Compared to some of the multiperformer, multiscreen, multimedia extravaganzas at this year’s PuSh Festival, Mixtape seems dauntingly simple. With just two men, a piano, and a microphone, it’s as intimate as music-making gets—and it’s also a throwback to an earlier time, one when the future titans of classical music would present new works and old favourites in front of an invited audience.
That’s as it should be, says pianist and composer Timo Andres, who joins composer and songwriter Gabriel Kahane in Mixtape’s mix of deathless lieder and their own very contemporary compositions. “This is maybe a return to the salon,” he explains, on the line from a Midwestern tour stop. “Especially when you go back to the 19th century, a lot of this music was not written to be heard in big concert halls, sung by huge voices.”
In terms of repertoire, Mixtape is a matter of choice: the two, who met four years ago, share an interest in making contemporary music accessible, and a deep appreciation for the intimacy of chamber music. But it’s also a matter of necessity: Kahane is a conservatory-trained composer but not an operatically trained singer. With Mixtape, he’s performing art songs by Robert Schumann, Charles Ives, and Benjamin Britten, as well as his own music, but in a marked violation of the classical-music code, he’ll use a microphone—not so much for volume, but so that all the nuances of his rather conversational vocal style can be heard.
“I don’t think either of us really see this as some kind of aesthetic positioning, or that big a deal,” Andres says. “Personally, I just think it sounds good. It sounds different, maybe, from how someone like Ives imagined his music when he was writing it, but I don’t think he would have had a problem with it.”
More pertinent to their programming, the 28-year-old composer argues, is that he and the 32-year-old Kahane are part of a generation that’s happy to listen to everything from folksongs to lieder, orchestral music to indie rock. “One thing a lot of us share is a kind of healthy skepticism or disregard for the thing we call genre,” he says. “For me, when I was at university, I made a very conscious choice to kind of take all music at face value and give everything an equal listening. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I’d realized that style was a separate thing from musical content, and I think that realization has certainly made me a happier person, and more open-minded, and a better musician.”
He laughs, and adds that in some ways Mixtape is just “a little variety show”. But if that’s true, it’s one curated by a pair of very able hosts.