Last night, I went to the Second Inversion’s presentation of Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider in concert. It was a stunning display of boundless creativity, artistic commitment, freedom and virtuosity that was deeply inspiring. Kahane’s singular melodic style is captivating, always taking unexpected turns, colored by sophisticated and beautiful harmonies. Just when you think that you have grasped his musical intentions, he takes you to a whole different sonic universe. In the end, you feel that you have been on a fantastic journey with a purpose that reveals itself once you’ve arrived. His voice is always soulful and completely committed to the true meaning of each word. I don’t use the word lightly but those were the creations of a natural and honest musical genius. His sense of pitch was astounding and “Ambassador Hotel” is a perfect song in my book.
Brooklyn Rider, with Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola and Eric Jacobsen on cello, was a wonder of refinement, precision, with a huge expressive range and more colors than I have ever heard from a string quartet. The quality and care of each attack, the complete mastery of the many “sound-effects,” the vibrato matching, the rhythmic drive and transcendence of the bar lines, the intelligence of the rubato were all in full display. It was obvious that their understanding of Kahane’s compositions was very personal, like the expression of a deep friendship. The drama and poetry in Schubert’s “Rosamunde” quartet provided a delightful anachronism but it’s in Kahane’s own Quartet that Brooklyn Rider displayed the full range of its musical might. The symbiosis between Kahane’s relentless creative assault and the quartet’s sheer virtuosity and passion was a wonder to behold and the highlight of the concert. The Tractor Tavern was packed with many young and fewer old, and a great assortment of personalities from professional colleagues to fans. It was exactly the sort of musical evening that we need a lot more of and a tribute to Second Inversion’s leading role and impact. It was one of those rare treats when great art unfolds before us as the unapologetic and intelligent reflection of our time.
Stay tuned for a couple of in-studio videos of music by Gabriel Kahane, filmed yesterday afternoon in our studios!
Editor’s Note: Classical KING FM and Second Inversion present Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern Monday, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.
Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane’s got a new set of strings—an entire string quartet, actually. He recently joined forces with ever-eclectic string quartet Brooklyn Rider to record a new album titled “The Fiction Issue.”
Over the course of the past decade, Kahane has crafted quite a resume. He’s toured, performed, and collaborated with some of the biggest names in contemporary classical. He’s served academic and artistic residencies around the country, received commissions from the likes of Carnegie Hall, composed for chamber ensemble, orchestra, musical theatre—heck, the man once made music out of Craigslist ads, for heaven’s sake.
He’s a pianist, a composer, a singer-songwriter, a poet—the list goes on and on. But one thing Kahane had not done yet was compose a full-length album of chamber music—that is, until now.
“The Fiction Issue” is Kahane’s first chamber album, but it’s not your standard collection of string quartets and piano trios. Featuring the inimitable talents of Brooklyn Rider and vocalist/composer/songstress-extraordinaire Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), the album is something of a mashup between classical chamber music, creative musings, pop music, and poetry.
How it all came about is a bit of a long story—or rather, it’s really more of a series of short stories. The album features two modern-day song cycles and a single-movement string quartet.
“I’ve often thought of a three minute song as a close relative of the short story, as far as narrative economy is concerned,” Kahane said. “In both cases, the writer has to be judicious about what details to include or exclude, because there simply isn’t enough real estate to include everything.”
Kahane explores this challenge in the album’s title track, which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for his recital debut there in 2012. Written in six parts, the 25-minute piece features both Kahane and Worden singing above Brooklyn Rider’s gorgeously textured string backdrop. Piano, electric guitar, and reed organ (naturally) add both timbral and narrative interest.
“While the title is a bit of a cheeky nod to The New Yorker’s annual collection of short stories,” Kahane said, “It’s more earnestly a reference to the challenges of narrativity in music: the issue of fiction.”
The piece is equal parts nostalgia, whimsy, word painting, and poetry—with just a dash of humor and satire for good measure. Worden’s crystalline vocals dance effortlessly through the work’s pop, folk, hymnal, and operatic threads, with Kahane’s warm, velvety vocals adding a bit of an art-rock aesthetic. Together the two very different vocalists craft a fascinating and, at times, dissonant dreamscape, each one drifting through their own abstracted story. And while the musical and poetic lines between the two often blur, mysteriously enough the two characters never directly interact.
