Gabriel Kahane’s new oratorio confronts America’s empathy deficit

Commissioned, performed and recorded this week by the Oregon Symphony, 'emergency shelter intake form' humanizes homelessness

Interview by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Since attending its premiere in May, I’ve been thinking a lot about Gabriel Kahane’s latest pop-classical whatsit—not the album that came out last Friday, though we’ll get to that when he returns next year, but his emergency shelter intake form, which the Oregon Symphony performs for the fourth time this year at Friday’s live recording project. (Get your tickets now!) It was also performed last month at Jacksonville’s Britt Festival, which co-commissioned it with the OSO.

The oratorio, I’ve come to realize, is largely a story—told from several angles—about the experience and impact of becoming homeless, a story about how society frames (and thereby misunderstands) the homeless experience, and a story of how we as a society can understand and begin to heal the broken systems of inequality that cause America’s continuing housing and homelessness crises. It is also, incidentally, a very fine orchestral song cycle, in the BrittenBernstein tradition.

Gabriel Kahane performs in his ’emergency shelter intake form’ with the Oregon Symphony./Photo by Yi Yin

We cannot overstate the impact of the juxtaposition between the glorious Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, on Southwest Broadway where the Symphony performs, and the South Park Blocks behind it, often populated by people experiencing the sort of unsheltered homelessness which dominates our attention on the subjects Kahane’s song cycle addresses. Kahane was, of course, well aware of all this, and initially hesitated to take on the project — a co-commission from the Oregon Symphony, part of a series purporting to address pressing social issues — at all. Once he did, he worked at a Manhattan shelter for six months—SOP for Kahane, whose latest album emerged from a similarly immersive experience interviewing fellow Amtrak riders over the course of some two weeks on dining cars.

The composer has a fascinating ability to transmute the quotidian into art, a knack well exemplified by his now notorious Craigslistlieder. My favorite of his song cycles used to be The Crane Palimpsest, not least because it was (until recently) the work of his closest to the modern classical realm I normally inhabit (this one came pretty close too).  Scored for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, chorus, and a “Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics” composed of local talents Holland Andrews and Holcombe Waller along with Kahane himself, emergency shelter intake form continues this trajectory, and is among his first large-scale compositions. The text is a sort of palimpsest of Kahane’s astringent lyrics and lines taken from the titular emergency shelter intake form.

I enjoyed the hell out of the OSO’s premiere last spring (more about that soon), and talked to Kahane about his politics, his work, and his Oregon Symphony commission. His answers have been edited for clarity and flow.

Confluence of Interests

I sang in some operas when I was a kid. I began as a seven year old singing in a Catholic boys choir, as a Jew, which is not the weirdest thing ever; there’s a long tradition of Jewish kids loving German choral music! That led to me singing in some operas, but I was also involved in theater as a kid.

I played chess quasi-professionally through my teens. I bounced around in my teens and into college between acting and playing improvised music as a jazz pianist. I don’t have a narratively concise way of describing the moment that I decided to do what I’m doing, because it wasn’t really a single decision: it was probably a series of decisions and a series of circumstances.

When I wrote Craigslistlieder and I didn’t have anything resembling a career, many of its first performances were in clubs where I was playing for free: dirty bars where a tip jar was being passed around. And never did I consider the possibility that Audra McDonald would end up singing them at Carnegie Hall. But for me there was this deliberate attempt to write this thorny music: at that point in my development I was still very much churning out and spitting out music that sounded really referential to what I was listening to, so I feel like there’s a lot of Prokofiev, and Berg, and stuff from the early 20th century that was part of my musical diet at the time.

I’d go and sing those tunes in a club, and people who were my peers and didn’t necessarily have a rigorous background in classical music were seemingly not put off by dissonance—because they were in a physical environment that was familiar to them.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman.

