A year without the internet inspires Gabriel Kahane's new album 'Magnificient Bird'

gabriel kahane
Singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane's new album "Magnificent Bird" is out now. (Photo by Jason Quigley, courtesy of MKI Artists.)

Do you ever worry about being overly dependent on technology? Many people can’t imagine going one hour without checking devices, much less an entire year without the internet. But singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane did just that and created music after the experience. He’ll perform the album “Magnificent Bird” at the Ferst Center for the Arts, on the campus of Georgia Tech, on April 4. Kahane joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share his thoughts on life inside and outside the online metaverse and where his music fits into the broader conversation.

Interview highlights:

Kahane’s year without internet:

“I have to begin in 2016, when, a few weeks before the election in November, I decided that I was going to take a train trip, regardless of the outcome, the morning after the election … [I] boarded a train at Penn Station in New York that Wednesday morning and traveled just under 9,000 miles around the continental U.S., talking to strangers, primarily in dining cars of Amtrak trains; and I had decided at the last minute to leave my phone at home,” said Kahane.

“It was an extraordinary, transformative, humbling experience. It made me realize all sorts of assumptions that I held about the body politic, about myself, my prejudices, so on and so forth,” he said. Kahane later added, “There are so many reasons that I decided to take a year off the internet. But I guess if I were to really try to sum it up as succinctly as possible, I think that the internet is making it more difficult for us to love each other. I think that the deep deficit right now in this country is our ability to see ourselves in one another.”

Themes from an album created after a year of digital abstinence:

“October 2020, when I wrote all of these songs, was, of course, a time of roiling chaos in this country; not only the election but an overlapping series of natural disasters. Coming out of this incredible season of protest and awakening … I had been trying, I think, to do some version of the ‘great American novel’ in song, to try to distill or compress all of these experiences into some kind of single gesture, and it was really paralyzing,” recounted Kahane.

He continued, “In that final month, I made this decision to write a song every day as a way of giving myself permission to write about small things. And in the end, in writing about those small things, the world intruded on them. So there’s a song where I sing about making a cup of coffee, and yet I’m also contemplating the prospect of civil war, contemplating the prospect of another horrific fire season in Oregon. And I think the album as a whole shuttles between these very personal experiences of grief, shame, nostalgia, salvation and the world around me going totally crazy.”

Addressing the problems of art and giving in distorted digital spaces:

“This idea of sending students out on a walk for two hours without their phone grew out of a class that I taught last spring at Princeton called ‘Art and Change in the Panopticon’ … We had asked each of our eight students, some of whom had a focus in the arts and others of whom did not, to make some kind of art object or art experience for one other person. And one of the things we had in mind was to avoid the problem of trying to present work online digitally. The other thing that we were thinking about in that invitation was to free our students of thinking about scale and making art for a mass audience.”

“We had invited them a couple of times throughout the semester to go on two-hour walks, without their phones … and we wanted them to have an experience of their own agency without their devices,” said Kahane. “I thought it would be interesting too, to try to replicate this experience [at Georgia Tech], and in this instance, take those reflections from the students and create a song that will be performed only at Georgia Tech only on April 4th, one time only, as a particular kind of expression, I guess, of gift exchange.”

Gabriel Kahane will perform his album “Magnificent Bird” and his one-time-only song performance inspired by Georgia Tech students’ offline reflections at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts on April 4 at 8:00 PM. Tickets and more information are available here