“Because the narrative of ‘The Fiction Issue’ is perhaps willfully ambiguous, the music itself does more of the heavy lifting in creating architectural rigor for the piece, as opposed to say, a clearly etched plot,” Kahane said. “For the most part, the entire piece is derived in one way or another from the first three notes that Shara [Worden] sings—a leitmotif that is continually transformed over the course of the work. I hope that this formal discipline, whether or not it’s perceived by the listener, creates license for the more stream-of-consciousness approach to the text.”
The work is followed by a chamber deconstruction of Kahane’s brooding, cinematic pop song “Bradbury (304 Broadway)” off his 2014 album, “The Ambassador.” In his new string quartet adaptation, aptly titled “Bradbury Studies,” Kahane uses shards of motivic and melodic material from the original song to craft an entirely new sound world. Brooklyn Rider brings Kahane’s vision to life with palpable energy and skilled execution of extended string techniques and textural interplay—each player completely in control amidst the chaotic soundscape.
The final piece on the album is Kahane’s three-part song cycle, “Come on All You Ghosts,” which he composed on texts by poet Matthew Zapruder. Animated strings weave in and out of Kahane’s tender yet poised vocals in this short collection of modern art songs. Drawing from a wide palette of textural and timbral colors in the strings, Kahane crafts a sound world somewhere between the realms of contemporary classical, pop, musical theatre, and art rock with a tinge of fringe.
After all, it is in these margins between musical genres that we often find the strongest sense of collaboration and community—and each piece on “The Fiction Issue” harnesses a warmth and intimacy reflective of that bond.
“We often call albums ‘records’ in the sense that they are documents,” Kahane said. “This album is not only a document of the time and place in which it was recorded, but also a document of a series of relationships that have deepened and evolved over the last half dozen years; it’s a great honor and privilege to call Shara Worden, and the members of Brooklyn Rider some of my dearest musical friends, and to be able to share this album with the world as evidence of those friendships.”
by Joshua Roman
That old familiar friend – a piece that already has a life inside of you and is ready to be teased back into the external world. For a cellist, these are usually pieces of very old music: Bach Cello Suites, Concertos by Dvorak or Haydn, Sonatas and Quartets from days of yore.
This time, I get to reignite the flame with a rather new concerto: that special work by my friend Mason Bates. I am so lucky to count wonderful composers among my friends, and to work with them regularly. Last year, Mason wrote his first Cello Concerto for me, and we gave the premiere with the Seattle Symphony. Even by the time of the world premiere, I had given the piece several test runs with pianist Carlos Avila, for small audiences with discerning ears. Now I’ve decided this is a must! I had a similar preparatory experience with “Dreamsongs”, the concerto Aaron Jay Kernis wrote for me the previous year, and on the day of a premiere it makes all the difference to have more comfort, confidence, and a deeper connection with the music.
So pulling the score back out, I had a decision to make. Listen to archival recordings from the performances with Seattle and Columbus? Or rely on memory of what worked and what didn’t? Usually, with a piece that’s already entered the standard repertory, I have a self-imposed rule that listening to other recordings is strictly verboten within a month of a performance. It may be 80% superstition, but I want to be conscious of what makes its way into my interpretation. However, is it any different when the only recordings in existence are my own? If I listen at all, I generally listen to archival recordings fairly soon after the performance to get a sense of whether my intentions come across or not, and try to take notes for later.
An experiment began to take shape: I started by looking at the score as if it was the first time, and began to practice before listening to any recordings. This way, at least I could leave room for any accidental discoveries, which are always fun! Of course, there were a few – opportunities for color changes or subtleties I missed the first time around. Or did I?
Going back, listening to the recordings, it was fun to see what recollections were spot on, and what memories had taken on the subjective hue of emotions surrounding certain moments or performances. Listening to oneself can be a painful process, but the illuminating effect it has is well worth it. There were plenty of sighs of relief on my part, as well as the usual grimacing. Definitely something that I prefer to do alone in the privacy of my own room!
The fact that I had some insight into my own previous interpretations (hued or not) helped me get past my concern about the unseen influence recordings can otherwise have. If anything, it has helped even more as I discover what gestures, colors, and emotions come across in the sound and what is only internal. From now through the time of the last performance of the season, I’ll be listening back to run-throughs, rehearsals, and performances, chipping away at the edges of this particular work of art.
