After Lengthy Retreat, Gabriel Kahane Cracks Open A Fresh Songbook

Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane in action.

SEATTLE — In November 2019, Gabriel Kahane embarked on a yearlong hiatus from the internet. He disengaged himself completely from social media and cut off the cell phone umbilical cord. But several months into this experiment, he was forced into further isolation by the pandemic. His appearance Nov. 6 at Meany Center, the University of Washington’s main performance venue, marked one of Kahane’s first occasions enjoying live contact with the public since lockdowns began. The singer-songwriter-pianist is one of four Meany Center Creative Research Fellows this season at the UW.

Kahane arrived for this solo show with a fresh supply of material from his retreat. Still apparently undecided as to an official title for the project (though “Magnificent Bird” seems to be in the running), he presented selections from the 31 songs he wrote during October 2020 — one each day throughout the final month of his self-imposed internet ban. This strategy, he explained, was his answer to the writer’s block he faced when trying to come up with a grand epic concept to capture the contemporary American scene in song form. Kahane characterized the project as registering “an aural brain scan” of what he was experiencing each day during that month.

The songs vary drastically in topic and attitude: Naturally for this artist, our present state of political implosion and near civil war is a theme, but there are also reflections on daily rituals and family roles. The time offline strengthened Kahane’s ability to concentrate on reading as well: The apocalyptic song for Oct. 7 elaborates on Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Library of Babel.” 

A relaxed, leisurely, improvisatory mood prevailed as Kahane filled us in on his “experiment in analog living.” In lieu of a conventional concert, the program was announced from the stage and offered an informal introduction to the project, described as a work in progress. Along the way, Kahane interpolated some clever commentary and engaging storytelling, as well as several gems from his past work. But of the new song collection or cycle itself, he unveiled only a seemingly random selection, out of calendrical sequence. So it was impossible to form more than a few casual impressions of the quality and effect of this latest work. We’ll need to wait until Kahane premieres-releases the October songs complete in the coming year to venture an appraisal.

Meanwhile, Kahane has burst back on the scene with unstoppable energy, displaying different facets of his compositional creativity. He seems to be everywhere. In September, his father, Jeffrey Kahane, played the solo part with the Kansas City Symphony in the world premiere of his piano concerto Heirloom, a musical “family scrapbook.” The intrepid Attacca Quartet will premiere (and livestream) his First String Quartet, inspired by the paintings of Paul Klee, at the Phillips Collection on Nov. 14. A week later, in Philadelphia, the ensemble The Crossing presents Choral Music, his memoir of being a choral singer in high school, and VocalEssence recently premiered another choral commission, We Are the Saints.

The Seattle event focused on Kahane the sophisticated and acutely self-conscious singer-songwriter — which, in the case of this artist, always entails being a storyteller as well. He shifted back and forth between singer mode and sharing anecdotes about his extensive travels across Trump-era America or seeing things through the eyes of his precocious toddler daughter.

Kahane accompanied himself at the piano for the most part, but he included a few songs with guitar as well. The multi-instrumentalist aesthetic is an approach he shares with such singer-songwriters as Sufjan Stevens and Shara Nova, with both of whom he has collaborated. His flexible, pleasant baritenor effortlessly vaults into falsetto and often gives an impression of ironic understatement — part of the unique contrapuntal affect of Kahane’s delivery when juxtaposed with the image-rich, verbose busyness of his lyrics.

The show included a memorable three-song set from Kahane’s acclaimed Book of Travelers (2018), the product of another momentous endeavor undertaken in November 2016, when, in the aftermath of the presidential election, he set out on a 9,000-mile Amtrak excursion across the United States and gathered perspectives, splicing the stories he encountered into a moving reflection on the state of the union. Another highlight was the affecting title track from his 2011 album Where Are the Arms. From his 2014 ode to Los Angeles, The Ambassador, Kahane performed “Ambassador Hotel (5400 Wilshire Blvd.),” stepping downstage to take up his guitar for this urban folkish account of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 — a period of intense national turmoil he likened to the “tricky spot” Americans find themselves negotiating in 2021.

Some of the stage banter found Kahane in his self-deprecating stand-up-comic persona, the song equivalents of which were his series of miniatures setting Tweets to music (a sort of social media response to his 2006 cycle craigslistlieder): “Marxist Peanut Allergy (for Robert Schumann)” and “God’s Perfect Killing Machines” (i.e., cats).

Gabriel Kahane (Photo by Josh Goleman)

Delightful as they are, the Tweet-treatments highlighted a recurrent reservation for me about the new crop of songs — such as we heard — from the offline retreat. While the lyrics often pack considerable punch, the wide-ranging, ductile melodic settings tend to have less of an impact. The musical expression resides in Kahane’s trademark wandering harmonies, which suddenly twist down unexpected paths. But this in itself can become a predictable tic.

Still, as poetry alone, Kahane’s October musings abounded in memorable images. The terror of the summer wildfires in the West — the artist relocated his family from Brooklyn to Portland, Ore., where he spent the worst of the pandemic — elicits the “strange glow of oxblood in the dark” in “To Be American”; elsewhere, demagogues go about “red-pilling rage” in the lead-up to the epic 2020 election, while the music of daily life carries with it “the complex chord of the train dopplers.”

Will the new collection reveal some sort of trajectory or rather the vicissitudes of a sensitive artist’s diary? What instrumental clothing will Kahane choose for this material? Are the voice-and-piano renditions we heard more akin to pencil sketches for the final version of the songs? How are Kahane’s pronounced political concerns juxtaposed with his preoccupations as a husband and father? This teasing glimpse into the latest from one of our most intriguing and innovative songwriters left many questions unanswered, but made us hungry for more.