Q&A: Gabriel Kahane On Distracted Listening, Internet Addiction, And The Golden Age Of Pop That Was 2003

Categories: Interviews

This week in the Voice I profiled the Brooklyn composer-songwriter-singer-multiinstrumentalist Gabriel Kahane, whose new album Where Are The Arms (Second Story Sound) is being celebrated at Littlefield next Wednesday. A couple of days before our chat, he posted a provocative rant on Spotify and how musical saturation might result in a depreciation in listening quality to his blog; you may not be shocked to learn that topic is often at the forefront of my mind as I sort through my various digital-music collections. It's not surprising that this topic is one Kahane feels passionately about, either, since his intricately crafted music invites a closer listen. Below, we discuss online music and the current pop moment, with a couple of tangents on World of Warcraft addiction, the demise of the record store, and the idea of patronage as it applies to pop music thrown in.

Can you explain the process of the commission to me? I come from a more rock background, where the idea of a sponsor is sort of looked down upon, although less so now than it was 15 years ago.

It's strange. I think that that schism is funny. I just read the Patti Smith book. When you look back on that era, no one would have ever second-guessed a visual artist having a patron. I actually think that the schism has to do with a time when technique in pop music was really scorned. I don't think that's really the case anymore. You've seen artists evolve from a position of really fetishizing amateurism and then moving to a place of really embracing things that are extraordinarily demanding from a physical, technical level.

But as far as the commissioning process is concerned: It works really differently in classical music and in theater. In classical music, if you've got a commission, the piece is going to get performed. They're commissioning it so that there's something to play. The economic risk is so much greater for theater than it is for a one-off—they're going to do it 30 or 40 times, five to six weeks of rehearsal. With this piece, they committed to producing it after we had provided them maybe four drafts. Even by musical theater standards we had a really quick process. We started doing research in the summer of 2008, started writing in the winter of 2009, and it's now 2011. Spring Awakening was like seven or eight years from the first meeting to [production], but they took their time for a reason. It's a very tricky medium, and musicals have so many cooks in the kitchen.

I do think it's an interesting quandary, that I feel like the subtext of rock musicians back in the day looking down on the patron has more to do with a browiness, as in high-brow/low-brow, than it does with just someone supporting the work.

I guess you see patronage on a more grassroots and atomized level with Kickstarter. Every project has their "If you give us $5000 we'll play a show at your house!"

Kickstarter and the breakdown of major labels and the fact that labels don't sign the Nationals and Vampire Weekends of the world and they totally would have 10 or 15 years ago.

What else have you been working on?

Today, Seth [Bockley] and I started working on a new piece. We're doing this residency in Dumbo, and ten days ago we began a residency to work on a piece about Alcoholics Anonymous, which we were fascinated by. And we were moving back in forth between working on the two pieces, and then of course in the midst of that, getting ready for the record to come out, and some other concert music commissions. There's a big orchestral thing I'm writing for the spring for three orchestras and me. It's sort of song-cycle-y thing that I'm going to sing and play. And I'm going to go to the MacDowell Colony in November for a month after I finish the tour.

How many projects do you generally work on at once?

Hopefully not more than one a day, though the last two weeks... It's funny, the first step of AA is "We realize that we have become powerless to alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable." And I'm feeling like a true workaholic right now, my life is unmanageable. But it's exciting. The only thing that is not exciting is being spread too thin, where the quality of work suffers. And I think that that's the challenge. In general, it's been possible for me to, say, spend two really focused weeks on February House, and then go to MacDowell for a month and work on a concert piece. Because I'm not really a good multitasker and I'm pretty ADD, if I can just have the same agenda for a week or two or three, as opposed to, like, "These hours I'm doing this"... There's some people who I know who, they're just so unbelievably fast that they can switch back and forth, and I just am not good enough at doing that.

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