Seeing Red

Cocktail Conversation: Gabriel Kahane


Gabriel Kahane is a singer-songwriter, pianist, banjo player, and composer of works for both concert stage and musical theater. His music draws on everything from bluegrass to the Second Viennese School, and counts Chris Thile, Sufjan Stevens and Jeremy Denk among his friends. He's also a fellow Sloper, so we didn't have far to travel home after a few rounds at Alchemy

On How He Defines Himself: "I just call myself 'a musician.' It pretty much captures everything."

On Indie Rock: "There is a tendency in some musical circles to put a kind of emotional veil over the music, as though it were on an anti-depressant. I think this has been en vogue for some time, but I suspect that it might change as the country seems to be entering a more sober, un-ironic era. What I value most in music - pop or otherwise - is emotional directness. There are a lot of records with that aforementioned emotional veil that get quite a bit of attention that don't really resonate with me.

On Different Kinds of Music: "I used to be a big classical and jazz snob, but at a certain point I lost that and started to really engage with music whose sophistication doesn't hinge on fancy harmony or technical virtuosity. The first time I was deeply moved by a Dylan song - which happened shamefully late in life - was a profound moment for me."

On Growing Up With Music: "I used to go on tour with my dad (pianist and conductor
Jeffrey Kahane.) He had a very hands-off approach to my musical education, choosing to let me come to it on my own. It wasn't until I displayed an independent interest in music that he really engaged with me about it - and I mean that in a positive sense. He's an incredible role model, one of the most selfless and humble musicians I know."

On Craigslist: "As text for setting to music, there's an unexpected amount of poetry present in those ads, in terms of imagery and emotional substance, but also superficial things, like internal rhyme and scansion." (See here for examples.)
On Composing: "Writing both pop and "classical" music reveals some interesting tidbits. There's a cross-pollination that occurs wherein crafting pop songs informs the composition of, say, dense piano music. Though it might be counterintuitive, writing the perfect melody is the hardest thing to do. The fewer choices you have in terms of vocabulary, the more difficult it is to say something personal and unique. Eventually, though, I'd like to find one language that I can write in that's not calculated according to genre."

On Collaboration: "I enjoy bringing in people from very different spheres. Everything informs everything else."

On Influences: "I'm a bit of an anachronism in the sense that, whereas many of my colleagues take their fundamental cues from minimalism, my heart belongs a bit more to the modernists. I've come to really love a lot of John Adams, and I've always been into Reich, but my heart can't resist a denser 
chromatic language. I'm a huge Thomas Adès fan--- he's someone who can write triads unapologetically, but also gets around to some pretty thorny ideas."

On Touring: "I'm actually going on tour
out west next month. The most difficult thing for me about touring is finding venues with pianos. Which is a nightmare."

On New Music: "Most pieces of truly great new music require multiple 
listenings in order to understand what's going on. In Mozart's time, an encore often consisted of repeating the movement that had just been played. I think we should consider returning to that tradition with new music. Occasionally, you'll get a performer who repeats something as an encore, but it's more often than not an old chestnut that the audience wants to hear again."

On Programming -- Amanda Ameer and Nico Muhly have both written very convincingly about the need to juxtapose the old and the new. It creates a context for living, breathing music, as well as that of the past. There are institutions that are married to the "museum" to their own detriment, but equally problematic are places like The Stone, which ultimately self-segregate by programming in a different but equally conservative way."

On Seeing Live Music: "Rockwood Music Hall is a fiercely democratic music venue--- people don't have preconceived notions of what they're going to see, and judge the music based on what they are experiencing in the moment. I don't know how you could translate that sort of meritocracy to some of the uptown classical venues, but it would be great if it were possible. 

On Digital: "I always pay for music-- I think it would be hypocritical of me not to. That said, you can download some of my music for free on my site. And, the whole thing is available
streaming online. It's worth it if it gets the music out there."

On Bloggers: "Of course the NY Phil won't give you press access. No one who goes there reads blogs! That said, to quote a certain composer, 'I wouldn't turn down a commission from them.'"

(Gabe plays Rockwood Music Hall next Monday, 3/16. No cover.)