Yotam Haber is a modern composer born in Holland who is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. He has won countless awards, including a 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2007-2008 Frederic A. Juilliard/ Walter Damrosch Rome Prize, which brought him to the American Academy in Rome for a year. He has been in residence at the Aaron Copland House, the Atlantic Center for the arts, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, and has been a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, and the Aspen Music Festival. His music has been performed in the United States, Germany, Italy and Holland. His wind ensemble, Espresso, was performed at Carnegie Hall in 2004. He has numerous large commissions in the works, including a 2009 Meet the Composer commission for the Knights Ensemble in New York.
Haber studied with Eugene O’Brien and Claude Baker at Indiana University and has a Ph.D. in Composition from Cornell University. He is currently the Artistic Director of the MATA Festival of Contemporary Music and lives in New York City.
Writing of Haber in The New Yorker, Alex Ross called his music “deeply haunting.”
How did you become interested in music?
My mother is an amateur musician. She didn’t make a dime on it, but it was a hobby. And my grandmother was a great amateur. She played piano and sang very seriously. I inherited all of her scores, lots of vocal music— Brahms, Shubert, Schumann. But inheriting all that stuff came later. First, when I was 9 years old, my grandmother told me she would like to buy me a present. I said I would like to have a walkman, which I had never had. She thought that was great. She took me to the store, bought me a walkman, and then said: “You can have any recording you want.” I bought Run-DMC “Tougher than Leather,” which is a seminal rap group from the early eighties. My grandmother was so disappointed in me that she wouldn’t speak to me for a week.
During that time, my parents were forcing me to go to piano lessons. I hated it. I said to my parents: “Enough.” Then they started giving my sister lessons—violin lessons, piano lessons. She was atrocious, by any standard. And I felt that I could do so much better. I got jealous. I begged my parents for lessons and they just played the reverse psychology game and said, “Absolutely not. You had your chance. If you want lessons, you have to pay for them yourself.” It got so under my skin that that is what I did: I mowed lawns, worked in restaurants, did all sorts of jobs. I made the money to get lessons.
Why did you want to do it so badly, since you had hated it before?
In the beginning, it was just the jealousy. But I was very awkward in high school, and in middle school, and…let’s face it, always! I wanted to do something that would set me apart, something that would make me feel unique. I would ride my bike to composition lessons on the weekends. My teacher wouldn’t let me write anything in my own style. All we did was sixteenth century counterpoint exercises and write chorales by Bach.
And this you mowed lawns for.
Yes, I loved it so much. It was so special to ride my bicycle to this woman’s house— she was, like, eighty, and she had studied music with the New England Conservatory of Music in the 1930s! She would tell me these horrific stories about what conservatory life was like. She said that she had one professor who would sit on the piano keys and make the students tell him how big his ass was— how many octaves. As an ear training exercise. So people would measure each others’ asses by how many octaves, like: “Oh, you’re a two and a half octave ass.”
Pretty racy for 1930’s conservatory school.
After that you never looked back?
I was about 14 or 15 when I was taking the lessons. And I became very serious about it. My parents really wanted me to be a doctor. A veterinarian, actually. My father called the University Veterinary Department when I was ten years old and said, “My son wants to be a veterinarian, can you send some information?” They said, “What university is he doing his undergrad in?” “He’s ten.” But they sent a really big packet anyway. And all through growing up we would look through that packet.
The point is, my parents really wanted me to do something realistic. There were always these little tests. When I was in high school my parents said, “Apply for regular university. At the same time, apply to music school. If you get a scholarship, we’ll let you go.” So I applied to both, got into both, and went to music school. After I finished my undergrad degree, the same thing happened. I was more on my own at that time, but I made the deal with myself. I said, if I get into graduate school and I don’t have to pay, maybe it means something. So, I went to graduate school. I am constantly playing these little games with myself.
What did you do after graduate school?
I graduated with my doctorate from Cornell in 2004. I was 25 years old. I was scared out of my mind. I was trying to figure out what to do next. I went to New York and moved in with my then girlfriend. We lived in the West Village. We had no money. So, Gray’s Papaya hot dogs were a good part of my diet. It was really tough. But I was writing a ton. My girlfriend and I weren’t getting along. My job at the time had given me a deserted office where I would stay late and work on my music and then come back on the weekends to write more. So, thanks to the state of my relationship, I was able to write a lot of music during that time. I wrote very well.
