In a bright new song cycle, Gabriel Kahane explores the world of COVID isolation
In 2016, in the wake of the presidential election that places Donald Trump in the White House, composer, singer and songwriter Gabriel Kahane embarks on a two-week train tour of the United States, talking with the people he meeting and hoping to understand how the country had gone so wrong. The resulting album, 2018’s “Book of Travelers,” was a compact masterpiece of empathy and shared experience.
Now Kahane, who likes to use art to understand the world, has produced a sequel. Or at least a bookend.
“Magnificent Bird,” a gorgeous and intimate collection of 10 musical snapshots that Nonesuch is set to release on Friday, March 25, also represents a kind of reckoning. The difference is that Kahane wrote, performed and recorded these songs without ever leaving her home. It was October 2020, and there was an overseas pandemic in the country. None of those who had a choice in the matter set foot outside their homes.
Like “Book of Travelers” with its train passengers, “Magnificent Bird” – which Kahane is scheduled to perform live at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on May 11 – was born out of a self-imposed mission: to write one song a day for a months, in order to take what the creator calls “an auditory brain scan” of where he was during this troubled time.
“I had finished filling out some concert pieces,” Kahane told me over the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon, “and found myself trying to distill the enormity of the moment into a single song. And I failed miserably.
The song-a-day diet, he said, was designed to counter his “Jonathan Franzen urge to write the great American novel in song.” Instead, he allowed himself to capture small, fleeting domestic moments — the making of a cup of coffee in the morning, a dream steeped in parental anxiety and guilt, a catch-up phone call with aged friends. family.
Yet beneath and behind these comfortably routine moments, like an eerie wallpaper in a family Polaroid, there is a shimmering aura of dread. Climate catastrophe, political dysfunction, COVID-era social isolation – all of these and more weigh on Kahane’s mind and that of his listener.
That’s not to say “Magnificent Bird,” which features 10 of the 31 songs from the experience, is particularly anxious. At least not in a way that exceeds the ambient emotional temperature of 2022. Kahane’s lyrics shimmer with an incisive blend of sentiment and clarity, and he pairs them with music that pushes the constraints of the form of the song.
The term “singer-songwriter” ill-suits Kahane’s creative profile, especially since his output includes orchestral music and fully notated chamber music. He serves as creative director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, and his “Heirloom” piano concerto – which he wrote for his father, pianist and bandleader Jeffrey Kahane – premiered in September by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.
Still, he embraces the designation. “One of the pleasures of being a songwriter,” he said, “is simultaneously having respect for form and then trying to keep it as far away from itself as possible. – while making her feel recognizable. do not informed.”
Kahane rises to this challenge by marrying the conventions of traditional pop songs (final rhymes, repeated choruses, crisp four-line verses) with a harmonic and rhythmic language that constantly defies expectations. In previous collections, such as “Book of Travelers” or its luminous predecessor “The Ambassador” (2014), the result often sounds like a cross between Randy Newman and Robert Schuman.
With “Magnificent Bird”, the classic avatar that most comes to mind is no longer Schumann, with his simple tones and expressive ironies rich in hue, but the expressionist composer Alban Berg. The songs became shorter than ever – rarely longer than three minutes – and the melodic phrases swell and swell in unpredictable places to accommodate the irregularities of the verse.
The other notable musical change with this collection is that it involves other musical collaborators. Kahane’s piano and guitar are always paramount, along with the mix of raspy baritone and high, soft falsetto that make up his signature vocals.
But the songs were recorded, remotely, with an array of instrumentalists including Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (one of the collaboration partners of San Francisco Symphony Orchestra music director Esa-Pekka Salonen), talented clarinetist American Anthony McGill and Grammy-nominated flautist Nathalie Joachim.
“With ‘Book of Travelers’, there was only piano and voice, and I felt like I had found the simplest expression of who I am. I could have kept doing that. But I didn’t want to,” Kahane said.. “I was alone for a very long time. So that was an excuse to call some of my more elusive friends and say, ‘Hey, can we have a conversation about the song? And you want to play on it? ”
In some ways, “Magnificent Bird” is reminiscent of “Inside,” the stunning 2021 Netflix special in which comedian and songwriter Bo Burnham captured the madness and despair of COVID isolation. In both works, the four walls surrounding the creator become both an implacable obstacle and a creative impulse, and the resulting work is shimmering and magical.
“The Magnificent Bird” by Gabriel Kahane: 7:30 p.m. May 11. $15 – $54. Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen Street, Stanford. 650-724-2464. live.stanford.edu