Who says you have to be a high school graduate to go to Brown University? Well, in most cases you do, but Gabriel Kahane is an exception. The 33-year-old “indie-classical” musician and composer goes beyond musical genres in every way possible, particularly on his new album, The Ambassador.
L.A.-born, New York bred Kahane recently found himself back in his birth-state, enraptured by the architecture and history of a city that gets a bad rep for being transient, superficial, and bottomless. The Ambassador focuses on the little known history of L.A.: its buildings and stories; its hopefulness and tragedies.
I met up with Kahane at Littlefield in Brooklyn before a recent show, as he was rehearsing with his three-piece orchestra. He crooned poetic lyrics while playing the piano, and was quick to jump on and off stage to direct the band towards a more “perfect” sound. Afterwards, we spoke about his inspiration for his new album, the restrictions of musical categories, and his newfound interest in architecture.
How does someone without a GED get into Brown University?
I was definitely somewhat of a fuck up in high school. I was in some ways a ne’er-do-well, and in other ways a very high achiever. I was a nationally ranked chess player and had acted professionally in operas and plays, but just couldn’t really get my shit together academically; partly out of boredom and partly out of some ADD that prevented me from learning study skills… I ended up going to New England Conservatory for a year as a jazz pianist, and found it pretty myopic, intellectually. After my first semester I started to think about transferring elsewhere; I ended up playing a concert at Brown and briefly dating someone there, and sort of fell in love with the campus.
I decided on a whim to apply as a transfer student… I wrote this impassioned letter, in addition to the regular application, explaining how my hubris had led to my failing out of high school. I included all these ancillary materials in my application; like a book about chess, to which I had contributed a chapter, as well as musical materials. The year that they accepted me, they took 100 too many transfer students; they made an error in calculating the matriculation rate of the freshman class—so I probably shouldn’t have gotten in. It was basically a fluke.
Tell me about the inspiration for your album. Why did you choose to focus on L.A.?
Starting in 2007, I began to return to L.A. frequently as an adult. I was born in L.A. but I didn’t grow up there… I had sort of adopted the dogmatic antipathy for L.A. that a lot of New Yorkers have—and also having spent my high school years in northern California, I was primed to hate L.A. Going back there as a young adult, I was pretty vulnerable, and I found myself getting in touch with the 90 per cent of Los Angeles that wasn’t the film and TV industry; the Los Angeles that aches constantly.
I was reading Joan Didion and Mike Davis for the first time, and I just saw the layer immediately beneath the veneer, and then it was about four years later that BAM commissioned me to do a new piece, and right around the same time Sony Masterworks starting courting me. I began thinking about BAM and the kind of work that they do; their Next Wave Festival tends to have a strong visual component.
While in L.A., I took a drive to the airport at 5 o’clock one morning, and decided to take service roads. I felt really overwhelmed by the pathos of the city; its failed aspirations, the beauty in decay, the weird poignant beauty of a city that has trouble remembering to have memory, and so I decided around then I wanted to do something on Los Angeles. That fed into a more specific interest in architecture. I intuitively felt drawn to the architecture, but I didn’t know exactly why.
So you weren’t always into architecture?
No, it’s a very recent thing for me. I just found myself really drawn to the buildings. When I’m in L.A., I stay in this small servants’ quarter that’s attached to a house that Rudolph Schindler heavily remodeled. I was living and working in this house built by one of the great modernist masters, but then I started thinking about the extent to which there are two L.A.s: the L.A. of film and fiction and TV, that is experienced through mediation, versus the very vulnerable, physical, tactical city; the city of the 1994 North Ridge earthquake, the city of raging fires in Malibu, the city of Joan Didion’s Santa Ana Winds. Architecture sets up the intersection of these two L.A.s because architecture is aesthetic, it is mythology—but buildings are vulnerable, they burn down, they crumble. I could draw from film by thinking about buildings as film locations; I could draw from fiction as scenic locations; from history, and so on and so forth.
