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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Gabriel Kahane on The Ambassador

Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane's work The Ambassador, an imaginatively staged song cycle exploring the mythos-and-melancholy-laden topographies of Kahane's personal Los Angeles, runs at BAM from December 10—13. Kahane, who was born in L.A. but now lives in Brooklyn, describes his first encounter with BAM and The Ambassador's coming-to-be.
The Ambassador's Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman
by Gabriel Kahane

In June of 2004, a year out of college, I moved to a small apartment on 5th Avenue between Sterling Pl. and St. Johns, two flights above the now-defunct rock club Southpaw, where I did what adolescent-adjacent twenty-somethings often do: I consumed—to excess—vast quantities of instant ramen and whiskey, while holding down part-time jobs as a bartender in Williamsburg and as a pianist for dance classes in the East Village, where I played waltz-time versions of “Hey Ya!” and the collected works of Avril Lavigne.

The changes along 5th Avenue were so rapid that, at times, it felt as though I were watching a time lapse of a neighborhood in flux: a nail salon would close, an Asian-fusion bistro would emerge; liquor store shutters, dog sweater boutique celebrates grand opening, etc. One thing, though, that remained constant throughout that period of transformation was a series of attractive, sans serif ads in bus shelters for an institution known by a mysterious three-letter acronym: BAM.

Though I saw a couple of things at BAM over the course of my first few years living in Brooklyn, it wasn’t until 2007, when my friend Sufjan asked if I would help him with “this thing about the BQE and hula-hoopers” that I got hooked. Sufjan’s BQE, which took him out of his comfort zone as a crafter of gorgeous, literate, lapidary folk songs and into the unfamiliar realm of orchestral composition, was the project that made me want to work at BAM, a project that typified BAM’s commitment to developing new and adventurous work. I remember being at the after-party for The BQE, walking up to Joe Melillo and, never one to mince words, cheerfully announcing to him that I lived “a few blocks away and would love to do something at BAM some day!”

Apparently— because Joe is that kind of intrepid leader— something registered, as he started showing up to my gigs. In 2012, I found myself in his office discussing the commission that would become The Ambassador. Joe was interested in something that would form a union between my work as a composer of musical theater and that as a singer-songwriter.

I want to pause here to highlight this: you may know BAM primarily as a presenter of work generated elsewhere, and they do that very well. But BAM is also in the business of commissioning and developing new work. The Ambassador was born and raised in Brooklyn, with the doting staff of BAM looking on as its extended family.

Photo: Gabriel Kahane
I’d seen enough work at BAM to know that a visual element would be key, and I began brainstorming. One morning, driving in a smudgy pastel, pre-dawn in Los Angeles, I was overcome by an ache that seemed to emanate from the city itself, and felt certain that I needed to do a piece about LA. Back in New York, I met with theater director John Tiffany, whose work I very much admired, and began blathering to him about architecture, time travel, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and a handful of other half-baked ideas related to my inchoate conception of Los Angeles. John, in the first of countless acts of insight and artistic maturity that would occur over the course of our collaboration, thought for ninety seconds before distilling all that I’d said into a single challenge:

“Why don’t you make a list of twenty-five street addresses in LA and write a song for each one?”

Which is precisely what I did. I picked the addresses quickly, calculating that any attempt to be encyclopedic would result in diffusion and failure, opting instead to move intuitively toward those buildings or lots or parks that resonated with me on a gut level. In some cases, an address was chosen because of its use in film, in others, because of a historical event that occurred there; some buildings were chosen simply because They Made Me Feel Things.

The Ambassador. Photo: Ben Cohen
What resulted first came to the world as an album of the same name, released earlier this year, but I think it’s important that people understand that this set of songs was conceived as much for the stage as it was for headphones and stereos. In fact, what will be presented this month at the Harvey Theater in some sense empties the creative process onto the stage: that’s to say, through Christine Jones’ ingenious set design, the books, films, and buildings that inspired these songs are present in the physical environment, and become a part of the dramatic action.

Working with the staff of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in preparation for The Ambassador has been without question the most satisfying interaction I’ve ever had with a presenting institution. And that’s in large part because there is a current of intelligence, enthusiasm, sensitivity, and thoroughness that pervades the halls of BAM; every line of copy for the web site, every carefully cropped image, every frame of video, every press release: each detail is held to be important, and I believe that the results speak in BAM’s continued ability to cultivate a loyal and trusting audience that will venture into unknown and often challenging aesthetic waters.

All of which leads me to this: I hope that you are all as grateful to have an institution like BAM in your backyard as I am, and that I’ll see you next week at the Harvey Theater for The Ambassador.

The Ambassador opens next Wednesday, December 10.

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