"Do you mind if I hit this?" Yotam Haber picks up a scythe-shaped strip of rusted metal, approaches a buoy and taps its side, which burps out a dull thud. He shakes his head. "Not really what I was looking for." He taps another buoy, and it sings a deep but short gong. He smiles.
Giant-sized, globe-shaped buoys — speckled with barnacles and rust and tied with tires and chains — populate a sprawling shipyard at DCL Mooring and Rigging on the edge of the Industrial Canal like Pee-wee's Playhouse-sized fishing bobbles. They're set decoration for Haber's New Water Music, a piece the composer designed for a massive assembly of musicians on Lake Pontchartrain. The performance, artistically directed by Delaney Martin and New Orleans Airlift, includes the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, shrimp boats and a cast of artists and makers spanning fishing communities and amateur musicians. It runs April 8 at Seabrook Boat Launch. If the concert is rained out, there will be a performance April 9.
The piece is roughly inspired by George Frideric Handel's Water Music, a series of suites commissioned by King George I and performed on the River Thames in 1717.
"The piece was written ostensibly for the king on his voyage on the Thames, but then the whole community of people living on the river joined in, at least to listen," Haber says. "I'm building on that by having our New Orleans community involved with playing — not just as passive receivers, but as players."
New Water Music draws from Southern and Louisiana musical traditions, incorporating spirituals and second-line rhythms with elements of "Deep River" meeting "Shallow Water," a play on both the parade-like nature of a fleet of boats and barges in choreographed harmony and the buoyancy of a second line in the wake of a death. In this case, the piece reflects on the state of Louisiana's disappearing coast and how it threatens vulnerable communities while it celebrates them. "Exuberance and sadness. Tragedy and happiness, together," Haber says. "It's the perfect mix for the theme of this piece, which is calling light to the serious problems we have here, and also celebrating all its great things."
New Orleans Airlift, the arts organization behind the Music Box Village, partnered with community groups and fishermen to build the fleet on which performers will play. "As artists, we shouldn't be reinventing the wheel for this experience but looking to the cultures who are most directly affected by, and the people who are most directly affected, for participation," Martin says. "I realized it was not so much about making things from scratch as artists but involving the people and pre-existing objects — beautiful objects that speak to these issues."
A barge will hold members of the orchestra, who will have a "doppelganger" group onshore, creating a gently echoing call-and-response. Haber will conduct from a tall tower above the performers. "It's not a virtuosic piece," Haber says. "It's a piece meant for amateur musicians to play and to succeed in playing. Because everyone is sort of free to interpret in their own way, you have these — pun-intended — ripples in the sound. This block that's moving slowly forward, but every component inside the block is moving at [its} own pace. It really is, I hope, waterlike in the way that it is moving. In a deep-level analogy, a symbol, the music is water-like."
The freedom of interpretation, constricted only by the framework of the maker, is reflected in Airlift's mission, especially inside the Music Box Village, where people are invited to "play" its collection of musical architecture.
"That's really what Airlift is always doing — making these frameworks that are somewhat limited, but within that there's a lot of range," Martin says. "On such a big project like this, everyone has to feel empowered."