Then I got the Guggenheim in 2005, which allowed me to do what I wanted for a year. After the Guggenheim, I started to get commissions. And I began to see that I didn’t have to work 40 hour jobs anymore, I could start to sustain myself on my composing.
Where was your work being performed before you got the Guggenheim?
I had concerts in New York. I played at Carnegie Hall, which isn’t as hard as you think it is. What you do is, you play the competition game. You constantly send pieces out to places and when you win a prize, part of the prize might be money but the other part might be a performance of your piece. As that starts rolling, at a certain point people just start asking you for your music because they’ve heard about your work through some competitions. Your name starts to get around.
What kinds of jobs did you have before you could support yourself on your music?
First, I worked at a music publishing house. Everyone who worked there was a musician on the side. So it wasn’t really hard work. They understood that we had other things in our lives, and I am grateful for that. I was there for a year. Then I got a job that paid more money, working for the American Music Center which was a non-profit that helps to promote young American composers. I did that for a while and was absolutely miserable, mostly because of how I was living.
How were you living?
I rented a room in Chelsea from this stranger that I found off Craigslist. He opened the door without his shirt on— that should have been my first warning. He had a piano in his living room. He wanted to be an opera singer. So, he knocked two hundred bucks off my rent if I would accompany him on the piano. I would accompany him, and he had no sense of dynamics—musical dynamics. He didn’t know whether he was singing loudly or softly, so everything he sang was as loud as humanely possible. He shouted it out.
Sounds like a New York nightmare.
It got worse. Like a week after I moved in, I opened one of the cupboards in the kitchen and saw twelve vials of medicine lined up. I called my friend, who is a psychiatrist, and I asked her, “If I read to you the names on the vials, will you tell me what this guy has?” So I did. And then there was a long silence before she said, “You have to get the fuck out of there.” She told me to lock my door at night. Turns out, he was a potentially violent schizophrenic.
Since getting the Guggenheim, have you been able to support yourself wholly on your music?
I did work as a paralegal for six months. Because one thing I found that has always bothered me is that being a composer is sort of at odds with being a social person. You spend your entire day alone by yourself. Sometimes the days can stretch endlessly. It can feel like the days just wiz by when you are working well, but sometimes it’s just tortuous how long the day can feel. When I had my Guggenheim, the year of freedom often felt incredibly scary. So, I thought it would be nice to have this kind of job that had nothing to do with music. I could leave my work at the office and separate the two, unlike the jobs I had with music before. But it proved to just get in the way.
So I stopped that. And I’ve noticed that gradually I’m able to support myself as a composer. But it is a very tenuous job, since you are going from commission to commission. I’ve also taught private composition lessons. And recently, I was appointed Artistic Director of a festival that Philip Glass started 13 years ago, MATA. It is an incredible job. It is just a few days a week and I plan the festival, which happens once a year, as well as different concerts that happen throughout the year. It is all about finding the best young composers from all over the world and bringing them to New York, bringing the best musicians in the world to New York, and programming great concerts. I feel like there is some good karma to it. Not only does it get me out of the house, which I like, but I am also giving back to the music community here. It’s wonderful.
Is being part of an artistic community important to you?
Through my work with MATA, I am constantly meeting new people. It is a very important thing to hear new music, to keep going to concerts. That way you can hear what is being done. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I feel that as an artist, I can’t live in a bubble, in a vacuum where I am just at home and write and have no exchange with the outside community. It is so important.
Does that perhaps explain all the residencies you have done?
[Laughs] I am completely addicted to residencies! It is just so fascinating because of the conversations you have with people you meet who are in fields who you wouldn’t ordinarily meet. I was just at this residency in Italy where we were about 10-12 people. There was the Surgeon General of Egypt sitting to my left at dinner, then there was a lawyer and sociologist husband and wife team who are the preeminent scholars on Native American rights…and these conversations, when would you ever have conversations like that?
