Book of Travelers Program Notes

by Andrew Adler

If music is supposed to be transportive, taking a listener from Point A to Point B presumably with some kind of defining inspiration along the journey, then this program by the Louisville Orchestra might be just the thing to simulate a listener’s restless soul.

Here the obvious connection has to do with trains. To begin with, we have Arthur Honegger’sPacific 231,” surely classical music’s most celebrated evocation of a locomotive barreling down the tracks. Then comes a completely different kind of score: Gabriel Kahane’s “Pattern of the Rail: Six Orchestral Songs from ‘Book of Travelers,’” inspired by an extended train trip the composer took just after the 2016 presidential election. This is not so much in evocation as a rumination about what it means to be an American in the wake of one of the most contentious political spasms in recent memory.

More about that in a bit. But first let’s look at Honegger’s piece, an approximately seven-minute, dazzlingly orchestrated riff on a beast of iron and steam. The composer was an unabashed train buff, who if he’d lived in the latter half of the 20th century might have eagerly monitored radio communications between conductors and engineers, delighting in the hustle and bustle of nearby rail yards. “I’ve always loved locomotives passionately,” he acknowledged in an oft-quoted confession. “For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.”

Honneger, a Swiss who was born in the last decade of the 19th century and lived until the middle of the 20th, was among the composers of the time who gained the collective moniker of “Les Six.” Besides Honegger, the group comprised Georges Auric, Louis Durey, and Germaine Tailleferre (largely unknown to most audiences) – plus Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc, who along with Honegger achieved the success that largely eluded the previous three.

Honegger could conceive on a large expressive plane when he wanted to – witness his choral epic “Le Roi David,” which took as a subject nothing less than the Old Testament saga of King David. At the opposite extreme were such works as “Pacific 231,” which though they may lack evident scale and expressive depth, possess the telling practical advantage of brevity.

Honegger wrote “Pacific 231” in 1923, when he was barely past 30. The title is no accident: it refers to a specific kind of locomotive with a particular layout of wheels. He first called it “Mouvement Symphonique,” a title that pretty much describes what he was getting at (and which was followed by two other scores cast in the same concise manner).

Listening to “Pacific 231,” there is no doubt about what Honegger was both depicting and honoring. Through a particularly rich palette of woodwinds and brass – including no fewer than four French horns, three trumpets and three trombones (not to mention a quartet of percussionists) – there is a heady sense of gathering momentum and raucous fun. Yet apart from the literal evocation, Honegger seems after something rather more spiritual. He described this as “a very abstract” notion, one that suggested “the feeling of a mathematical acceleration…a kind of great varied chorale.” Indeed, once he has worked through his majestic clusters of fortissimo dissonance, Honegger closes the work with an emphatic, two-bar chord of unison consonance. The train, at last, has reached its destination

Gabriel Kahane: Pattern of the Rail: Six Orchestral Songs from “Book of Travelers”

 “The morning after the 2016 presidential election, I packed a suitcase and boarded Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited bound for Chicago. Over the next thirteen days, I talked to dozens of strangers whom I met, primarily, in dining cars aboard the six trains that would carry me some 8,980 miles around the country. The songs on this album are intended as a kind of loose diary of that journey, and as a portrait of America at a time of profound national turbulence.”

So wrote Gabriel Kahane as an introduction to “Book of Travelers,” a 10-part conversation-consideration amid an abruptly altered America. The hook here is that Kahane is not only a composer steeped in classical norms, but a keen interpreter of his own music, stepping confidently among genres and styles.

“Gabriel Kahane, a Brooklynite singer-composer who sways between pop and classical worlds, has taken the concept of the concept album to rarefied heights” critic Alex Ross wrote as part of a January 2019 column in The New Yorker. “For his recording ‘The Ambassador,’ released in 2014, he created a suite of songs inspired by various buildings in Los Angeles, the title track paying tribute to the venerable hotel where Robert F. Kennedy was shot.”

Kahane’s subsequent creation is similarly, decidedly eclectic. Scored originally for voice and piano, the work was later adapted for piano, voice and orchestra as “Pattern of the Rail: Six Orchestral Songs from ‘Book of Travelers.’” This orchestral treatment is divided into three sections of two songs apiece: Baedeker (Model Trains), Baltimore (Friends of Friends of Bill), and What If I Told You (October 1, 1939/Port of Hamburg).

