Preoccupied with Place, Musician Gabriel Kahane Plays the City

Whether in Billie Holiday’s version of “Autumn in New York” or Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx,” music inspired by or rooted in place can bring us back to a familiar setting or create visions of somewhere we’ve never been. These songs, along with film, literature, and other arts, feed our shared imagining of the city. They can also take us further, examining histories and emotional landscapes made more visceral through sound.

Gabriel Kahane — a critically-acclaimed composer and singer-songwriter equally at home writing and performing for orchestras, pop concerts, or staged musicals — is particularly preoccupied with place as a setting, subject, and device in music. His most recent album, The Ambassador, uses ten songs, each tied to a street address or building, to explore Los Angeles’ representation and reality. That came on the heels of a long list of commissions, among them orchestral and voice works that used the the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide Series to chart a sonic tour through the contiguous US and took Hart Crane’s long-form ode to the Brooklyn Bridge as the structure for bridging classical and pop music. Here, we talk with Kahane about architecture as a lens through which to examine different cities, the nuances of evoking places through sound, and why he’s so drawn to storytelling.

– J.T. 

Gabriel Kahane performs in The Ambassador at Carolina Performing Arts | Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kahane

Jonathan Tarleton: Your music is often characterized as genre-defying. How would you describe it?
Gabriel Kahane: I try to avoid describing what I do. Getting hung up on descriptors and categorization tends to eschew content. It’s certainly that way in contemporary music criticism, and I imagine it is the case in architectural criticism as well. It’s pretty boring to sculpt your argument around style; I think it’s a real dodge. There also seems to be a kind of emotional disconnect that’s particularly prevalent at the moment where articulating how something makes us feel is increasingly uncomfortable. What I would say is that I’m a storyteller. I’ve moved away from being a confessional songwriter, and a lot of my work over the last five years has been research-based.

How did you come to that process? What’s your background?
My father is a classical pianist and conductor, and my mother is a very fine amateur singer (and psychologist by profession). I grew up in a house full of music that made no distinctions between Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Beethoven, Brahms, or Duke Ellington. From a very early age I floated around without a clear sense of what I wanted to do: I sang operas as a kid, was very involved in theater as a teenager, and started college at the New England Conservatory as a jazz pianist. I transferred to Brown University, where I gravitated back toward theater and was coerced into writing a musical.

That led me to start singing again, and I began writing songs when I moved to New York after school. In 2007 I read Sherrill Tippins’ book February House about the house on Middagh Street where W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, and many other creative figures lived. I ended up being commissioned by the Public Theater to write a musical adaptation of it. That was really my first research-based piece. Sherrill kindly gave me her big gray file box of materials. Since then just about everything I’ve done has been rooted in literary or historical research. I don’t know if it is some sort of Jungian making up for being a fuck-up of a student in high school and college by realizing an academic impulse that earlier had been thwarted or unrealized. I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic based on my grandmother’s diaries when she was a teenager fleeing Germany in 1938. I wrote a big piece for Orpheus Chamber Orchestra that’s a tour of the United States through the guides produced by the Federal Writers’ Project. Then, The Ambassador draws on film, fiction, and architecture to explore Los Angeles. In general I would say that I’m always starting from a single impulse, and more often than not it’s an emotional impulse that precedes an intellectual impulse.

Many of those projects you just mentioned — The Ambassador, February House, Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States — are heavily influenced by place. Do you consider those works to be place-based and why is that something that interests you?
I think it would take a psychologist to figure out why I’ve been so preoccupied with place. My pop psychology answer is that we moved around a lot when I was a kid. So I think that home felt sort of tenuous even though we were rooted in various cities for a chunk of time — Rochester; Santa Rosa, California; LA; Boston.

The first song I ever wrote consciously about place — which was maybe the first not terrible song that I ever wrote — is called “Underberg.” I wrote it in 2005 when I lived on 5th Avenue in Park Slope. It’s about the Underberg Building, which was this beautiful, funky, palimpsest of a structure with three or four generations of paint, weird, vibrant colors, and UNDERBERG in huge letters on the side. It had been a restaurant supply store. Some considered it an eyesore; to others it was a romantic ruin in a classic ruin porn sense. The song was a narrative of the razing of that building to make way for the Barclays Center and a love story that grew up alongside.

