Gabriel Kahane’s song cycle/musical theater/pop concert hybrid The Ambassador premiered locally in December at BAM. Kahane led a seven-piece band through renditions of songs found on his two 2014 releases, the full-length The Ambassador and the Haircuts & Airports EP. The songs, each attached to a different Los Angeles street address, form a collective portrait of the city. The players occupied a set designed by Christine Jones that called to mind the apartment of a shut-in screenwriter, with stacks of books and screenplays dwarfing the musicians, and TVs and tape cassettes scattered around a floor strewn with torn-out pages.
December 10 – December 13, 2014
It may be a conservative impulse, but I feel the need to nail down a genre here. Kahane’s position as an artist straddling pop culture and the classical art song tradition is evident in the title of his breakthrough 2006 composition Craigslistlieder. He has a background in musical theater, having co-written, with Seth Bockley, the musical February House. The New Yorker calls Kahane a “post-classical singer-songwriter,” and Ben Brantley, reviewing The Ambassador in the Times, talks about the performance approaching “the Wagnerian ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk.”
Overtures to Bayreuth aside, what I hear in The Ambassador is great conceptual pop music. Kahane’s treatment of Los Angeles calls to mind The Hold Steady’s mythologized Twin Cities on Boys and Girls in America, Randy Newman’s grotesque portrait of the South (and Louisiana in particular) on Good Old Boys, and—the most clear antecedents here—Sufjan Stevens’s state portrait albums Illinois and Michigan. In pure musical terms, the songs featured in the stage performance The Ambassador owe more to the album-centered pop tradition than any other. Kahane distinguishes himself from these other examples not by injecting classical or musical theater conventions into the work, but rather by surpassing all of them in the rigorous attention he pays to his subject.
I admit I would be much happier reviewing The Ambassador as a concept album and ignoring all the theater stuff. To do so, however, would be to ignore key elements in the work’s emergence. The piece was commissioned by BAM, and was always intended for the stage. Director John Tiffany was involved from the beginning, helping to guide Kahane’s composition process; the idea of pegging each song to an L.A. street address was his. With this in mind, I don’t want to dismiss the theater element, but I would like to discuss it separately from the music. Because while the music was superb, the rest of the performance was flawed.
The extra-musical elements of The Ambassador can be divided into two components: the use of various media between songs—movie clips, slide projections of L.A. architecture, excerpts read aloud from books about L.A.—and Kahane and the other players’ acting. As to the latter, admittedly a minor part of the performance, I didn’t find much to like. Most of Kahane’s acting consisted of his staring with a rapt expression at a prop on stage during the media interludes—though there was one charming moment when, listening to a clip of Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, he bobbed up and down with childlike glee, then did his own impression of Bogart’s mugging. When the other musicians were called on to participate, they gingerly slid out from behind their stations to take part in stilted spectacles like the shadow puppet-style choreography during “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.),” an awkward display that took me out of what was otherwise a very poignant song.
I feel more ambivalent about the way the different media were used. On the one hand, the material fit in perfectly with the show’s themes, especially Kahane’s idea of L.A. being two cities, “the mythological L.A.”—the city as it appears in literature and film—“and then the vulnerable, physical city.” The excerpt read aloud from Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear that preceded “Slumlord Crocodile (115 E. 3rd St.),” or the clips of Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s private eye that introduced “Musso and Frank (6667 Hollywood Blvd.),” helped frame the songs and give the listener context. But Kahane’s lyrics are themselves rich with reference, and at times the added context seemed like too much of a good thing. The slide show of modernist houses used by movie villains was a too-perfect set up for “Villains (4616 Dundee Dr.).” The song’s clever opening line, “Why do villains / always live in houses / built by modernist masters,” came off as a gimmicky punch-line; the audience’s laughter seemed trained.
My objection to the added theatrics is mainly this: however well thought-out, these elements still seemed tacked on to what was, at bottom, a pop concert. Instead of an interesting hybrid of forms, what we got was something like a concert with footnotes; or to try a more apt analogy, something akin to watching a DVD of a movie with the commentary on, rather than the movie itself. This might not be a fair assessment, given The Ambassador’s origins. Then again, perhaps the question bears asking: If a piece of music is originally conceived for the stage, does that necessarily mean that the stage is the best context for it?