Gabriel Kahane set off on a cross-country train journey on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote for President of the United States. He’d been planning the trip for some time previous, seeking inspiration for a follow-up project to his 2016 collaboration with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet The Fiction Issue. Leaving his cell phone and other electronically connected devices behind, the travelogue turned into something very different from his initial intentions, as everyone he met along the way was in some way affected by the election, infected by the lingering, poisonous anxieties it both produced and revealed. The resultant work was first presented as 8980: Book of Travelers at the 2017 Brooklyn BAM Fest. Now, Nonesuch presents a condensed, studio-recorded version of the work, Book of Travelers.
Kahane traveled 8,980 miles on connecting trains, engaging in conversations with countless strangers in dining cars, passengers of every stripe compassing the breadth of the American social and political spectrum. Those conversations serve as the inspiration for the ten songs collected on Book of Travelers, some presenting composites, others focusing upon a particularly memorable individual and conversation.
The train has served as both myth and metaphor since its first tracks were laid in the British coal mining regions at the start of the 19th century. Wordsworth heard in its thrashing roar the birth of a new machine age and, like Thoreau in America, shuddered at the rape of the landscape. Whitman, conversely, saw the locomotive’s penetration into the American West as sensual, its phallic power a source of praise. By the early 20th century, the locomotive was symbolic of progress and transportability, opening new vistas and opportunities to common people. Johnny Cash heard in that mechanized heartbeat the promise of a better life and the backbeat of a new musical form. But Steve Reich reminded us, in his masterwork Different Trains, that this great invention, like any powerful technology, can, in the wrong hands, be harnessed as an efficient tool of evil.
It is impossible to listen to Kahane’s Book of Travelers without referencing Reich’s Different Trains, and not simply because both use the train as an organizing principle. Both, as well, present other, found or encountered voices to present their narratives. Reich’s collection of tape loops serve to create a singular narrative of catastrophe, reminding us of the efficient and mechanized slaughter of millions. Kahane’s collection of observations is less cohesive though effective in creating a pastiche sense of the country’s mood in the aftermath of an election that many saw as catastrophic.
In contrast to the expansiveness that Brooklyn Rider brought to The Fiction Issue, Kahane presents these songs in their sparsest form, with just his voice and piano accompaniment, and it is his voice that moves these songs forward more often than the piano, which provides nuance and texture to the stories he tells. “8980” references the miles Kahane traveled and the purpose of his journey with its chorus of “I just want to talk to you”. “What If I Told You” offers one of the collection’s most singular narratives, telling the story of an African American woman, the great-granddaughter of a Mississippi slave, returning to that state for a family funeral and taking the train at the advice of her sons because, despite her life’s successes and self-efficacy, they all agree that her driving alone would be too dangerous “‘Cause they don’t need a hood or a cross or a tree.”
Kahane echoes Reich’s previous work with “October 1, 1939 / Port of Hamburg”, a song that tells the story of its narrator’s grandmother’s journey by train out of Germany. She reads her grandmother’s diary on “a different train” and tells of how her great-grandfather and others did not make it out alive because they “Couldn’t quite believe / What ought to’ve been plain to see / ‘Til the broken glass was at their feet.” It’s a stunning piece and an apt warning against refusing to learn from history.
Book of Travelers offers intriguing glimmers into the psyche of America in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. An engaging, sometimes stunning collection of songs, in the end, it serves as a worrisome prologue to what is still unfolding.