Kaki King on the Art of Multimedia Performance
By: Jimmy Leslie
November 27, 2017
With her multimedia theatre piece The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body—as well as her new Live at Berklee CD that features a 12-piece chamber orchestra—Kaki King continues to push the creative envelope of guitar artistry technically, sonically, and visually. When GP last interviewed King for the April 2014 issue, her singer-songwriter and electric-band phases had reached their conclusions, and she was once again focused on her forte—transcendent solo-acoustic performances.
But there was a twist in the works.
King soon unveiled her bold, new vision for the stage: The guitar itself would become a screen for projected visuals, as well as the centerpiece of a mythic creation story. The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body is stunning if you can see it performed live, but the 2015 soundtrack recording [Short Stuff Records]—produced by D. James Goodwin, who did such fine work on King’s Glow in 2012—is a wonder, as well. The story line unfolds with abstract ideas laced in lush delays and reverbs, but the guitar highlights intensify as the musical narrative progresses—such as the furious arpeggios of “Trying to Speak” and the ethereal beauty and clever techniques of “The Surface Changes.” King was definitely onto something, as insatiable demand has prompted her to continue performing The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body on tour.
Recorded this past April at Berklee College of Music’s The Red Room at Café 939 in Boston, Live at Berklee consists almost entirely of King’s solo-acoustic pieces reimagined with string and woodwind arrangements—some provided by Berklee students Takuma Matsui and Shereen Cheong, some by Devotchka’s Tom Hagerman, and some by King herself. Working with the Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra on the project—as conducted by student Gabriela Sofia Gomez Estevez—meant that the album has a bit less of a guitar focus, but that doesn’t mean King abandoned her formidable chops. In fact, the live video for the concert’s showstopper, “Magazine,” is clear evidence that King—voted Best Overall Acoustic Guitarist by GP readers in 2013—is playing better than ever.
The Neck is a Bridge to the Body is a crafty title. What you were thinking about when you came up with it?
The question on my mind at the time was, “Who is controlling who?” Was I really controlling what I was playing on the guitar, or was the guitar leading me? The title anthropomorphizes the guitar, and it reminds us that we’ve named parts of the guitar after our own bodies—which is interesting, even though I left out the headstock [laughs]. The title also signifies the personal and physical connection that guitar players and luthiers have to the instrument, and it expresses to the audience what players already understand—that the guitar has a kind of sentience.
How does the show flow?
It’s intentionally a slow burn from the start. Once I had proof that projection mapping on the guitar worked affordably—and that the system could be portable—I knew I could build a show. [Editor’s Note: Projection mapping is typically defined as the projection of an image on a non-white or non-flat surface, but, basically, it can mean using everyday video projectors to display images on three-dimension objects—like a car or a guitar—instead of screens.] But I still needed a framework on which to hang things, so I wrote a script. I’m not a storywriter, and the creation story is the most basic tale to tell, so I went with that. It’s not obvious, but the arc of the show is very much one of creation and development. Things become increasingly complex until the hero—the guitar—is fully formed and realized. Then, it goes on a hero’s journey telling the story of its life, its deconstruction, and a kind of rising from the ashes at the end. I used very basic tropes to inspire visuals and music that are ultimately pretty trippy.
How would you describe the look of the show, and how does your signature Ovation Adamas acoustic—which you had the company paint completely white for the production—figure into the overall visual context?
The guitar itself looks otherworldly. Projection mapping is a very simple process, but it looks gorgeous, and it does a lot to carry the show. There are a variety of visually captivating things happening that you can look at three ways. There’s the take-it-all-in approach where you see the guitar, the rear screen, and myself as one collective item. Then, there’s the comparison between the rear screen and the guitar. Or, you can just watch me play. I improvise a lot using the guitar to control audio-reactive visuals in many ways. For example, I can play a certain note to trigger a visual clip in which a spiral appears. That alone is really cool, but there’s a lot more packed into the show—including animation, abstract film, and film narrative.
How does the projector work?
I use what’s called a “short-throw projector.” It’s common in classrooms, because it can be mounted just a few feet away at such a steep angle so that it doesn’t project on the educator, or, in my case, the performer. As a result, my hands don’t create many shadows on the guitar, and that adds to the almost unreal nature of how the projection mapping looks on the guitar as I play.
Was it difficult to hone in the images that are projected on the guitar without having them bleed onto the rear screen or other spots on stage?
