We live in an age of broken context. Every thought a click away from any other. Every image rendered and rearranged in streams of ephemeral pixels. Every video, every piece of music, effortlessly fed to us by opaque algorithms with claims on knowing our inner desires.
Accessing ideas, artists and information has never been easier. And yet, the access, the ease, and the fatigue of seemingly infinite choice has transformed the ways we interact with, think about, and use culture. Stripping away context erodes our attachments to it. Proactively choosing and buying a recording is a different commitment from encountering it in an endless stream we have had little hand in curating. Who among us hasn’t had Netflix fatigue when trying to find a movie to watch?
If audiences have changed how they consume, artists have changed how they create. Composers today are the product of a dizzying array of influences as popular culture has splintered and high art has emerged from its cubbies. Not that artists in previous eras weren’t exposed to pop and obscure cultures, but ubiquity of choice today lets artists carve out their own voices from native experiences of first-hand encounter that allows them to be wide-ranging and unconfined by genre. Whereas Debussy might have been fascinated by gamelan sounds and attempted to ingest them into his work as exotic fodder, today’s artists have grown up listening across genres and developing facility for their languages.
Case in point is composer/performer Gabriel Kahane, currently residing in Portland, Oregon, who will be performing tomorrow night at Meany alongside the exquisite vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (certainly one of the more evocative names for a group of singers). Kahane is a songwriter who also writes chamber music and thorny piano concertos and impossible etudes. He exudes an Indy vibe, his songs tuneful, often witty, sometimes tragic, but his musical language is a bit too eccentric harmonically and rhythmically to be strictly Indy. Or straight-out pop, for sure.
Nor is it classical, exactly. His music is accessible and familiar, yet you hear influences of Alban Berg (perhaps his favorite composer) and other, often thorny Serialist or Baroque composers. His light tenor suggests troubadour, but the subjects can be dark – homelessness, a shooting in a grocery store, political injustice. Or zany – he wrote a song cycle CraigslistLieder with quirky texts taken from actual Craigslist postings. He writes odes to buildings, love songs on trains, and theatre musicals. He seems as conversant in the language of Schubert or Shostakovich as he does the Beatles or Coldplay or even Disney.
In an earlier time, Kahane likely would have had to choose. A right proper classical career of serious pieces exploring serious ideas. Or a pop career of folksongs and coffeehouses. He has the chops for both. And you can find plenty of examples among his work of pieces that go one way or the other. But mostly, there’s something always just a little off-kilter – a bar that lasts a beat too long, a melody that takes an odd turn, a harmony that bends over on itself.
Here’s “Little Love” from his 2018 “Book of Travelers,” a wistful tune with an earworm of a descending piano kicker. About halfway through, the tune injects some ominous fringe dissonance that suggests something more beneath the surface, then abruptly cuts out.
Kahane belongs to a generation of composers who bust conventions, but not in dogmatic or strictly intellectual forms. If 20th Century music was about experimenting with the elements of what music could be – music without tonality, maximalist control, minimalism, aleatoric, post-melodic, etc, the new century has brought us music that eschews dogmatism in favor of pack-rat-ism, that is, the willingness to collect up and grab styles and influences from wherever feels right and mix and remix and modify.
To my ear, this is the most creative, most interesting period of music in my lifetime. While the pop mainstream in its many genres seems to have doubled down on recycling familiar tried-and-true formulas, there’s also now a universe of original boundary-crossing work finding fans and building communities.
Kahane was born in 1981 and is the son of pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane, growing up around musicians in Los Angeles. He studied at New England Conservatory, and then moved to Brooklyn, where he wrote a musical for the Public Theatre, served a stint as composer in residence with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
He uses music to try to engage with and figure out the things around him. In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, he jumped on a train the next day and traveled 9000 miles talking to fellow passengers to find out what they were thinking. Trying to understand how the country had got to the politics of Trump. It resulted in an album of songs called Book of Travelers reporting what he learned. Another album The Ambassador is an exploration/homage to buildings in LA, the title track about the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was shot.
In 2020, concerned that the internet and social media were taking up too much of his headspace (he was an active online presence) he decided to take a year off being online. Ironically it was perhaps the worst possible time to do that as a short time later the entire world locked down because of COVID and everything moved online where he no longer lived. He found himself in Portland, Oregon and decided to stay. He became Creative Chair at the Oregon Symphony, where, among other activities, he has organized a series exploring the context and influences of composers who perform with the orchestra. If context is broken, the role of an artist may be to reassert it.
My favorite of Kahane’s recordings is “Empire Liquor Mart,” from the Ambassador album, which tells the story of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American girl who was shot in a convenience store in LA in 1991, and whose death is considered one of the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Kahane has made several versions of the piece, from chamber music in various configurations to an orchestral version.
Unquestionably, my favorite is the YouTube version made by Apartment Sessions in 2018. Apartment Sessions was a project by some musicians in Brooklyn. They invited in a performer or group and produced and recorded live videos of their work in a Brooklyn brownstone. The project grew and grew until “Empire Liquor Mart” stretched physical capacity of the space with 57 musicians. They’re crammed into every nook and cranny – on top of bunk beds, in the kitchen, backed into closets. The camera threads through the rooms while Kahane and his deputies keep the music going. It’s by turns haunting, horrifying and even — oddly –uplifting. The choreography of the camerawork is brilliant in following the music. It’s just under 11 minutes, and, as you watch, it helps if the subtitles are turned on.
Tomorrow night’s concert at Meany featuring Roomful of Teeth, includes the premiere of a new Kahane work, along with Caroline Shaw’s “The Isle” and Leilehua Lanzilotti’s “On Stochastic Behavior.”
Shaw is the Pulitzer-winning composer who shot to fame with her Partita for Eight Voices. It’s a brilliant vocal game that ricochets around the stage.
Want to Explore More?
More examples of this new generation of composers mixing genres and remixing contexts:
Pianist/composer Timo Andras taking Mozart’s Coronation Piano Concerto, leaving the orchestra accompaniment intact and rewriting the piano solo in a mad melted fantasy.
Multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, who actively defies categories and works at obliterating lines between what is composed and what is improvised.
Missy Mazzoli, who creates compelling soundscapes and textures, here performed by the intrepid Third Coast Percussion:
And young phenom musical polymath Jacob Collier, who loops sounds, plays pretty much any instrument you can think of and inhabits a world of technology and digital audio. He’s one of a whole branch of young composers creating in digital audio workstations such as Ableton Live, FL Studio and Apple Logic Pro.
Here is Collier’s first YouTube video from ten years ago of the Stevie Wonder song “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” which he recorded at age 19 in his room in his parents’ house, writing the arrangement and recording every track himself. The video attracted the enthusiastic notice of Quincy Jones, who became a mentor. Yes, it’s pop, but Collier’s fiendishly subtle and sophisticated microtonal harmonies and complex arrangements are virtuosic. (He’s performing at the Paramount Theatre next May)