From Off-line to Onstage: Gabriel Kahane Returns with Magnificent Bird
By Thomas May
Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane will perform new work at his Bing Concert Hall concert on May 11. Photo by Jason Quigley
It’s a truism, at least for artists, that constraints can help spur creativity. Igor Stravinsky put it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” Gabriel Kahane had already embarked on a year of self-imposed exile from the Internet when the pandemic started upending life as we knew it. On top of this unforeseen—and terrifying—intensification of constraints, he added still another layer by resolving to write one song every day for a month.
The result is Magnificent Bird, the singer-songwriter’s fifth solo album. Released in late March 2022 on Nonesuch Records, this latest harvest of songs also forms the basis for Kahane’s new stage show, which arrives at Bing Concert Hall on May 11 as one of the most anticipated offerings in Stanford Live’s spring lineup. The album contains ten relatively brief songs ranging widely in topic and personality but linked by a confessional vulnerability that gives them a poignant and lingering aftertaste.
“My own work comes out of this belief that, as humans, we need to learn to care about each other and how to love each other,” Kahane remarks in an interview the week before Magnificent Bird’s release.
Much of what he has produced over the last decade reflects this quest for empathy by focusing on the stories of others: the stories that emerge from the intersection of American history and site-specific locations in Los Angeles as in 2014’s The Ambassador, for example, or those recounted in the series of character studies that make up Book of Travelers from 2018.
Sometimes, though, to be at its most effective, empathy must be nurtured by a compassionate self-awareness. “Turning the microscope back on myself is a way of saying that my own experience is valid and meaningful,” Kahane points out. “To write as generously about myself as I have tried to do about people and characters I’ve encountered is, maybe, an important thing for me.”
In some ways, Magnificent Bird thus hearkens back to the personal focus of the breakup songs in Where Are the Arms, his sophomore album from 2011. “I began to think that when we are as divided and polarized as we are now, having everything in art be ideological doesn’t necessarily move the needle,” says Kahane.
Gabriel Kahane's fifth solo LP and second album for Nonesuch Records, Magnificent Bird, was released in March 2022.
He refers excitedly to Lewis Hyde’s 1983 book The Gift as a recent obsession that portrays his ideal for the exchange that should take place in art. “His notion is that the reciprocity that occurs in gift exchange, where I sing a song and you respond with your presence, is what restores my spirit. And it doesn’t require scale. Everything in our digital culture is set up to stomp on and obliterate that idea of reciprocity in a gift economy."
To be sure, Kahane believes, there is a place for the kind of politically engaged, agitprop art that accompanied earlier periods of intensified polarization, such as in the 1930s or during the Civil Rights era. This is an impulse he has channeled into works like emergency shelter intake form, his oratorio dramatizing the reality faced by the homeless that premiered in 2018 by the Oregon Symphony, where he currently holds the position of Creative Chair through the end of the current season.
In fact, Kahane’s initial impetus to disconnect from the Internet was motivated by the same outward-directed perspective that prompted Book of Travelers, which he undertook after the presidential election in November 2016 as an effort to reflect on the state of the union and on how we as a nation had arrived at such a place. For that album, he disconnected from his cell phone during a nine-thousand-mile journey back and forth on Amtrak trains. Kahane explains, “My only contact with the world during those two weeks was with strangers I met mostly in the dining cars of those trains.”
Liberating himself from the Internet’s insidiously divisive power—which has, ironically, been reaffirmed to increasingly dangerous degrees since the pandemic began—struck Kahane as an important experiment that should be prolonged. The conversations that resulted in Book of Travelers proved to be “a transformative, humbling experience in terms of the kinds of assumptions that I may have made about my fellow Americans,” Kahane says. He came to see that “we have more in common than we have that divides us, and [there’s] a centuries-long tradition of people in power sowing the seeds of division in order to preserve that power.”
In the elegiac anthem "To Be American," Kahane interrogates nostalgia.
Kahane thus envisioned the project of taking a year off from the Internet as involving a “public-facing critique of surveillance capitalism”—though not so much in the sense of privacy violation as in how “algorithms manipulate our behavior and bring out the worst in us at the individual and societal levels.” The illusive pursuit of scale eclipses the human realness of the gift economy.
In November 2019, Kahane inaugurated his year of “analogue thinking” with the notion that unplugging would inspire “a screed against the algorithm” and the ways in which it perpetuates a society “devoid of empathy and love” and “rooted in fear and recrimination—even within circles that purport to be progressive and models of tolerance.” Yet as Kahane continued to spend time off-line, he found himself questioning the role of ideology in art on a more general level.
