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January 29, 2018

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the United States: Interview with Gabriel Kahane


Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago. He interviewed Gabriel Kahane ahead of the performance of 8980:Book of Travelers in Ann Arbor on February 2, 2018.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kahane.

I find that there are very few romantic notions left these days. That’s not to be cynical, it’s just that I recently read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and it strong-armed me into throwing in the dumpster my large cardboard box of handwritten letters from grade school (up through the advent of the Internet)…and I’m regretting the decision. There is something romantic, though not romantic, about the time and effort that was poured into that correspondence that I’ll probably never find an adequate way to articulate to my son.

You know what is still quite romantic, though? Train travel. My long-term memory isn’t so hot, but I can remember my youth orchestra’s train trip from Chicago to New Orleans like it was yesterday. Sheepishly sauntering into the viewing car only to be dumbstruck by the enormity of our country…and probably a backyard tire fire or two. Alexis de Tocquelville’s got nothing on that memory.

So, while I was primed to be a fan of Gabriel Kahane’s new project, Book of Travelers — I think he is one of the keenest American songwriters of our era — it was especially appealing that the piece was framed by the impromptu conversations and dreamy-cum-exhausting experience of life on the rails. I’m especially taken with the notion that, after the presidential election, while many of us were venting on social media or hiding underneath a blanket, Gabe was on a mission of empathy. Not the one on which he expected to embark, but one that proved to be life-and-perspective-altering to such a degree that I’m almost nervous about how he can possibly top this. Not really, though. Gabriel is easily one of the most curious and intelligent artists I’ve ever interviewed, and my guess is that Book of Travelers has simply opened a new and heightened portal into his next phase of creation.

It’s also striking to me that this singer/songwriter/composer has embodied the ultra-romantic archetype of The Wanderer. (For those of you lucky enough to be sitting in a seat for Ian Bostridge’s Wintereisse later in the weekend, the connection will not be lost on you.) While music of a different scent, the links between the two concerts are what I love best about great programming: viewing an immediate and relevant theme through the lens of history…colluding with one that was written in our own lifetime. This is a potent relationship.

Doyle Armbrust: Hi Gabriel…I’m sorry there’s going to be a little bit of road noise, I hope that’s okay.

Gabriel Kahane: That’s fine, but is that safe journalistic practice?

DA: It is when a deadline is looming. So, you said that the 8980: Book of Travelers premiere at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) went well?

GK: It was definitely the most trying creative process of my career. I had decided to take this train trip three weeks before the [presidential] election when I had about an album’s worth of material in the bag, and had believed, foolishly, that the trip’s function was merely to provide a narrative frame for what I’d already written. I’ve always loved the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald, and in his book, Rings of Saturn, he uses the framework of a walking tour of the English countryside as a foundation on which to hang everything from the silk trade to Renaissance painting to World War II death camps. I had this idea to emulate a kind of digressive “Sebaldian” travel narrative, using my train trip more for structure than content. But then, of course, the election panned out in a way that few predicted, and the premise of my trip changed fundamentally.

In the months leading up to the election, there seemed to be, in many progressive circles, this belief that there was a sort of “transitive property of evil,” whereby anyone who supported a certain morally debased candidate was, necessarily, him or herself, debased. And this was something that I couldn’t fully believe. So the initial impetus for the trip was to go out and try to understand what compelled decent people to support someone I found to be indecent. I felt, within the confines of my cosmopolitan bubble, that my community had a limited view of what was happening in the country, made worse by the echo chamber of the curated internet, and I was interested in understanding the systems that  enable bigotry and racism more than I was interested in shaking my fist at specific acts of hatred. And I think that’s a hard thing to do in a world that operates at such breakneck speed, where we’re always being reactive rather than contemplative.

DA: When I read the New York Times piece you wrote, I found myself getting turned around as to the sequence of events in terms of the music and the train trip. It’s an amazing hook for a project, but I thought, “Did he really just jump on a train the day after the election?”

GK: No, it was slightly premeditated. Getting back to your first question — you asked about the show at BAM and I said it was the most difficult process I’d ever experienced — a lot of that is because I had committed in 2015 to premiere the show at BAM in November 2017, and yet when I got back from the train trip toward the end of November 2016, it didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to scrap most of what I’d written, and begin again. But even after that realization, it took me several months to find the right tone in which to write with care about the people I’d met, and about the internal experiences I’d had while riding the rails. The trip was deeply, deeply healing, and yet I didn’t want to seem Pollyanna-ish in suggesting, through the work, that the analog realm is some kind of guaranteed, magical salve for our ongoing socio-political crisis. It’s hard for me to have perspective up there, since it’s only me on stage, but I get the sense that the piece is offering something that doesn’t exist in great quantities in our culture right now. We have this reflexive impulse to treat everyone as an ideological vessel…and not much more.

