5 questions to Yotam Haber (composer, exiting artistic director MATA Festival)

The 2014 edition of the MATA Festival is in full swing. Yotam Haber, the exiting artistic director, kindly took a few minutes to answer our 5 questions…

You are ending your tenure as artistic director of the MATA Festival after this year. How would you characterize the approach to programming during your time at MATA?

I firmly believe in MATA’s mission of finding and promoting the most vital young voices in today’s musical landscape. Several years ago, we were hailed by the press as “dogmatically undogmatic” and I would say that this description encapsulates my approach to creating each concert.

What highlights from the Festival come to mind from the past few years?

MATA is really not about bringing name-brand composers. We thrive in risk! I have been gratified to bring composers to NYC that are as yet unfamiliar to audiences, and then quickly see successful compositional careers being launched as they are embraced by presenters, performers, and audiences. Over my years, I have seen the number of yearly applications rise fivefold, from approximately 250 to 1000, to – I believe – the most applied-for new music festival in the world. I’m especially proud of our new partnership with the Gaudeamus Festival and the Venice Biennale, which will give our commissioned composers the opportunity to have their works performed in three world-class festivals.

Yotam Haber

Yotam Haber

The MATA Festival has always cast a wide net to draw in composers whose work does not fit into existing institutions. At this point, however, it is in some ways an institution in itself. Did you find these aspects in some kind of tension with each other as the artistic director, or do they come together in unexpected ways?

Programming a festival is always a combination of the known and unknown. When commissioning new works, we try to put composers outside their usual comfort zone. That may mean, for example, asking them to write for instruments they’ve never approached before. This challenge often results in unexpected results that typify our mission. MATA began as a grassroots, quirky, DIY, neighborhood series, across the street from Philip Glass’s house in the E. Village. In our 16 years, and through the support of many great people, we’ve graduated to becoming an American institution. But becoming larger in scope doesn’t mean our mission has changed. Just as you say – we have always brought composers to the MATA family who don’t necessarily fit easy categorization. We won’t stop doing that.

What have you learned from running the festival?

Concerts are wonderful experiences, but they only last one evening. What is perhaps more important is creating a community of artists, researchers, composers, performers, and audiences that don’t go their separate ways at the end of the night. By truly supporting and fostering composers throughout the year, and not simply “dropping” them, we remain always relevant and present. Premieres are important, but equally so, is making the second performance happen. It’s crucial to keep new repertoire alive, and by creating our own modern canon, we become trusted tastemakers here and abroad.

In your interview for the Venice Biennale, you offer the familiar definition of “music as organized sound” but then nuance it with the importance of context. I am very curious to hear more about your thoughts on context and how it influences our perception of music.

My wife, Anna, a visual artist, and I often disagree happily on this distinction: if music is anything that we recognize as music, can the same be true of art? Is there a blurry line between art and illustration, music and sound? Context, for me, couldn’t be more important in the way we choose to hear. The same work can fall completely flat on one hearing and be a mighty success on another. The context of a program – what comes before or after – deeply effects our listening. And so the curator has a great responsibility in that respect. But, the curator, and for that matter, the composer, is powerless to control how each individual listener approaches the work. We can only hope that music is created at the highest possible level of integrity, and presented with respect and passion. These elements are like good viruses, they can spread quickly and transform our environment in the best possible ways.

For more information about the Festival, the program and to purchase tickets, visit: http://matafestival.org