Program Notes: Gabriel Kahane
Photo by Jason Quigley
Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Generously supported by the Stanford Live Commissions and Programming Fund and by the National Endowment for the Arts.
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About the Program
From Off-line to Onstage: Gabriel Kahane Returns with Magnificent Bird
By Thomas May
Stanford Live Magazine | May/Jun Issue
Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane discusses the making of Magnificent Bird, his latest album written in self-isolation and with a full year off the Internet. Read the latest Stanford Live Magazine article to learn more.
Check out the Magnificent Bird album here.
Hailed by The New Yorker as “one of the finest, most searching songwriters of the day,” Gabriel Kahane has often approached his work from the vantage point of an observer. But now, for the first time since 2011’s Where are the Arms, he’s telling his own story. With Magnificent Bird, his fifth solo LP and second album for Nonesuch Records, Kahane brings to life a trunk of songs written in self-imposed isolation—a full year off the internet—with the help of a dozen colleagues, including Andrew Bird, Chris Thile, Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, whose long-distance contributions were made possible, paradoxically, through the very technology he had shunned.
In October 2020—the final month of his digital hiatus, and a resolutely chaotic period in the United States—he set out to write a song every day. “I wanted to create an aural brain scan at the end of this experiment,” he explains, “and to give myself permission to write about small things, rather than trying to distill the enormity of the moment into grand statements.”
Not only that: Kahane’s daily practice, with its attendant stream-of-consciousness, gives us a window into a mercurial mind associating freely.
At the bottom of your mug
is a map of Ohio;
At the bottom of your heart
is a map of your dread.
With these lines, from side A closer “Chemex,” a cathedral built out of synthesizers and a one-man choir, Kahane announces his theme: the marriage of the mundane to the increasingly quotidian terror that accompanies life in a wounded country, and, moreover, on a planet in the throes of catastrophic climate change. As songs like “We Are the Saints” and “Hot Pink Raingear” demonstrate, Magnificent Bird is suffused with impressions of the physical world. But the narrative is just as often internal, a landscape of the mind. Here is Kahane analyzing apocalyptic dreams (“Die Traumdeutung”), now confronting professional jealousy (“Magnificent Bird”), and there, interrogating—and yet indulging!—nostalgia (the elegiac anthem “To Be American”).
Despite having written two-and-a-half dozen songs, Kahane chose just ten for the album. Its tight construction makes its themes throb in technicolor: wildfires, recurring dreams, a shadowy “emperor” (is that a Silicon Valley tech bro?) all float in and out of the frame. Indeed, the album’s brevity somehow enhances its urgency and power, like a carefully considered letter to an old friend. And, like such letters, the album is also, for Kahane, a return to the confessional mode.
“I wanted to make something spare,” he explains, “something that reflected the hermetic experience I’d just had. But I was also having this impulse, after being isolated for so long, to reconnect with my people. Everyone who plays on this album is someone I love as a person as much as I do as a musician. The truth is, I just wanted an excuse to get in touch with my friends. It was almost secondary to get them to play on this record.
And so we return to that initial paradox: all of this was made possible online, even as Kahane is unabashed in his criticism of our digital age. “There’s this fallacy,” he argues, “of technological inevitability, of techno-fatalism: the notion that the march of technological progress is ineluctable. And so we adopt these technologies without asking whether they improve our lives, without asking whose interests they serve. My internet hiatus grew out of a belief that our devices reinforce the fiction that convenience and efficiency have intrinsic value. And that has implications with respect to climate crisis, to inequality, to our ability to see ourselves in each other, to build the kinds of coalitions necessary to make a more just world. I wanted to leave it all behind not as a further expression of techno-pessimism, but in search of a positive alternative.
“But,” he says, bringing it back to the long-distance recording of Magnificent Bird, “I knew that my retreat wasn’t a wholesale rejection of digital spaces. It was, you might say, an elimination diet. It turns out I am a much happier person without a smartphone.” (Two years later, his remains in a desk drawer.) “At the same time, I am grateful for the technology that enabled me to make this album, to reconnect with so many friends and colleagues I love so dearly. If nothing else, this record is, as much as any I’ve made, a pure expression of community.”