I feel like if we’re actually going to heal and move forward, we need to be able to carry the complex truth, without creating moral equivalencies, that there are legitimate grievances on both sides of the political divide. It’s tempting to create hierarchies of suffering, but I believe that the road to reconciliation — if such a road exists — is to be able to say that yes, on the one hand, systemic racism is real and is toxic and destructive and causes suffering, misery, and death on a daily basis; and on the other hand, it’s the case that the manufacturing jobs that millions depended on for economic security have all but vanished, and that we’ve done a poor job of reinvigorating the communities that have been eviscerated as a result of those job losses. And further, we should acknowledge that racial resentment is a wedge that for centuries has been leveraged by those in power as a way of preventing solidarity between working white people and people of color. Again, I think we should focus on system rather than symptom, while at the same time getting reacquainted with the idea that those on the other side of the political divide are people, and not just containers for an ideology we disagree with.

DA: In these interactions on the train, were you keeping journalistic distance, or were you bouncing opinions back and forth?

GK: I really tried not to argue with people. In the couple of instances in which I did, I went back to my sleeper car and chided myself in the journal I was keeping for having gotten into an argument. It never got heated. I really resisted trying to convince anyone of anything.

Because of the proximity to the election, I didn’t have to work very hard to get people talking. And even though everyone wanted to talk about politics, the songs in this project ended up revolving around family…around the sacrifices people were making for family.

DA: Your last big project was The Ambassador, which was a fully staged production with an eight-piece band. How is Book of Travelers a departure from that large-scale approach?

GK: On a basic level, this is a piece for voice and piano, alone. I recorded three songs with producer Blake Mills — who was instrumental in making me realize the record wasn’t done when I thought it was done. Two of those songs we did were orchestrated for multiple instruments and one was just for piano and voice. His reaction at the end of the week of recording was that the one for piano and voice was the one that spoke most clearly. These solo versions, which in some cases were reverse-engineered from the multi-instrument charts I had written, really matched the spare, monastic aspect of the train trip. On a musical level, this was unlike anything I had done since my first songwriting 15 years ago — the piano had to be the orchestra, and every note had to count. There’s a modesty to the piano writing that I think serves the piece, and it was a way for me to rid the work of my ego. On an emotional level, the stories in Book of Travelers are just much more personal than those in The Ambassador.

DA: When I first came across your music, it was the album Where are the Arms, and it hit me right in the sweet spot…right when I needed to be hearing those kinds of intimate songs. When you live with someone’s music, you create a narrative around what they’re about, and I began to associate you with intimate music…a soundtrack for being alone. With The Ambassador and Book of Travelers, though, there is a director and staging…it is performative. Most of what we’re talking about is very personal, so what was the impulse to bring this into the theatrical realm?

GK: I don’t think that the presence of theatrical design elements ought to be mutually exclusive with a sense of intimacy. Regardless of whether I’m performing on a big theatrical set or in a small club, I try to create intimacy through a lack of artifice in my stage persona. Until The Ambassador, I hadn’t done much real touring, but when I was invited by Chris Thile to open for the Punch Brothers on 50 dates at large theaters, I realized that the best way for me to win the trust of the audience was to be myself, and talk to them like I’m talking to you right now. In the case of Book of Travelers, there is video and there is lighting design, but it’s a very intimate-feeling piece, and I’m being directed on things like, “Don’t throw away ends of sentences.” I’m not being directed to act or emote. [Director] Daniel Fish was sensitive to the fact that the words need to be supreme, which does create an interesting challenge when 70% of the piece features video.

DA: It sounds like it’s about offering a slightly more immersive experience.

GK: Well, The Ambassador was more of a spectacle — the scale felt much bigger with eight people on stage and it was incredibly, visually rich — it was a bigger, louder gesture.

DA: One of the things that struck me when I first heard about Book of Travelers was that my first impulse after the election was to buy as many books about anti-intellectualism as I could and cloister myself in my comfort zone: reading. And for you, you decided to get on a train and get out in the middle of it all.

GK: Well, the morning of the election, I really didn’t want to go, and my wife said, “Now more than ever, you have to go.” There was fear in my impulse. My mom is a psychologist, and while I initially looked to my father in terms of my who-I-am inheritance, the older I get, the more I realize that my mom — whose whole practice is based on empathy — is really central to what I do as a songwriter. This project is 70% character studies of interactions with strangers and 30% reckoning with my own feelings about what’s happening. I’ve always admired my mother’s ability to be in a situation with strangers and to get them to start talking in candid and vulnerable ways. This project owes her a great debt.

Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

See Gabriel Kahane’s 8980: Book of Travelers in Ann Arbor on February 2, 2018.