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Arts & Culture

Gabriel Kahane ’03 titillates on banjo, piano

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2011

Gabriel Kahane ’03 is ambivalent about the banjo. “I’m just a dilettante,” he said ruefully, “Although a banjo definitely has the element of surprise.”

But this was an understatement. In addition to songs from his most recent album, Kahane performed two songs on the banjo from his upcoming musical “February House” in Grant Recital Hall last Thursday. Commissioned by the venerable Public Theater in New York City, the songs showed a new side to the twangy, boot-scootin’ instrument. His banjo was ethereal and lilting, complementing what he calls his “inescapably sincere” voice in a way that was otherworldly and vaguely unsettling.

The concert was regrettably underattended — only 13 people were scattered throughout the huge-by-comparison recital hall. But Kahane said during his tour, he has “played in just about every conceivable bizarre situation — rock clubs, concert halls, synagogues, suburban coffee shops — so Brown just gets tacked onto that list.”

Older than his red jeans and multicolored Vans make him seem, Kahane, by his own admission, defies the notion of genre. “Gabriel Kahane is not part of a scene,” reads the biography on his website. His music ranges from minimalist guitar with crooning lyrics in the style of Elliott Smith to complex piano lines and operatic arias.

Kahane’s rise to notoriety started after the composition of “Craigslistlieder,” an unconventional 16-part song cycle for voice and piano based on personal ads he found on His self-titled debut LP, released in 2008, garnered praise from the New York Times, Pitchfork and Prefix Magazine, among others. He was recently named the composer-in-residence of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and has collaborated with Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright. “Gabriel Kahane is an NPR programmer’s wet dream,” Pitchfork reported of his first album.

His sophomore effort, “Where Are the Arms,” is a gem of an album, a different facet glimmering in each eerily refulgent listen. The occasional Schoenberg-esque atonalities and rollicking triplets evoke a man on edge, struggling to keep his balance in a shifting world. Kahane’s musical pedigree — his father is the renowned concert pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane — means that his sheer musicality is unsurprising but still very much appreciated. His voice is an obstacle to those for whom earnest warbling is anathema but is nevertheless well-suited to the album’s restrained orchestration, and the lyrics are crystalline snapshots, perfectly articulated moments winking in the sun.

Fred Jodry, director of choral activities, organized the recital and a master class earlier in the day. He asked Kahane to attend because not only is Kahane an alum, but he is also “an amazing example of what you can do with music after college. Plus, he’s a great cook.”

“It was an incredible reminder — and I say this in no way blowing smoke up the University’s ass — how amazing an institution Brown is,” Kahane said of the master class. “I hope that I can take back to Brooklyn with me the kind of optimism and idealism that I felt being around the students.”

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