You’ll see in the list below that I’ve chosen to listen to other works by Mason. While I do have certain hesitations regarding listening to a specific piece I’m playing, if I can find other pieces by the same composer, or works that I know have influenced, I find it a good way to absorb more of their style and voice. And of course, being in constant communication with Mason to get ever closer to the heart of his musical soul.
The best part of being with such a new “old friend”, is that I get to introduce so many people to these new sounds for the first time. Long live new music!
Joshua performs the Bates Concerto throughout the 15-16 season, beginning Saturday, September 19 with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony under the baton of Eric Jacobsen – check Joshua’s calendar for a city near you!
LISTENING TO: Mason Bates
Stereo is King (whole album)
Violin Concerto with Anne Akiko Meyers, violin
by Jill Kimball
For centuries, the concerto grosso form has served to play up the strengths of a chamber group by highlighting its best virtuosi and calling for a conversation between soloists and orchestra. The Knights, a Brooklyn-based collaborative ensemble, believe that composition form still has room to grow.
They’ve dedicated their latest album, the ground beneath our feet, to the concerto grosso. The album features both classic and new examples of the form, from Bach to Stravinsky to some of the group’s very own composers. The result is a collection of music that’s grounded in a common cause but weightless in execution.
Steve Reich’s Duet for Two Violins and Strings is a lovely way to start off any album. Accessible and dreamy, it’s pleasing to the ear of everyone from classical aficionados to newcomers. Though it’s puzzling to me that an album called the ground beneath our feet would begin with something so gravity-defying, this interpretation soared effortlessly and beautifully enough to make me forget my confusion.
“Effortless” is also the primary word I’d use to describe the performance of Bach’s Concerto for Violin & Oboe. Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the quality of musicianship in a new-music ensemble whose oeuvre consists mostly of world premieres. But when the Knights pull off a live recording whose quality rivals classic recordings with Hilary Hahn and Yehudi Menuhin, they really prove their mettle. The strings sound a bit less dark, rich and precise than in a classic recording, but that may have more to do with the concert’s setting than with the musicians themselves.
Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto is like a mashup of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and The Rite of Spring, a really fascinating listen. Stravinsky once said of the piece, “Whether or not the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the…Brandenburg set, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach most certainly would have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do.” It’s true: to borrow an idea from a predecessor and turn it into something that’s unmistakably yours is so like both Bach and Stravinsky. The Knights’ rendition is a little slower than usual–all the better to revel in the complex but very listenable themes interwoven throughout the piece.
If you love recordings from the Silk Road Ensemble, headed by the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, you’ll probably love the next piece: a joint effort between two composers who met while they played in Silk Road together. One of them, Siamak Aghaei, spent a lot of time in his native Iran gathering field recordings of folk musicians, and played them back to an excited Colin Jacobsen. Over the years, those field recordings have inspired three co-compositions; this latest effort features violin and santur, a kind of hammered dulcimer dating back to ancient Babylonia.
The title track is a very different sort of concerto, one whose composition was a group effort that drew on The Knights’ individual strengths and musical interests. The whole thing is tied together with a bass line taken from Tarquino Merula’s Ciaccona, and with that common thread is able to morph organically from Baroque symphonic music to creatively syncopated Irish folk music, from melodies influenced by Romani and Indian culture to improvisational drumming and jazzy, Spanish-inspired dance music, complete with claves. It all works for me until the very end, when there’s a silence before Christina Courtin sings “Fade Away,” her own original song. The bass line connection is seemingly lost, and the cartoonish fanfare backing Courtin was odd paired with her lyrics (“I’m not saying I’m afraid of dying, baby / I count my blessings with you every day / But you know I can’t go on this way”). Despite the fact that “Fade Away” would be more at home on a Sufjan Stevens album, I liked its sound.
I reached the end of the CD puzzling, once again, over the title of the disc. What, in this instance, is “the ground beneath our feet?” Common thought is that Bach laid the ground on which all musicians stand today. But the fact is, many contemporary composers choose to leave the ground and explore new frontiers in space.
Take a look at the album art and you’ll see a portrait of Stravinsky cut open and peeled back to reveal a dark, starry abyss. I’ll take this as a sign that The Knights acknowledge the great forces of the past but will sometimes refuse the pull of their gravity.
If the ground beneath our feet has indeed disappeared in parts of this album, that’s okay: outer space sure sounds pretty good to me.