Collapsing Borders and Boundaries
BY THOMAS MAY
The coming weeks feature two unusual programs in Stanford Live’s ongoing performance season—each featuring a uniquely unclassifiable collaboration with chamber musicians. Singer-songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane joins with the innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider to bridge the gap between folk-pop songs and instrumental music. And in Nufonia Must Fall, DJ extraordinaire Kid Koala transforms his graphic novel into a one-of-a-kind music theater/film hybrid with the help of the Afiara Quartet, director-designer K. K. Barrett, a team of puppeteers—and a timeless tale of robots in love.
The Brooklyn-based singer and composer Gabriel Kahane has a unique gift for evoking the aura associated with a particular place or building, as seen in his Public Theater–commissioned musical February House as well as his 2014 album, The Ambassador. The 34-year-old Kahane and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider will perform selections from the latter as part of their upcoming Stanford Live program (Jan. 29).
An ode to specific places in Los Angeles, The Ambassador takes its title from the storied (now-demolished) hotel that once stood at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, notorious as the place where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the chaotic year of 1968. It is one of the 10 specific addresses this cycle of songs uses to frame its meditations on the pop culture, urban lore, and legacy of the City of Angels.
Characterized as “an elegant musical journey over the landscape and emotionally encoded architecture of LA” and one of the year’s “more potent yet unclassifiable recordings” by Josef Woodward in the Los Angeles Times, The Ambassador includes at its center the deeply affecting “Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa Street).”
This mini-epic—which Kahane will sing in an arrangement for string quartet, with himself on Wurlitzer piano and electric guitar—recounts the shooting of 15-year-old African American Latasha Harlins by a Korean convenience store owner. Her death and the minor sentence given to the woman who shot Harlins added fuel to the rage that burst out in the Los Angeles riots of 1992. The song showcases Kahane’s gift for homing in on the humanity he uncovers amid his investigations into the relationships between architecture and specific places and the modern urban realities they frame.
Kahane explains that he wanted to juxtapose Latasha Harlins and “her family’s seemingly magnetic pull toward tragedy” with the fate of Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel. “These are two families, one with incredible privilege and one with absolutely no privilege, that are weirdly linked by being caught in the crossfire of family tragedy.”
The link between The Ambassador and Kahane’s latest collaboration with Brooklyn Rider is the song “Bradbury (304 Broadway),” a striking tribute to the downtown architectural landmark. For Stanford, Kahane and the quartet have programmed Bradbury Studies, a work included on their forthcoming release The Fiction Issue, which represents his first album of chamber music. This piece is a recasting of the original song, scored for the Brooklyn Rider players and dedicated to them. “It’s a kind of deconstruction and reexamination of the song from The Ambassador,” is how Kahane puts it. The Fiction Issue additionally includes the chamber song cycle Come On All You Ghosts for baritone and string quartet (to texts by the Bay Area–based poet Matthew Zapruder), excerpts from which will also be on the Stanford program, and the new album’s title work.
SCHUBERT AS INSPIRATION
Bradbury Studies in turn suggests the key to Kahane’s recent fascination with Franz Schubert, whose String Quartet No. 13 in A Minor from 1824 is also featured at Stanford. Schubert channeled his creativity into both songs and long-form instrumental works like quartets and symphonies. And he bridged these two worlds—one anchored in poetry and connecting stories with music, the other “abstract,” for instruments alone—by revisiting some of his famous melodies in the latter. The Quartet No. 13 in fact gets its name from recycling a theme Schubert had used for the incidental music he composed for a play called Rosamunde.
“Turning my song into the string quartet piece Bradbury Studies is a very Schubertian thing to do, in the sense that he was looking for ways to translate his language as a songwriter into his instrumental works, especially in the last three string quartets [beginning with the Rosamunde],” Kahane points out. “Schubert finds a way to transcend simply transcribing song melodies and expands upon them. Part of what I want to do with this program is to draw those connections explicitly”—including in his own journey from song to instrumental composition, so that listeners will hear the new string quartet piece “as a deconstruction of materials from the song.”