We used a program called MadMapper to create a spatial scan. Essentially, you put a webcam right next to your projector lens. Then, you run MadMapper through the projector. The projector spits out a couple minutes of horizontal and parallel lines that get smaller and smaller, and your webcam captures what it sees in the room. So, the projector projects the images, and the webcam sees what they are being projected on. You end up with a spatial scan of everything in front of the projector—which in our case is the guitar. We put that rendering into Photoshop, cut out around the guitar, and put that back into MadMapper programmed to only throw light in that cutout region. You might have to do a bit of editing if you find things such as light leaking in places other than the guitar body, but that’s fundamentally how we got the images to display on the guitar itself.
How do you control all of the visuals?
I split the signal from my Adamas into a line for my video engineer, and another line goes to my own computer. We both use Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interfaces, because they are simple and strong. You don’t need any more firepower. He uses his signal to set parameters in a program called Resolume Arena Media Server. The larger the amplitude of the signal, the brighter the image exposure will be. For instance, when I play percussion on the guitar, the images will brighten or soften based on how hard I tap the surface. The other way we control Resolume is via MIDI. I don’t need a MIDI pickup because I use a program called MIDI Guitar by Jam Origin that works so well, it’s almost shocking. I use that to translate my guitar signal into MIDI notes that we program to do certain things in Resolume, such as trigger a spiral image, or make a color wash appear. I can trigger up to seven video clips simultaneously—meaning I can play seven notes, and seven spirals will appear. It’s magical. There is other times in the show where my video engineer manipulating images that I trigger, rather than me controlling the images myself. So the visual imagery is often a back and forth process between the two of us.
How do you manage your guitar tones during the production?
I toured the first year or so with a very well put together pedalboard, but now I use Logic MainStage to generate all my sounds. I didn’t want to drag around a 50-pound pedalboard when the show went overseas. The multimedia presentation is also a different kind of show than a typical musical performance. It’s a lot quieter and subtler, so a pedalboard with blinking lights and buttons clacking on and off would be very distracting—especially since I’m being a character in the show. All I have in front of me now is a Roland EV-5 expression pedal connected to a Logidy UMI3 Parametric USB MIDI foot controller that I use to scroll through patches, and I map the expression pedal to various parameters. The MainStage system has been a godsend, because it’s much lighter and more reliable.
Are you happy with the software-generated tones?
I’m so happy! But I did love that pedalboard, as well, so I did my best to copy the sounds as close as I could by ear. I have an ever-evolving set of plug-ins, and the programmability allows me to get super specific about controlling delays, reverbs, and equalization. Also, if a certain patch gives me trouble in a given venue, I simply open up the plug-in and fix it right there on the spot. I was nervous about going to a computer-based system, but it has been so helpful that I can never look back.
What tuning challenges are specific to The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body?
I have just the one “albino” Adamas, and I didn’t want to be constantly retuning it for the show, so I only use two tunings. The first half of the production is in open D minor. [Low to high—D, A, D, F, A, D]. For the second half, I switch to C, G, D, D, A, D. Even with just two tunings, I didn’t want the audience to notice, so there’s a special video built into the show that lasts exactly the amount of time I need to retune.
Would you say your initial vision for The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body stemmed from considering a simple thing: “How can I make my show more visual interesting?”
All performers should ask themselves that same basic question. You’ve certainly taken your production values pretty far, but are there simpler and more affordable options guitarists could investigate if they want to enhance their visuals?
The cheapest way possible is to check in with the venue to see what’s available. If there’s not a designated light technician, usually the sound engineer has some control over stage lighting. Try to figure out something people haven’t seen there before. Perhaps go all red or all blue. Basically, ask whoever can push those lighting buttons to give you some options, and put some in some artistic thought.
The next most affordable option—and something you can control yourself—is having a lighting system on a dimmer or fader. There are tons of products available with the advancement of LED technology especially at holiday time—and you can find amazing deals right after Christmas. When I started to seriously research lighting, I was shocked by how much stuff was out there, from programmable LED strips to little lights you can hook up to a battery pack mounted inside your guitar.
The main thing to consider is, “What will enhance my performance, versus what might distract from it?” For example, I used to avoid all color. The only lighting I wanted onstage was stark white. My idea was that I’m under a microscope, and the audience is watching me play in a super-detailed way. Honestly, that was a little brutal, but I would definitely recommend keeping things simple. The last thing you want to do is build a complex system that makes your life difficult when you’re just trying to play some tunes.
