Grab some PoMo Ears: Listening to Kahane at Carnegie

Gabriel kahane

Recently, the Awl published an interesting article about one of the challenges concomitant with the crossover success of artists such as Gabriel Kahane: what happens when fans of your more pop-infused material try to listen to your concert music? In a sort of Socratic dialogue, one such listener, Jaime Green, questions an anonymous “classical music expert” about challenges posed by the sounds, milieu, and investment of time, money, and attention required of listeners by the concert music experience.

These are questions asked by a lot of listeners, and not just new ones either. But I get uncomfortable when one work or composer on a single concert is supposed to stand in for the contemporary concert listening experience. Most listeners have pieces of music they prefer over others: if you happen to be at a concert that contains a work that you don’t particularly like, one would hope that it wouldn’t cause you to foreswear  concert-going altogether.

Another bugbear that rears its head in the article: the words “consonance” and “dissonance:” Nearly all music, except those genres which studiously avoid them, contains moments of tension and repose. But so often, that’s not what dissonance and consonance entirely mean when used as descriptors by the untrained listener. Frequently employed both in the reportage of audience members and, alas, much music criticism, these terms are seldom applied in anything but a very general way as placeholders for “pleasant” and “not so pleasant.”

Thus, the dissonance described by Green in the Awl article isn’t necessarily about using more “angst-filled” harmony. Green gets why that is there in pieces she has already heard: early Schoenberg and Stravinsky. So, there may be a component of harmonic dissonance that Green struggles with in Kahane’s concert piece, yes. But perhaps there is a bigger problem: one of context. That dissonance doesn’t make sense when it bumps up against the pop songs, albeit sophisticated pop songs, that were her introduction to Kahane’s music. Moments of Kahane’s concert music evoke the pop flavor of his songwriting, but then the music goes a different direction, gets more “dissonant.” There are issues of narrative – thus disjuncture rather than harmonic dissonance – that pose perhaps even greater listening challenges than some crunchy chords.

Maybe, for Green, dissonance works better in Verklarkte Nacht and Sacre du Printemps because it is cohesively integrated into the piece: a modernist approach. Listening with “Stravinsky ears” or expectations, never mind “Mozart ears” or expectations or “Kahane as pop musician” ears or expectations, poses challenges when confronting 21st century concert music, even when that music is of the crossover variety. By juxtaposing “consonant” and “dissonant” sections in postmodern fashion, Kahane might be (and, I suspect, is) trying for something different from Verklarkte Nacht altogether.

Expecting to “get” postmodern amalgams like those found in the concert works of composers like Kahane, especially on the first pass, is a heavy goal to set for oneself. I hope that Green gives it time and keeps listening. She’s asking a lot of good questions and I bet she, and other listeners, need more time than they think to get acclimated to contemporary concert music, with its different set of sound worlds and often different approaches to musical narrative. But it is worth it: there are many ways that contemporary concert music can complement and enrich the other styles with which one is already acquainted. Those things that seem dissonant and discontinuous now may make much more sense after a few more trips to Carnegie Hall (or any classical venue) and a fair bit of scrobbling or Spotify sleuthing. If Green, or other readers for that matter, would like playlist suggestions, I’m happy to supply them. I won’t even stipulate anonymity.


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