“Craigslistlieder,” a song cycle from 2006, is not necessarily Gabriel Kahane’s best work. The 31-year-old composer, or singer-songwriter — let’s just stick with “musician” as the most accurate designation — has written piano sonatas, orchestral pieces, a pop album and even a musical about hipster artists living an alternative lifestyle in Brooklyn 70 years ago.
But this song cycle, built of eight texts taken from personal ads on Craigslist — and performed by the small company Urban Arias at the Mansion at Strathmore at the end of March — is his best-known work. Quirky and funny and abruptly poignant, with music tightly calibrated to the words and feelings behind them, it gives a good taste of the aesthetic of an artist who defies genres in the cause of making music that sticks with you.
Kahane is on a roll these days, rapidly becoming one of the most visible representatives of a generation of Brooklyn musicians who bring individual voices to many genres at once. He resists all labels — “indie-classical,” he says, “is a word I wish did not exist” — but whatever he does, he’s bringing a lot of it to Washington this month. His newest song cycle, “Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States,” the culmination of a residency with the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, will be performed at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on April 20. Before that, he’s giving a joint recital at the Library of Congress on April 5 with another composer/performer, the jazz pianist Timothy Andres, with music by everyone from Robert Schumann to Benjamin Britten to Thomas Ades to the two performers themselves. “I’m definitely interested in advocating for anyone’s music I can interpret,” Kahane says, calling Schumann “the proto-emo, deep-feeling forebear” of today’s singer/songwriters.
None of which will necessarily make it any easier to pin this mercurial artist down.
“As a composer,” Kahane says, “I learn a lot about all of my creative endeavors from doing the other ones.”
Kahane didn’t set out to become a musician. His first love was acting, which he pursued seriously in high school. But he started performing music at a very early age, singing in a Catholic boy’s choir from the age of 7, “which was super weird, because we’re Jews.” After stints at the New England Conservatory (where he majored in jazz piano) and then at Brown University, he wrote a musical on a lark and “kind of got hooked on putting pencil to paper.” (He still composes on paper; “I find I write differently, the ideas come out a little bit less square sitting at the piano” than at the computer.)
His father is the pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane; “I think I revered him, growing up,” he says, “and I was obsessed with [Bach’s] ‘Goldberg Variations’ as a 6-year-old; I would play the first eight bars of the aria over and over. I think the purity of [his father’s] musicianship and his integrity as a musician is something that’s really important to me.”
The respect goes both ways: Jeffrey Kahane led Gabriel’s “Crane Palimpsest,” another orchestral song cycle, with his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which co-commissioned the piece, in 2012.
Gabriel Kahane’s childhood also provided a model for his future take on music. “The music my parents listened to, the priority on emotional clarity and honesty in music regardless of genre, had a really big impact on me,” he says. “My dad would be practicing [Mozart’s] K. 488 and take a break and put on [Paul Simon’s] ‘Graceland.’ . . . The tacit implication was, ‘This is all great music; we don’t make a distinction between classical music and pop music.’ ”
Kahane, however, does make a distinction between the two — precisely because he does both. “Where are the Arms,” his 2011 CD, is unabashedly a pop album; “Craigslistlieder” is not. “February House,” his music which ran at the Public Theater in 2012 to warm reviews, is a musical, as distinct from an opera, which he would also like to write (he is trying to get the rights to set David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”).
“Making good pop music is hard because it has to be necessarily so distilled,” he says. On the one hand, “writing a three-minute pop song is an end in itself, but also a training ground: how to manage dramatic expectations, harmonic expectation.” On the other hand, when he writes pop songs, the tools are different: “It’s like a different set of paints, different sent of pencils. I probably think of harmony in a different way when I’m writing a pop song. I’m still hoping that the idea of expectation being built up and then broken will occur, but it’s happening with a different set of colors than it would in concert music.”
Indeed, he’s something of a purist. “One of the things I find slightly irritating is calling stuff ‘classical music’ because it has strings and woodwinds,” he says. “There is economic cynicism behind the branding of music that is essentially pop music plus some bells and whistles as something other than what it is.”
Yet in his recent work, Kahane has found plenty of room for metaphorical displacement. Take “February House,” based on the true story of the Brooklyn rooming house shared by W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and other artists in the early 1940s; for Kahane and his collaborator, Seth Bockley, “there was a sense that we were living the piece we were making,” Kahane says, writing a piece about a creative generation forging a new lifestyle in Brooklyn. Coincidentally, “Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States,” his new piece for Orpheus, focuses on the same era; its subject is the WPA and the New Deal. For it, Kahane excerpted texts from WPA travel guides, the work of fine but anonymous writers on the WPA payroll.
“There were so many resonances with FDR and the New Deal and what’s happened over the last five years in Washington,” Kahane says, “that if I didn’t do something with found text, it was going to be leftist propaganda — which I’m certainly not averse to,” he adds. But he decided that using existing texts was a better way to go.
However, Kahane doesn’t want to spend his career focused on the 1930s. “I have plans,” says the non-indie composer, “to deal with other eras in the near future.”
Gabriel Kahane and Timothy Andres will perform at the Library of Congress on April 5 at 8 p.m. Kahane’s “Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States” is part of the concert ”Humanity Triumphant,” which the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will perform at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on April 20 at 8 p.m.