Not only are the members of Brooklyn Rider Kahane’s neighbors but they also share his omnivorous aesthetic and are equally comfortable “playing Schubert or Brazilian grooves and have a real sense of the vernacular.” Kahane, too, says he has “little patience for conversations about genre. I’m always trying to collapse those boundaries, whether we are talking about music or theater or film or architecture. Today there’s a great deal of talk about hybridity, and that’s just a natural outgrowth of the porous borders of what artists are exploring.”
ENTER DJ KID KOALA
Another example of a creative— and thoroughly unclassifiable— hybrid that should not be missed comes to Bing Concert Hall on February 4, when celebrity DJ Kid Koala and the Afiara Quartet present their remarkable collaboration Nufonia Must Fall. Based in Montreal, Kid Koala (aka Eric San) has earned a fan base with global reach among devotees of dance-club music, hip-hop, and graphic novels alike for his polymathic talents.
Nufonia Must Fall actually originated as an expansive graphic novel (published in 2003) accompanied by a CD soundtrack San crafted for his sci-fi narrative of a music-loving robot who confronts becoming obsolete and struggles with articulating his newfound love. The live performance adaptation premiered at Toronto’s Luminato Festival in 2014, and the Stanford date is part of the show’s current U.S. tour.
San has been innovating the art of turntablism with his quirky imagination since he began DJing at the age of 12. “I liked the sound of scratching and being able to manipulate a ring of words on a piece of vinyl and to get it to change rhythm or say something else, making it into an expressive instrument,” he says. Yet even an original like Kid Koala was surprised when the stage show Nufonia Must Fall began to take shape. “None of us had done anything like this before,” says San, referring to the extraordinary challenges he and the Juilliard-trained Afiara Quartet faced for the project, which requires split-second timing and coordination with a cast of puppets and stage hands. “We thought it would be dangerous—and it is! But over the last year of playing different cities, the show has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s a constantly evolving show, and when we take it to the West Coast we’ll be back in the lab building new prop pieces. We’re constantly trying something fresh.”
What was the impetus to transform his graphic novel into a complex live-performance hybrid of music, puppetry, real-time filming, and theatricality? San explains that after regaining the rights to his book from his publisher, he had a serendipitous meeting with the production designer K. K. Barrett (acclaimed for his work ranging from MTV videos to such splendidly original films as Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich). “I’ve always been a huge fan of the cinema. I especially love the dreamy feeling K. K. Barrett is able to create in the films he’s been involved with. Collaborating with him has been like being in a film master class. Alotofitgoesbacktomylove of cinema and wanting to create something using that language and finding a way to tour live with it. And I grew up with Jim Henson, too. The early Muppet Show was a huge influence—the fact that they could create these universes on a miniature scale and that it could be so rich at the same time.”
San also got to know the cellist Adrian Fung, a founding member of the Afiara Quartet, around the time he was having his discussions with Barrett. “Adrian and I started talking about how to combine classical music and the DJ world of live music with the film world.” Along with Afiara’s four string players, San contributes a veritable orchestra of his own: “I’m stationed in this weird doughnut of electronic music technology where I play two turntables, a Fender Rhodes bass, a Wurlitzer keyboard, Javanese folk instruments, and a bunch of percussion stuff. There’s been a real cross-pollination, too. They’ve forced me in some parts to play the turntable more emotively and harmonically and in others, to raise the tension. We create music for a nightmare scene where we get pretty psychedelic, and even for a car chase.”
The neologism “nufonia” is a play on the concept of a place where there is “no fun,” says San. “It could be considered an actual city where people don’t have any fun and take things too seriously. At the same time, it could mean the state of mind where these obstacles that you create in your head are your own worst enemies. The main character has to get over that mind-state of nufonia before the universe opens up and before he can write that authentic love song.”
And an essential ingredient of the fun for San and his collaborators comes from the audience: “Just to hear them laugh or gasp during a scary moment is half of the show for me. When you’re playing in a big noisy dance club, the front row is far away, and you don’t have that kind of interaction. I love how we get to learn the audience’s personality as Nufonia is going on. It’s a palpable energy as we’re all sharing the story.”
—Thomas May is a frequent contributor to Stanford Live Magazine; he blogs at memeteria.com.