By Pat Moran
With The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, Kaki King explores the ever-changing relationship between instrument and player
“I approach acoustic guitar the way Native Americans approached the buffalo,” Kaki King says. “I try to use every part of the animal.”
In 30-plus years of playing, 35-year-old King has done just that—employing every piece of her instrument for double-handed fingerstyle melodies and labyrinths of sound. On The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, King extends the reach and range of acoustic-guitar performance to components beyond the instrument, including a computer interface that allows her guitar to trigger visual events, and digital projections that cast luminous visions onto her signature Ovation Adamas six-string.
It’s an interactive multi-media experience that deliberately blurs the lines between sound and vision, and musician and instrument.
In this Acoustic Guitar Sessions video, King discusses her work and performs three songs from her multi-media show, The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body: “Anthropomorph” and “Trying to Speak, Pt.s 1 & 2.”
“The title, The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, represents parts of the guitar as well as parts of the human body,” King says, during a phone interview. “It raises the question of where do I end and where does the guitar begin.”
King’s notion of her guitar as an extension of herself inspired her show’s concept of the guitar as “instrument with a capital I,” a tool that changes its user.
Though six steel strings have changed little since Christian Frederick Martin devised stronger bracing in the 1840s, guitars have altered people phenomenally, King says. “They’ve changed the course of 20th-century culture. The guitar has all the creative energy inside of it. The player is simply the channel. My role as facilitator is to unlock the instrument’s secrets and show you its power.”
Such a heady concept calls for an innovative approach to performance. King’s strategy is to take the focus off herself as guitar heroine, instead casting the musician as a character in the show. Though the visuals are complex and multilayered, the guitarist onstage is presented with stark simplicity.
Dressed head to toe in white, King plays seated behind her stationary guitar. The Ovation is mounted on two mic stands and is also painted white, turning it into a tubula rasa for textures and visions. Specific moving images like Chinatown and the Brooklyn Bridge, and impressionistic lighting cues—“swirling cosmic soup” says King—are projected onscreen behind her and onto her guitar.
‘It raises the question of where do I end and where does the guitar begin.’— Kaki King
King’s playing ranges from ambient washes and drones, to intricate fingerstyle, to effects-heavy pedal work. (Her Strymon BigSky Reverb gets a vigorous workout.) For much of the performance, She plays unaccompanied in her signature drop-D tuning, but at several points she improvises to pre-recorded backing tracks.
The show, which has included King teaming up onstage with the string quartet ETHEL, resembles performance art, but touches of levity buoy the presentation while staying true the theme of the guitar as a living entity.
Kaki’s guitar even talks.
“Subtitles are displayed on the guitar. That gets the audience’s attention while I play random notes with a wah-wah pedal—‘Wah wah wah’—like the adults in [those] Charlie Brown [animated TV specials],” King says.
The guitar tells its life story, including its awkward adolescence and how it got rejected and beaten up. While the tale unfolds, a short film, one of three produced by King, is screened. “All the characters in the movie are guitars,” she says. “Roughneck guitars with missing strings bully my guitar. There’s the cute guitar it tries to flirt with but totally fails. There’s an entire family of guitars where grandmother is an old harp guitar.
“It’s very surreal.”
The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, which debuted in 2014 at Brooklyn’s BRIC Theater, was not originally designed as to be such a mind-blowing extravaganza. “At first, I just wanted to add lighting design to my show,” King says.
Research led her to projection mapping, digital technology that turns irregularly shaped objects into display surfaces. Partnering with Glowing Pictures, a “visual-experience” company that “developed tech and artistic designs for the show,” King experimented with deploying projection-mapping images and video onto her Ovation while playing it at the same time.
For those transcendent images to stick to the guitar, the Ovation had to be mounted on a stand light enough to move from venue to venue. The solution, says King, was “ridiculously basic.”
“One mic stand runs through a hole drilled in the head stock, while the other goes through the hole where the strap block screws into the body of the guitar. Fortunately with Ovation you can remove the back of the guitar, so it makes the set up easier.”
But playing seated behind an immobile guitar presented challenges. “I can’t be as physically connected as I’d like to be,” she says. “I can’t lean back and I can’t stretch my arms.”
White sunglasses, added to King’s stage attire to protect her eyes from being blinded by projections, leaving her in the dark. Though these playing conditions leave King stiff and achy after each performance, she stresses that the show is proving easier to play than she thought it would be. Even a miscommunication that left the Ovation’s frets painted white proved to be only a minor inconvenience.
“At first [the guitar] sounded a little deader, a little thicker,” she explains. “But now the paint has worn away and it sounds like a normal guitar again.”
The process of collaborating with visual artists to compose the show also proved easier than King anticipated. In fact, she considers it an enriching experience. “I wrote the script, the outline and concept of the lighting and visual elements that accompany each song,” she says. “I then sent my basic guitar demos to Glowing Pictures, and they responded with this wealth of visual information.”
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“I was submitting ideas to people who were giving me back input from another medium, which then re-inspired what I was doing with the music. That has never happened to me before.
“It was very magical.”
‘The guitar has been my adversary as well as my best friend.
It’s shaped my life entirely and I owe it everything I have.’
The give and take between sound and vision continues onstage, with King’s guitar wired to affect the projections. “We have no sound man,” she says. “Everything is coming from me, so my guitar signal is dry when it hits the computer.”
On several numbers, software converts that signal to midi, which triggers visual events. “If I play a specific note it will trigger a specific effect, such as a spiral visual or a color wash,” she explains, “and each time that effect will be controlled by that note.”
“On other pieces we’re using decibel level as a parameter, so the louder I play, the lighter a movie clip behind me appears.”
Audio/visual improvisation in the show is not just limited to King.
“My video editor and engineer Beth Wexler is playing along with me. When I do something musically, she reacts visually. I’ll see the visual and respond musically. We’re performing together as a duet.”
King says that she’s particularly eager to explore those parts of the show where the visual and musical elements play off each other in multi-media improvisation.
Yet whatever technology King embraces, she’s certain the guitar will remain central to her artistic evolution. “The guitar has been my adversary as well as my best friend. It’s shaped my life entirely and I owe it everything I have,” she says.
“It would be difficult to understand my own identity if guitars were suddenly wiped off the face of the earth.”