THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 090
Greetings, friends. I come to you from my living room couch, delirious with exhaustion and with a weird flare up of tinnitus that has me fighting back fears of a brain tumor. As for the tired, you can blame the assignment to cover the opening night of Deftones' North American tour that had me working until 1 am and then back up at 6 am to finish the review. And you can blame the busy, slightly frenetic week that I've had. Which is also the reason why there's no reviews in this week's newsletter, as I had not any time to really dig into new music or new visual stuff.
A spot of news: my friend Andrew Neerman and I are starting up a little venture here in Portland called Megalith. You may know Andrew from his time running the record shop Beacon Sound and his current time running the label of the same name that has released amazing work by Dolphin Midwives, Lau Nau, and others. For a while since the pandemic brought the final iteration of his store to a close, we had been talking about finding a space where we could join forces and host small events. Concerts, film screenings, reading groups, etc. We are still in the process of finding that physical location to do such things, but while we do, we're going to setting up some shows around town, starting on May 13 (my birthday), with the release event for the Sontag Shogun / Lau Nau collaboration Valo Siroutuu to be held at Turn Turn Turn. Got some other stuff cooking as well, but that's our first step forward. I'll have more information on that show soon, but I wanted to plant that in your brains in hopes of getting some of you to attend.
That's all I got for the time being. Read on and enjoy my interview with Gabriel Kahane. And if you don't enjoy it, keep it to yourself.
Many years ago, I bought an album of songs recorded in the field in Africa, and on the LP was a gorgeous a cappella song that, according to the liner notes, was nothing more than a woman musically reciting what she had done that day. Shopping, cooking, cleaning, looking after the family, etc. After listening to countless records by artists artfully dealing with huge emotions and issues or turning specific moments in their lives into poetry, I marveled at the purity and simplicity of this little tune. The closest any album that I've heard since has gotten to that kind of guileless expression is Magnificent Bird, the new LP from songwriter / modern classical composer Gabriel Kahane. The 10 songs on this short, humble recording have plenty of poetic turns but the most affecting moments are found on tunes like "Sit Shiva" and "Chemex," where he recounts the little details of mourning the death of his grandparent through Zoom and the process of making coffee. It feels rare and precious to have him writing something strictly through his own eyes rather than try to twist it into something relatable for his fans.
Some of that specificity may have been the result of the experiment Kahane underwent for 12 months in 2019-2020 when he chose to avoid the Internet almost entirely. Like so many of us, he was a dedicated social media user, utilizing his platform as a release valve for his sociopolitical frustrations and catching the minutiae of everyday life. Without that, where else were his stray thoughts going to go? Into his songs, apparently, which he wrote in a flurry during the last month of his online break.
Kahane's work hasn't always pointed his lyrical lens so far inward. His previous album Book of Travelers was built from conversations he had with fellow Amtrak travelers during a cross-country trip he took right after the 2016 election. And his powerful oratorio emergency shelter intake form used interviews he gave as a volunteer at a Manhattan homeless shelter to tear into broken system of care and social safety nets in our country. It must have been buoying to instead write about his jealousy at seeing a fellow artist's success on Magnificent Bird's title track or tromping through a wet Portland afternoon with his family on "Hot Pink Raingear." That Kahane is letting us peer into his mental processes via his minimalist folk-pop feels blushingly intimate.
This interview was conducted while Kahane was on the road recently, initially to be used for my preview of last night's performance of Magnificent Bird with members of the Oregon Symphony (an organization where he has been serving as a Creative Chair since 2019), but as I only used pieces of our conversation and felt like he has some brilliant insight into the state of our modern tech habits, I wanted to publish the full Q&A here for my lovely newsletter subscribers.
How has the tour been going?
It's been fine. This first leg is a little odd, both because it included a teaching residency at the New England Conservatory, and then I had a thing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta that was postponed. So what was meant to be a Northeast tour has turned into a bizarre driving and flying tour. I'm currently in Boston, and I'll be in New York for a night, fly to Atlanta on Saturday and then to Philly on Tuesday, take a train to New York and then back to Portland last Saturday night.
I was gonna say. You're bouncing all over the place.
Yeah, it's not idea, but I can't complain. I'm glad to be out singing for people.
When I first heard about this album, Magnificent Bird, and the experiment you went through about removing yourself from the internet for a year, I wasn't terribly surprised. We had spoken a couple of years ago in Portland for a piece for the Mercury, and you had you introduced me to the Light Phone, the phone that only does calls and texts.
I'm talking to you on that phone right now.
Now that you're dipping your toes back into the world of the Internet, how has your time off affected your usage of it? Do you notice that you're using it less?
Honestly, it's really tricky. I think we must have spoken when I was in the middle of the time offline, because I think I think was that maybe December of 2019?
I think that's right.
