Review: Gabriel Kahane Finds Inspiration in Strangers on a Train


Gabriel Kahane sings about the travelers he met on an Amtrak train trip in “8980: Book of Travelers.”

Mike Benigno

The day after Donald Trump was elected, the songwriter Gabriel Kahane decided to go on a listening tour: crisscrossing America by train and talking to as many people as he could. Leaving his cellphone and the internet behind, he spent two weeks and nearly 9,000 miles on Amtrak, collecting conversations and stories for what would become “8980: Book of Travelers,” a song cycle and solo concert — Mr. Kahane accompanying himself on piano — that had its premiere on Thursday night at the BAM Harvey Theater, where it continues through Saturday. A video backdrop, designed by Jim Findlay, showed landscapes, urban and rural, seen from trains in motion.

Mr. Kahane has built a career where classical music, musical theater and art-song pop meet, alongside occasional collaborators like Sufjan Stevens, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Andrew Bird. He’s fond of narratives rooted in geography; his 2014 album (and a Brooklyn Academy of Music theatrical production), “The Ambassador,” based songs on Los Angeles locations, and he toured in 2013 with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing “Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States,” based on WPA guidebooks.

Mr. Kahane’s songs in “8980: Book of Travelers” are character studies of characters including himself. He has an ingratiating tenor that rises smoothly into falsetto, and for these songs he kept his piano parts subdued and transparent, with hints of Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Stephen Sondheim in their harmonies. The songs drift between stand-alone pop tunes and music-theater exposition. One asks, “Is difference only distance from the people I don’t know?”

It’s a question the concert answers ambivalently and obliquely. Mr. Kahane’s songs sympathetically recount stories people told him about their lives, but also face grim historical memories.

He finds comedy in a widow’s online dating stories and quiet grief in other passengers’ tales of loss. And he receives unexpected acceptance from members of an Amish-like traditionalist sect, the Old Order German Baptist Brethren, when he offers to sing with them since he can read the music in their hymnbooks. Hymns about “traveling on” to a “heavenly home” are threaded through the cycle: sometimes accompanied by harplike strumming inside the piano, sometimes reharmonized with more unstable, modernist chords.

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