What was the concept for Live at Berklee?
The whole project was ambitious, and Tony Brown at Berklee deserves a lot of credit for making the vision happen. The idea was to breathe new life into old material by re-orchestrating it, and having students play.
What were some of the technical challenges?
There wasn’t a lot of separation or isolation of the guitar mics. We favored my pickup sound in the mix more than I would have preferred, but the whole idea was to capture the show live with just two tries. My key ingredient was a well-trained guitar tech. Sir—his name is actually “Sir”—came to a lot of rehearsals with me. We had to pow wow a lot about guitars and tunings to figure out the best way to make the set flow.
How many guitars did you use?
I had my Adamas, a great Morris acoustic made in Japan, a Taylor dreadnought that my dad gave me, a Veillette Gryphon High 12, and a couple of electric guitars, including a semi-hollow Hamer Newport. I had several of them made when Hamer was still around. It’s sad that Hamer seems to be getting lost to history, because they made amazing guitars.
What amp did you use for the Newport?
It was a Carr Mercury—which is a great low-wattage amp. I had borrowed one from a friend, and I fell in love with it so much as a recording amp that I had get my own when he asked for it back.
How much did you use the second guitar player, Aida De Moya?
Just for one riff [laughs]. My part on “So Much For So Little” was very demanding, so she pinch-hit for a guitar melody. I didn’t realize that I wanted another guitar player until I needed one, and then I realized I didn’t need another guitar player for anything else.
“Magazine” is a fine example of a tuning with adjacent unison strings [tuned a half step down from C, G, D, G, G, D] that can sound like more than one guitarist is playing.
Any time you do rapid-fire fingerpicking with two strings that are either an octave apart or in unison it catches the ear. You hear a note, and then the same note again, but you’re not supposed to, because that note is already ringing. “What?” It simply doesn’t sound normal—even to most guitar players. “Magazine” has been around for more than a dozen years now, and it’s still fun to play in that tuning.
Is it a challenge to do the serious fingerpicking on the intro to “Magazine”?
The conditions have to be right. I have to be warmed up bodily, and the guitar has to be warmed up, too. I can’t do “Magazine” in a cold room. It has to be above 72 degrees.
Can you describe the way you group those arpreggiated clusters in your mind, and how you work your plucking hand to execute them?
They come across as triplets—although I think of them in groups of six as I pluck up and down the strings. Thumb is one, index finger is two, middle finger is three, ring finger is four, middle finger is five, and index finger is six. That would be the end of one phrase in my mind, and then I switch to the next one.
Was it difficult working with the chamber orchestra for Live at Berklee?
Ultimately, you listen to what is being played at rehearsal, and you have a conversation. No one looks at the notes on the page and says, “I’m simply going to play it the way it’s written.” Even the violinists and second violinists were having conversations about splitting up who was going to bow up, and who was going to bow down to make the phrases blend.
But, having said that, when I started writing and touring with the ETHEL string quartet a few years ago, I would get way stressed out about having the notation perfectly in place, and I needed it to all be in Italian. I figured I needed to have bow markings, and all this stuff that I didn’t know anything about. As it turned out, the best way is to use plain English to describe what you want as specifically as you can. You see, string players—especially the young ones these days—are being trained to understand the whims of people orchestrating weird stuff. They’re used to people saying, “I want this to sound like seagulls,” or “I want that to sound crunchy.” Editing can happen in the room, as well. You can delete a couple of measures. You can see if the bassoon part you wrote isn’t allowing the person to breathe, and you can take a note out. Players are actually looking for your input. Working with orchestral instruments is very much like being in a band, or figuring out a song with any group of people.
You’re still on a remarkable run touring with The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body. Are you surprised by its longevity?
My mind is boggled. When I first put it together in 2014, the venues were rock and jazz clubs. The curiosity around it has since extended into the world of performing arts centers. It has become more of a theatrical presentation than just a musical piece. I’d never done theater, so it’s interesting to observe that a successful show can have a longer lifespan than a typical record and touring cycle. I’ll continue to do “The Neck” as long as people want to see it.
Where do you plan to go with the multimedia concept in the future?
My goal is to develop a new show, but this is a whole new world. It’s not like writing songs and making a record. Working with multiple forms of media is an even more time-consuming process. I definitely have irons in the fire for several different concepts of even bigger, more interesting, similarly-based shows, but they require ten times the amount of research, development, rehearsal, and funding.