Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

10 Questions for...
Gabriel Kahane

May 26, 2011

Gabriel Kahane Photo: Powerhouse Theater 2011

I was particularly excited this week to get a chance to pose questions to one of America’s most promising and exciting composers, Gabriel Kahane. It’s easy for young composers to get lost in the shuffle. But Kahane is avoiding this pitfall not only by making great music, but doing so with an active and healthy disregard for some of the artificial boundaries that have built up over the years between various musical genres. Equally at home on the concert stage or with musical theater, Kahane has mounted significant works in both areas. He’s also recorded collections of original songs (including 2008's Gabriel Kahane pictured below) that grow out of a long tradition of American singer/songwriters and feature collaborations with the likes of Sam Amidon and Chris Thile. Meanwhile he’s found time to perform alongside the likes of Jeremy Denk and Thomas Quasthoff among many of classical music’s best-known artists. Following an extremely ambitious and satisfying debut, Orinoco Sketches, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week, Kahane took a stab at the Out Wet Arts 10 Questions...

  1. You’ve set the poetry of Robert Lowell as well as personal ads from craigslist. What in particular do you look for when choosing a text to set to music?

    I think I'm first and foremost always looking for something that's three dimensional, as well as something that has its own internal rhythmic logic. In the case of craigslistlieder, for all of its irreverence, I think the majority of those texts are funny because of the poignant truths that lurk beneath the surface. There's a lot to do with isolation and social anxiety under the outlandish facade. In the case of Lowell, on the other hand-- well, of course the poetry is just phenomenal-- I had this intuition that while the scansion didn't seem to lend itself to music on first reading, there was some kind of deeper rhythm underneath, and I hope that's borne out in the settings I wrote. And then of course, I think there's just my appreciation of the challenge of setting text that doesn't fall into neat rhyming quatrains. As difficult as it sometimes is, it also provides a resource for fresh rhythmic and melodic ideas that are suggested by the irregularity of the meter of the text.

  2. How important is technology to your creative process?

    I think by comparison to most composers these days, very little. I still write a lot of my music long hand, though I do end up copying it all into Sibelius. I have fallen on the crutch of listening to MIDI playback with the last couple of pieces I've written, but I think it's incredibly lazy and doesn't lead to real creativity. I was talking to John Adams this week about the use of technology in the composition of new music, and he was saying that in student works, he can always identify with a cursory glance of a score which pieces have been written with the computer. There are of course great ways to take advantage of technology in music today, but I think they need to be approached with caution.

  3. When should I clap?

    Whenever the fuck you want to.

  4. What’s your current obsession?

    The iPad 2 on which I'm composing answers to your very thoughtful questions.

  5. You’ve worked with a dizzying array of other artists from Alisa Weilerstein and Thomas Quasthoff to Sufjan Stevens and Audra McDonald. Who is on your wish list for future collaborators? 5b. And may I suggest Joanna Newsom?

    Gosh. As I've delved more into this role of composer-performer, the performer aspect of it has made me want to commission works for me to do, either as singer or singer and instrumentalist. I'd love for Andrew Norman to write me a big piece... or John Adams... or Tom Adès. As far as the pop world is concerned--- I adore Dave Longstreth (of Dirty Projectors) but I'm not really sure what I could bring to that party. Same goes for Joanna Newsom... Sometimes personalities are so strong, that you want to just let them do their thing. But keep your recommendations coming. Collaborating is, for the most part, total joy.

  6. Having written music drawing from so many different traditions and genres, is there anything musically that you’re not interested in trying your hand at?

    I think I'm really interested in drawing from traditions that were a part of my childhood, which is to say that the aesthetic worlds that I've drawn on represent an organic extension of who I am. And while I did listen to Dr. Dre's The Chronic a whole lot when I was twelve, I don't really see myself delving into early '90's rap as a model for new work.

  7. What music made you want to be a composer?

    I don't think I ever wanted to be a composer. I started writing songs during a rough spot after college, and they become more and more through composed to the point where people started asking me to write concert works. I think there's a misunderstanding sometimes about which direction my music flows--- that is to say, a lot of people are under the impression that I'm a composer dabbling in pop music, when in fact it's largely the other way around. Except I'm trying not to dabble--- I take concert music very seriously, but hopefully not too seriously.

  8. What’s your second favorite opera after Berg’s Lulu?


  9. You’ve scored a plum spot in the upcoming season at the Public Theater with the premiere of your newest musical, February House. What’s the best thing about writing music for the theater?

    The best thing about writing music for theater as opposed to writing pop songs qua pop songs is that no one will ever say that something is too heart on sleeve. I think emotional directness is valued in the theater as no where else. And furthermore, I think musical theater is the last arena in which real songwriting values are still prized. And as an old-fashioned songwriter, I really appreciate that. Also, no where else can you have Peter Pears sing a song about bedbugs, so there's that.

  10. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Gabriel Kahane?

    Hmm... Well, my new album, Where Are the Arms, is going to be released this fall. You should be hearing more about that relatively soon. And then I'm writing a sort of companion piece to Orinoco Sketches which is going to be more of an examination of what Jewish émigrés did with regard to the adoption of America slash abandonment of Judaism. It'll be almost twice as long as Orinoco Sketches, and will probably draw both on my Grandmother's diaries (as in Orinoco Sketches) but also on the experience of my parents and even myself. Sort of a summit on the American Jewish experience?


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