Reviewing the Nonesuch recording of the original, piano version, Ross remarked that is one of the finest, most searching songwriters of the day. “Heady as Kahane’s work can be, it is, first and foremost, an exercise in lyric beauty. He sings in a warm, resonant, melancholic baritone, which coasts upward into a plaintive falsetto. He plays the piano with a poetic touch—his father is the distinguished pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane—and his music is suffused with idiosyncratic, enriched tonal harmony. You can hear various influences that inform his style, from Schumann and Debussy to Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. For the most part, though, he is in possession of his own musical language. At the age of thirty-seven, he is one of the finest, most searching songwriters of the day.”

November,” the song that launches the complete “Book of Travelers,” boasts this nugget of intent:

And I want to tell you/About November,/The people that I met,
 And sleeping badly/On Pullman pallets,/Blue blanket caked in sweat.
 Cardiogram power lines,/Heart of the department of the interior./Glow-in-the-dark Casio,/Breathing fast.
 When last we spoke/I sang of end times/Of cities washed away,
 The bloodless halls,/A flooded station,/Could a train be an escape?

“The quest to empathize with people of different backgrounds could have devolved into a gimmick—the musical equivalent of those by-the-numbers news stories in which big-city reporters visit small towns in search of the ‘real America,’” Ross observed. “Kahane is too canny and self-aware to fall into that trap.”

There’s no shortage of sly, winking references amid “Pattern of the Rail.” When Kahane sings about “Friends of Friends of Bill,” he’s not referring to Bill Clinton, but to Bill Wilson, who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous. And in what may be the most personal of these six songs, “October 1, 1939/Port of Hamburg,” we find Kahane pouring over recollections from his grandmother, who escaped Nazi Germany on “a steamship from Hamburg to Havana/six months on an island/then New Orleans/then a train to Los Angeles/where she keeps a diary…”

Kahane’s own biography is no less structurally surprising. His press material includes 10 salient points, expressed in puckish, self-effacing morsels. Take Fact One: “Despite his Eastern Euro-Prussian Jewish roots, Gabriel is a devoted Italophile, saucing pasta with obsessive precision (emulsify, emulsify, emulsify!) and spending many a Sunday in the aisles of D. Coluccio & Sons in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where he can often be found ogling sleek packages of bespoke bucatini.”

Ultimately, however, his aesthetic imperative can be distilled by reading Fact Four:

“Questions about genre and categorization seem to crop up like kudzu around discussions of Kahane’s work, which, he admits, draws readily and promiscuously from Romanticism, Modernism, Dadaism, folk traditions, architecture, poetry, experimental fiction, journalistic practice, political activism, and Italian cuisine. But the truth is that he finds these questions somewhat dull, and would prefer that the listener attend to the musical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual content, rather than getting hung up on what to call something.


Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”)

Among the most characteristic of Romantic-era composers, Robert Schumann possessed a deep connection to the natural world. His Symphony No. 3 bears the popular subtitle “Rhenish,” referring to the Rhine river of Germany, and multiple commentators have drawn a link between this work and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the so-called “Pastoral.”

If nothing else, such comparisons testify to the reality that few composers create in a vacuum, seldom ignorant of who and what preceded them. At the time he wrote the “Rhenish” (1851), Schumann would have been aware not only of Beethoven’s example, but of works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and perhaps the most extreme example, Berlioz. The five movements of the “Rhenish” Symphony harken back, in a sense, to the five movements of the Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” And while not programmatic on the order of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” (written an astonishing two decades earlier), a listener gets the definite impression that Schumann, thematically, is seeking to evoke something extra-musical.

Schumann was not a conspicuously gifted symphonist. He was far more persuasive, both expressively and technically, writing for solo piano and chamber ensemble. His symphonies have been faulted for their imperfect instrumentation, and any number of conductors (Leonard Bernstein, for instance) have sought to “improve” the composer’s original scorings, particularly in the winds. It’s an open question as to whether these tinkerings argue in favor of Schumann or against him. Happily, works like the “Rhenish” are successful enough to make the case that they deserve to be heard — imperfectly perfect as they may be.