Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Weekly (p)reviews: The distance between desire and consummation

Gabriel Kahane’s magnificent online embargo; Spiritualized semicircles at Revolution Hall.

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Multi-hyphenate artist Gabriel Kahane, January 2022. Photo by Jason Quigley.
Multi-hyphenate artist Gabriel Kahane, January 2022. Photo by Jason Quigley.

I last spoke to Gabriel Kahane in 2019, not long after the multi-hyphenate artist had been hired by the Oregon Symphony as their new creative chair and a few short months before COVID-19 upended the world. Our interview took place in the glossy conference room of a local PR firm and as we talked, I noticed a small, sleek rectangle sitting on the table in front of him that I assumed was an mp3 player. It was, in fact, Kahane’s cell phone — a device that allowed him to make calls, text, and listen to music, and nothing more. No apps, no social media, no streaming. 

What I didn’t know at the time was that Kahane had purchased the phone a few weeks earlier as part of what he called a “tech sabbatical.” For a full year starting in November of 2019, he stayed off the internet almost entirely. 

It was a self-imposed moratorium built from the premise that, as he put it in the press notes for his new album Magnificent Bird, “our digital devices reinforce the fiction that convenience and efficiency have intrinsic value. That has implications with respect to climate crisis, to inequality, to our (in)ability to see ourselves in each other, to build the kinds of coalitions necessary to make a more just world.” 

The experience of staying offline for that long was transformative for Kahane. His attention span greatly improved, his anxiety lessened, and it gave him a greater perspective on how he became over-reliant on the frissons of so-called engagement. 

“The way I experienced desire changed,” Kahane told me recently, speaking on that same less-than-smartphone as he traveled to a gig in Marlboro, New York. “I think as we get closer and closer to being cyborgs with our devices ever closer to us, the distance between our desire and consummation becomes vanishingly thin. Introducing friction willfully by getting rid of a device made me realize that I didn’t need a lot of the things I thought I needed or wanted.” 

Kahane came out of this break with a clearer head, stronger resolve, and 28 songs that he winnowed down to the 10 that appear on Magnificent Bird. Each one is a richly detailed snapshot, with artfully humble arrangements — folk-pop filtered through a minimalist classical sieve — and lyrics that take stock of little details and large issues. The songs track his relocation from New York to Portland, wrestle with his professional jealousy and complicated feelings about patriotism, and take us into the emotions and experiences of an online shiva for his recently departed grandmother. 

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

The material came out of a writing practice Kahane undertook during the last month of his offline year. He would begin everyday writing out thoughts and ideas and memories longhand, going until either his mind or his hand would cramp up. Typing up the notes in his studio, Kahane would start to sort through to find connective tissue — a rhyme here, a theme there — before printing it out and editing it again with a pen. The process would continue until a musical theme would present itself. 

“It feels more aesthetically deliberate in the way that ideas unfold than anything I’ve done before,” Kahane says. “I think a couple of different registers that the record is operating on. There’s the internal psychological vs. the public. There’s me as narrator vs. people I encounter in the world. There’s the approach to orchestration and arrangement. There’s the broader emotional trajectory. I felt like this was the most specific way that I could say what I was trying to say.” 

For an artist in the 21st century, Kahane’s year-long sabbatical did come at a bit of a cost for his career. He’s not hurting for work. In his work as a classical composer, he has several commissions that he’s tinkering with and will be continuing his work with the Oregon Symphony–including a performance of Magnificent Bird with the orchestra this Thursday at The Reser, and in June hosting the latest edition of his Open Music Series where he brings classical performers into a more intimate setting. At the same time, Kahane is also noticing a drop in attendance at his own gigs, likely a result of his unwillingness to maintain a constant presence on social media. 

“The being offline was really easy,” Kahane said. “It’s the reintegrating that has been really difficult. I’ve been back online, in one way or another, for the last year and a half, and I’m really wrestling with how to stay connected to my audience without returning to the status quo. I sort of feel like Neo in The Matrix. I’ve seen too much to go back to how I did things before.” 

Gabriel Kahane and Oregon Symphony perform at Patricia Reser Center for the Arts (12625 SW Crescent Street, Beaverton) on April 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $29-55. Masks required for entry.

Spiritualized @ Revolution Hall, April 8, 2022

British bands of a certain vintage have never been the most dynamic performers. The reason the term “shoegaze” was coined for the overdriven psych-pop sound of so many of those acts was due to the guitar players’ tendency to keep their eyes cast downward at their effects pedals. 

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Jason Pierce–aka Jason Spaceman, the lanky leader of Spiritualized–goes one step further. For the past few years, he’s opted to stay seated throughout the group’s live sets. He tends to set up shop stage left, with the rest of his bandmates placed in a semi circle that leaves a large amount of negative space at center stage. 

Spiritualized @ Revolution Hall, April 8, 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.
Spiritualized @ Revolution Hall, April 8, 2022. Photo by Robert Ham.

It’s an unusual plotting that has a democratizing effect on the nine-piece ensemble. They can share visual cues and make eye contact as needed. And Pierce can remind us and his comrades that every person on stage is a necessary part of the operation. Take away any one person and the impact of Spiritualized’s loud outpouring would be lessened considerably. 

Putting all nine people on stage — Pierce joined by two added guitarists, a keyboardist, bassist, drummer, and three backup singers — on a level playing field is likely necessary as the membership of Spiritualized, both live and on their nine studio albums, changes regularly. Guitarist Tony Foster and bassist James Stelfox are regular contributors, but everyone else on this tour (so far as I can tell) are new. 

Even with that, Pierce’s artistic vision for this long-running project still remained clear. Out of all of their shoegaze and Britpop brethren, Spiritualized has maintained the most consistent catalog of music. The foundational elements of gospel-blues-rock-psych pop are ever present, as are the lyrical themes that mix together the ecstasies wrought by drug use, romance, music and the holy ghost. But Pierce continues to find new sonic angles with which to approach them all, as proven by the handful of songs from the group’s forthcoming full length Everything Was Beautiful in the setlist. “The A Song (Laid In Your Arms)” felt lush and pillowy, while “Let It Bleed (Song For Iggy)” copped to the influence of both artists baked into the song’s title with an emphasis on both the Stones and the Stooges’ R&B roots.

It was a curious career-spanning performance, in that they only slipped in one song from Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, their fan favorite masterpiece from 1997. Much of the 90-minute set was devoted to the group’s previous album, 2018’s And Nothing Hurt, a record that they played in full during their last visit to Portland. That might have left some folks wanting, but it felt fitting for Pierce. He has returned to Ladies and Gentlemen frequently, often playing the whole album with the aid of a gospel choir and a string section, and appreciates his past accomplishments, but there’s a sense that he fully believes that his best work is yet to come. From the sounds of this stunning performance last week and the few singles that have been released from Everything Was Beautiful, I’m wont to agree.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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