Four months in, the sudden arrival of the pandemic drastically altered the parameters of the experiment. Instead of spending more time in face-to-face interactions in the real world, Kahane was essentially closed off from any social life. He had meanwhile decided to stay put in Portland, Oregon, where—just as the shelter-in-place orders began—he had brought his family from his home base in Brooklyn, New York, on what was supposed to be a short trip.
Of course, he could have abandoned the plan and joined the rest of the world back online, where so many usual activities had been compelled to migrate. But Kahane was determined to stay the course and followed through with his self-intervention, so to speak, from his heavy addiction to the Internet, and, above all, to social media. Evidence of that addiction is inscribed in his catalog, from Kahane’s clever updating of the concept of the song cycle in Craigslistlieder (2006) to his more recent, wonderfully quirky miniatures setting celebrity Tweets.
Faced with the prospect of distilling all these experiences into an artistic form, Kahane found his way by adopting a method of “free writing.” He devoted the month of October 2020 to writing one song per day, allowing himself the freedom to write about whatever he wanted on any given day. The process yielded 31 songs, three of which were small instrumental pieces.
Even winnowed down to the ten songs that appear on the album, the variety of subjects is striking. Yet for Kahane, the whole “feels emotionally unified” to a new degree for him, partly because he wrote and recorded the album at home. Contrasting with the epic, externalized perspective of his previous two albums, the point of view that Magnificent Bird presents is “incredibly small and personal.”
At the same time, the artist’s close introspection opens a window onto universally resonant epiphanies. In “Chemex,” for example, even an act as reassuringly mundane as preparing for the ritual of morning coffee can’t shield Kahane from the nagging fears of a world descending into chaos and a country nearing another civil war, and the image at the bottom of his coffee mug reminds him of “a map of your dread.”
"Sitting Shiva" captures a ritual of mourning moved to the digital space during the pandemic.
From the artist’s nostalgia for New York to the fear of climate catastrophe, a sense of loss and mourning, both personal and global, weaves in and out. This is, after all, Kahane’s album from the pandemic, and it culminates in a heartrending portrayal of a virtual memorial for his grandmother, “Sitting Shiva.” A miniature drama in itself and a model of songwriting, the song embeds within its gesture of farewell the love story that is part of the legacy celebrated.
The revelatory title song reflects on the phenomenon of professional jealousy, triggered by a glossy magazine’s glowing profile of a fellow songwriter who is able to transform her troubled past into “magnificent rare birds.” The grand project of critiquing surveillance capitalism and the subtle tyranny of the algorithm is now motivated by avoiding the shame caused by envy in Kahane’s touchingly self-deprecating reformulation. Yet he ends by singing his rival’s song.
The turn inward in Magnificent Bird doesn’t mean wiping away whatever is unflattering. Instead, Kahane’s honesty produces an exhilarating sense of being able to grasp each moment in its fullness. His new album proceeds from one perfectly observed such moment to the next, countering existential dread—hellish wildfires, the doom of the daily paper—with flashes of grace like the sight of “the sun / On the hazelnut tree.”
Kahane matches his characteristically incisive and at times mordant lyrics with music that can seem disarmingly straightforward yet is shaped by unexpected harmonic glints and illuminating nuances. The timbral environment shifts from song to song as well, from Nathalie Joachim’s mesmerizing flute riffs on the title song and Caroline Shaw’s layered vocals and violin on “To Be American” to the wistful eloquence of Anthony McGill’s clarinet countermelody on “Die Traumdeutung.”
As these names indicate—and several other illustrious artists participated—Kahane made a point of collaborating with fellow musician friends to create the arrangements that give each song a distinctive flavor. It’s just one of the paradoxes of Magnificent Bird that such an intensely private song cycle, born of and recorded in isolation, at the same time celebrates reconnecting with a lifetime of friendships through the wonders of technology, which made collaborations possible even though the musicians weren’t together in the same room.
When asked about the arrangements he envisions for his stage tour and what other songs from his catalog he will mix in, Kahane emphasizes the role of context and of reading each audience. “Generally speaking, an artist’s catalog is in conversation with itself. Whenever I take a bunch of songs on tour, it changes from night to night. It could be because of headlines in the news or because of how I'm feeling or how a particular song’s lyric is hitting me differently.”
Even before the album had been released, Kahane was reflecting on how he might reframe the songs in light of the new menace of war that has entered the picture since Russia invaded Ukraine: “I realized that Magnificent Bird is maybe more and more about how we reconcile the pedestrian, the everyday, with fear and terror.”
The perpetually inquisitive outlook that inspired Kahane to write these songs in the first place—and that has made him a poet of the zeitgeist—leaves him still pondering as he prepares for his first tour since the pandemic: “How is the story that I’m trying to tell different now?”
Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. He contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival as well as to the New York Times and Musical America.
Wed, May 11
Bing Concert Hall