For a New Yorker — by way of his native Holland, as well as Israel, Nigeria and Milwaukee — Yotam Haber seems to have a marked affinity for Southern cuisine. Settling into a booth at John’s City Diner on a late September afternoon, the composer ordered up a lunch of Andouille gumbo followed by chicken and waffles. He also took a moment to rhapsodize about his experience the previous evening at Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale (“I had no idea that anyone was even capable of doing that with barbeque.”) before taking up the topic at hand.
“So,” Haber began, “next year is going to be a big year for this town.”
The reference was to the 50th anniversary of 1963, the pivotal year of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. Haber will have a significant role in the observance of the anniversary here, having been commissioned by UAB’s Alys Stephens Center and Montgomery philanthropist Tom Blount to compose a concert-length work commemorating the deadly bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra will premiere Haber’s composition on September 21 of next year. It will be performed again in the spring of 2014, in Los Angeles by the Cal Arts Orchestra.
Haber has titled his work “A More Convenient Season,” a phrase lifted from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s seminal document of social protest, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The open letter was written in response to eight local white clergymen who had published a “call for unity” that criticized the nonviolent demonstrations led by King and argued that the proper place for the civil rights battle was in the courts rather than in the streets of Birmingham. King’s eloquently impassioned reply mentioned no names, but issued a blanket indictment of any person “who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a more convenient season.”
One of the eight clergymen was Milton Grafman, the highly respected rabbi who led Temple Emanu-El for nearly 35 years. Haber, who is Jewish, said the connection with Grafman was his “entryway” into the project. He cited in particular a sermon the rabbi delivered to his congregation four days after the bombing that killed four young black girls at 16th Street Baptist. In it, Grafman implicitly repudiated the position he and the other religious leaders had taken in the statement that prompted King’s letter five months before. He agonized over the inaction of “nice people” who were “liberals in [their] parlors,” and said he was “tired of people talking about what ought to be done” in Birmingham.
“My whole point of departure is really a response to Grafman,” Haber said after reading aloud several excerpts from the rabbi’s sermon he has stored on his laptop. “Prior to the bombing, he had been brave to a certain degree, but he was also one of the eight who signed the statement. That’s who King was talking about when he said in his letter that, more than he feared the Klansman, he was afraid of the inaction of moderate whites.”
Haber was in Birmingham to speak as part of the Yom Kippur program at Temple Beth-El, the city’s conservative Jewish congregation. It was his second visit since accepting the commission for “A More Convenient Season” earlier this year. He was here in March to tour 16th Street Baptist and conduct research at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) and in the archives of the Birmingham Public Library. He also met with a group of local citizens who were here during the Civil Rights Movement, including several of the “foot soldiers” who participated in the protests. Haber called that “a powerful experience” that sharpened his perspective on the work before him.
“I keep thinking about my role as an outsider,” Haber said. “What can I possibly bring to this? What I think I can bring is my reactions — my reaction to the event and my reaction in general to how we live our lives when we are confronted by terrible events and by the choice of whether to do something or just stand by and be nice. That, for me, is the crux of it.”
The visit in March also gave Haber a sense of the controversy that attends any and all treatments of the events that took place in Birmingham a half-century ago. While here, he was interviewed about his project by the Birmingham News. Over lunch at John’s, he recalled reading the resulting story when it appeared online. He said he found the tone of the anonymous reader comments that accompanied the story “unbelievable,” adding that, “I had to stop reading them after a while.”
His distaste for the comments on al.com notwithstanding, Haber acknowledged that such negativity comes with the territory of tackling such emotionally charged material. He said that while he feels obligated to consider numerous perspectives, he is wary not only of injecting too much of his personal feeling into the process, but also of trying to force a message on the audience by taking the story of the bombing and “trying to wrap it up in a nice, neat package.”
“The danger of this kind of very political work of art is that if you don’t make it generalized enough, people on all sides start questioning your motives,” said Haber. “I’m already prepared for people to say, ‘This was not enough,’ or ‘This was too much.’
“I’m trying to create the musical equivalent of the best physical memorials to tragedies that have taken place in America and around the world,” Haber continued. “The best works of public memory are those that say the very least, that are very simple, that leave room for deeply personal interpretations. How do you translate that simplicity to a piece of music? This is the difficult thing, and I can’t tell you honestly that I’ve come to the solution yet. But I’m getting there.”
Part of Haber’s “solution” is the incorporation of multimedia components into the presentation of the piece. It will include archival film and photographs as well as historical recordings and excerpts from oral histories gleaned from his research at BCRI. Elements of gospel melodies, hymns and protest songs of the era also will be featured.
Haber’s work — which includes a cycle of three works about the music, culture and history of the Jewish diaspora in Italy — has been performed by orchestras and ensembles across the United States and in Europe. He has won numerous prizes and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 2005. Since 2010, he has been the artistic director of MATA, a nonprofit that commissions and presents works by young composers. “A More Convenient Season” seems certain to burnish an already impressive body of work, but Haber said he is much more motivated by the desire to “give something to this city that provides the opportunity to think, to reflect, and to celebrate” — admittedly a tall order for a piece of music.
“Ultimately,” he mused, “we’re talking about notes, musical pitches that have no inherent definition. So it would be outrageous of me to say that my work, or any work of music, can solve a question. I think at the very least I would like to enter into the social dialogue of this city, as well as the huge conversation of what the continuing story of the Civil Rights Movement means to America and the world.”
As he goes about the task of completing his work, Haber holds an image of Birmingham that may only be possible for an outsider. His view is one that places the city in a much more positive light than many local residents seem inclined to adopt.
“My first impression of Birmingham was that relationships between blacks and whites are so healthy here, compared to New York and to the North in general,” he said. “There, perhaps the politics are healthier on the surface, but blacks and whites don’t congregate. Here, it’s perfectly normal to go to even the most expensive restaurant in town and see blacks and whites having dinner together. You just don’t see that in New York, where everybody talks the talk, but there is not that kind of socializing.
“That’s a big part of what I want to convey in this piece,” Haber concluded the lunchtime conversation. “This is what Birmingham should become for the rest of the nation. It used to be that the country looked at this as the worst place, but now it should be looked at as the best. That’s how this town should be marketing itself next year. Birmingham is a very special place, and that needs to be celebrated.”