Art songs, or lieder, were highly popular once, flowering in the hands of composers like Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. The composer needed only a pianist and a singer to give voice to a constellation of thoughts and emotions through a sequence of short pieces. Today, though, while you can’t walk around the corner without stumbling over a singer-songwriter well practiced in verses, choruses, and bridges, the art song itself is a rare bird. Gabriel Kahane bridges the divide with his concert piece 8980: Book of Travelers, part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
Not for the first time in his career, which has also encompassed chamber music and musical theater, Kahane takes inspiration from United States geography. In response to the 2016 presidential election, he traveled the nation by train, meeting and talking to people from all walks of life. Then he composed a suite of songs based on those encounters and the reflections they stimulated. Singing them while accompanying himself on piano, backed by videos taken from train windows and projected on a line of large panels, he shares his magical mystery tour.
With stories of wartime refugees, everyday American lives, religious pilgrims, and online dating in old age (that one’s quite funny), the narrative concerns people he meets and ancestors he remembers, but remains centered on his own thoughts and impressions. He has a beautiful voice, and he supports his sophisticated, yearning melodies with piano parts that fuse modernism and pop tropes in intriguing ways. He structures the show by returning more than once to the most interesting and touching story, about a group of pilgrims from an obscure Christian sect who welcome a fellow singer into their song circle but stiffen up when they learn he’s not a Christian.
But although he uses unorthodox or unexpected techniques – prepared piano, strumming the strings, electronics – the show becomes weighed down with a sameness of feel after a while. Over the hour-plus my avid interest and enjoyment dissipated. In Kahane’s 2014 Next Wave show The Ambassador and on the accompanying Sony Masterworks album, a band backed him up, with varied sounds and arrangements that gave that effort a lot of life. Here, with just piano and voice, a cool folk-pop vibe dominates throughout, and the musical palette begins to feel too limited. Two-thirds of the way through, my attention was wandering; I wanted something different. And the one number that did break the routine did so in such an extreme way that, while I appreciated its howling passion, it was more a fish out of water than a welcome new variation.
Kahane’s deep trove of compositional talent and exquisite voice make his singer-songwriter art songs ring with the excitement of the new even as they recall the glory days of lieder. As a song cycle, this production of 8980: Book of Travelers could use more variety. But as pieces of art, its chapters shine like sparks under the train wheels, lighting up the countryside in dark, troubled times.