Thoughts while listening to Gabriel Kahane’s “The Ambassador”

How much are we influenced by memory, experience and location when writing, or listening, to music?

The composer Gabriel Kahane, I believe, would say the influence is inextricable. In The Ambassador, his most recent song cycle, Kahane uses the titles of his songs to literally inform the listener of the song’s spatial and/or artistic influences, essentially telling the listener what to see or think about while listening.

For the cycle’s subject he took Los Angeles, a city which is host to a mythology constructed from our cultural portrayals of its residents and environs over the greater part of the last century. My guess is that unless you have been living in a cultural vacuum, there are a set of feelings and images the city’s name conjures, even if you’ve never visited.

Kahane, I’m sure, was quite aware of that fact, and in The Ambassador, he utilizes both film and other image sources, as well as books he’s read and his own personal history, to inspire an illustration and recreation, through music, of the intoxicating atmosphere of Los Angeles as he has experienced and remembered it. It’s beautiful, cacophonous, occasionally mathy and occasionally simple, but the power Kahane wields by telling us his subject, is what I found particularly interesting.

To what extend does music derive its meaning and effect from the realm of the visual world? And/or, do you lose or gain something in its experience by having a musician literally explain the atmosphere he would like his music to conjure?

I think it’s safe to say composers are undoubtedly influenced by various sources, both from first-hand and learned experience, when writing music. Whether you lose, or gain something in experience with the knowledge of those influences, is another question.

Listening to someone like Kahane explain his music, which is all I can do not, as of yet, having had the opportunity to see him perform it, my mind immediately wandered towards a contemplation of what the gesamtkunstwerk looks like, or could look like, in the 21st century.

It’s not a term we discuss much anymore, Wagner having co-opted the term and destroyed it with suffocating elitist idealism. I’m using it here to refer more to the idea of a perfect work, not any actual piece. It’s an abstract idea, in my mind, which could more or less assert that the visual or aural component of a piece of art is not the entirety of the work. In which, maybe, we acknowledge that all (or at least most) art, is a synthesis of various influences internal to the work’s creator and, therefore, inseparable to the result. Here’s what I mean.

I’m not referring here to an art exhibit or installation which incorporates multiple forms of media from various artists, with a vague philosophy attempting to connect everything. I’m talking one artist, who, since we value ideas over results much of the time anyways, offers the whole of his art, the real whole, to experience. Can we honestly, in a post-structuralist world, assert a work of art is complete without its influences? Just as the art visual, and even musical artists create, becomes less and less “art” in its classical definition.

In other words, the 21st century gesamtkunstwerk is less an artist utilizing various media to create various components of an experience or exhibition, but an artist whose influences which are necessarily varied, are overtly on display.

The history we’re in the process of making seems like it might be pointing us in this general direction.

Opera, the great and historical art form which does combine disparate forms of art into one work, seems to be enjoying a popular resurgence, in so much as opera ever can. And artists of all types are disrupting the boundaries between their form of art and another, creating art that is difficult to classify.

Maybe this trend towards cross-pollination acknowledges that perhaps we have failed to engage with art and music in the correct way (in so much as there is a correct way which of course there’s not, one of those wonderful contradictions we are meant to embrace). Perhaps somewhere along the way, we lost track of how to present it (art) and our perpetual need to explain or disclose artistic influences would seem to attest to our fascination, interest, need, pick your word, for a context.

What if we could experience that context at the same time as we experience the art? Maybe that’s what we’re attempting to recreate in all of our “installations” and “performances.” A real complete story, not an opera, play or film that attempts to fictitiously recreate, what each of us already has inside of us.

I’m not advocating screening shots of Austrian landscapes behind the music of Mozart. Not exactly. The presentation would be less a disparate weaving together of art forms, and more, as in the work of Kahane, the offering of clues, and the creation of an environment through which we are meant to experience an individual’s art; essentially recreating the environment he/she experienced while creating it in the first place. I’m not entirely sure what it would look like really.

We’re fully aware artists don’t create art in a vacuum, why should we have to experience it in one?

This dovetails into, as all my lines of thinking usually do, the future, and the art world’s mounting fear of losing its audiences.

It’s interesting to think about the idea of multisensory stimulation and a more comprehensive experience of art, like the music of Kahane, in the context of film, something he, unsurprisingly, cites as an influence for much of his music. Great film artistically incorporates a bit of everything; dialogue, visual and aural content, and, while we fail to bring new audiences into other art forms, film (yes, thanks in large part to its facility of distribution, but I’d posit more than that), is thriving.

Perhaps there is a key to art’s future somewhere in this rambling. Perhaps it lies in, as many artists seem to already be exploring, a better experience. Not for the sake of experience, and not because we can’t appreciate the art without it, but instead, because we’re meant to know where the art is coming from in the first place.

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