Album du jour: Gabriel Kahane, “The Ambassador”

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So, I picked up two new CDs, the other day.  One, Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador,” is an intelligent cycle of ten songs about Los Angeles, written and performed in a jazzy, sophisticated contemporary singer-songwriter idiom.

The other is tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch performing Franz Schubert’s immortal 1827 song cycle “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”).

Which new CD comes closer to representing for today’s listener what Schubert’s work represented in its own time and place?  This is not a trick question.  Indeed, how you answer this question says a lot about about where you stand on the many issues pertaining to music’s present and future status in our culture.

Let’s consider what “Winterreise” is for the present-day American listener.  It’s a nearly-200-year old piece of music, sung in a foreign language that one either speaks through circumstance of birth, or learned in school, or (most likely) has to follow by reading the program notes while listening.  The musical idiom — melodies, harmonies, rhythms, etc. — is very much of early 19th-century Vienna, as well it should be.  The vocal style, while unexceptional for the minority of listeners versed in it, would sound unnatural in most of our current music.  I mean, people don’t grow up singing that way any more.  You have to go to a fancy, expensive conservatory to learn how to do it well.  And while we have plenty of 14-song albums…er, cycles, today, one that features just one voice and an acoustic (ahem) piano playing written (i.e., non-improvised) music is not something most people encounter in their lives, even most smart and sophisticated people.  The thought of listening straight through to such a work, either from CD or (even less likely) in a dark, quiet concert hall, where one’s behavior is strictly circumscribed, like church, would rarely if ever occur to them.

In short, the new Kaufmann/Deutsch “Winterreise,” while very, very beautiful, is also destined to be enjoyed, at least domestically, by a very small, very rarefied audience.  If you’re part of that audience, you know how heart-breakingly moving this music is.  But you’re in a tiny minority that’s not likely to get larger anytime soon, if ever.

Now let’s consider what “Winterreise” would have represented in 19th century Vienna.  For sure, it was even then and there music of rare artistry.  No doubt many would have found the work dark and forbidding.  But whatever barriers that existed between the music and its listener were placed there by Schubert, not by the work’s basic idiom.  Fundamentally, it would have been a collection of songs in the vernacular, both words and music, and performed in a scoring and style that would have been the norm for its day for any reasonably cultivated listener.  Yes, it would have been “art” music, but its art would have been much closer to the daily life of its time than today’s culturally-approved “art” music (e.g., classical, jazz) is to ours.

OK, that’s the Schubert.  Now how about “The Ambassador?”  The bare facts:  33-year old composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane wrote the words and music to ten songs exploring different facets of Los Angeles, drawing his subject matter from literature (Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler), cinema (Mildred Pierce, Pulp Fiction, Die Hard), place (Ambassador Hotel, Griffith Observatory, Union Station) and historical events (a tragic shooting).

Kahane sings the songs himself, in a smooth, attractive pop-music voice that might remind you of Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver), Adam Guettel or many others.  The scoring, if you will, is primarily for voice and pop quartet (including keyboards, electric guitars and drums), with strings and horns added on assorted songs.  The idiom, as I wrote earlier, is sophisticated, somewhat jazzy singer-songwriter, with resemblances to Sufjan Stevens, Steely Dan and no doubt others that you would pick out.  Without question, this is a musical work of considerable artistry, probably not destined for the top of the charts. But has already earned plenty of cultural buzz, along with raves from the likes of the New York Times, NPR and the smart musical press.

In short, Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador” is a highly artistic, decidedly non-dumbed-down musical work in the current musical and linguistic idiom.  Even if you didn’t care for it, there’s little chance that you wouldn’t “get” it.  It places no barriers between itself and your comprehension.

So those are the facts, ma’am (my own LA reference).  What do you think — is Gabriel Kahane closer to being”today’s Schubert” than even Schubert himself?  Actually, that’s unfair to the many other fine musicians, male and female, now working in similar styles, including the ones I mentioned above.  And it has nothing to do with a guess, which would be all it is, that Kahane or anyone else working today will have Schubert’s durability.  Let’s enjoy ourselves today and let the future take care of itself.

Of course, you couldn’t really answer this question until you’ve heard Kahane’s piece.  Which you should.  Immediately   It’s a brilliant and beautiful work which will repay many hearings, and which, I believe, represents some of the finest, most serious and most enjoyable music being made in present-day America. Just as Schubert’s “Winterreise” did in 1820’s Vienna.

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