Gabriel Kahane: Hipster Wistfulness

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 01.03.13 in Spotlights

It’s a wonderful thing to be talented, versatile, 30-ish, well connected and living in Brooklyn, where your neighbors are likewise talented, versatile, 30-ish, and well connected — where you are, in fact, among their most fruitful connections. Despite the fact that the bio on his website opens with the words, “Gabriel Kahane is not part of a scene,” in fact he is. Kahane is a singer-songwriter-pianist-composer-lyricist with a distinguished artistic pedigree (his father is the pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane) and more creative friends than he could possibly have time to meet for coffee, let alone collaborate with. He should be writing music that brims with appreciation for the great good fortune of being him, right now. Instead, a nostalgic melancholy permeates his finely carpentered songs, as if he had never felt more comfortable than in the years before he was born.

It’s not that his style is antiquarian — a lively inventiveness bubbles up in every measure. Rather, he has figured out contemporary ways to describe memory in music. “Light Upon the Hill,” from the musical February House, has a fluid, conversational rhythm, like a well-rehearsed anecdote told against the cozy tinkle of a banjo: “Here’s to the driver who took me downtown when I got to New York/ I was glad for the ride/ How the buildings we passed were all gleaming/ I was dreaming a life I’d look out from the inside.”

The refrain (“In Brooklyn, there is light upon the hill/ It glows despite the storm”) sneaks out of the stream of words and notes, a moment of stillness interrupting the run-on verse and thickening instrumentation. The song evolves quickly, giving the music a narrative quality — this is theater, after all. But the words offer no story, just a succession of images from a fondly remembered life. The melody emulates the act of leafing through those snapshots by circling back on itself with Sondheim-like obsessiveness. The tempo trots along, with nowhere to go but the past, and the past is not a destination.

February House, which had its premiere at the Public Theater in New York, in May, 2012, recreates the sort of “scene” Kahane insists he wants no part of. The building of the title is a run-down Brooklyn Heights brownstone where in the early 1940s the editor George Davis played den mother for a highbrow commune that included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. It was the perfect moment for Kahane’s sensibility: a gathering of talented, versatile, 30-ish, well-connected people living under the same Brooklyn roof. To Kahane, it is the aesthetic idyll that couldn’t last. The best and most elegiac number is “Goodnight to the Boarding House,” a mournful ode to the fragility of happiness, delivered in an upper register somewhere between a falsetto and a sob.

I was first drawn to Kahane’s lyric gift, and his sincere, slightly sandpapery voice, by Craigslistlieder, a cycle of songs set to personal ads scavenged online. “Neurotic and lonely, average height, brown eyes slightly disproportionate, Jewfro,” begins one, and the advertiser’s self-consciousness is reflected in the jumpy, slightly obsessive melodic line and anxious piano counterpoint. Craigslistlieder is a startling piece — smart, beautifully made, and darkly funny.

Since then, Kahane has sped off in a number of different musical directions, not so much eliding genres as hopping from one to the other. He has collaborated with the bluegrass icon Chris Thile and the jazzman Brad Mehldau, he has written an intense but somewhat inchoate piano sonata for Natasha Paremski, and he is now writing a cello sonata for Alisa Weilerstein. Carnegie Hall recently commissioned what it hoped would be a large-scale work for voice and string quartet. It turned out to be a suite of miniatures.

Kahane keeps returning to the song form, where he has staked out territory as a hyperliterate bard of hipster wistfulness. The Carnegie Hall piece is called The Fiction Issue, a reference to The New Yorker‘s annual short story collection, and the score’s sensibility is not far from the magazine’s. Subtlety, complexity and wry humor are spiced with timely references and flecks of musical slang. Kahane draws a distinction between his pop songs and his “classical” works, but they often come tumbling indistinguishably out of the same fingers, and the same sensitive throat. His album, Where are the Arms is by a pop balladeer who can sing Schubert’s Winterreise as a party trick. In the album’s first song, “Charming Disease,” the cryptic phrase is fragmented into a Gertrude Stein incantation (What a charming what a charming charming little disease”). It hopscotches around the beats, momentarily blurring the sense of meter. The next track, “Merritt Parkway” opens with a pensive chain of piano chords that could have fallen out of Schumann’s wastepaper basket, but Kahane disguises their romanticism slightly with a string tremolo that shimmers dissonantly and the quasi-chanted words: “I was on the side of the road, / Shiny traffic beetling by” — and what a touch worthy of Lingua Franca, that word, “beetling.” Kahane no doubt has a future as a major musical figure in coming decades, and maybe also as a dramatic character: the slightly depressive elf in some future sequel to February House.