What was the research component like?
I watched a lot of movies; I watched Die Hard many, many times. I’ve come to believe that it’s a very, very important film. It’s the apotheosis of commerce and well-crafted entertainment meeting in a perfect marriage. It also made Bruce Willis a star. I jest a little bit; I did watch a lot of old films, tracing the trajectory of noir from the early adaptations of Raymond Chandler novels, up through the Cold War noir of Kiss Me Deadly, to the neo-noir, Blade Runner set in the Bradbury Building. I read a lot of detective fiction, histories, and critical theory, and spent a lot of time in L.A. just walking and driving. I made a list of 25 addresses; initially I was going to write 25 songs—I ended up writing 20 and put 10 on the record. I would just visit all of these addresses and sit in the places and meditate on their history.
You write from multiple perspectives, which indicates a strong literary background. You also seem very keen on writing on themes, not so much personal/romantic hardships like many others musicians. Can you speak to that?
A lot of artists/song writers focus on confessional themes, and I think that’s something that becomes tiresome to some people, and then they look elsewhere… I think that there comes a moment where you want to have the lens go elsewhere. And having written for the theater, and continuing to write for the theater, that’s an imperative. You have to be able to look inside someone else and find that negative capability for empathy. There are writers who inform in subtle ways the kind of work I’m trying to do. Among them, the German novelist W.G. Sebald, who for me just defies categorization. He creates this tapestry of beautiful prose… Anne Carson is someone else who in a different way achieves the same thing. She’s known mostly as a poet, as a classicist; Autobiography of Red, it’s a predominately a verse novel, but it’s so much more than that. So that kind of stuff that knows no bounds, that was important for me with this record.
You pull from so many genres—classical, indie, pop, and rock—in a way that is difficult to categorize. But in music, people want to label you, like you’re the “classical-indie guy.” How does that make you feel?
The sort of pathological need to categorize comes from a cultural discomfort with emotion. People are actually really uncomfortable taking things in and judging them for themselves. This is not limited to music, it happens in all of the arts. The need to categorize is a short-hand for what something is going to make someone feel, and that’s something that I obviously reject. I sort of wish that people would never use these genre-monikers.
But in writing about an album, don’t you have to describe the music? I mean, how do people know what they’re going to hear without some sort of categorization?
To me, the thing that creates unity is storytelling. What all of these songs have in common is that they tell stories. And for me, that transcends questions of style. I think that when listeners read about music, what they really want to know is if something is going to make me feel or not; is it going to make me think or not; not does it fit neatly into some preordained category that ‘I know and like.’
I’m sure it’s something that will continue to irritate me forever, but I do also think that we may be on the cusp; it feels like in the past five years there’s been this narrative of genre-bending, genre-less, etc. At a certain point, even from a crass, economic standpoint, whoever is the head honcho at “X” website is going to say these headlines no longer do well with clicks. And people will have to start figuring out new ways to attain order. So maybe it will go away.
Out of all the song titles, is there a place whose story resonated the most?
Yes, getting to know the story of Latasha Harlins and her tragic death. She was shot and killed in a grocery store when she was 15-years-old by a Korean woman over a bottle of orange juice. It’s a story that is wholeheartedly part of the fabric of black, contemporary history. It’s something that Angelenos know about, but it’s not really a story the rest of the country knows; and generally not the story that white people know. And the parallels with the Trayvon Martin shooting are many.
What are you listening to now?
This new Sylvan Esso record, which came out about a month ago. That record has been on repeat since it came out. I’ve listen to some other new music that hasn’t spoken to me that much, but that record really captured my attention in a real way.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another piece for the Public Theater. I wrote a piece for them in 2012 entitled, “February House.” I’m also in the process of doing research for a piece for them on Alcoholics Anonymous. And then there’s the stage version of The Ambassador, which is happening at BAM in December. And I’m making some very preliminary plans for writing an opera.