Inspired By Amtrak Trip, Musician Aims For Cultural Healing In MASS MoCA Performance

Oct 20, 2017

Gabriel Kahane is a composer who thrives on big concepts.

His last album, “The Ambassador,” is a sort of history of Los Angeles, told through ten of its buildings.

Kahane's newest work is based on the nearly 9,000-mile train trip he took around the country last November, starting the day after Donald Trump was elected president.

Gabriel Kahane
Credit Courtesy of the artist

There’s been a flood of think-pieces since the election, grappling with today’s divisive cultural and political climate. It seems the Trump era so far has reminded us more about what we disagree on than what brings us together. So Is there a path toward some renewed sense of unity? 

“Not to be Pollyana-ish, but I feel like we can do major, major cultural healing in the dining car of Amtrak trains,” Kahane said.

That was the idea last year when he got on board at Penn Station about an hour after Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech. He spent the next two weeks crisscrossing the country.

“I went New York, to Chicago, to Portland, to Los Angeles, to Chicago, to New Orleans, back to New York,” he said.

Along the way, Kahane had conversations with about 80 people on the train, mostly over meals in the dining car.

Some of his new companions were as dismayed by the election as he was, and others were excited about trying to “make America great again.”

He took notes along the way -- and afterwards, he wrote some songs.

Credit Gabriel Kahane / Courtesy of the artist

Kahane has been in North Adams, Massachusetts, the past two weeks working on the material. He’ll perform it at MASS MoCA on Friday before its official world premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music next month.

He planned his train tour before the election — when he, like many others, assumed Clinton was going to win the presidency.

“And of course, the election went the other way, which I think really deepened the trip for me,” he said. “It went from being what I think might have been a kind of patronizing empathy tour about, oh, who are these people who supported this guy and instead it became much more soul-searching and personally vulnerable because I was in total shock.”

That shock inspired a spontaneous decision.

“[I decided] not to bring my phone, not to have any internet connected device,” he said. “I didn’t read a newspaper. I didn’t watch television. I just talked to people on the train for two weeks. I found it incredibly healing and incredibly edifying.”

Credit Gabriel Kahane / Courtesy of the artist

The vulnerability he felt on the trip is on display in the songs, which he performs alone on piano. Some are inspired directly by his conversations with fellow passengers. Others drift into daydreams about the country cued by the passing scenery. Kahane aimed to consider not just the confused state of America today but to step back and ask how we got here.

And, what’s the best way out?

Train travel may not have the romantic hold on the American imagination it once did. But Kahane found that it’s still possible to turn your accidental table-mates into fellow travelers. And in a divided country, maybe that’s a pretty good place to start.