance not only had this element of controlled aleatory, or limited aleatory, but there was the element of just a gigantic space that we were playing in—literally miles of square footage. That meant that there was no way of imagining what this was going to sound like. Perhaps the only person who had an ideal seat for it was me, standing at the center of it. The people I spoke to who really enjoyed listening to the piece were those who stood up and walked around and tried to hear the piece from different vantage points, seeing how sound traveled over the water. There were some people in canoes or boats who listened to it in between the water and the land. There was a question mark about what was the best place to hear it. I am not sure that I was in the best possible place.

Q: What did you like best?

YH: There was an element of spectacle to my piece. I was worried that the spectacle nature of it would get in the way of the fact that it was really a piece of music. At the end of the day, it’s really just a large work for orchestra. I was worried that people wouldn’t really listen to the music, that the music would be maybe secondary to the whole spectacle of it. But I think that my music became an equal partner to the visual aspects that Airlift made, which were, I think, spectacular. And ultimately, what the piece ended up being was almost operatic. There’s a real drama to it that I don’t think I expected. I think there was an operatic, narrative-like drama that was happening and my music was on equal footing with that visual aspect. It really worked out beautifully.

Q: Did you know from the start that New Water Music should incorporate costumes and theatrics?

 YH: Yes. Airlift was an important partner and I wanted there to be a procession-like element that took us outside of the usual concert piece.

Q: How did Delaney Martin’s involvement and the involvement of Airlift alter or enhance your vision of the piece?

YH: I had presented Delaney with my idea of a work that would involve the LPO and community musicians of all levels. I wanted it to be a dialogue between musicians on land and water. And I wanted there to be constant movement to experience sound on different ways as it traveled from water to land and vice-verse. That's all I knew. The rest I left in the hands of Airlift.

Q: Have you ever before worn a cape while conducting and will you do it again?

YH: Well, the cape did come off before I began conducting! 

Q: How can people listen to New Water Music?

YH: We want to bring this piece to orchestras and communities in other water-bound cities. Stay tuned!

What is coming next?

YH: I'm writing my first opera, The Voice Imitator, based on short stories by Thomas Bernhard to be premiered at the New York cultural center the 92nd Street Y, for 2018.

Read More 

UNO Music Professor’s Composition To Be Premiered at Carnegie Hall
Yotam Haber, assistant professor of music
UNO Department of Music
UNO School of the Arts
New Orleans Airlift
Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra