Our interview with Gabriel Kahane
Gabriel Kahane performs January 17 and 18 in Ann Arbor. We asked him a few questions about his collaborations and influences.
Kari Dion: You’re a composer, pianist, and singer. How have these three areas of focus influenced you as an artist? Which do you find the most rewarding right now?
Gabriel Kahane: I actually think of my work in those three areas as being inseparable, inasmuch as a good deal of the work that I do is created for myself, by myself, at the piano, with my voice. It’s almost as if it’s become a single instrument that comprises smaller parts. Obviously there are instances in which I’m asked only to play or just to sing, but by and large, the work that I do involves all of those elements at once.
I do, however, draw distinctions between the work that I do in various musical realms, i.e. theater, concert, and popular idioms. What I’ve found, though, is that work in each of these modes informs the other. For example, if I’m writing a three minute pop tune, the concerns there might be narrative concision and clarity on the one hand, and musico-architectural tautness on the other. Those concerns are present just as much, if on a different scale, in my work in theater (where narrative clarity is often the focus), as well as in concert music (where I spend a huge amount of time thinking about architecture). The same feedback occurs in reverse– if I’m exploring a new kind of polyrhythm or harmonic idea in a concert work, there’s no reason that I won’t try to work it into a pop song as well. So there’s a kind of fluidity between all of these endeavors.
As to the question of which I find most gratifying… it’s hard to say. I think I’m a pretty strong candidate for undiagnosed ADD, and the diversity of my artistic activities allows me to throw myself into a project for a few weeks, months, or sometimes years at a time, and then move onto the next thing. It’s all deeply rewarding, if a bit overwhelming.
KD: How do you go about tying together your classical roots with contemporary influences in your music?
GK: The practice of bringing together formal compositional procedures that occur in “classical” music on the one hand, and vernacular or popular elements on the other, is as old as Bach. Throughout Western musical history, we’ve seen composers borrow and transform popular or folk material in the context of concert works– Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Mahler, Ives, you name it — they were all having a conversation with popular forms. The reason we are so fixated on this age old practice now is that we’ve only just come out of a brief dark age, say 1946 to 1981, during which concert music was hijacked by an extremely academic strain of composer, leading to a musical output that had entirely lost its connection to the vernacular. But as large classical institutions began to acknowledge (with say, the landmark commission of John Adams to write Harmonium for the San Francisco Symphony for the 1980-1981 season, hence the end date of my proposed “dark age”) the artistic legitimacy of new movements like American minimalism and its various offspring, the academy gradually lost its grip on determining what was “acceptable” in the concert hall. I realize this might seem like a bit of a dodge, but it’s only because I think the question is slightly to the side — I’m using the same kinds of techniques to reconcile popular and concert idioms that any number of composers has been using for centuries. What is most interesting to me is to look at the meta-narrative, the tale of our musical tradition over the last three-plus centuries, and to realize that what happened in the middle of the 20th century was an aberration.
KD: Have you always been interested in collaborating with other artists and ensembles?
GK: Yes, I think collaboration has always been important to me. Growing up, I spent a lot of time acting in plays and operas, and the theater, as you know, is a very community-based art form. One of the things that I like about toggling back and forth between my work as a composer of formal works and that in the theater is that it allows me pockets of deep solitude (in the former) and intense collaborative and communal experience (in the latter).
I have to acknowledge here, that I am an insane control freak, but I’ve learned that collaboration is totally worthless if you don’t trust the people you’re working with to do what they do well. So I feel more comfortable delegating in certain situations now than I might have a few years ago. For example, while working on February House, the musical I wrote for the Public, I grew to trust my musical director Andy Boroson so much that I would leave the rehearsal room to work on a new song, knowing that he would formulate, say, scene change music that matched what I would have had in mind had I been present. Or in the pop realm, my dear friend and colleague Rob Moose (one of the founders of yMusic and heard on these concerts) is not only a phenomenal guitarist and violinist, but a first-rate arranger as well, so it’s been my pleasure to hand off the occasional arrangement of a song of mine for him to do, even though I wish I had the time to do them all myself. Rob and I have also done some in-studio collaborating where I’ve brought fully notated string arrangements in and then we’ve adapted them based on his input. And all of that is predicated on trust, especially, as I said before, when you’re a control freak. (STAY OUT OF MY KITCHEN!)
KD: What is your most memorable musical collaboration?
GK: I think the collaborations that I remember most fondly are with two musicians, Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau, and both are still ongoing, if sporadic. Chris and Brad are two of my favorite musicians on the planet, and both incredibly gentle and sweet human beings. There was one gig in Denver a few years back where Chris was in town playing his Mandolin Concerto and I’d flown out to hear it as well as to do a club date in town, and on his night off, he came to sit in. We were playing/singing a tune of mine which we hadn’t exactly rehearsed, and in the middle of it, we spontaneously broke off into a kind of improvised counterpoint that eventually wound its way back to the end of the song. It was one of those moments that just felt entirely satisfying. Similarly, I’ve had Brad sit in on gigs of mine in New York, often to accompany me singing standards, which is a sort of closet fetish of mine. And you couldn’t you really ask for a better pianist to support you in that mode!
But there are so many collaborations that have been richly rewarding. A huge amount of what I know about writing for orchestral instruments came from my first encounters with yMusic, who were incredibly gracious in helping a self-taught/newbie like myself what was and was not idiomatic (i.e. physically comfortable to play) on their respective instruments. I just finished writing a new piece for them, almost 5 years after I first wrote for them, and I’m astonished both at how much I’ve learned, and at how much I’ve still yet to grasp.
KD: What drew you into collaborating with yMusic? How do they complement or add to your personal sound?
GK: My collaboration with yMusic grew out of my friendships with Rob Moose and CJ Camerieri. They were just formulating the idea of this group, a new music ensemble that was equally comfortable in pop and classical settings, when I received an invitation to write a chamber work for the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. I decided that they were the perfect ensemble to workshop the piece that I was going to write (which ultimately became For the Union Dead, on poems by Robert Lowell) and set about putting pen to paper. yMusic shares my reverence for vernacular and concert forms, as well as the desire to let them meet in the middle. Their sense of rhythm is different than a lot of more traditional classical ensembles; theirs is predicated on a deep understanding of “groove” or “the pocket”. Groove can mean a lot of things, but it’s certainly an undercurrent of a good deal of the music that I’ve written to this point, and I always trust yMusic to translate what’s imperfectly notated on the page into the feeling that I want in performance.
KD: We can’t wait to have you in Ann Arbor. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
GK: I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to present an evening of music with my friends and colleagues. It’s not often that I get to bring the full ten piece band out of the hangar, and I suspect we’re going to have a lot of fun over our two night stand in Ann Arbor.