Where 7 Middagh Street once stood in Brooklyn Heights | Photo via Allison Meier

Shortly thereafter I read February House. I went to Middagh Street, stood in this little patch of grass, and looked out over the void above the BQE. There wasn’t a marker or plaque giving any indication of the vibrant life that went on there. And I had this very intense emotional experience watching the traffic go by and knowing that not only was the house and all its life gone; the plot of land on which the house had stood was gone. It’s just air.

I say this partially in jest, but it’s easier to write a love song to a place or a building than it is to a person, because that narrative is less played out. I think every artist has their way of beginning, and creating a limitation is a way of freeing oneself from the anxiety of the blank page. For me, choosing the stricture of location or edifice is a way of getting started.

The Ambassador Hotel under demolition | Photo via Minuk

Your song “The Ambassador” also deals with a building (The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles) that is no longer. What do you take away from these examples of loss and the question of preservation?
The two examples of 7 Middagh Street and The Ambassador Hotel are interesting because they form a tidy binary. The fact that there is no plaque commemorating what happened in the February House seems like the exception rather than the rule in New York. This city has a pretty strong sense of preservation, at least compared to Los Angeles. From my first years here living on the Upper West Side, I had the sense that there was a plaque everywhere: George Gershwin lived here; Rachmaninoff lived here; Bartok lived here.

In contrast, the quite intense preservation battle that went on over the Ambassador Hotel — primarily between the Kennedy family (Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there), the LA unified school district, and the LA Conservancy — was a birth of consciousness around Los Angeles’ history as a much younger city. I don’t mean “The Ambassador” to be ideological. But it does speak to Los Angeles’ burgeoning sense of its own history and a desire to preserve.

The Ambassador (the album) is one of the musical works that I’ve found most attuned to architecture as a lens for looking at the larger city. Would you similarly use architecture to examine New York City or might it require something different?
The real difference is that Los Angeles is a collection of private spaces whereas New York becomes New York through public space. What was so revelatory to me about getting to know LA was that I didn’t set out to make a piece that was preoccupied with architecture. I started from the emotional impulse that I wanted to uncover the city where I was born but didn’t grow up in. But I read more and more, and I came into contact with the Kings Road House, R.M. Schindler’s house that he built for himself. I saw this as the heart and soul of the side of Los Angeles that we don’t usually see: this revolutionary sense of design that reformulated inside versus outside. Previously there was the plot on which you were building and the building was considered the “other.” His idea of “space architecture” reframes that so that the human becomes the other and the articulation of space is much more key than the ego or identity of the building. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such a strong emotional response to a house.

There are some spaces in New York where I feel similarly. But here we form attachments to the city through, say, our first time in Grand Central or Central Park. I don’t think we are usually conscious that we are reading the city in those moments, because it’s public space. If you want to read Los Angeles, you have to seek things out.

R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road House | Photo via Markus Kolb

I probably won’t make a parallel piece to The Ambassador about New York, but if I did, I’d need a lot of time to formulate an approach to reading New York. The psyche of the city is just so different. The fact that we have the subway just changes everything. Los Angeles is all about isolation; it’s all about the glass. In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham talks about how he observed women in cars putting on their makeup as they got off the freeway exit: the freeway is private space, and public space begins when you exit. There’s such an inversion in New York because we’re a walkable city. The thing that the two cities have in common is that both are too vast to be read comprehensively. You have to make choices about what to omit, which can be rather arbitrary.

Your composition Crane Palimpsest is inspired by Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge” about the Brooklyn Bridge. In your research process, do you see a different value in drawing from a Hart Crane poem versus a history of the Brooklyn Bridge? How does the structure function in the piece?
I didn’t set out to write a piece about the Brooklyn Bridge. I was at the MacDowell Colony a few years ago, and I had a commission for a voice and orchestral piece. In the library I either found David McCullough’s history of the Brooklyn Bridge or the Hart Crane poem. I can’t remember which first. Those provided the impetus for a piece that makes metaphorical and literal the idea of the bridge between two aesthetics: my interests in concert music and pop music. I interrupt the Hart Crane poem with my own lyrics by taking a line from him and making my own lyric based on it. Ultimately it’s not a piece about the bridge but rather about the emotional relationships we have to a living, breathing city.

