Gabriel Kahane: 1890 Book of Travelers, thoughts

Two nights ago, I saw one of the most beautiful and thoughtful performances I have seen in a long time and I wanted to write about the experience and how it spoke to me as a musician and human existing in this time of political and societal unrest.

The story goes (from the BAM website): The morning after the 2016 presidential election, singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane packed a suitcase and set out for a two-week train trip across the US with no phone or internet, embracing 8,980 miles of a reclusive Amtrak existence.”

 (Kahane also wrote a beautiful article for the nytimes about the experience of writing this album which I recommend- certainly more than reading the rest of my post! You can find it- https://nyti.ms/2ieFCOL)
This album is perhaps one of my favorites in the recent trend of reinterpreting what albums can be. It is to music what Sarah Silverman’s I Love You America is to comedy in its attempt to start a personal dialogue with those we consider other. It is an ode to slowness and the experience of time as necessity for deeper enjoyment and understanding of music, landscapes, and people. There is almost nothing more like any music album and its many tangents than the equally fluid wandering of transitioning landscapes on a train. As a culture, we have begun to lose a sensitivity to the unfamiliar, both in thought and in place. With this album, Kahane continues his work in breaking apart the compartmentalizations of “genre”… the ones that hold classical music and other kinds of music apart from each other. It is only fitting that he uses his unique melding if genres to also break apart ideas, expectations, and limitations (his and ours.) And while different traditions and kinds of music speak to each other in his compositions and songwriting, so do different cultures and people in this particular project.

I think if I could have done something similarly after the election, I would have. But I know my desire would have been for escape- Kahane and I would have the same actions, but towards very different ends. He had dozens of conversations with people of vastly differing backgrounds and beliefs from his own. He became homeless for a couple weeks to find the greater shared American home. This was a project about rejuvenating our ability as a society to communicate; a project about connection, the kind deeper than our media allow us to have. I still haven’t recovered from this election in many ways- I check my Facebook at a maximum of one time a day, usually just logging on to post a haiku, afraid of what I’ll see, what I’ll believe. Afraid of the further polarization of our world, and the subsequent diminishing of understanding between disagreeing parties. There are many inspiring, wonderful, and hilarious things on the internet to be sure, but since the election, there has also been the constant unearthing of apathy and negligence for truth, lack of desire to understand, quick and often misdirected anger, and a troubling virtuous stench from both sides. Instead, I spend most of my time with things I don’t understand- be it reading books I deem too difficult for my understanding, or listening to music which has no prescribed way of listening. Classical music, with it’s (often) lack of words and thus, openness to interpretation is at least one certain antidote to the binary thinking Kahane tries to eschew with his project of meeting and listening to people from other cultures and societies. What better than the slowness of a train and the slowness of really getting to know someone to express the slowness of music which has been described as time unfolding? Because certain things depend on you to an extent- you can read faster or walk faster, but to enter an experience of music, and any kind of public transportation, is to surrender your control of, arguably the most important thing we have in this life… time.  

Not to say this album is all wonderful connective tissue for the broken belief sys-limbs of Americans solely in a warm and fuzzy way. There is also much sadness and frustration about what it means to be an American now and in the context of history. One song in particular, “William Eggleston’s Sky” which used electronic loops and voice distortion started quirky, became beautiful, hilarious, and subsequently terrifying. Lights were slowly turning on throughout the song and by the end, the audience was suffused in a mass of different colored lights, lit up together. It was simple, but effective staging… I was, by the end overwhelmed by the music and the slowness of the attention of the lights. I found myself crying and felt so connected to my fellow citizens in the audience- all of us in this shared numinous experience. MASSMoCA wrote that this album is “A meditation on the beautiful terror of getting lost in an unfamiliar landscape” I would disagree and say it’s almost the opposite- a meditation on the beautiful terror of finding yourself and the others who are with you and creating a community in an unfamiliar and fractured societal and political landscape. In this way, it was almost a spiritual experience. The album has reinterpreted hymns with simple, devastating, and often very unexpected harmonies, infusing the experience with a deep spiritual and secular love for our shared humanity.

Kahane created a shrine to one of the most quintessentially American things, the train being a spine that historically shaped our country as much as it helped us navigate it. Nostalgia has been under fire for being one of the reasons we are in our current predicament, with phrases such as “Make America Great Again” at the center of that accusation. Kahane radically redeems nostalgia by using arguably the most nostalgic elements of American to show us the real greatness of America- this album is a survey and map of the American people as they exist now, in all their beautiful contradictions, complexity, and inability to be reduced.

I’m always looking for how art and public discourse can intersect better. Seeing this performance convinced me more than ever that Arts’ place is with the people. It is the job of the artist to meet people where they are and to talk about the things that are happening in the world, affecting everyone a massive scale. And as I cried and laughed and traveled everything in between, I realized that what I most value in Art is the balance between irreverence and sincerity. My favorite artists tend to be the ones who are their own biggest skeptics, be it Franzen finding his way in China as a way out of his prejudice, or Kahane finding his way in nostalgia as a way out of desperation. What I really learned is-

real musicians listen,
Ling Ling

#brooklynacademyofmusic #gabrielkahane #bookoftravelers #MASSMoCA

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