Composers draw inspiration from many places — a melodic phrase, chord progression, a poem, a memory, even mathematical processes.
Gabriel Kahane often finds musical ideas in actual places, the kind you can find on a map app. And why not? Writers and painters have long used urban or rural landscapes as subjects; many works by Oregon composers described in ArtsWatch over the past few years were inspired by the state’s natural beauty. Sufjan Stevens has devoted whole albums to songs somehow related to a single US state.
Songwriter and composer Kahane seems especially inspired by the relationship between people and historic places, as in his poignant albums about his Los Angeles birthplace, Where are the Arms and The Ambassador, and a musical set in a midcentury Bohemian artists’ rooming house in his current hometown of Brooklyn.
On July 8, Oregonians can hear Kahane’s latest place-related composition. The 35-year-old composer’s Oregon Bach Festival showcase, Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, sets surprisingly moving, Great Depression-era words mostly drawn from the Federal Writers Project’s famous travel/ culture/ history guides (some written by famous authors John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow and others in part as a way of supporting unemployed artists), which “serve as a time capsule of a very different America than the one in which we now live,” Kahane’s notes explain. A couple of the sections come from the WPA Oregon guide.
“Its very meaningful to me to have the Oregon premiere,” Kahane adds. “Two of the most substantial, emotionally weighty parts of the piece have to do with Oregon.”
Kahane was born to classical music, but has never really claimed his inheritance. Ever since his sly 2007 breakthrough, the witty ”Craigslistlieder,” the LA-born composer has rightly resisted the classical label originally affixed because of some of his music’s relatively sophisticated arrangements and instrumentation, and the fact that his dad, Jeffrey (with whom he’ll share the stage at the Oregon Bach Festival on July 8), is a renowned classical pianist and conductor.
The former music director of the Colorado Symphony and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has appeared with the OBF often over the years as both soloist and conductor, and with the Oregon Symphony. In their shared concert, Jeffrey will be the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1.
But although proud of his pop — in both senses— Gabriel has also written an original musical, scored commissions from Kronos Quartet, LA Philharmonic, and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and recorded with musicians as varied as Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Chris Thile (with whom he shared a childhood reverence for Bach’s Goldberg Variations) and classical pianist Jeremy Denk.
In a pair of Portland shows I saw in the last year, Kahane appeared equally at home as an opening act for and collaborator with both the folk/rock band Punch Brothers, and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. The latter show featured Kahane originals (including a string quartet) that revealed the meaninglessness of the supposed boundary between pop song and art song. Kahane’s music is too ambitious to squeeze into arbitrary categories.
But it also poses a risk for composers: how do you incorporate big ideas, intellectual or otherwise, into a compact song format. In this case of Gabriel’s Guide, for example, no one really wants to listen to a travelogue. “That’s the challenge for artists, whether you’re a novelist or a composer or a visual artist taking in history or cultural artifacts and transforming them into your own work,” Kahane acknowledges. “The challenge is to make it feel human. That’s where I always start. How can these ideas be imbued with something psychological and emotional [but] not emotionally manipulative? What is the thing that’s going to make it feel immediate and allows for the idea to penetrate emotional blood barrier in an immediate way?”
When writing The Ambassador, for example, whose sources included abundant historical and sociological texts, “I was always trying to find parables that could communicate those ideas in a more grounded, human way.” So, for example, the story of the killing of an innocent African American teenager by a scared Korean shopkeeper, told from the former’s point of view, became a moving way to illustrate LA’s fraught race relations at the end of the last century.
In his new orchestral song cycle, humor helps humanize geography. A non-pedantic combo of cultural history, geography, and music, Gabriel’s Guide’s lyrics derive from sources as varied as old cowboy songs to tourist-touts that “mine the comedy of juxtaposing really discursive text with music that belies that discursiveness — a celebration of these wonderful motor tours that were the 1930s equivalent of Google Maps directions,” he says.
New Music, New Audiences
Given the different generations represented onstage and in the program, the concert’s audience might be as diverse as the music. But Gabriel’s own audiences have been as varied as his musical output. As with with his Punch buddies, the breadth of Kahane’s artistic reach has drawn exceptionally diverse audiences — a sign that young genre-busting musicians like them are breaking down the walls that have long separated classical music from contemporary culture.
“The Punch Brothers audience pulls from a lot of places,” he observes. “It’s rooted in the folk and roots crowd, yet in every show, we’d see a cadre of folks from the local orchestra there. On the Brooklyn Rider tour, presenters commented that they were seeing a radically different audience for chamber music, a lot of single ticket buyers [as opposed to the usual wealthier, older season subscribers]. It’s really gratifying to see our attempts to create a new generation of listeners validated by some kind of metric.”
It’s one reason Kahane, one of the leading figures in what’s sometimes called (to his understandable annoyance) the indie classical movement is “pretty optimistic” about the field’s future. He cites the extremely progressive Los Angeles Philharmonic’s successful efforts to draw a demographically more diverse audience. “The LA Phil is not just one of most trend setting institutions in classical music,” he says, “their vision is trickling down to the rest of the country. “With the exception of most reactionary institutions, I think every major orchestra and even the second and third tier ones are starting to get the message that the key to bringing in audiences is to forge connection between present and past — not one or the other. It’s not enough to commission new music and pair it with the Dvorak 8th [symphony].”
One key: thoughtful programming. “Brooklyn Rider and I put a lot of time into conceiving and finessing the order of the Schubert program,” Kahane recalls. “At the Portland show, we settled on the final order. A lot of colleagues of mine think about concerts we put together the way chefs put together a tasting menu. The language of the kitchen is similar to music. You’re trying to orchestrate an experience for the diner/ listener. A great restaurant is not going to serve you a steak after cold soup then go back to pasta.”
Kahane doesn’t believe in dumbing down programming to sell tickets. “One of the main things is to trust the intelligence of audiences,” he explains. “I’m a big believer in the idea that really good art contains the grammar and the necessary explanation of what the thing is within the work, rather than requiring external explanations. The less explaining there is, the better. At same time, it’s important for the audience to feel taken care of. That puts more of a burden on the work itself to make audience feel taken care of. We try to avoid being pedantic when possible and let the music do the talking, then try to have the verbal relationship with audience be more social and casual.”
Kahane acknowledges the challenge orchestras face in getting new audiences to enter the august temples of classical music, but has the answer. “The solution to that is to put them in a space other than the concert hall. The concert hall is a wonderful place, but if you can’t bring the kids to the concert hall, then bring the concert to them.”
A different version of this story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly.
The Oregon Bach Festival hosts Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States on Friday, July 8. Tickets online.