On the morning following the Presidential election in November, 2016, Gabriel Kahane elected to board a train and to travel the United States, talking with those he met. He traveled for thirteen days and covered, he says, 8980 miles, conversing in dining cars, in observation cars, on station platforms, and returning with the material for the songs that make up 8980: Book of Travelers. A recording is rumored to be coming some time this year. The performance version premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival in November, 2017. On February 2, it will be presented at the University of Michigan. Last night, on the anniversary of the Inauguration that followed from the election that birthed it, Book of Travelers came to Los Angeles and the Theatre at Ace Hotel.
8980: Book of Travelers is, like The Ambassador before it, a collection of songs on a theme. It is a contemporary cousin to the mid 1970s work of Randy Newman (Sail Away, Good Old Boys, and Little Criminals) and of Joni Mitchell. It is a sort of counter-Hejira: where Joni Mitchell emphasizes travel as a means of escape, an active effort to become lost, Gabriel Kahane approaches it as a mode of inquiry, an effort to find something or other (cf. Paul Simon's "America"). In that, Book of Travelers connects with the tradition of writers taking to the road to find where it might lead, or what questions it might answer, as in Steinbeck's Travels With Charley or, in an entirely different vein, the latter portions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Kahane's chosen musical style dials back somewhat the American Songbook grab-bag of Newman (and of The Ambassador) and in favor of accenting the stratum of art song that grounded his short-story-esque song cycle The Fiction Issue.
The musical forces and staging for 8980:Book of Travelers are less elaborate than for The Ambassador: just a grand piano and an angled ribbon of four projection screens behind. An autoharp was discretely embedded inside the piano, and used with similar discretion. Looping pedals and a vocal processor were used for a brief segment that evoked simultaneously Laurie Anderson and the helium-voiced sociopathic toon in Roger Rabbit. For the most part, Kahane simply sat, played and sang, with occasional brief remarks on the particular travelers from whom a song was born.
I, for one, loved it:
Thank you, @gabrielkahane, for "8980: Book of Travelers". So embracing, so humane, so sad and lovely and funny, and so gosh darned American. 13/10. Will be losing myself in the recorded version when it comes.— George Wallace (@foolintheforest) January 21, 2018
Whether questions were answered or not on the singer's journey is uncertain. It is clear that, for Gabriel Kahane, the trip reaffirmed that the blending and exchange of human voices, whether in conversation or in song, is something of a good in itself, and that each of those voices is uniquely derived from a long and personal history. Where are we, as a nation? How did we get here? What can we or should we do, now that we are here? Book of Travelers does not presume to answer that sort of question, other than to suggest that it is through that exchange of voices, and in the understanding of one another's individual and overlayering histories, that any route to a method for the pursuit of an approach to such answers may be descried.
Because the Book of Travelers songs have, for the most part, not yet been released in a recorded version, most of us in the room were hearing them for the first time last night. Gabriel Kahane writes very well for his own voice, so that most of his words could be grasped on the fly. Still, there is no doubt that repeated listening will yield increasing returns. There is every reason to think that this Fool will be unable to resist writing about it again, if only by an amendment to this post, whenever a recording eventually enters the station.
In the meantime, two of these songs were sent out into the world in the latter part of 2017: "Little Love" and "November." "November" literally picks up where the concluding song on The Ambassador, "Union Station", left off, referencing "that last train from L.A." It begins in direct address to the listener with the words, "When last we spoke...", pointing toward the one-to-one conversations that are at the center of Book of Travelers. I had surmised, from this circumstantial evidence, that "November" would be the first song in the Book. I surmised incorrectly: it proved in performance to be the last song in the series. "Little Love" is a delicious little earworm of a song, performed straightforward as you please in concert without any projections or dramatic lighting, on the theme of growing fondly old together. I have previously expressed my particular fondness for "Little Love" on Twitter:
You can have your Lennon-McCartney.— George Wallace (@foolintheforest) December 19, 2017
You can have (and keep, far from me, thanks) your Ed Sheeran.
You can even have Robert Browning in his romantic might.
This, friends, is my "let's we two grow old[er] together" song of choice.https://t.co/4LeQdNaqcM
Both "Little Love" and "November" are currently accessible here: