• The Star Staff

Whispers of an Italian-Jewish past fill a composer’s music

By Thomas May

Since early in his career, Yotam Haber has grappled with what it means to be a contemporary Jewish composer. The tentative answers offered by his music — full of allusions, distortion and whispers of the past — suggest that the grappling itself is a vital part of that identity.

Haber’s most recent work, “Estro Poetico-Armonico III,” which juxtaposes a live mezzo-soprano and orchestra with decades-old recordings of Italian Jewish cantorial singing, dramatizes a subtle dialogue between creation and tradition. One of three composers to receive the Azrieli Foundation’s music prizes for 2020, Haber wrote the piece to fulfill the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music.

The biennial awards of the foundation, based in Toronto, include two additional categories: the Prize for Jewish Music, given to an already existing recent work, and, introduced this year, the Commission for Canadian Music. (The other 2020 winners are Yitzhak Yedid and Keiko Devaux.) The Nouvel Ensemble Moderne of Montreal will livestream the premieres of all three works on medici.tv and the Azrieli Facebook page Thursday evening.

Haber, 43, refracts his exploration of Jewish musical identity through an ongoing attraction to Italian culture that began when he first traveled there at 18. Despite spending part of his childhood in Israel — he was born in the Netherlands but moved to the Middle East with his family when he was young — Haber became seriously interested in his Jewish heritage only after studying in Italy.

“I had never really thought about it before,” he said in a phone interview, but was prompted to consider it afresh by “being in a different country and trying to figure out who I am.” He was particularly drawn to the stalwart Roman Jewish community, which stood in marked contrast to his own experiences as what he calls a “cultural nomad.” (He also lived in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast as a boy before his father, a civil engineer, moved the family to Milwaukee in 1988.)

Studying in Italy, Haber found mentors among the avant-garde. As he took courses in live electronics, he discovered texts from a memorial held in the 1950s for Milanese victims of the Holocaust. He set these to music in “Shema” (2000), which tethers its consideration of Jewish identity to the acts of remembering and listening; the title is the Hebrew word that begins one of the central prayers of Judaism.

How we remember and how we listen are recurring concerns, including in “Estro Poetico-Armonico III.” It borrows its title from the Baroque composer Benedetto Marcello’s collection of cantata settings of the first 50 psalms. A contemporary of Vivaldi and Bach, Marcello used his transcriptions of the chants he heard in Venetian synagogues as inspiration.

“Marcello was a Christian composer who claimed that these chants could be traced back to what was passed down on Mount Sinai,” Haber said.

But no matter how far back the Jewish oral tradition extends, every generation inevitably swerves from the original. As a result, Haber said, the desire for a tradition to survive time and change can only be “a beautiful, doomed fantasy.”

He first responded to Marcello’s project with “Estro Poetico-Armonico I” (2011), for string quartet and recorder quartet, based on the last psalm setting in the collection. It is what Haber calls “a transcription of a transcription”; the listener can hear the process of distortion, which its composer compares to a musical version of the game telephone.

“Estro Poetico-Armonico II,” for a small chamber group, followed in 2014. If the first piece, according to its composer, resembled an old painting that had smeared from being left in the rain, the second contains barely discernible “little droplets” of the Marcello source — a poignant reminder of the fragility of tradition.

Unlike its predecessors, “Estro Poetico-Armonico III” contains no material from Marcello; it only alludes to his fantasy of reaching into the past through an act of transcription. But the transcription here is not merely distorted. Haber intentionally erases or overwrites his source, a 10-hour collection of reel-to-reel tapes of Jewish cantorial singing made by the ethnomusicologist Leo Levi in the mid-20th century.

The result includes live singing and also a layer of prerecorded material. These elements link it to another group of compositions Haber began in 2008 with “death will come and she shall have your eyes,” a song cycle blending traditional prayers and contemporary poetry. The organizing body of the Roman Jewish community helped fund its creation, but several of that group’s officials and other prominent members of the community were conspicuously absent at the premiere. Haber later discovered that this was in protest of his use of a female soloist to sing sacred texts — taboo for some observant Jews.

“Along with my love for the mezzo-soprano voice, because I feel so strongly about this, I’ve been doubling down and including it,” he said, including in “Estro Poetico-Armonico III.”

Gender plays a key role in the work. Each of the five movements sets a text by a male poet reflecting on contemporary Israeli identity. “Having these sung by a woman changes the way you read the text,” Haber said. Fragments of prerecorded music from the Italian-Jewish tradition weave unpredictably in and out.

Haber’s previous pieces using the Levi recordings radiated, he said, an attitude of “adoration and astonishment” toward the archival singing. But he’s grown more ambivalent. “The mezzo is no longer complicit,” he said. “My singer doesn’t want to be a part of what is happening in these recordings, and is even battling the cantors.”

He has spent the lockdown with his family in a small town in New Hampshire, where he composed “Estro Poetico-Armonico III”; its density, which he compares to a “palimpsest,” contrasts with the quiet from which it was produced.

“Normally, daily life becomes very hectic and filled with information in a way that affects the way we write music,” he said. “But for this piece I was able to shut all of that off, so in a way it is not a very ‘clever’ piece at all, but perhaps my most emotional piece. And that is absolutely liberating.”