I came to some personal revelations that people in the New York new music community had figured out decades ago: if you put complex music in a populist space, people receive it really differently because they don’t feel the weight of those institutions. But I didn’t discover anything new. Julia, David, and Michael from Bang on a Can were doing that in the ‘80s, and before that Philip Glass and Steve Reich had been doing that in their loft concerts of the ‘60s

One of my heroes is the poet and classicist Anne Carson, whom I’ve gotten to know a little bit over the years. About five years ago, we were having tea in Ann Arbor, where she teaches, and I was having this fanboy moment, and I said “so Anne, what are you doing?” She said, “Oh, the same thing I do every day: form and content, groping each other in the dark.”

I feel like that really encapsulates how I approach every piece that I work on, which is to say that usually there’s an animating idea, but it’s content-driven. And there’s the question of the formal parameters that best serve that content. Then there’s this sort of slippery dance between the two.

In my work I think there is a confluence of interests: my interest in literature, my interest in music, my interest in humanity, my interest in justice, economic and racial. And I think certainly in this piece a lot of those things are in play.

Creating emergency shelter intake form

emergency shelter is an interesting case where there was this express demand: the commission was for a piece that engaged the twin crises of housing and homelessness, something that was really difficult for me to wrap my head around initially. And then I happened upon this formal idea of using the intake form. And that was an instance of wrestling some extant ideas—both text and music—into this loose formal container of very mundane and banal forms.

The eureka moment was that in most of the interviews I did with people while volunteering in a shelter in Manhattan, I was struck over and over again by the banality of the bureaucracy that people who are experiencing homelessness have to go through in order to get shelter. So in addition to everything else that you’re up against when you’re in that situation, there’s this added crushing bureaucratic element. And I feel like that’s something we can all relate to.

One of the things I’m trying to do in this piece is to collapse the distance between those of us who have and those of us who don’t have enough. This is not a piece about housing, it is a piece about inequality, and homelessness is really just one node on a spectrum of how poverty is experienced and how inequality expresses itself in a society.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Oregon Symphony and soprano soloist Maesha Brueggersgosman in rehearsals for May’s performance. Alicia Hall Moran will be performing this role in the upcoming recording. Photo: Yi Yin.

With music, you’re dealing with two different narrative metabolisms. You have plot and character on the one hand, and then there’s the metabolism of pacing. Musical pacing has cruder things—you don’t want, like, three slow songs in a row. So there’s always a little bit of a juggling act with something like this piece, where you’re both trying to seed things in terms of how the structure of the piece is revealed to the audience and how they come into contact with these various characters that emerge from that banal intake form. And then on the other hand there’s managing pacing and tone.

All good art traffics in ambiguity. Things that are not ambiguous—emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, what have you—are painting with too prescriptive a brush, in terms of leaving space for the listener or the viewer to fill in the gaps. That’s a lot of where the beautiful alchemy in any art form occurs, in the negative space, whatever it is that the artist hasn’t filled in. The challenge with something like the issue of inequality and homelessness is there’s not a great deal of ambiguity in terms of how we’ve arrived here at this moment.

We know how we got here: it was a series of policy failures, in some sense starting in the ‘60s with the collapse of public housing, then in the ‘80s with the restructuring of the tax code and the gutting of the social safety net, and then in the ‘90s with the Welfare Reform Act. I’m being a little reductive, but we know why we’re in this moment. And it’s only gotten worse since the tax bill that was signed into law at the end of 2017.

And yes, my politics lean to the left, but we’re at a place where even principled conservatives will tell you that the markets are not functioning in the right way when we have the kind of inequality that we have. So there’s not a great deal of tension to be mined from this subject.

So then the question is, where does the emotional and aesthetic ambiguity come from? And how, when you’re dealing with a subject like homelessness, do you not make a super dour emotionally monochromatic piece?

The Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics, from left
Holcombe Waller, Gabriel Kahane, and Holland Andrews. Photo: Yi Yin.

And that’s what gave rise to the idea of the Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics. A way to really press on the hard truths of how we arrived at this moment, and for me to get around the ethical quandary of a piece that’s being created for—let’s face it—a probably fairly privileged audience for an institution that generally caters to people of extreme or moderate privilege. It’s important to make sure we’re not just, like, checking off the box: here’s the social justice project, where we talk about a pressing issue but when we leave the concert hall nothing is really changed.

