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Composer Yotam Haber on the Mysterious Possibilities of Writing for String Instruments

As the 2020 Laureate of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, Haber gives us an inside look into the process of writing for strings



The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music is open to composers worldwide with the aim of encouraging creative and critical engagement around the question: "What is Jewish Music?"

The 2022 Laureates of the Azrieli Music Prizes will be celebrated at the Azrieli Music Prizes Gala Concert — taking place on October 20, 2022, at 7:30 pm ET. There, audiences will be able to hear the premieres of all three prize-winning works.

In 2020, Composer Yotam Haber won the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, which lead to the creation of his Estro Poetico-armonico III.

More recently, The Violin Channel had a chance to gain Haber's personal insights into his compositional process...


The Mysterious Possibilities of Writing for Stringed Instruments

By Yotam Haber

In high school, I touched a string instrument for the first time. My parents sent me, an aspiring trumpet player, to the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, and my cabin mate let me try out his gleaming cello. I will never forget that feeling of drawing a bow and feeling its sound permeate my body, of the slight pain involved in pressing a string down to the fingerboard for the first time. It was a very different kind of sensation than the agony of playing trumpet with braces.

I was, and still am, in awe of the mysterious possibilities afforded by a string instrument: within the span of an octave lie an infinite series of pitches and colors that a master artist can achieve through years of muscle memory, training, and dedication.

Since that cold, buggy camp summer, my body of work consists overwhelmingly of music for strings.

When I was a young composer, I was under the impression that composing was like that old Gilette antiperspirant ad: “never let them see you sweat.” Performers should never think that you don’t know something. Always give the illusion that you are in full control, and that you have an answer for everything.

But this method proved to be useless to both myself and the performers. Neither they nor I ended up learning, developing, or growing as artists from these early experiences.

In 2008, I was commissioned by the architect Peter Zumthor to write a trio (Between Composure and Seduction) for his friends, Maya Hamburger (I believe she was the concertmaster of the English Baroque Soloists at the time), her husband (the composer and experimental bassist Barry Guy), and Zumthor’s son, Peter Conradin, who is a fine percussionist. I was so in awe of these players that I was too afraid to ask questions. I wrote a part for Maya’s baroque violin that had barely a passing knowledge of her instrument’s capabilities and limitations. After Maya saw the part, she called me and grimly said, “I’ll play it, but I’m passing the doctor’s bill to you.”

It was a turning point.

These days, working with and learning from performers could not be more essential to my process. When I was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet (From the Book), I spent months crafting and refining the piece, to make it a work that, like a bespoke suit, fit the group perfectly. It was music truly for the Kronos Quartet, made to fit, made to accentuate their “curves,” made to highlight their great strengths, and most importantly, made so that they truly enjoyed playing it.

I do not write with an audience in mind, but I do consider my performer. If I am able to transmit meaning and intention to them, there is a chance that they may be able to carry that to an audience. But if there is no connection between me and my players, how can my ideas possibly reach a listener?  There are not many things that I am certain about as a composer. One thing that I do feel very strongly about is creating this connection.

Estro Poetico-armonico III, my work for the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music was a continuation of my cycle of pieces that investigate, reconsider, and re-discover through my own lens the liturgical music of the Roman Jewish community. EPA1 was for the JACK Quartet and the Berlin-based Quartet New Generation, a recorder quartet. EPA2 was for the Israel-based Meitar Ensemble (Meitar means “string” in Hebrew), and EPA3 (for the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne) is for voice and chamber orchestra. In all three works, strings play a central role, embodying a liturgical tradition that has slowly transformed over millennia.

Why am I so drawn to string instruments, when woodwinds and brass - those instruments that use air - would make perfect sense to recreate disembodied voices from archival sources? I think it is precisely because the relationship between the voice and drawing a bow over a string is not entirely obvious. That connection between the voice and these mysterious instruments I love is not an entirely direct, easy route.
And indirect routes are something I love: in nature, in life, and in music.

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