As music enthusiasts, every once in awhile we need an album that challenges our perception of contemporary music. Amidst the popular theme of ethereal zen-like music comes this album from the lauded Yotam Haber. This composer is making real waves in the contemporary classical music world, named by the LA Times as one of 2014’s ”Faces to Watch,” and has received accolades, grants, and press from across the globe. Torus, named for the geometrical shape which matches a donut or a tire, is an experience in cyclisicm and demands to be listened to from beginning to end with no distraction. While a great deal of music in media has faded to be nothing more than ornamental embellishments for visual material, this album requires your full attention, and it wont be denied. It’s an album that must be approached with resolve and a willingness to go on an emotional and heartwrenching journey that won’t be paralleled.
From the opening of We Were All, the music recalls elements of Ligeti and John Adams with its encompassing orchestrations that adventurously match a counter-tenor voice with muted trumpets and pitched percussion. Haber is known for choosing text based on the sound rather than the content, and this is no exception. The text, written by gifted poet Andrea Cohen, illustrates a feeling of discovering acceptance in not getting what you want. There’s an interesting parallel with this text, joining disappointment about lost cherries and the disappointment over other losses in life: careers, family, or opportunities.
On Leaving Brooklyn perfectly encompasses the bittersweet reality of leaving a place behind. The text, written by Julia Kasdorf, pulls on the heartstrings and reminds the listener what Home felt like. The sliding, hollow melodies and polyphonic rhythms give rise to a feeling of unfamiliarity and strangeness, exactly how one feels when trying to settle somewhere new. The soloist, Mireille Asselin, floats above it all with a yearning desperation to forget what she once knew to find happiness in a new land.
The next piece on the album, Last Skin, is divided between 2 tracks. Using scordatura (detuned strings), Haber creates a musical landscape of 16 open pitches, which lends an expressive and haunting timbre to the music. This piece invokes an element of cyclicism as it rediscovers musical content from We Were All. This piece was composed as a commission for a friend’s parent who had passed, and it examines the different ways that people grieve. The first half delves into the chaotic anger that we feel when we’ve lost someone we love, and takes the listener on a journey of loud, unsustainable anguish, the kind that is all-encompassing and destructive. This piece demands attention and thought, ripping away any illusions of hope and reconciliation. Along the seven stages of grief, this half of Last Skin travels through denial, guilt, and anger or bargaining. The second half of the piece focuses on painful reflection and the numb acceptance that accompanies it. Haber lets the open strings play to their strengths, creating chilling and painstakingly hollow melodies that echo the feeling of loss. Together, both halves of Last Skin travel through the emotions of loss and grief, examining both ends of the emotional spectrum: anger, and numb reflection.
The title work, Torus, is expertly performed by the Mivos Quartet. Composed to reflect the huge, intimidating sculptures of Richard Serra, the performers use filters to affect their sound in real time. This piece is threatening and frightening, scaling from a breakneck pace in the beginning to a rumbling creep at the final note. Torus was not written to be sidelined by visual media, it was written to be an all-encompassing aural experience that’s like an assault on the senses. From the Book of Maintenance and Sustenance is the next in Haber’s series of pieces that are born from Italian Jewish archival recordings. This piece invokes an Italian Jewish liturgical melody, a plaintive and calming eight minutes that rounds out the emotional roller coaster of Torus. In the end, it’s the peace that we crave after the loss, the panic, and the chaos of life; it’s a fitting end to this exhausting album.
This is the music that people think of when they hear “contemporary classical music.” It’s a demanding, full-throttle musical experience that’s not for the faint of heart. It demands attention and an openness to emotion, and it doesn’t take no for an answer. Yotam Haber composed a collection of chamber pieces that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle– each piece is interesting on its own, but together they make a mural of the mind.