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.”