Music Off the Record: Gabriel Kahane’s Crane Palimpsest

Music Off the Record: Gabriel Kahane’s Crane Palimpsest


Hi this Dr. Owen at Pierce College here with another Music Off the Record video. There’s another you can watch where we talk about Gabriel Kahane. In this one we’ll talk about the Crane Palimpsest. That’s the piece that we’ll be listening to on our Northwest Sinfonietta concert. So the Crane Palimpsest was composed in 2012. Premiered in New York city as you can see with the American Composers Orchestra. Now this orchestra is an interesting ensemble. They were founded a good 40 years ago. They’re dedicated to the creation, performance and preservation and promulgation of music by American composers. You can look up their website, they have a wonderful long list of composers that have been performed by them, of course including those that are more familiar like Aaron Copeland, Samuel Barber and many other young and promising composers and everything in between. So, first question is what is a palimpsest? That word that’s in our title. So the definition of that is a manuscript or a piece of writing material where the writings been scraped off, rubbed off to make room to write more. Think of it as maybe a medieval way of recycling. This was from back when paper was not so easy to come by and so it could be or it was attempted to be reused. It can also mean then the implications are today something that has maybe multiple layers or things kind of beneath the surface, maybe slightly apparent. I have a couple of images here for you to look of examples of palimpsests. You see the one with the old ones aren’t that well erased and the new ones kind of printed larger over the top of them. Not just with text, the other example on there you see the artwork and you can kind of tell that there was writing there. You can see the lines of faint text behind the artwork that this was done on top of. The other part of the title of course is Crane. Who is Crane if this is the Crane Palimpsest? Well it refers to a poet by the name of Hart Crane, who was considered an important American poet. He was in the early 20th century which was very much a modernist era. A lot of experimental things in literature just like there was in music and the arts. But he was very much considered a romantic during that time. He was called or compared to a Byron or Shelley as you know, romantic poets. According to American Poetry Foundation, in his most ambitious work, “The Bridge”, he sought nothing less then an expression of the American experience in its entirety. So you have an image there of Hart Crane with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, and it’s actually that poetry or exert from it that are used in this piece, Crane Palimpsest. Our composer, Gabriel Kahane, says that “Crane Palimpsest is a love letter to New York, in the form of a medititation on the Brooklyn Bridge.” So he takes stanzas of Crane’s poetry, “To Brooklyn Bridge” and he alternates those with his own lyrics and he talks about his own lyrics being abstractly responding to Brooklyn Bridge; to the bridge itself, to the neighborhoods around the bridge and even to Crane’s poetry about the bridge. So bridging the gap, and if you watch the video about Gabriel Kahane that we have on Music Off the Record, he’s interested in this gap between what we think of as art music or classical music and more popular styles of music, folk music those sort of things, and the kind of bridging that gap between musical languages. So how can we do that? What is that bridge? So the questions, you know, can we have these things fit together? We have on one side this dense contemporary that has evolved over time or changed over time, that fine arts composers do, and then what he talks about is the more open diatonic vernacular language of folk and popular song. So his struggle, and I think it’s a wonderful picture you see on the slide of him performing. You have Eric Jacobson, the same composer that’ll be with the sinfonietta on this upcoming concert with the orchestra in the background and yet him there with this guitar and the kind of juxed position of those images that represents those different styles. Can these languages coexist? Gabriel Kahane talks about the kernels of pop song used as cells to create a much more sophisticated and complicated music. Trying to take pieces of one sound world into another I guess you could say, to try to bridge that gap. For this piece, the Crane Palimpsest, he talks about the Bridge concept a lot. You can find him talking about this on YouTube as well. Feel free to. Wonderful thing to listen to him, he talks about there being one musical side on each…one musical language on each side of the bridge in this piece represented, and they meet somewhere in the middle. So when we listen for this, it begins with text by Hart Crane and after a little introduction that uses more of the ensemble when actually the singing begins with the Crane text, there’s only strings in the accompaniment. And then it alternates with lyrics by Gabriel Kahane himself, and those use the full ensemble including guitar, including the winds and the orchestra as well, and then as the piece progresses at some point the roles reverse and we get the Crane text with the full ensemble including the popular instruments and things like that. The switch happens when the Kahane texts start to get more dense and dissonant. In other words, the music that was set to more of that openly diatonic vernacular as he calls it, the more popular style, it gets more and more dense and even dissonant and the Hart Crane becomes more and more open and diatonic. So, where do it happen? If you’re listening for it the text “O harp and alter”. Now he breaks up the texts into 5 sets of Crane poetry alternating with his own poetry, and it’s the 4th of 5. So its somewhere in the middle but the lengths aren’t of course set so its a little ways in then you’ll hear that switch start to happen. So let’s listen to a little bit of it. It opens the orchestra with very much 20th century sounding complicated music. Listen for that, and then as the Crane text comes in you’ll hear the winds drop out and it’ll only be strings and this is the text you can see on here. “How many dawns, chill from rippling rest,” and the rest of that. And listen for the voice enters with that text, the change in texture, here it is… So you hear…you heard the full orchestra including brass and percussion and things in that opening introduction that very much could’ve been by somebody that we think of only as a fine art composer in that same kind of complex and interwoven difficult sort of music. The Crane text comes in, the voice, it’s Gabriel Kahane singing himself. You hear the range is different, the rhythm is a little bit ambiguous, a lot of those things that are kind of associated with 20th century classical music. So lets listen now to what happens when the Kahane text comes in. You’ll hear it, it’s introduced…the guitar comes in and there’s an immediate shift to a different style as this text begins the “How many dawns have I woken clutching my head, filled with this dread?” You’ll hear more rhythm going on and a simpler style in general. Lets continue to see if we can hear that. So you hear the big shift in styles; The rhythm come in, the guitar. But there’s also strings and winds moving through that all in that different style. And so those go back and forth and again listen for how he starts to combine those and how the texts switch places with the music and his hope bridges a little bit of that gap between our audiences of different styles of music hoping I think to get a little bit of understanding and bringing something together that can create something more. So we hope you enjoyed Crane Palimpsest.

1 thought on “Music Off the Record: Gabriel Kahane’s Crane Palimpsest

  1. Just sat through this earlier this afternoon. Thank Odin They performed Mozarts Requiem shortly after or I may have killed myself. Pretentious mental masturbation, nothing more.

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