“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.