This week, singer-songwriter-composer Gabriel Kahane arrived in Portland to start his position as Creative Chair for the Oregon Symphony–a job he’ll hold for three seasons, organizing a variety of concerts and working with the beloved hometown orchestra to expand its embrace of new music and living composers. Kahane’s already got Caroline Shaw on board for two different concerts next March: her Partita (paired with Berio’s Sinfonia) and a more intimate chamber concert, the first of Kahane’s Open Music series (and conveniently scheduled less than ten days after Shaw’s Portland concerts with Third Angle). That seems like a pretty good start to me.
The symphony has needed this, dear reader–although, in the half-decade I’ve been monitoring them professionally, the OSO has performed some truly wonderful concerts of new music. In fact, they’ve covered three pretty distinct eras of what’s broadly thought of as “new music”: old new music (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel); new new music (Theofanidis, Akiho, Bettison); and that fruitful in-between realm of oft-forgotten mid-to-late 20th-century music (Barber, Menotti, Corigliano). There have also been more than a few duds in the mix–which is as reliable a sign as any that they’ve hit critical mass.
It’s the question of what they should be doing with that critical mass that’s been concerning me these last few years. We could consider the situation until now as a bare minimum for embracing new music–after all, a bolder move would be to simply invert the ratios and banish Beethoven to the occasional overture, that phantom token zone where the new music usually has to content itself.
That brings us to this weekend’s concerts, which begin with Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus–a wildly appropriate choice considering the rest of the program. The old new music is represented by Russian film composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, a gorgeous and emotionally complicated mid-century ode to the human spirit. All the rest is Kahane, joining the orchestra to sing “Empire Liquor Mart” and Pattern of the Rail, a suite of six newly orchestrated songs from his solo piano-and-voice album Book of Travellers–another ode to the human spirit.
Creatively speaking, this is a step in exactly the right direction. OSO’s film concerts and pop-classical mashups with Steve Hackman have widened their audience considerably, and Kahane’s musical voice is certainly broader and more populist than the more formal stuff we usually call “classical”–many would consider him primarily a singer-songwriter, not a composer. But they probably weren’t in the audience for Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form, which the OSO commissioned, performed, and recorded last year. It’s an impressively modern oratorio, secular and populist to the fullest, and its musical landscape reflects that with a harmonic and melodic ethos equally rooted in present-day folk music and concert hall modernism. It didn’t hurt that the music was good and the show was entertaining as hell.
At that concert, I didn’t hear a pop singer performing incongruously in front of an orchestra. I heard a composer who didn’t have to wait until after the performance to come on stage, a performing composer whose instrument is his voice, a collaborative composer working with an orchestra who completely had his back. The audacity of all that, tempered with the strangely confident humility and generosity Kahane radiates, is exactly why this is going to work.
We spent a breezy hour with Kahane in downtown Portland discussing orchestration, songwriting and composition, his new job, and–as always–empathy. Kahane’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
On working in Portland with the Oregon Symphony
I’ve spent a lot of time in Portland, and this has been by far the most hectic visit. This is my first week as Creative Chair, so I have meetings dawn until dusk, which has been wonderful. My voice is a little rattled but I don’t have much to sing in this concert. The orchestra is beginning to feel like family.
I think of the OSO as the country’s best-kept secret. I’ve talked with other artistic directors in other cities, and when I mention that I’m working with the Oregon Symphony they say, “yeah, they really punch above their weight.” I think both in terms of diversity of programming and how much they do, they’re such nice people and play so incredibly well. That embrace began during the first rehearsals of emergency shelter intake form.
It’s been an unexpected left turn, as much of my career has been full of. The success of esif has been surprising; many orchestras are performing it, and we have a recording that’s coming out next year. I have largely gotten over impostor’s syndrome: I’m not totally sure what my voice is as an orchestral composer, but I’m somewhat confident of the psychology of orchestra musicians. The relationship between the page and their experience of the work and composer is very dynamic. Being more attentive to how things look and how their entrances relate to their neighbors, I’m feeling an increased confidence in that.
I have the increased baggage of being a guy who plays guitar in a club, so I want them to know how carefully I’m thinking of every measure of their experience. I love the bigger canvas and the extra challenges of it. The Book of Travellers suite, these are very delicate songs for piano and voice, recorded with no overdubs, very stripped down. Adding 75 musicians to it runs the risk of taking away from the emotional impact of the songs, plus the added pressure of coordinating the rubato for all to perform. That’s both a challenge and something I enjoy.