I think that's probably when I was because I didn't have the Light Phone until right before I began, so I think I was probably three or four weeks into it when we spoke. But basically, being offline was really easy. It's the reintegrating that has been really difficult. I've been back online in one way or another for the last year and a half, and as much as I stand behind what I did, and feel like I learned a huge amount about myself and about the incentives of not just of social media, but of smartphones generally, and the way that they are constantly driving us toward this belief that convenience and efficiency have intrinsic value, which I think is false. As much as I believe that, there are real consequences to taking oneself out of the social media sphere, and I am, at this moment, really wrestling with how to how to stay connected to my audience without returning to the status quo. I had been a very dedicated and addicted social media user, and I feel a little bit like Neo in The Matrix. I've seen too much to go back to how it was before. And if you try to use social media strictly as a self promotional tool, it doesn't really work because people want your personality and they want humor. Then you basically spend your whole life calculating doing 80% of your social media stuff not self-promotional, and then you slide in that thing like, "Oh, and by the way, I'm playing this concert." I find it all really grotesque and I haven't figured out how to deal with that. The one permanent change is I got rid of my smartphone. Once I had gotten rid of it to start the experiment, there was no going back for me. I'm much, much more content without it and that that has sort of mediated and mitigated my time online.
On a purely physiological level, were you aware of changes to your mind and body during your time offline?
Certainly my attention span grew. I realized how much my sense of necessity had been shaped by convenience. This is not strictly speaking physiological, but they are related. The way that I experienced desire really changed because I think that as we get closer and closer to being cyborgs, the distance between desire and conservation becomes vanishingly thin, and introducing friction by willfully getting rid of a device made me realize that I don't want anywhere near as many things that I thought I needed or wanted. And, yeah, just less anxious. I think that continues. I think not having a smartphone makes one less anxious.
Parenthetically, I would just say two things depending on where this conversation is leading. One is that, ultimately, the record I made and the project that I'm touring ends up having not very much to do with being offline. It does in some sense because I would have written different music had I been online. The other thing I would say is that there's a kind of cultural privilege that enabled me to do what I did. An investment banker who makes 20 times as much as I do could not get rid of their smartphone. Neither could a Lyft driver. The experience that I had, on the one hand, is a curiosity, and on the other hand I feel like I was deploying this privilege in a way to try and punch up toward people whose use of social media and whose belief in convenience and efficiency... the more wealth you have, the more power you have, the more of a platform you have, the more destructive your use of the platforms is, I believe. I guess that's just to locate my project in the broader sociopolitical context, which is to say, I'm the first to acknowledge it. Very few people could or would want to do what I did, but having heard so many times this refrain from people - many of them with much larger followings than I have - "I hate social media, but I have to deal with it as a necessary evil." I think that when everyone perpetuates that, they are implicating everyone who is a fan of theirs in that. Because every click, every swipe makes Facebook more valuable and allows these algorithms to do the horrible things that they do, whether that's spreading conspiracy theories, disinformation, amping up the polarization, making us less and less able to create coalitions even across really small differences. To the extent that I have an ideological axe to grind, I think that people who are more famous than I am are the ones who really should be trying to take themselves out of these spaces.
I guess I would add... I don't know if you're familiar with Timothy Morton, the philosopher and climate activist?
He coined this term a couple of years ago: hyperobject. What means by that is that is a system that's too vase for us to ever see all of it at once. He's using it mostly to describe climate crisis. We can see the weather. We can see extreme weather events. We can't see the totality of climate crisis unfolding in real time. Similarly, it's very easy when you're sitting on social media, posting about a cause — a progressive cause or a conservative cause — to believe that you're moving the needle. I think that social media platforms are also hyperobjects in the sense that Mark Zuckerberg's thumb is always on the scale to the end of making as much money as possible. As much engagement, as much growth, as much profit. Whether that means spreading lies or activating our worst psychological impulses. One of the things I felt I was better able to grasp offline, one of the things I wrestled with having been pretty "active" politically online, was realizing that if you're trying to spread nuanced political thought online, you will always fail. You'll always be drowned out by the lowest common denominator. I have a pretty dim view of that. It's not to say that organizing can't take place in an effective way online. But if I were reduced to just shouting polemics, it would be for people who have 10 and 100 and 1,000 times the following that I have to get the fuck off social media. [laughs]
I'm glad you acknowledged the privilege in this exercise. There are so many artists out there who unfortunately need social media to get the word out about their work.
I'm in a sort of funny, funny place in the food chain where I'm seeing smaller audiences at my shows. I am paying a price for being offline. I'm doing a little bit of social media stuff, but having been offline for the better part of a year and a half, I'm seeing stagnant audience sizes. And I'm okay with that. Because one of the other things that was really kind of transformative in my time offline and then coming back on was encountering empowering Lewis Hyde's book The Gift. Are you familiar with that?
