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Ecstatic Music Festival Interview #3: Gabriel Kahane

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The Ecstatic Music Festival is now entering the home stretch. And while the festival hinges on the creation and performance of new works conceived with collaboration in mind, the impact of composers past is inescapable. Composer/multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Kahane recently took time out while on tour to talk with me about his March 5, 7:30 p.m. concert at Merkin Hall with composer/pianist Timo Andres--entitled "An Evening with Charles Ives"--and the current renaissance of vernacular concert music. Food metaphors abound.

Daniel J. Kushner: Can you talk about the evolution of your upcoming concert with Timo Andres as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival?

Gabriel Kahane: I met Timo in the spring and pretty early on--we both like to cook a lot--and I think he was over at my house for dinner and we decided to read through some music. So we played some [piano] four hands and then we sang through some Ives songs with him at the piano, and me singing. A couple months later, Judd Greenstein, who of course is running the festival, called me and asked if I had a any projects in mind that I might do, and I suggested that perhaps Timo and I could do something together.

And I think the Ives thing was sort of a natural way of connecting what Timo and I do, which I think in different ways is really informed by bringing vernacular into concert music. And Ives, who for my money is really the first great American composer, he really was also carrying on the centuries-old tradition of bringing the vernacular--in his case, hymns and military tunes--into concert music. And I think in a lot of Timo's music, you hear the vernacular. I know he's a big Brian Eno fan, so there's a kind of new vernacular being expressed in his concert music that has to do with bringing ambience into the concert hall in a certain way, but expressing it with Western classical instruments.

And then in my case...well I don't know, I'm just a weirdo. I suppose because I'm a songwriter, I'm more and more invested in trying to bring the language of my songs into the concert realm, and vice versa. I'm on tour with cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and last night we did the premiere of this kind of hybrid song cycle/cello sonata that I wrote for her. And that for me is sort of a perfect example of this thing--creating this cross-pollination of vernacular modes and more formal concert procedures.

So the concert with Timo is really an opportunity to look at his music and look at my music through the lens of Ives, who's like the American godfather of concert music that is informed by the vernacular.

Kushner: In talking with Judd back in November, similarly he talked about Ives being "our Abraham" in the sense that he was the "father of many nations," which I thought was a really cool way of thinking about it, in that he was willing to set aside the idea of genre, or at least the idea of parsing genres out.

Kahane: Absolutely. I totally agree. Ives is someone whose music feels so vital today. It feels like late Beethoven--it's the kind of music that will always sound incredibly modern, and that's sort of all you can ask for, that kind of timelessness.

Kushner: Why do you think it's still so controversial to include the vernacular in concert works? It feels like we're talking about Jessica Seinfeld baking vegetable purees into cookies to get kids to eat them, only in a musical sense. I'm wondering why we still have to do that.

Kahane: To me, if you look at the long-term trajectory of the relationship between the vernacular and concert music, it's always been in dialogue. And there was just this sort of blip on the radar that kind of starts with the Second Viennese School into the postwar composers and Darmstadt and the really thorny academization of concert music. But you know, once American Minimalism starts--I mean Minimalism itself is a conversation with the vernacular.

I think it's a myopic view to suggest that this is a new movement. It's actually a renaissance. It's a lineage that can be traced through Bartók and any other composer who had an ethnomusicological concern, he of course going out and foraging, as it were, for Magyar folk songs and Hungarian folk songs. And you go further back, and you have Mahler, who's incorporating sort of crude military band tunes and Yiddish-sounding tunes into his symphonies. And you just keep going backward, and you have Schumann in the lost sea of song cycles, there are these crude moments of what would be considered popular song. Same thing with Schubert and in Mozart, The Magic Flute of course is like the meeting of the vernacular and the concert realm, in that it was a musical, basically, more than it was an opera. Of course, it was a phenomenally great musical.

And so, I think that the preoccupation with what's going on with this generation of musicians, I think it's a renaissance too in that we have so many composer-performers, and maybe we should stop talking about it as though it's a new movement and just accept the fact that this is a return to the era when composers were expected to perform, and they were expected to be in dialogue with everything around them, meaning popular culture, and transforming that experience of popular culture into something that's perhaps heightened.

Kushner: In a previous interview, you had likened performing at a venue like Rockwood Music Hall to the salon tradition of the 19th century, in that of course you had composers--perhaps most famously, Schubert--performing their own work. Do you feel like this upcoming concert is a continuation of that?

Kahane: I don't know that I necessarily see a connection between the salon tradition and this particular concert. I mean this concert is of course a slightly more formal environment, although I think Timo and I are gonna do everything we can to make it feel super casual. The concert that we're doing is like a really lavish tasting menu, where you only get three or four bites of each course. It's really a collection of miniatures--I don't think there's a single piece on the program longer than nine minutes. So I think what we're hoping is that there's gonna be a kind of cumulative effect, and I do think that the similarity to the salon tradition might be there in that neither of us plans to leave the stage ever, despite the fact that we're each gonna do quite a bit of solo work throughout; but just to keep it really informal and sort of like we're sharing some vegetables that we found at the farmers' market and putting them on little plates and delivering them with--I don't know, this metaphor is getting really, really crazy.

Kushner: The way that you're describing it, to continue the metaphor, it sounds like you've got several courses of amuse-bouche.

Kahane: Exactly.

For more information on the March 5 concert "An Evening with Charles Ives" featuring Gabriel Kahane and Timo Andres, visit here.