There is no one quite like Gabriel Kahane. Straddling the worlds of pop, classical, and musical theatre, Kahane has constructed a unique voice for himself that can comfortably fit within any of these categories. The usually-associated disparity between pop and classical does not apply to Kahane, because much of the same style and flavor infused in his pop music finds its way into his chamber music, and vice versa. This is deeply apparent in his latest release, The Fiction Issue, out today on Madgeburg Music.
The Fiction Issue marks Kahane’s first chamber music release and joins the ranks of his pop albums and the cast recording of his off-Broadway musical February House. On the album, Kahane is joined by soprano Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. The album is book-ended by two song cycles: the first is The Fiction Issue, featuring Kahane, Worden, and Brooklyn Rider; the second is Come On All You Ghosts, featuring Kahane and Brooklyn Rider. Inserted between the two song cycles is Bradbury Studies, for string quartet.
The Fiction Issue feels like a companion release to Kahane’s 2014 pop album The Ambassador. While The Ambassador featured Kahane’s iconic pop style in the setting of Los Angeles, The Fiction Issue focuses on his chamber music and straddles both coasts. Despite these inherent differences (among others), the pop voice Kahane matured in The Ambassador is still present throughout The Fiction Issue.
The connection between the two albums is most apparent in the track Bradbury Studies. The piece is a deconstruction of Kahane’s song “Bradbury (304 Broadway)” off of The Ambassador. Instead of a straightforward arrangement of the song for string quartet, the piece instead breaks the song down further, exploring the themes and ideas that went into “Bradbury (304 Broadway).” During the first few minutes of Bradbury Studies, there are a series of false starts and wrong paths as the piece attempts to solidify its focus and direction. Eventually, Bradbury Studies is able to reconcile its themes and chart a course, ultimately arriving at an arrangement of “Bradbury (304 Broadway)” that completes the piece. Bradbury Studies showcases how the natural development of a chamber work can seamlessly cross into pop territory.
Kahane’s fusion of styles is also apparent on the two song cycles that make up the remainder of the album. In these pieces, Kahane demonstrates his knack for text setting alongside his colorful compositional language in the accompaniment. In both The Fiction Issue and Come On All You Ghosts, it sometimes feels as if Kahane has written a pop tune and supplanted the original accompaniment with something more in the realm of “contemporary classical.”
Some moments in the first song cycle, The Fiction Issue, come off as a bit tongue in cheek, where Kahane plays with, juxtaposes, and exploits key elements from both the classical and pop traditions. For example, “Part IV” opens with a 12-tone theme that is abandoned about forty-five seconds into the song with a strong resolution to an F major chord. This is followed by the second half of “Part V,” where Worden sings what sounds like a more traditional pop song over electric guitar accompaniment. The toe-tapping beat of the finger picking pattern, as well as a catchy melody, almost make you forget the serialism from five minutes earlier. The text of The Fiction Issue, written by Kahane, reflects a fragmented narrative that shifts cities and perspectives. This is exemplified by the sung passages alternating between Kahane and Worden. In Kahane’s text, one finds other remnants of his pop writing, where often symmetry and rhyme are subjugated to roles of lower importance. Through its six movements, The Fiction Issue is reflective of loss, love, and distant memories, though ending with the positive observation that, “We’ll be fine.”
The second song cycle, Come On All You Ghosts is a quintessentially Kahane piece. Both catchy and unexpected, Come On All You Ghosts grabs you by the hand and pulls you places you don’t imagine it will go, all while planting an earworm in your head. This is a feature of Kahane’s pop music too–catchy and unexpected–and it works just as well in this setting.
Aside from Kahane’s compositional skills, the performances on the album are stunning. Worden is a wonderfully talented vocalist with a truly unique and identifiable color to her voice. Kahane’s own performance is strong, his voice providing a pop vernacular in a chamber music context. Though often delegated to the role of accompaniment, Brooklyn Rider’s performance is also excellently executed. When given the chance to play on their own in Bradbury Studies, Brooklyn Rider’s skill certainly shines through.
Kahane’s release is one of the most unique albums I’ve heard in a while. Listening to The Fiction Issue, I feel as if I’ve known the pieces for ages, but had forgotten about them for quite some time. Nostalgia for music I’ve never heard is what draws me to The Fiction Issue; there’s just something about it music that captures your ear. The Fiction Issue is not a record to miss.