It’s also a little bit of pragmatism, the kind of music that I make. I may think of it as pop music but 300 million Americans don’t. The line erected between folk music and concert music only really existed between WW2 and the emergence of American Minimalism. I think of myself in the tradition of German Song and American Folk Song, and it makes as much sense for that to live in the concert hall as it does for it to live in the Doug Fir or the Holocene. It can be both things.
Adapting Book of Travellers
It’s especially hard with Book Of Travellers, not so much because of genre but because they were written as solo pieces. Songs from The Ambassador have been done with string orchestra, but that’s not really stressful because it was recorded with a larger ensemble in mind. I have to be responsive to a conductor but have to be responsive to an audience, and I’m not accustomed to that. There are logistical challenges. I’ve done this kind of thing a fair amount with other pieces, but this piece in particular, there’s something about the translation of solo to orchestra which has created a new dimension of a learning curve.
I think [the choice of songs] was partially pragmatic. We entered into this relationship as creative chair too late for me to write anything new, and I had this feeling that Book of Travellers speaks its ethos to this moment in a fairly non-partisan way. It asks how we talk to each other without the mediation of the digital. But also, how do we account for living in a country where one group of people has one set of facts, the other side has another set, and given that’s the case how do we talk to each other?
As far as there’s a politics to the piece, since time immemorial those in power have sought to consolidate their power by dividing working people, sowing division in order to prevent solidarity. There’s very little in this suite that I would call ideological–maybe a line here or there–but it’s mostly portraiture of people’s families. That wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened that that was what people were talking about to me on the train. And it was a great reminder to me that while we still have huge cultural and political divisions, the vast majority of us love our country, even when it drives us bananas. We still love our families and we make sacrifices for them. I felt that, a year out from another election that is about to be just as divisive as the last, these songs bear hearing again.
I started notating music quite late. I teach at Interlochen and see these fourteen-year olds who have written these massive pieces, and I was strumming E major on guitar when I was fourteen. I wrote my first chamber piece when I was 27, and my skills as an engraver were so terrible. It was when I wrote and performed in 2013 for Orpheus, and that’s the first time I did my own orchestral part. I learned a lot because it was a conductorless ensemble, so I had to think about how every person was going to cue themselves.
I began to take it more seriously six years ago. One of the things I love about this orchestra is that when they make a suggestion about how to notate things, it’s never combative. It’s always coming from a place of wanting it to be the best it can be. Every encounter I have with a musician helps me on that path. When you’re young you get defensive–you really want things to be done perfectly. Now I’m at a point where I want people to tell me how to make it better.
Empathy as guiding light
My mom is a psychologist, and she’s been a big influence on me. With esif and this piece, it is an attempt to understand people who are very different from myself; that’s what my mom does, and that bleeds into what she does for her career and her family. And empathy is her guiding light through that.
Particularly with this job, and listening to music with a more curatorial hat–in listening to more music–I’m more firm in the belief that with the presence of an artistic voice, there’s not linear progress or a sense of telos, where the next voice is more inherently dissonant or sophisticated than the last. It can be completely triadic or spectral, it could be any number of things. I’m interested in a point of view, and less and less interested in being fancy. This music is fairly triadic, and while there may be pivot chords that get us to the next key, there’s tonal harmony for the most part. And I’m okay with that for now.
I’m finishing up a piano concerto that will have a premiere next fall in an undisclosed city with an undisclosed soloist. I’m taking inspiration from Gershwin–not in the sense of writing a jazz concerto, but taking him being a jazz composer writing a concerto. I’m trying to write a piano concerto that only I could write. I’m writing the themes coming from my language as a songwriter, and they go much further out rhythmically and harmonically than I would in a song. But if I were to put words to the themes, I think they would sound like my songs.
With chamber music I have some things lined up and I’m trying to make things more seamless between what I do as a songwriter and as a composer. For practical reasons I want there to be music that can be performed when I’m not around. A string quartet can play something that sounds like my music while I’m not there.
