Chamber Music Northwest: Composer or songwriter?

Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane: Is this the new face of classical music?


What’s the difference between a songwriter and a composer? It’s one of those perennial questions that mostly does a good job of running up bar tabs. But a few points are pretty safe to make – “songwriters” are supposed to be practical and unpretentious, while “composers” are supposed to be able to write for any occasion, particularly grand ones. Ever since Gershwin blasted through the traditional confines of the former to take his rightful place among the latter, the world of American music in particular has been peopled by esthetically cosmopolitan figures who wear the public face of the songwriter, but whose best work has the satisfying depth associated with the epithet “composer.”

At the same time, almost in a parallel universe, the dominant faction of those who wore that term unquestioned went off chasing the wild geese of novelty and theoretical perfection, leaving audiences in a dust of strange noises and set theory, much of which smelled suspiciously like goose poop. True, it was far from a fruitless chase. The dust is settling, and many intriguing beauties once thought unapproachable are emerging into view. And composers have mostly backed off, finding their way back to their audiences, sometimes with completely unexpected trophies in tow (e.g. minimalism). But not many have thought to look over into that other universe for inspiration.

There is a cadre of young composers today who are doing their utmost to change that. One of the most prominent is Gabriel Kahane, who made a big splash in 2007 with his breezy song cycle “Craigslistlieder,” humorously setting “lyrics” extracted from the venerable on-line bulletin board. On Wednesday night a goodly crowd settled into the Alberta Rose theater to hear him perform several of his more recent songs, aided by Chamber Music Northwest’s energetic protégé group, the Dover Quartet, which was formed by students at the Curtis Institute of Music a year after “Craigslistlieder” was released.

In the second half, they attempted to revive a nearly 200-year-old concert format, in which lighter works were heard between the movements of the major works of the evening. In this case, the major work was Beethoven’s middle Razumovsky quartet, op. 59 #2. I’m skeptical whether Beethoven would have approved of the practice for this particular piece, and as might be expected it didn’t always work, but the results were mostly highly enjoyable.

Kahane is obviously a fine and thoughtful songwriter. He also has a charmingly unassuming stage presence, though it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more assertive when first walking on. I was immediately engaged by his direct yet imaginative use of harmony – simple chords used in sophisticated ways – which lifts his work well above the vast majority of songwriters plugging away these days.

At the same time, I couldn’t help wishing he would do more with rhythm than set up an unchanging pattern, no matter how attractive the pattern may be. And when he wasn’t facing the audience, it was hard to understand more than a scattering of words in the lyrics even with the help of the sound system. If a composer is going to look to songwriting for inspiration, he needs to remember that the lyrics very often make or break a song and they need to be understood.

These objections faded away during the set “Come on all you ghosts,” when Kahane left the piano and stood in front of the quartet, facing the audience. With his occasional direction, the Dover ably negotiated the more complex score in these songs, revealing Kahane’s true colors – the man is a composer, no question. At the same time the music never seemed to overwhelm the rather too domestic poetry of Matthew Zapruder. (Kahane promised to do his best enunciating, and he did well.) All in all, these make a fine set of art songs, holding their own in a tradition that extends back to Schubert and Schumann.

Then it was time for Beethoven. The Dover grabbed us from the first attack with a passionate and mercurial performance of the opening movement. After the Miró Quartet’s technically superb but otherwise underwhelming performance of this same work at Kaul Auditorium last week, I was hungry for some Beethoven with real life in it, and the Dover delivered in spades. And I was pleasantly surprised at the first segue, to Kahane’s song “North Adams,” whose figuration nimbly picked up where the quartet left off.

Dover Quartet

Dover Quartet

However the segues to and from Beethoven’s slow movement, a piece inspired by contemplation of the vast, starry sky, didn’t work nearly so well. As stars need to be set in sable skies, the opening of this movement needs to grow from silence. If the performers didn’t want a mood to be broken up by applause – not a 200-year-old attitude, by the way – there are other ways to handle that. Afterwards, Beethoven’s sublime ending was tweaked up a couple of octaves and began to waver queasily as “Delusion Road” began, and the audience tittered at the unexpected juxtaposition. Again, a bit of silence before the tweak would have helped a lot.

The deceptively wispy quartet scherzo, in which the trio almost thumbs its nose at a venerable Russian tune (a strange gift for patron Count Razumovsky), was instead set off by silence at each end. Kahane wisely kept his distance from Beethoven’s deftly wielded razor-sharp wit.

The final segue, from the intricate guitar and voice counterpoint which ends Kahane’s song “Last Dance,” also got some laughs, but here the laughter seemed with rather than at. The effect was of a rather frazzled creature who pulled himself together and went charging off into the sunset. The Dover made the most of it, and charged right on through to a spectacular finish and a tidal wave of well-deserved applause.

So after all that, what do we make of the claim in Kahane’s publicity that he and others like him are composers who are “redefining music for the 21st century”? Songs have long had a kind of second-tier reputation in the classical music world. Of the “big four” composers of the golden age of German art song, for example, Hugo Wolf is known primarily among specialists. He’s not nearly as famous among the general classical audience as Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, who unlike Wolf left plenty of large instrumental works as well. Even in the days when concerts routinely featured songs interspersed between movements of large works, the songs were considered to be lighter weight. In more recent times, expectations for “songwriters” have been lower and more limited than for “composers.”
It’s an attractive goal, to overturn this bias, and Kahane writes attractive songs. But they still mostly seem constrained by the traditions and expectations of the popular song and art song worlds. Only in “Come on all you ghosts” did I get a glimmer of wider possibilities, of some kind of hitherto unimagined fusion. I wish him well, but I don’t think he’s redefined the situation yet, not by a long shot.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer – primarily, so far, of songs.

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