Only a little.
It was pretty life changing for me. I'll be as concise as I can. I think that in taking myself out of social media, the dopamine hits were gone, specifically the dopamine hits of likes and retweets and whatever. When the public is showering you with praise is no longer part of the equation, you start thinking, "Well, why am I actually doing this?" When I encountered the thesis of Lewis Hyde's book, that art exists in the gift economy and where there is no gift, there is no art - in addition to existing in a market economy - and the reciprocity of, "I sing a song, you are present to receive it, and your presence or your gratitude completes the cycle," I looked back at the last decade of my life and realized that the moments that were the most meaningful to me were really intimate. And in terms of what actually nourishes me still has very little to do with whether it's 1,000 people or 100 people or 50 people. It doesn't really change what nourishes me. Additionally, there's this beautiful thing that Hyde talks about where as the gift circulates through a community, it defines a community. That's something that I've been really embracing — this idea that whoever's in the room when I'm playing show, my job is just to make the community whole by being there. It also de-centers me. We put artists on pedestals very often. I find it really freeing that I'm the servant of community. My job is just to circulate the gift and have people feel connected to each other. It does really interesting things for nerves because you stop judging yourself. It's not about you. It's about bringing people together.
All that is to say, you know, I played in Boston the other night and there were 100 people there. Last time I played in Boston, there were 100 people there. I could have chosen to be bummed out and yesterday, on some level, on an ego level, I was a little bummed out. But it was right 100 people. And it was a really special evening. I felt like there was community in that room.
The last thing I will say about privilege is just to also acknowledge that smartphones have become part of physical safety for a lot of people whether it's women or people of color. Certainly as a white-presenting Jewish dude, I don't think of my cell phone as a device that aids in my safety. That was the case when I took my train trip in 2016. And it was the case when taking the year off the internet, that's an unfortunate advantage. I would love to live in a world where everyone feels safe, where everyone has the basic dignity of leaving their home without their cell phone and feeling safe and protected. That's the world I want to live in.
Something else that stood out for me is simply how short it is - it runs less than a half hour. Was that deliberate or just the way the songs developed?
No, it was very deliberate. I wrote 75 minutes of music in October 2020. I wrote 31 little pieces: 28 songs, and three little piano pieces. One every day for the month. And there are some other songs that I think are terrible, and I think some of them are really nice songs. I feel with this record that there's a more specific emotional and aesthetic journey. It feels more aesthetically deliberate in a way that the ideas unfold than anything that I've done before. When I was in the process of sequencing and putting it together, there were songs that I left off because I felt like they upset the statement that I was trying to make. I think there are a couple of different registers that the record is operating on. There's the internal / psychological versus the public. There's me as narrator versus people I encounter in the world. Then there is the approach to orchestration and arrangement, then there's the broader emotional trajectory. I guess this was the most specific way that I could say what I was trying to say.
This doesn't have to be about this record, but as you're working on stuff, is it an easy thing to know when you think a song is finished? Are you comfortable walking away and leaving them as is, especially as you're performing them regularly? Do you feel the urge to tinker with the arrangements or words as you go?
The process for this record was very different than anything I've ever done. It was a daily writing practice where for the final month of my time offline, I decided that I wanted to create some kind of artifact to mark where I was at the end of it. So I began every morning writing longhand, and I would do that for anywhere between half an hour and an hour. When I felt like I had enough, or my arm got tired and the hands started to cramp, I would go to the studio and I would type up what I had done and I would start to find the lyric out of that free write whether it's finding rhymes that were implied or sometimes the music would present itself here and there while I was sitting writing prose. I would take a draft, print it out, mark it up longhand and continue that process. Sometimes it was eight drafts. By a certain point, I would take the lyric to the piano and set it to music. After I made piano / vocal demos of all of them in December, there were some lyrical tweaks that happened. The last song, "Sit Shiva," got a fairly substantial rewrite.
But, I don't know... it's funny, I'm a chronic tinkerer with concert music. When I write a string quartet or a piano concerto, I very often revise not just after the world premier but after the second set of performances. Like the piano concerto that was just played with the Oregon Symphony, that was already the first revision and I think I'm going to do one more small-ish revision just because I feel like it's 85% of the way there. Whereas with songs, as far as like the bones of the song, just because of the nature of my career, sometimes I'm playing solo, sometimes with a string quartet, sometimes with an orchestra, the arrangement is always evolving, but the skeleton - the harmony and the lyric and the melody, usually I know when that's done because the goal of the song reveals itself. There's a certain point in the process where I understand why the song exists and why this song has to be in the world. Once I've identified that, then it's just about finding the clearest way of expressing the thing. But tonight, I'm playing solo. Thursday and Friday next week, I'm playing with a string quartet. I have to write all those string arrangements in the next four days. [laughs] I mean, I have to adapt them from the chamber orchestra arrangements we're doing at the Reser Center in a couple of weeks. In that sense, arrangements are always evolving but I can't really think of a time, even with much older songs, when it comes to lyrics or melody... maybe sometimes harmonically I will throw things in here and there. But I have a certain degree of confidence. Songs are so small and that's both challenging and also songs are not hyperobjects. You can see the whole thing all at once. That makes it easier, I think, to know when it's finished.
