Taking Beethoven to the bar at Aspen Music Fest
August 11, 2011
ASPEN – After Gabriel Kahane composed his 2006 “Craigslistlieder,” he took the song cycle on tour. “In shitty bars, with people sitting and talking. That’s what its life was for two years,” he said.
But Kahane, who turned 30 last month, isn’t bemoaning the fate of “Craigslistlieder,” which stands as his signature work. In touring the music, Kahane was engaging in something of a musicological/sociological investigation, and crummy bars where some audience members paid little notice to the guy at the piano singing personal ads taken verbatim from Craigslist (“I was the guy in the blue shirt holding your legs/ While that old man put his wallet in your mouth”) to the accompaniment of classical piano was simply a component of the music-making experience. Given his druthers, Kahane would have picked the wandering attention, the smoke and the din of conversation and cocktails to the stilted atmosphere of a concert hall.
“If you present a Beethoven string quartet in Avery Fisher Hall, a shoebox for classical music, it’s going to feel ossified and oppressive, of course. It’s going to feel forced,” Kahane said. “If you put it in a club, with drinking and talking, it’s going to be integrated into the social moment. People should be as engaged with the music as they want to be. That was my initial impulse for ‘Craigslistlieder’ – what if we take the song cycle and put it in a bar?”
Kahane got the idea for playing formal music in informal settings after studying literary theory at Brown. “The frame of the text makes the art as much as the text itself – and that applies to classical music,” he said, condensing one of the practical things he learned in college. But it seems as if most any of Kahane’s experiences would have taught him some variation on the same lesson: To be vital, classical music can, and should be, unmoored from the framework in which it has traditionally been presented.
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Last Wednesday, Kahane made his Aspen Music Festival debut. Playing solo in the quiet, shoebox-like Harris Hall, he performed a first set in his “singer-songwriter hat,” including songs from his album “Where Are the Arms,” due out next month. The second set featured “Craiglistlieder” and a signature song cycle from another era, Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” composed some 170 years ago.
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For Kahane, who performs on piano and guitar, sings, and composes in pop, classical and musical theater styles, the performance wasn’t about showing how many different things he can do on a music stage. (He doesn’t consider his piano-playing up to the level of a concert pianist – like, say, his father, Jeffrey, who played and conducted in late July with the Aspen Chamber Symphony). Instead, it was designed in part to demonstrate how much these forms have in common.
“I think you can connect right from ‘Dichterliebe’ to Bright Eyes,” Kahane said the day before his concert, sitting in a light rain outside his lodge in Aspen’s East End. “It’s heart on sleeve, lost love, a cycle that follows scarred love through depths of emotion. I feel strongly there’s a deep connection between these songs and the singer-songwriters – Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon. There’s a confessional aspect to it; there’s the harmonic element. It feels like the 19th century equivalent of the confessional singer-songwriter.”
When Kahane was young, he discovered a few guitars gathering dust in the family’s attic. His parents – Jeffrey, and his mother, who studied music and became a voice teacher before moving into clinical psychology – had once been in a rock band together before turning to classical music. This could be the perfect instance of dividing art between the high and low – guitars hidden away while Bach plays in the parlor and the parents study piano and voice – except the older Kahanes were also listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” “There was no hierarchical distance between pop and classical. As long as it was good,” Gabriel, who was raised in Los Angeles, Boston, Rochester, N.Y. and Santa Rosa, Calif., said.
Kahane’s earliest loves were Brahms’ G major violin sonata and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. But when he had enough pocket money to buy his first albums, he headed for the rap section. “Some really, really terrible rap records,” he said. “The early ’90s were not a good time for rap.”
At 14, he was exposed to jazz, and fell hard for piano recordings – “Bill Evans: Live at Town Hall,” “Oscar Peterson Plays the George Gershwin Songbook.” “That really opened my ear,” Kahane said. “I had more facility on piano, from my early lessons, than I had on guitar.”
In high school, he got pulled toward acting, participating in productions of Chekhov and Tony Kushner at an unusually ambitious theater program in the public school in Santa Rosa. For college, though, he returned to music, at the New England Conservatory. It was a dispiriting experience.
“The conservatory atmosphere was very myopic, a very blunted approach – mastery of an instrument with no notion of what mastery means,” said Kahane, who transferred after six months to Brown. “Brown provided a way of thinking about music.”
At Brown, Kahane wrote a musical, “Straight Man” – despite the fact that he hated the idea of a musical. “Like religion, it’s often beautiful in theory but ugly in practice. I guess I was trying to make it beautiful in practice,” he said. In that instance, he failed: “Straight Man,” he said, “should never be seen in public.” But his latest musical, “February House,” about a group of 1940s Bohemians in a Brooklyn commune, will be seen at the Public – it opens next year at New York’s Public Theatre.)
“Straight Man” revealed to Kahane the joy of writing music. He found a composition teacher in North Carolina, Kenneth Frazelle, whom Kahane refers to as “my Yoda,” and like the “Star Wars” character has some offbeat teaching methods.
“It was never about vocabulary,” Kahane, who now lives in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood, said. “It was about interrogating the score. He would make observations or ask questions, and what he was subtly doing was teaching me how to ask questions of these scores.”
The lessons with Frazelle – just 12 sessions over an 18-month period – led to the success of “Craigslistleider,” which led to further songs, commissions and now what Kahane calls “this weird thing, this strange career somewhere between concert music and pop music.” In addition to the upcoming pop album and the musical, Kahane has composed works for piano, string quartet and large ensembles; collaborated with bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and classical cellist Alisa Weilerstein. For the 2010 Mata Fest, in New York City, he performed songs by 10 composers written specifically for him.
Kahane would like to curate a festival of his own. “Something that’s cohesive and diverse,” he said. “Because I love all kinds of music and it’s important to me to preserve classical music. But also champion contemporary composers and pop music and improvised music.”
That goal makes obvious sense. But another of his ambitions does not. Kahane would like to compose an opera, which is probably the form most given to stuffiness, forced traditions and outdated styles.
“I’d like to write an opera true to my aesthetic sensibilities – really hard music that’s sung like folk music,” Kahane said. “I think it’s an unnatural way to sing for most people. But there’s a few voices every generation – Thomas Quasthoff, Dawn Upshaw – that are accessible, where it doesn’t sound labored. I want an opera where there’s a multitude of vocal aesthetics, all natural to our time.”