In and amongst the numerous works of art, in various mediums, in response to the election of Donald Trump, few have had anything profoundly positive to say about the future of American society. Perhaps this is because the state of things is too bleak for people to be able to see a way through, or perhaps it is because we’re all too preoccupied with determining what exactly went wrong, or who to hold responsible. One would not be blamed for worrying about the continued relevancy of a lot of these works. The hurt and anger combined with a contemporary requirement for immediate responses, means that a great deal of the music written in response to Trump and the current state of American society will not age well.
It seems far less likely that the latest release from Jewish American composer, Gabriel Kahane, will suffer from a lack of longevity. Book of Travellers is a song cycle for piano and voice written by Kahane, inspired by an 8980-mile train journey across America, that he took following the election of Donald Trump. Neither the journey or the album was an attempt to provide the country with a diagnosis, but instead examines the stories and realities of the people who travel across it, regardless of their political leanings.
The cycle begins with ‘November’, a prelude of sorts in which Kahane introduces the album’s concept through a series of arresting piano flourishes and ornate, cryptic lyricism. Immediately, the record’s aesthetic is hauntingly apparent. The low-fi quality to the recording gives the song cycle a raw, earnest feel often missing from classical albums – a genre often preoccupied with precision and audio fidelity. Whilst the recording feels intentionally unrefined, Kahane’s performance, and the music itself, does not. What has always separated Kahane from his song-writing peers is the intricacy of his compositions. His melodies have a natural folksiness, but his calculated, Schubertian piano writing, and his dense, unpredictable use of harmony, make the work significantly more challenging and interesting than projects by other piano-centric singer/songwriters.
Comparative to his previous major release, 2016’s The Fiction Issue and 2014’s The Ambassador, the stripped back instrumentation on Book of Travellers puts the themes, both lyrical and musical, in full focus. As a song cycle, it functions beautifully; it’s really satisfying to be able to pick out little motifs that occur across multiple songs, like the darker iteration of a distinctive, chordal piano motif at the end of ‘Friends of Friends of Bill’ that alludes to one of the main instrumental themes of ‘Little Love’. ‘8980’ deals with Kahane’s reckoning with the question:
“Is difference only distance from the people I don’t know?”
The song acts as an anxious juxtaposition to the retrospective optimism of ‘November’. Musically, the song is significantly less fragmented than its counterpart – perhaps a commentary on the comparative ease of being sceptical and pessimistic.
If I may be allowed, momentarily, to take this review in a more personal direction, Book of Travellers becomes especially resonant on ‘October 1st, 1939/Port of Hamburg’. Kahane takes a detour to reflect on his personal family history as it relates the state of American society and train travel. The piece describes the experience of his grandmother who escaped the Holocaust, fleeing from Germany to America following Kristallnacht. Being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors is something I share with Kahane, and his powerful depiction of the struggles of refugees and reminder that bad things happen when history is forgotten, struck me in a truly profound way.
don’t have a chance.
Drowning in the force-fed
Kahane doesn’t do the tacky thing of relating the piece directly to contemporary events, but its inclusion in the cycle is thematically relevant and adds real weight to the emotional journey he embarked upon, which ultimately resulted in this album’s conception.
Book of Travellers is reflective and thoughtful, but it doesn’t provide answers, only suggestions. By examining the stories of strangers, he unveils options – new ways in which we can look at society’s problems – but he doesn’t try to fix things or give advice. In a way, this song cycle feels like Kahane’s personal sounding board for everything that was on his mind in the aftermath of November 2016. Depending on how one approaches it, the record could either be frustrating – providing more questions instead of answers – or it could be a jumping off point that inspires us to undertake our own personal journeys, whether they be by train or purely emotional.