One thing I’m really excited about is the Open Music series with Caroline Shaw. I think the Oregon Symphony is poised to capture an audience that doesn’t know them. It’s a hidden gem, and the season for 2021 that will be announced in a few months–there’s so much amazing stuff on it, I think it’s going to be a big splash.
There are a lot of people our age who didn’t grow up with this music, didn’t have a relationship to it, and either believe that it doesn’t speak to them, or think of it as an act of cultural tourism where they take a selfie under the marquee and then sit bored for a few hours. Those ideas they are wrestling with, and how they’ve been sifted through for generations–if we’re smart about it we can make it feel like a truly vital part of people’s lives.
This is a vital art form, and this living art form connects to older pieces, just like you enter a museum and see Renaissance paintings next to conceptual video pieces from the present. You can walk through and see how these ideas evolved. I think that’s something classical music hasn’t done particularly well, and something the Oregon Symphony has been doing better through its programming–and we’re trying to figure out how to tell that story better.
Folks who come at it from a more traditional point of view, or who think of this as music to zone out to–this music was incredibly disturbing in its time, and was made in response to social and political strife. Those composers have the same concerns as composers who are writing today. Open Music for me is one of those ways in which I want to make that known to people. The concert we are doing with Caroline has music from three centuries: music from her, from Schubert, from Brahms, from Sky Macklay, and we’re doing a song of mine and one of Paul Simon’s. It’s all linked by the concept of intertextuality, how composers interact with each other over time.
That will be the concept of my interview with Caroline on stage, hearing how it is that she can write a piece that embraces landscape architecture. You know her Partita? Some of the text from that comes from these wall drawings from Sol LeWitt. One thing I love about her is how omnivorous she is about the things that inspire her, that she brings into her music. We’re doing a piece of hers called Thousandth Orange that she says grew out of two impulses: the four chords of pop music (vi-ii-V-I) that you hear over and over again but which constantly feel refreshed; and the act of peeling an orange, which for her always has this renewed pleasure.
So this renewal of enjoyment of art was the inspiration for this piano quintet of hers that we’re doing. And in the 2021 season we’ll do three more of those with three new composers I can’t talk about yet. Probably all composers you know.
We’re also working on this series we don’t have a name for, I wish I could say more about the specifics of it. The goal is coming out of this project with Andrew Bird, somewhere between a song cycle and a concerto, where he invited me to break [his songs] open, add a cadenza–no bass, no drums, just him in front of an orchestra that is vitally involved.
The other thing is minimizing the length of the suite so the orchestrator gets paid for half the concert, while the soloist is doing their own music in the second half. We’re trying to shepherd three concerts a year, pairing a known songwriter or band with an orchestrator or composer to create a new piece, 35-40 minutes. A fundamentally different model than how band and orchestra usually work together. It’s an expansion of the idea that the great songwriters of our day are the Schuberts and Schumanns and Hugo Wolfs of their day.
Charles Calmer and I, the senior VP of planning, talk about planning. He has a crazy encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire and has all these conceptual ideas. Our skill sets are complementary, and he’s very open. There are some very big projects that have nothing to do with me as a composer–I asked if we could try and he said yes. It’s no small thing to suddenly welcome someone in and let them do something. It takes humility for that.
I’m writing a big new piece for Oregon that will be co-commissioned by two other orchestras. What I can tell you about it at this point is that it pertains to my concerns about anti-democratic impulses in aspects of the digital economy and surveillance capitalism, questions about convenience and these debts to labor, to the environment, privacy, free will. So that’s what I have on tap. The book that has been of importance to me this year has been The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, which I think is really brilliant.
What do you listen to for pleasure?
The truth is that over the years I have often listened to lots of music, but these days I don’t listen to that much music. I find my work pleasureable in that much of the listening I’m doing these days is for the Oregon Symphony, potential collaborators for commissions and so forth.
I’ve had a bit of a renaissance of the Dirty Projectors album Swing Lo Magellan. It’s really held up over the years. I had a good time getting to know serpentwithfeet, and noname, the Chicago rapper. Andrew Norman’s new piece for the LA Phil, Sustain, is beautiful and I want to bring it here. There also an album by Natalie Joachim, the flautist in Eighth Blackbird, called Fanm d’Ayiti. She’s Haitian American, and it’s an exploration of Haitian folk music, either by her or deconstructed folk songs. Those were things I was listening to for work that I also enjoyed.
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