How much deliberation went into thinking about the choice of collaborators you bring into a project like Magnificent Bird? Is that something you sweat over because you likely have so many options to choose from?
With this project, the initial impulse was to keep it closer to Book of Travelers, which was just voice and piano and no overdubs. But I was began recording in January 2021 and I really missed my friends. The people that play on the record are all people I love and people who I love as much as people as I do as musicians. A number of them are people who are really difficult to get on the phone, and so, I had a pretext for being in touch with them. I think there was one instance where there was a song that I really struggled to find the right arrangement for but that didn't have as much to do with who was playing on it as it was me understanding what the song was. It was all pretty clear to me. When I started arranging and conceiving of the record, and thinking about these guests, my initial plan was to have like one guest per song, and to try to avoid a lots of overdubs. In the past, I've worked with my very close friend Rob Moose, who is a genius of these huge layered string arrangements, which are super beautiful. He's a total master at that. I kind of set myself the challenge of, "What if I get someone like Pekka [Kuusisto] to play and he only gets one track, he plays one line?" So we recorded that but then I was like, "Oh, this would be so lovely with Paul Kowert from Punch Brothers playing bass." So then I added that and I stopped there.
With the second to last track, "Die Traumdeutung," I think because it was the closest to an art song on the record, Anthony McGill and I had been talking about doing something together, and again it was a situation where I was like, "What is the most modest arrangement I can do where it's just chamber music piano and a clarinet and a little bit of weird digital processing?" Then there are others where, like with the title track, I knew it was this slow jam, and I had these interludes and my dear friends Nathalie Joachim and Alex Sopp were such incredible songwriters and flutists, and I was like, "What if I have them both multitrack the flute?" and our local hero Holcombe Waller came up with the most insane vocals throughout. I gave him no guidance at all. He just sent me back six tracks, and I was like, "Oh, this is it!"
In the end, no one who plays on the record is a hired gun. They're all people I have deep relationships... well, not necessarily deep relationships with but ranging from people like Ted Poor who I've known since I was seven years old — we played little league together — to Anthony who I met maybe just five years ago. But it was basically, in a way, going back to Lewis Hyde, about community. I think there's this inherent paradox of having spent all this time offline and then using the Internet to make music with my friends.
Before I let you go, when and why did you decide to relocate to Oregon?
On March 8 2020, I flew out for what was to be one week. You probably guess where this is going. I was supposed to launch Open Music with Caroline Shaw on the 12th, I think it was, everything shut down, and my partner and our then 18-month-old daughter had flown out with me. She's in health care, and she kind of saw the writing on the wall and didn't really want to fly out to Oregon but was concerned that air travel might be suspended. So she and our older daughter, we now have two kids but at the time, she was our only daughter, they flew out with me and we started getting phone calls from our friends in New York, saying, "Things are really scare. Don't come back if you don't have to." We had been contemplating a move to Portland for December 2020, or possibly the following spring. We have two sets of grandparents on the West Coast, my partner's parents are in Eugene, mine are in L.A. We were fortunate to be able to stretch and pay two rents for three months. It was not pleasant, but we did that. We gave up our New York apartment and moved out of it remotely. It was not until 18 months later that I got back to New York. I will be, tonight, late tonight, I will be going back for the second time. On the one hand, it was kind of dramatic. It was fly to Portland for a week; stay for 18 months. On the other hand, when you look at millions of people being displaced by this war, through that lens, it's feels very much like a first world problem. This Spring finally feels like a lot of the things the Oregon Symphony and I have been planning to do are finally coming to fruition having done this Open Music concert with Missi Mizzoli a few weeks ago and then two weeks from tonight, the Magnficent Bird show at Reser Center. Then the concert the night after with Sam Amidon and Timo Andre, and the music of Gabriella Smith, and Nico Muhly, Inti Figgis-Vizueta, Andy Akiho. That's gonna be really, really a lot of fun. I finally feel like after living in Portland for two years through a pandemic, even as it continues, I'm coming out as a Portland artist in a way that feels exciting.
And there we have it. Thank you, as always, for subscribing and reading. I'll be back on Monday for the premium subscribers and on Friday for everydamnbody. Do no harm. Take no shit.
Artwork for this edition is from Process // Progress, an exhibition of work by Don Kilpatrick II that is on display at M Contemporary Art in Ferndale, MI through April 23.