UNC'S MEMORIAL HALL—Songwriter and composer Gabriel Kahane has played the music from The Ambassador, his June album on Sony Masterworks, onstage before. But he's never played it quite like this. During a world premiere for Carolina Performing Arts, The Ambassador in Chapel Hill will feature large set pieces that will follow Kahane to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December and at UCLA in February. The material takes listeners on a twisting journey through the city of Los Angeles; the props offer a physical symbolism for the trip.
"A lot of the songs emerge out of things that are seen or discovered in the physical space," Kahane says. "You have this physical—I think, really staggeringly beautiful—physical environment where there are these book towers that have become the skyscrapers of Los Angeles, stacks of film canisters depicting hotels, the Hollywood hill built out of screenplays."
One goal of these staged shows, Kahane says, is to deliver additional context for these pieces, rather than having to tee the tunes up verbally, as he's had to do for most of his solo shows so far. While The Ambassador offers a rich experience as Kahane works through the dozen-plus characters on The Ambassador (at UNC, he'll even add a few tracks that didn't make the album), it's not heavy-handed like a rock opera or pompous like a musical. Instead, The Ambassador's music could fit in easily with indie rock's more recent grandeur, like The National's later material or Sufjan Stevens' popular prime. Kahane's classical training gives his music a crisp refinement—no incoherent mumbling or washed-out guitar riffs here.
"It's one part concert, one part theater spectacle and maybe one part history lesson," Kahane says. "It draws from a lot of different performance traditions."
Kahane's trip to Chapel Hill isn't just about performing The Ambassador. After the show, he'll spend several days on campus, engaging with students and faculty.
Kahane has worked with Carolina Performing Arts director Emil Kang and UNC faculty to develop a multi-disciplinary itinerary that will have him addressing classes beyond the music department. He says he's interested in finding the places where his work as a composer and performer overlaps with academic research. He'll even host "office hours."
"Very often, when you have a performing arts center embedded near a university, their academic outreach that goes on with visiting artists amounts to a kind of tokenism," he says. "The artist shows up and does a single master class and then is never seen again."
Not so for Kahane: Though The Ambassador refers to the famed Los Angeles hotel, he seems to be taking on the role of an ambassador all his own. 7:30 p.m., $10–$49, 114 E. Cameron Ave., 919-843-3333, carolinaperformingarts.org.