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Composer Gabriel Kahane rides the rails and captures Trump's America in song




Gabriel Kahane's latest work,
Gabriel Kahane's latest work, "8980: Book of Travelers," was inspired by his encounters on a cross-continental train ride.
Josh Goleman
Gabriel Kahane's latest work,
Gabriel Kahane performs "8980: Book of Travelers," his new song cycle based on a cross-continental train ride.
Daniel Fish


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If your goal is to cross the United States in a hurry, Amtrak is not the ideal option — it takes about four days to cross the country by rail.

But if you’re looking to meet strangers from all walks of life, it’s a perfect choice. That's precisely  what Brooklyn-based composer Gabriel Kahane aimed to do, back in November, 2016. Just after the Presidential election, he left his cell phone and the daily news cycle behind and boarded a train.

Thirteen days, 31 states and dozens of dining-car meals later, Kahane returned to New York with a full diary and the inspiration to write a song cycle of character sketches and personal reflections.

The completed piece is called "8980: Book of Travelers" and he’ll perform its West Coast premiere on Jan. 20 at the Theater at Ace Hotel, accompanying himself on piano.  

John Horn spoke with Kahane earlier this week.  And they started by talking about the particulars of rail travel.

Gabriel Kahane performs
Gabriel Kahane performs "8980: Book of Travelers," his new song cycle based on a cross-continental train ride.
Courtesy of the artist

Interview Highlights:

On turning his train car interactions and reflections into songs:

I guess I had enough distance from the trip and enough distance from the initial shock of being in this new political paradigm. Wordsworth has this thing — he says, Poetry is the act of — and I'm paraphrasing badly— recalling tempestuous emotion in tranquility. I had kept a pretty detailed diary along the trip, so I had a lot of notes about all the people that I met. But there was a certain degree of trying to put myself back in that space in order to write these songs.

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On meeting a majority of passengers in the dining car: 

As a solo passenger, I was always the third or fourth wheel — sometimes to a couple, sometimes to three single people. It was extraordinary how forthcoming people were. I think one of the great revelations of the trip was having to interrogate my own sense of what diversity means as a progressive, and realizing that as a white dude from Brooklyn, it was much easier for me to go up to a person of color on the train than it was for someone who I read as being a rural, white, potential Trump voter. 

On finding common ground with the diverse group of passengers: 

As much as a Hallmark cliché as it seems, we do have more in common than we're led to believe. And that idealogical difference is something that's leveraged by people in power to consolidate power. If we were able to look at system more than symptom — the systems that are in place that lead to people being vulnerable to racial animus — and were able to look at the folks on high who are leveraging that difference to prevent solidarity, we might be in a slightly better place. So in a sense, this piece is very non-idealogical. It's a lot of people telling stories about family.

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On meeting the woman who inspired the song, "Monica":

I met a very wealthy black woman from Chicago, but she was on the train because her sons had basically forbidden her from driving to Mississippi overnight. She was going to a family funeral. And that complex identity of, on the one hand, great economic privilege. And yet, on the other hand, skin color preventing her from driving to this funeral. And she was pissed about it. She was like, I don't want to be on this train. I want to drive and yet here I am. The complexity of identity, that feels also like it can get hollowed out, are things that I wish we could slow down and think about a little more carefully.

Gabriel Kahane performs "8980: Book of Travelers" Jan. 20 at CAP UCLA at The Theatre at Ace Hotel. An album version is set for a 2018 release.



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