To what extent is the instrumentation or the sound of a piece different when you are dealing with different places? Would New York City sound differently than LA, or Georgia different from Montana?
It’s not something that I think about on a conscious level. The joy of the language of music is that there is no signifier, sign, or referent; it is all ultimately subjective. Instruments are capable of so many colors that I don’t hear the banjo and think of the South. As a musician it is a joy to take things that have particular connotations and to put them into another space where they feel like they don’t belong or where they are reframed.

For me, stories also have a kind of emotional landscape that can sometimes be translated into sound that is not necessarily specific to place. There are some classic examples of literal evocation of place through sound, like Gershwin conjuring New York with brass. It’s brilliant, but we know what it’s like already. You get to the next level and there’s the question of emotional evocation of place. It could be that pockets of LA and pockets of New York have very similar emotional landscapes that could also sound similar.

The full ensemble of The Ambassador in a performance at Carolina Performing Arts | Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kahane

I saw The Ambassador at BAM, and it was more performative than a traditional concert. Do you often formulate your work with a kind of theatrical performance in mind?
The Ambassador was a unique case for me, because I signed a record contract with Sony right around the same time BAM commissioned me for the Next Wave Festival. I decided pretty quickly that I was going to try to kill two birds with one stone. I started meeting with the director, John Tiffany, in the summer of 2013. Before I wrote anything, I was monologuing to him about Los Angeles, architecture, and time travel, and he finally suggested the organizing principle for the piece: that I make a list of 25 addresses and write songs about them. Any great director serves as a container for unformed thoughts. I wanted those songs to live on stage and on a record. But I guess I didn’t fret about it too much, because whether it is a compliment or not, people talk about how my pop music is theatrical. I trusted that there would be something inherently theatrical there even if I were thinking of the songs in the context of recorded pop music. I’m just attracted to narrative storytelling in songs, so I didn’t necessarily do anything that different from what I normally do.

Ultimately, the staged piece is very close to a concert and yet it is not a concert. Christine Jones, the set designer, John, and I were interested in going beyond the typical banter that I would do in the context of a concert and to envision how we could give the audience access to the songs without turning it into a full-on musical. Thanks to Christine’s ingenious design, which quite literally plopped my research on stage — stacks of books, outmoded media players, et cetera — we were able to create small gestures with audio, video, and physical artifacts. In other words, though 90 percent of the show is more or less a designed concert, I think that 10 percent of interstitial material transforms the experience. And for that, I credit my collaborators.

Nathan Strom and Laura Lutzke play in The Ambassador | Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kahane

A map of the sites came with the program at the performance, and there is also an interactive map based on the album on your website. What function do you think those maps serve?
The way many people consume music now has changed what is considered a complete cultural artifact. A lot of people have told me that the interactive online map — inspired by Infinite Atlas — deepened their experience of the songs. And I think that if you are engaging with the booklet, the lyrics, and the dedications, everything you need is there to get a full experience. But so many people are listening on Spotify or iTunes that they don’t do that.

The idea of the printed map came out of conversations that the creative team was having from the very beginning about what information we could give the audience to allow them to access the songs. In a concert, I normally solve that through directly addressing the audience, but we very consciously resisted that in the context of this theater piece. We went through periods of thinking that we’d project the addresses or speak them. The map is a way to provide that information and for people to enhance their experience, even after they leave the theater.

What’s next?
I’m going on tour with the band Punch Brothers for three weeks in March and April, and on April 15th I start writing for my next project. I’m currently working on two really big ones that I can’t talk about yet but will likely be announced in the next six to eight weeks. Stay tuned.

The Ambassador map of Los Angeles | Click the image to view descriptions of each site | Image courtesy of Gabriel Kahane

Descriptions of each site marked on The Ambassador map of Los Angeles | Image courtesy of Gabriel Kahane


Catch Kahane live in his next New York concert at Rockwood Music Hall on March 16.

Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane’s latest release, The Ambassador, was hailed by Rolling Stone as “one of the year’s very best albums.” He has been commissioned by, among others, BAM, Carnegie Hall, the LA Philharmonic, and the Public Theater. This spring he kicks off a North American tour opening for the band Punch Brothers.

This interview has been edited and condensed from the original.

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