January 23, 2019

Gabriel Kahane’s “Book of Travelers” Comes to Princeton University Concerts

TRAVELING TROUBADOUR: Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane will be performing at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, next month featuring songs from his “8980: Book of Travelers,” an album based on his experience and the people he met on an 8,980-mile train journey he embarked on the day after the 2016 election.  (Photo courtesy of Princeton University Concerts)

By Donald Gilpin

Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane, who will be performing next month at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, described his preparation for his recent 8980: Book of Travelers album (Nonesuch Records).

“The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I packed a suitcase and boarded Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited bound for Chicago,” he wrote on the album cover. “Over the next 13 days, I talked to dozens of strangers whom I met, primarily, in dining cars aboard the six trains that would carry me some 8,980 miles around the country. The songs on this album are intended as a kind of loose diary of that journey, and as a portrait of America at a time of profound national turbulence.”

In addition to his February 14 performance at Richardson as part of Princeton University Concerts’ “Crossroads” series, which draws together musicians and music from around the globe, Kahane will also participate in a public talk on February 13 at the Princeton Public Library.

In an email this week, Kahane noted that his current tour — now working its way up the West Coast before coming East — draws largely from Book of Travelers but also incorporates material from The Ambassador (2014), Where are the Arms (2011), and a few newer items.

“Kahane is a balladeer of haunting loveliness,” said Princeton University Professor of Music and Slavic Languages and Literatures Simon Morrison, who will be participating with Kahane in the February 13 library discussion. “He recalls to my ear, Beck or Peter Gabriel — but his music has fewer studio-produced effects and greater harmonic range, occasionally taking us into an alienated elsewhere through usual detours in the guitar and keyboard accompaniments.”

Morrison observed that Book of Travelers “is cast in a mood of quiet desperation. It’s not political art, but personal, or both political and personal at the same time. The questions Kahane asks but cannot answer are, I suppose, a pretty good reflection of the moment we are all living in.”

He went on to describe the pieces in Book of Travelers. “The tunes are gorgeous, Kahane’s singing filigreed, and the accompaniment changes for each song to capture the voice, the personality, of the traveler whose story he is telling.”

In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Kahane noted that the song cycle that makes up Book of Travelers is “a plea for empathy. I think songwriting is a way to deliver that message. I think empathy is one of the primary currencies of any type of storytelling, and songwriting is no exception to that.” Love, economic privilege, race, military service, friendship, death, and many more subjects are all addressed in the song cycle which Rolling Stone called “a stunning portrait of a singular moment in America.”

Kahane, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has collaborated with a diverse array of artists, including Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Blake Mills, Chris Thile, Punch Brothers, and Paul Simon. As a composer, he has been commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, A Far Cry, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Oregon Symphony, and others.

As a theater artist, Kahane has appeared twice at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Next Wave Festival, where Book of Travelers premiered in 2017 in a staged version directed by Daniel Fish.

In his email earlier this week, Kahane commented on audiences’ reactions to Book of Travelers. “Last fall, in the wake of the so-called #MAGABomber and the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, I worried that the thrust of Book of Travelers would feel quixotic or pollyana-ish in its optimism,” he said. “But as it turned out, audiences seemed to be even hungrier for the explorations of difference and empathy that are so central to the album.”

He went on to discuss the conflicts for an artist in the current context of “pure” and “toxic” capitalism, which, “has found its way into every nook and cranny of our cultural space.” He stated, “I think there ought to be a balance between the desire to communicate clearly and elegantly to an audience vs. the desire to patronize and placate.”

Kahane has a number of upcoming commissions that he cannot discuss yet, but he did mention that there will be a series of orchestral works over the next several years, some with him as soloist; a couple of commissions to make music-theater works; and a few choral and chamber works. “Somewhere along the way,” he noted, ”I’ll also make another album as a songwriter.”