Residencies definitely also make you work more. Sometimes I even tell myself when I am not in a residency that I’ll do my real work when I’m there. Because you know that you are going to have a very structured day in these places. There are no distractions. Everyone is in their studios do their work. You can’t knock on their doors and ask to play tennis!
What are your work habits like?
I get up at seven, make coffee, and then work through the morning. Around 4 or 5 hours a day. When I was a teenager, I read Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” He said that he always left his work for the day in mid-sentence so he knew he had something to come back to the next day. I thought that was so wonderful, so I try to do that. I don’t work to the point of exhaustion. I work to the point where I stop and am excited to work the next day.
Have you ever wanted to give up?
Three years ago, I was totally going to give up. I felt like it was too hard to have a life as a composer. And I applied to law school. I got into law school. I was about to mail in my acceptance letter when I found out that I had won the Rome Prize. Then I decided that was maybe some sort of sign.
I know that it is a dangerous thing to wait for the validation of others in order to create art, but sometimes it is a really helpful boost. I feel like the whole point of writing music is to have it performed. It’s not like a visual work of art where no matter if anyone buys it or not, it exists as it should be on your wall. In music, when you finish writing a piece, it’s not how it should be, it’s not in its final form as black notes on paper. The final form is having it performed. I was in a period where my music wasn’t being performed enough. I felt like I was falling off the face of the musical map. And then the Rome Prize gave me this boost that made me want to give it another chance. Since then, I haven’t looked back.
I just moved back to New York, actually. The Rome Prize gives you one year in Rome. And then I stayed an extra year. I loved it.
Can you recall any early triumphs?
I know it sounds crass, but the first time you get paid for your work it sends chills down your spine. Because you realize that people are actually going to pay you for what you do, which you do because you love to do it.
How do you look back on your salad days now?
I look back on it as a good time in my life. In retrospect, the only really bad time I ever had was when I was living with a psychopath. Even when I was thinking I would go to law school and was going to give up music, I was enjoying myself. I just thought I had to be more realistic about my life. When you grow up with a family that is very realistic you tend to have those same sort of ideas. This kind of life that doesn’t have a normal trajectory is very hard for my family to accept. And sometimes, it is very hard for me to accept as well. I suppose I’ve come to terms with it because I’ve started to see a trajectory, where I can lead a normal life— and by normal I mean put food on my table, enjoy my life and still be a composer. Which is not something that happened immediately.
And the magical thing about New York is that even when you don’t make a lot of money, if you have interesting friends, you never feel poor in this city. I was really blessed with fascinating friends. With good friends wonderful things happen in this city, don’t they?
Have your parents come to terms with the fact that you are a composer?
My father came to terms with it when he visited me at the American Academy in Rome. It was the first time he felt like I could be a composer, have a life that way.
Have they sent you a lot of veterinary brochures in the meantime?
No, but when I was applying for law school they were rather excited…I think they even paid for my applications!
Do you feel secure in your career now?
When something good happens, it’s not about celebrating. I just breathe out a sigh of relief because it means I can be a composer for one more day.
Fear produces good art. You ask me if I constantly feel that my status as a composer is threatened. Yes, maybe it is. That threat is what makes me write. I think money can make you lazy. Hunger is very important. That hunger drives me. I speak for myself, of course. There have been plenty of fabulous, rich artists.
Stravinsky said you should only be a composer if there is nothing else that you can do. I like to think that there is nothing else that I can do.
Do you have any advice for young people starting out?
There are two really important things. One is you need to spend a large percentage of your time marketing yourself. The second is you can’t wait for fate. The two are inter-connected. I know composers who are producing good work but feel they will be discovered when the time is right, or that pushing their work is uncouth, is not how a real composer should work, that their brilliance will shine through. And it just doesn’t work that way. I expect it doesn’t work that way in any field. You have to work at your career. You have to build it. You have to expose yourself. And part of that is also producing. There are those composers who only compose once a month and then for three weeks won’t write a note. You need to produce. You absolutely need to produce. Whether it’s good, whether it’s bad, try not to second-guess yourself. Just produce work and put it out there. Let other people be the judge.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander