Gabriel Kahane: Tiny Desk Concert

Nov 28, 2011
Originally published on February 8, 2012 10:28 am

Gabriel Kahane seems to enjoy blurring the lines between indie rock and indie classical. He arrived at the NPR Music offices with a string quartet and an electric guitarist in tow, and though they hadn't played together for long, you'd never know it. That says something about these musicians (one of whom, the violist Caleb Burhans, is a terrific young composer), because Kahane's songs are rigorously crafted — some with the insight and wit of Schubert lieder, but telling decidedly more contemporary stories.

The tongue-in-cheek "Charming Disease," for example, is a bleak portrait of a struggling alcoholic ("You were on the floor when I got home / Scraped you up, cleaned you off, got you out the door") with a catchy hook. But with its see-sawing, minimalist piano chords, shifting harmonies and unexpected melodic curves, it feels right to call it a composition.

The classical music thing comes naturally to Kahane. His father, Jeffrey Kahane, is a celebrated concert pianist and music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Kahane, like his dad, plays piano, but also guitar — and he sings with a voice that's lithe and expressive. He writes chamber music, lighthearted pop songs and commissions for orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The music Kahane performs here is all from his recent album, Where Are the Arms, a suite of 11 smart songs that weave in, out and between pop, rock and classical, covering a broad range of emotions. The title track is a wistful plea, anchored by delicately repeating guitar arpeggios.

"Last Dance," which closes this Tiny Desk Concert, unreels in three little scenes, like a miniature opera. Kahane sings the recitative-like descriptions of his protagonist's daily routines, and then he pauses to launch a song within the song, a kind of pulsating pop fugue that ends in a satisfying cadence.

Set List

  • "Charming Disease"
  • "Where Are The Arms"
  • "Last Dance"


Michael Katzif, Cristina Fletes (cameras); edited by Michael Katzif; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Cristina Fletes/NPR

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The cello recently made an appearance here at NPR headquarters, along with two violins, a viola and, well, an electric guitar - all members of the backup band for New York-based composer Gabriel Kahane.


GABRIEL KAHANE: Oh goodness.

CORNISH: That's the sound of a music stand tipping over as a violinist wedges behind Kahane.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Our Tiny Desk concert with Gabriel Kahane is about to begin, so please head on over to the skinny end of the fifth floor. Thank you.

CORNISH: Gabriel Kahane was here for NPR Music's Tiny Desk Concert series. As they were setting up, they found out firsthand out the popup concert series earned its nickname.

KAHANE: I don't understand how you guys got an 11-piece band in here but we can't fit a string quartet.

CORNISH: Kahane's latest CD is called "Where Are the Arms," and he kicked off the show with his opening song, "Charming Disease."


KAHANE: (Singing) You were on the floor when I got home. Scraped you up, cleaned you off, got you out the door. I drove you to the basement on your knees. You were sneaking out little lies, in the morning at the market for a good time...

CORNISH: NPR's classical music guru Tom Huizenga had arranged the Tiny Desk concert. He introduced Gabriel Kahane to the audience, explaining that Kahane was helping to raise the boundaries between so-called indie classical and indie rock. But afterwards, when we spoke with Kahane from our New York bureau, he wasn't so quick to embrace that label.

KAHANE: With all due respect to Tom, I have been bristling at the use of that term since it came into usage, I don't know, maybe a year or two ago. I'm not really sure what it means, and I sort of frankly think of "Where Are the Arms" - my new album - as really being pop music that happens to draw on some traditionally classical elements. Yes, there are string quartets and there are brass instruments. But the architecture of the songs is pretty old school pop music, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, there are weird time signatures and maybe some odd harmonies but the DNA of that music to me is the pop song DNA.


KAHANE: (Singing) So, come on, boy. Hasn't it been long enough? When all you ever thinking of, is where are the arms that armed your love?

CORNISH: Now, of course, you come from a musical family. Your father is Jeffrey Kahane, the classical pianist and musical director of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. But I read that you did not get formal training from your father and that you quit piano at age 11. You quit your piano lessons. How did you manage that with that dad?

KAHANE: Well, my parents actually - and I adore my mother, and she would probably, she would agree with me - she played bad cop and my dad was good cop growing up vis-a-vis practicing. My dad really wanted to stay out of it and let me come to music on my own. And he was on the road quite a bit, and so at a certain point my mother just had to give up trying to pressure the incredibly stubborn and strong-willed 11-year-old me into practicing. And it really wasn't until my late teens when I came back to music on my own - first, through an interest in playing jazz at the piano - that my father, you know, expressed his joy at my coming to music. But it was...

CORNISH: When he felt it was safe maybe.

KAHANE: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: He didn't want to drive you away.

KAHANE: And in fact later on when I finally started classical piano studies in earnest in college, I would call up my dad and I would say, well, how should I finger this passage in this Mozart concerto or how should I practice my scales? And he was totally delighted to advise me, and I think that at that point he no longer felt like he was exerting some sort of, you know, paternal pressure since I had come to it on my own.


KAHANE: (Singing) In some hot one-gas-station town, please let me forget you. Please, please, please.

CORNISH: Gabriel Kahane, you've been very vocal in the conversation about the downloading of music, and especially with the, you know, introduction of the musical service Spotify, and that leads you to online music streaming, where people can listen to, it seems like, for free, but there's advertisements in the software. But the thing that I notice in a blog posting you did about this is you said this contributes to the demise of curation. What did you mean by that?

KAHANE: Well, until Spotify, even in the era of illegal downloading, people were still curating a musical collection, which continued a tradition that goes back to vinyl. And certainly when I was growing up, there was this ritual where we would go to the record store and spend, you know, 30 bucks on two new CDs and add them to our collection. And the scarcity of our financial resources as college students contributed to the feeling that maybe even in a superficial way we liked to identify ourselves with our record collections. The thing about Spotify that does irk me, it has to do with the way that I think it encourages maybe inattentive listening. You know, I think I'm as guilty of this new kind of listening as the next person is. You know, even if you're buying music legally on iTunes, chances are the ease with which you're buying it means that you're not going to listen to everything that you purchase. And I certainly have albums and albums that I probably downloaded drunkenly at three in the morning and I don't even know what they all are. So, I guess what I perceive - and this may sound super hoity-toity - but I perceive this kind of decline in the spiritual value of music where there is so much of it at our fingertips that we don't really listen to any of it with any kind of real attention and we don't take the record home that maybe on first listen didn't really catch our ear but since we bought it, maybe we should listen to it a second time and then a third time, and then all of the sudden we find that there's something of value there.

CORNISH: Do you think in part this way because your music is music that needs that second and third listen to a pop audience?

KAHANE: Yeah. I mean, I would probably be lying if I didn't say that had something to do with it. I mean, I'm interested in writing music that is not challenging for the sake of being challenging but because I want to express things that, you know, that didn't come to me instantaneously. And I hope that I'm making music that pays dividends on multiple listens. Oh, here comes the text message that Spotify has kicked me off of their service.

CORNISH: Singer and composer Gabriel Kahane. His new album is called "Where Are the Arms." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAHANE: It's been a total pleasure. Thank you.


CORNISH: You can see a video of Gabriel Kahane's Tiny Desk concert at our website, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.