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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.

UMS Playlist: “NEW” Music by UMS Associate Programming Manager Liz Stover

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by UMS staff, artists, and community. Check out more music here.

Photo: Colin Stetson will perform in Ann Arbor January 15-16, 2014. Photo by Keith Klenowski.

We’re in the middle of a really exciting but possibly confusing time in music. Exciting because tons of new music is being created and performed, but confusing because people aren’t entirely sure what to call it.

An emerging young generation of artists and composers who have influences in both classical and popular music are creating work that doesn’t necessarily live within any pre-existing genres that audiences and critics are familiar with. Some of it might sound like a new kind of “classical”, or instrumental music. Some of it sounds like pop.

All genres aside, I’ve discovered lots of great music in recent years through my own background in playing violin and classical chamber music, as well as through my love of rock, popular, and indie music. What’s really exciting is how much collaboration happens between so many of these artists. No one works entirely alone — the artists compose and commission music for each other, or play on each other’s records or tours. You may remember last season’s concert by Gabriel Kahane and the sextet yMusic, whose members are all classically-trained musicians but also play regularly with indie rock stars such as Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, and The National.

I’m looking forward to Colin Stetson’s performance this January. A classically trained saxophonist (as well as Ann Arbor-ite and graduate of the University of Michigan), he’s worked with dozens of artists, including Tom Waits, Feist, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, David Byrne, LCD Soundsystem, and Angélique Kidjo, among others. I also loved UMS’s presentation of Brooklyn Rider in November, a string quartet known for exciting collaborations who performed a concert to showcase their recent work with banjo player Bela Fleck. Want to hear more? Check out New Amsterdam Records, a Brooklyn-based record label that produces many records and concerts by these artists and more.

What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.

Tweet Seats: Gabriel Kahane

Welcome to winter’s first tweet seats event: Gabriel Kahane & yMusic on Janury 17 (they perform again on January 18!).

Meet the participants.

UMS: Tell us a little about you. If you have an online presence you like to share publically, please tell us the relevant websites or user names/handles.

Corey Smith: I am a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Music Composition. I’m a composer, but also a poet and performance artist. I tweet @Corey_D_Smith and if I ever actually get around to it, I’m starting up a blog at

Hannah Weiner: I’m a junior studying English and Philosophy, an editorial intern for UMS, and I’m about to begin writing an Honors thesis on the relationship between poetry and hip-hop. I’ve written concert and album reviews for a couple publications on campus, most recently: I have a casual music blog where I post about new music:

Cody Takacs: I am a recent graduate of the School of Music earning my BM in Double Bass Performance. I appear frequently as a soloist specializing in new music with performances ranging from the University of Michigan’s Collage Concert to Carnegie Hall. As an educator, I have been the double bass instructor for Skyline High School’s orchestra and chamber music coach for Michigan Bass Bash.

UMS: In one sentence, how would you describe your relationship with technology?

Corey Smith: From the video games I played as a kid to the notation software I use to write music, technology has impacted almost every area of my life, for better or for worse. I’ve grown up with it and I am excited by it, thrilled at how it can expand communication, information, art, and the world.

Hannah Weiner: I don’t hate technology, but I have a more intimate relationship with people (and things) when technology is left out of the equation.

Cody Takacs: I use technology to build and maintain a strong musical network and also to share and express my musical ideas.

UMS: Why did you decide to participate in this project?

Corey Smith: I’m terribly interested in the capacity for social media to enhance an artistic experience and I’m particularly captured by the possibilities offered by Twitter. It’s brief, powerful, and (perhaps most importantly) exists in real time, allowing for a democratic and real dialogue to occur while the performance is happening. When I heard that UMS was opening up the tweet seats, I just knew I had to apply.

Hannah Weiner: In a weird way, broadcasting my immediate reactions might make me appreciate the performance more than I would if I didn’t have to think about what messages I was trying to send out. I’m curious how Twitter will affect my experience with live music.

Cody Takacs: As I mentioned in the second question, I like to use technology to share and express my musical thoughts and ideas. I feel that the Tweet Seats project would allow me a great opportunity to relay my thoughts and ideas to my musical network and even public at large.

UMS: To you, what does it mean to “be present” during a performance or another arts experience?

Corey Smith: Presence for me is pursuit of a state of higher awareness. It is complete and total engagement with the moment in hope that I forget about my body for a second, and become subsumed in the artistic present. It means physical, emotional, and intellectual engagement with the experience in the hope that I can touch the sublime.

Hannah Weiner: I think it’s pretty simple – being alert and attuned to the messages that the artist is trying to send you. Mostly just being aware of how a performance makes you feel, or what it makes you think, and then having a conversation with yourself (or others) about why and how the artist does that.

Cody Takacs: To be “present” at a performance to me means 1) that the listener is physically present and 2) that they are mentally experiencing the performance on one or a combination of any of Aaron Copland’s three planes of listening that find best suiting for their own listening experience (the sensual, expressive, and sheerly musical planes).

Meet the tweets.

UMS: How did tweeting affect your experience of the performance?

Corey Smith: There was a certain level of detached concentration that the tweet seats demanded. I was engaged with the music at a very cognitive level, always ready to find something else to notice and then tweet about. It certainly allowed me to stay alert and in a constant state of analysis, but perhaps didn’t let me become too emotionally engaged in the performance.

Cody Takacs: From a listening standpoint, I feel that tweeting didn’t really change the way I listened or payed attention during the performance. This is the type of performance I’d normally be intrigued with all the details of what’s happening in the music and on stage rather than simply being present at a performance, sitting back, and relaxing to it. If anything, sometimes I felt obligated to tweet, and tweeted for the sake of tweeting something. Overall, I did really enjoy the experience because I was able to share my thoughts on the performance immediately when I had them.

Hannah Weiner: Tweeting made me more self-conscious of my role as an audience member. I felt like I was constantly asking the question of “What should I be doing?”, so tweeting forced me to decide what parts of the concert I was going to acknowledge and focus on. Since the other two people in the tweet seats study music, I realized if I was going to broadcast any of my musical knowledge, it would pale in comparison to their analysis. I instead found myself enjoying what I knew about the concert – Kahane’s references to contemporary poets, his lyrics, etc.

UMS: Did you expect this effect or are you surprised by this outcome?

Cody Takacs: For the most part, this is how I expected my Tweet Seat experience to go. In general, Tweet Seats is a wonderful experience that I look forward to participating in in upcoming concerts!

Corey Smith: It was certainly surprising! But it’s worth noting that the performance was no less fantastic because I stayed in a particular head space. Tweeting forced me to stay engaged in a very analytic way, but there was so much to enjoy that the I really don’t think I lost very much at all! Although I was ready to be away from my phone for a while after the show…

Hannah Weiner: I had a feeling tweeting would make me analyze the concert more, but I didn’t expect it to make me think about my role as an audience member. Usually, I listen to the music passively and don’t think much about why it’s making me feel a certain way. I assumed tweeting would force me to take an active role, but I didn’t anticipate any step in between “passive member” and “active member.”

How do you feel about using technology during live performances?

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.