Gabriel Kahane’s ‘Orinoco Sketches,’ in a New York premiere, highlights his paradoxical position

Gabriel Kahane. (Josh Goleman.)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Listening thoughtfully to a composer’s music is the most direct way to discover his or her intent, and attitudes toward genre boundaries. But when they are candid enough, their words can sometimes add insight.

When Brooklyn-based composer, singer, and songwriter Gabriel Kahane was asked a question recently about his new piece Orinoco Sketches—“When should I clap?”—Kahane's response was as blunt as it was liberating: “Whenever the fuck you want to.” That kind of punk rock sentiment is still rather unusual in classical musicdom, but it's the key to Kahane's compelling style.

Orinoco Sketches got its world premiere back in May; it was originally commissioned by composer-conductor John Adams and The Los Angeles Philharmonic. Tonight Kahane, joined by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, gets to premiere the piece for his adopted hometown at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. Kahane is Orpheus’ first Music Alive composer-in-residence, and he and the ensemble will present the 16-minute work for large chamber ensemble, with Kahane providing baritone, piano, and guitar; also on the program is Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 and selections from Kahane's latest album Where Are the Arms. 

But Orinoco Sketches is the focal point of the evening, and it’s just one of several concert pieces to which Kahane has brought poignancy to his paradoxical blend of gravitas and irreverence. (His best-known work, the 2006 song cycle Craigslistlieder, is among them.) The song cycle details the journey of the composer’s paternal grandmother, Hannelore Kahane, from Nazi Germany to Los Angeles, via Havana.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Kahane offers three reasons for his choice of the accompanying Hindemith piece: The instrumentation is similar, Hindemith too fled Nazi Germany for the U.S., and both works exhibit a strong attraction to the vernacular.

"Hindemith’s was one of the first German works to take on the influence of American jazz," Kahane wrote on the Orpheus website, "while Orinoco engages in a dialogue with American song traditions."

The inextricable connection between Kahane’s concert compositions and his pop songs is not just musical, but also lyrical. Kahane asks a pointed question toward the end of the piece: “How do you calculate a California sun against a war that’s only in the papers ... Do you feel it at all?” This thematic thread of global groundswells echoing faintly, if at all, across spans of distance and time, has precedence in the composer’s pop material. In the song “7 Middagh” from his 2008 self-titled album, Kahane uses a series of vignettes depicting the artistic residents of Brooklyn’s historic February House—Englishmen W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten among them—contrasting their physical distance from World War II with the emotional proximity of its tragedy: “They could not hear the bombs in the Northern Heights/ They were too far away to see those fearsome lights/ But they felt them, they felt them.”

While Kahane's music seems to be constantly hosting a dialogue between the academic and the vernacular, the distant past and the immediate present, his classical background and his pop leanings, engaging with the work requires the listener to willfully ignore the expectations that so often accompany one medium or the other. 

During a September interview with Kurt Andersen on WNYC’s "Studio 360," Kahane provided more of those insightful words, explaining his unconventional approach in the concert-hall setting.

“I think very often I’m trying to loosen things up, and I may needle a little bit in creating a sense of informality, just because I think we’ve lost in the concert hall the sense that the artistic artifact and the broader culture should be in harmony…It is too much like church.”

But it ought not to be, Kahane suggests. Clap whenever you feel like it. Listen without preconception. Perhaps the best approach is indeed counterintuitive: To listen to the composer’s “pop songs” with a “classical” ear, and to listen to his concert works with popular music in mind. Or better yet, abandon all preconceptions at the door.

Kahane will curate a second night of music performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra—featuring the music of John Adams, mandolinist virtuoso Chris Thile, and Aaron Copland—at Galapagos on March 18, 2012.