For me the Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics are there as a kind of insurance policy against neoliberalism. They’re there to, in a lighthearted but deeply acerbic way, really press on the hard truths and the ways in which we are all implicated in these structural inequalities. At the same time they’re doing that, I hope they’re giving the piece a kind of levity. So the fact that I have the chorus come out and say right away, ‘we don’t want to make anyone feel shitty’ is a way of simultaneously defanging and also making the piece a little more of a moving target, because a lot of the hard-hitting stuff comes through humor and irony.

Healing Through Listening

There a couple of animating impulses. One is to put into juxtaposition things that create a scenario in which we have to confront complex truths. To take the example of Book of Travelers, there’s a song that deals with structural racism experienced by a wealthy African-American woman who, late in the album, casts a shadow of doubt over trying to understand people who would vote for a candidate who broke all of the norms of the office for the preceding 250 years. At the same time there are songs that, while not explicitly about Trump supporters, are songs depicting sympathetically the lives and the tribulations of people who very well could be Trump supporters.

It’s a both/and situation—to resist hierarchies of suffering. Structural, systemic racism has always been a cancer on the body politic, and we will not see justice until that’s rectified. On the other hand, I’m a huge believer in the fact that economic justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. As unpopular as it may be in certain sectors of the left to make this argument, there is a relationship, pretty frequently, between economic vulnerability and nationalist-populism. Whether it’s in this country or other countries, whether it’s now or 80 years ago, people do not just flock to ethno-nationalism out of nowhere. Sometimes there’s this temptation to just vilify a portion of the population and say, ‘well, they’re racist,’ without asking what are the conditions that led them to embrace those positions.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Oregon Symphony, chorus and soloists in rehearsal for Kahane’s ’emergency shelter intake form.’ Photo: Yi Yin.

The other animating thing for me is to ask the question behind the question. It’s not that I’m proposing that we give succor or credence to ideas that are anathema to our values, but rather that we have the compassion to ask: how did someone arrive at those beliefs?

In the most fundamental sense we have an empathy deficit in this country. It’s possible to be extremely vigilant and extremely dedicated to one’s principles and one’s beliefs and one’s advocacy for justice, and still have empathy with for those with whom you disagree. As a Jew, I can still look at the teachings of Jesus and think it’s a very Christian idea to hate the sin and not the sinner. Right?

I think empathy is a currency in storytelling. Very often we can end up having empathic experiences as listeners and can have compassion for someone we didn’t know we had the capacity to have compassion for. To thus interrogate beliefs which are calcified in ourselves. If we are going to heal as a nation, it’s going to be through listening.

And you can very easily turn it around, and this conversation can be about how we as people of the left look the other way when we see someone on the street. I had a super skewed view of what homelessness meant. I thought that homelessness was the people you see on the street. That population is pretty unrepresentative of how people experience homelessness. Most people who are experiencing homelessness are experiencing it in an invisible way, either in shelters, hotels, living in cars, what have you. What drives them into those situations tends to be really different from the mental illness and substance abuse issues that we associate with the unsheltered population.

For example when I was volunteering in New York, way over half the guys in the shelter were working not just part time, but many of them working full time – and still couldn’t make rent because of the insanely inflated cost of living in this city and so many other cities. There’s not so much of a gulf between the experience of someone who has lost their insurance or has had some kind of medical emergency, or they’ve lost their job, who are teetering on a precipice we could so easily find ourselves on. That is the moment when we can begin to collapse that gulf.

Oregon Symphony performs and (shhhh!) records Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form at 6 pm Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. This one-hour concert is presented free-of-charge, with a pay-what-you-will suggested contribution. Reserve your seat. All proceeds will be donated to a consortium of social service agencies.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. The work “emergency shelter intake form” (capitalization per Gabriel Kahane) was co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony and the Britt Orchestra, which is why it was performed during the 2018 Britt Orchestra Season in July. Britt appreciates working together with the Oregon Symphony on this project, and many Britt staff persons will be in attendance at the recording Saturday.

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